The Artist Residency that Wasn't / by Jeannine Cook

A couple of years ago, I was selected for a month's artist residence at the Botanical Garden at Marnay-sur-Seine, east of Paris, in the Seine River valley. My first surprise was early in 2017, when I wrote to confirm dates of arrival and received a frosty letter telling me that I need to apply before I could be a resident there.

I was sufficiently indignant that I wrote a rather forthright letter reminding the then director of my prior acceptance, and to her credit, she checked and then apologised profusely, offering to cancel out an artist she had inadvertently accepted in "my" place. That did not seem fair to the artist, so I suggested I come in 2018 instead, which was agreed.

Fast forward to this year - all seems fine, and I arrive in Marnay on the agreed date, horribly late as the traffic out of Paris from the airport was incredible. I meet the director, freshly appointed to the job of being in charge of the Botanical Garden and its artists' residence, La Maison Verte, and apologise profusely for having arrived far later than foreseen.

I had already seen the house, a kind fellow artist having helped me get my suitcase up near vertical stairs to my back, small bedroom (travelling with drawing paper is a penance - too heavy!). I realised there was nowhere to work with table lights and the only electrical socket in each room was by the door. Remember,  drawing in metalpoint requires good lighting. So I enquired if I could move the small table from my room to an empty one which was agreed. However, this room shared a window into another artist's bedroom! She had not yet arrived, but it was not countenanced that i use that room instead of the other one, to me a practical solution.  Meanwhile, all along, the atmosphere with the director was strangely sulphurous, but I was frankly too tired to worry.

That night, I slip and fall on the stairs as their treads are very narrow; this makes me realise that it is not very wise to tempt fate for a whole month, and I do not want more than a purple behind! So I spend the following day not only getting food for a residence, but also finding alternative accommodation nearby so that i can work at the Garden as agreed, but live in safer surroundings.  i was lucky and found a lovely small stone cottage ten minutes away in a charming, friendly village.

My "perch" at Gite Le Renji, in Tremblay, Aube, where my hosts, Madame and Monsieur Thorelle, are a delight (photograph J Cook)

My "perch" at Gite Le Renji, in Tremblay, Aube, where my hosts, Madame and Monsieur Thorelle, are a delight (photograph J Cook)

When I could get hold of the director, I first handed him the requisite fee for the stay at the Maison Verte, as I still felt that was the normal thing to do, irrespective of where I was living.  But the surprises continued. I received a torrent of abuse and rudeness the likes of which I don't recall ever receiving in my life, particularly in France where people are usually very polite, especially if one is talking to them in French. The money was refused, threats were made of my not being allowed to exhibit (part of the agreement for the end of the residency) and only "if I behaved" - all from a young man at least half my age probably!  Quite a surprise!

The month passed. I worked very hard and happily in my quiet abode, often based on drawings I did at the Garden (when the giant mosquitoes were not too insistent). I had the mental space to experiment in my art. The physical space too -  it was a wide, beautiful world up on the plateaux above the Seine valley. Especially lovely when one directed one's gaze away from two towers of a nuclear power plant that loomed over Marnay-sur-Seine and the Botanical Garden.

My evening walks were along the tracks between cereal, hemp, beet and pea fields in the wide world above the Seine River valley (photographJ Cook)

My evening walks were along the tracks between cereal, hemp, beet and pea fields in the wide world above the Seine River valley (photographJ Cook)

Towards the end of the month, I began to wonder about the date for the exhibitions the three artist residents were supposed to put on as I saw no mention of any announcement anywhere.  I had been given one date by the director - how surprising, it proved to be incorrect. Meanwhile, out and about in the whole area, Nogent sur Seine (the nearest town to the village of Marnay sur Seine), Provins or even lovely Troyes, there was not a whisper of a poster.  There were, however, loads of posters and announcements of other artist shows, some announcing the event weeks ahead, all in that region.  Nary a mention of the Botanical Garden at Marnay nor la Maison Verte.  Hum!

My surprises continued: the director apparently considered it quite normal for an e-mail announcement for the exhibition to be sent out three days beforehand, to the Mayor's Office and mailing list  for Marnay (and presumably beyond).  But Marnay's population is about 200 souls. And the other two (very good) young artists had come from the United States and Russia. So the month's hard and dedicated work for each artist would not exactly be widely publicised nor appreciated.

I wrote to the director, saying I was pulling out of the exhibition as I considered it to be unprofessionally managed.  And got another torrent of verbal abuse - mercifully this time by  e-mail.  This time, it was not such a surprise!

So, I put through the mail box at the Garden an envelope with cash to pay for the nights I had slept in the lumpy bed at the Maison Verte and the entrance fees at the Garden for the times I had worked there.  I requested a receipt for the monies. Should I be surprised?  No receipt received as of now!

My supposed residence at Le Jardin Botanique de Marnay sur Seine was indeed not exactly as I had expected.  Nonetheless, I do have twenty drawings that I perhaps would not have otherwise done. In addition, I did get to know better an interesting part of France, not such a bad thing!