In 2023 I spent a joyful April as artist-in-residence at La Napoule Art Foundation in Mandelieu-La Napoule, in the south of France. Funded by the David Graham Foundation, my residency was focused on the historic gardens that are part of the larger, protected ensemble of Château La Napoule. My studio was located in these very gardens, which were designed by American self-taught architect and landscape architect, Marie Clews (1880-1959). Between the two world wars, Marie Clews and her husband, sculptor Henry Clews Jr (1876-1937), created a unique, fairy-tale like setting for their respective creative pursuits.
La Napoule was an idyllic environment in which to explore my longstanding interest in women and gardens. The gardens remain very much as Marie Clews designed them: vibrant evergreen plantings in axial arrangements that hid an array of “secret” gardens with windows to the sea, water features, sculpture, and a “philosopher’s walk”. Then, as today, the deep green cypress, cheese wood, and thyme bushes were animated by starry white blooms (Marie Clews only permitted white flowers in her plantings). My work drew from the design richness of the garden, as well as hundreds of historic photographs found in the Foundation’s archive. What I learned from these photographs was that, during the garden’s golden era, 1919-1937, the family kept an all-white menagerie in the garden. In addition to the family’s beloved white bulldogs, Tory and Snob, the garden was home to a range of exotic birds. Often, they chose the rare, white version of these birds; white peacocks and white flamingos joined white swans, fantail doves, and egrets.
How magical it would have been to enter Marie Clews’ gardens to find the dark foliage contrasting with the white petals and feathers of various birds. What a dream-like encounter to turn a corner in the garden, and find a white peacock resting on one of the many stone garden elements, or see the white flamingos bathing in the pond. Yet the photographs are also evidence that, like other menageries, the Clews’ garden was not a place that the birds were free to leave.
The birds, like the Clews’ domestic pets, were beloved by the family. But they were captive. It was this paradox – Marie Clews’ creative freedom and the birds’ lack of freedom – that prompted my series of works. I suggest the unequal power relations among humans (domestic workers and employers) and between humans and birds. It is this interspecies and classed environment that is no longer visible today, but which is part of the garden’s history.
The residency culminated in an open studio with all 10 Canadian artists participating. About 60 members of the public and friends of the Foundation came to see our work. I was delighted to share my three larger works in progress and ten smaller mixed media sketches.
The three major works that I produced were all in-progress at the time of the open studio. They are large-format paintings (4.5 x 8′), on unstretched linen. The neutral tone of the linen helps neutralize the flatness and brightness of acrylic paint, while creating a figure-ground relationship that evokes drawing rather than painting. Yet the absorbency of the linen results in effects that are reminiscent of watercolours. I worked with small sketches to develop the compositions, gridding them up in a 1:10 scale to establish proportions, and then gridding them up again 1:10 on the linen once I was happy with the preparatory drawings.