It was our last night alone together in France. We sat at the table on the back porch of the old stone mill house overlooking the river Yonne, as the lengthy twilight gave way to the belated dark of a northern European evening. We lingered over the remains of our dinner with a half-drunk bottle of local Burgundy. The pliant voice of Edith Piaf (on a CD, thoughtfully left behind by some previous renter) wafted out of the room behind us to drift down the dusky river.
This was not at all how we'd planned it. We'd come to France with an agenda, a schedule, a road map full of post-it stickers. My husband, Art Boy, is like fine champagne; he doesn't travel well. The only way he could be coaxed away from home was with a promise of all the art venues we would visit in France.
His passion is outsider art or art brut, the work of self-taught artists far outside the mainstream, who just can't help making huge, or otherwise undomesticated art (like The Watts Towers in L. A.). The French countryside is littered with such sites, open to the public exactly as their creators left them. Places like La Fabuloserie, constructed by an art dealer to house his own extraordinary collection, or a miniature Chartres Cathedral made of pique-assiette, or a huge fantasy environment called the Palais Idéal built by a postman from rocks picked up on his route.
Our plan was to fly to Paris with friends, rent a car at the airport, drive down to their "moulin," the mill house they own on the Yonne in Burgundy, then spend a week driving to art brut sites. But two days before lift-off, still in the throes of selling their business, our friends told us they'd have to come down a few days later. Unprepared to drive in a country where we couldn't read the road signs, Art Boy and I flew to Paris alone and made our way by bus, train, and taxi to the little village of Champs-sur-Yonne.
We didn't need a car in the village; we could walk to the little supermarket for groceries, and the boulangerie for baguettes and pain de chocolat. A vestigial commuter track runs though Champs, but the schedule of trains to the nearest town was erratic enough, and most art brut sites have evolved far from established rail lines. So we hung out at the moulin, grudgingly checking places off our map we probably wouldn't get to by the time our friends arrived with a car.
But as the days slid by, we started paying attention to the extraordinary variety of life in that forested part of the river: roughhousing red squirrels with long, curly ears, fish glinting like gemstones in the water, tiny black birds with beaks full of insects, zooming in over our heads to feed a chick in the porch rafters. We were visited almost daily by a pair of regal swans gliding down the green water with their five downy cygnets, two white and three grey. We were slowing down to river time.
Maybe our plans to go places and do things weren't as important as the moment we were actually in. Art Boy sketched in his notebook. I wrote in my journal. We spent hours on the back porch gazing down the river, watching what we started calling "the show." We let go of our cherished expectations of busyness, and they drifted away like swansdown on the river.
Eventually, we did see some art brut. We made it. Art Boy built a figure out of natural materials from the riverbank-wood, seed pods, an abandoned bird's nest. He bolted it onto a terra cotta tile, and we named it Spirit of the Moulin. I painted the swan family on five flat little rocks and put them on the porch railing. We left them behind at the mill house, near the river that inspired them.
On our last night alone, we knew we would miss these savory moments, adrift on the slow, lazy rhythm of the river. We played the Piaf CD again, to get us through the last of the wine, by which time Art Boy, who comprehends not one word of French, confessed he'd succumbed to the pure emotional appeal of the Little Sparrow. Night was falling in earnest as the CD ended, and when the last of Piaf had echoed softly across the water, an elderly neighbor got up from a chair secluded behind some shrubbery down the river bank where he must have been sitting for hours; we watched him labor slowly on crutches up the little trail to his back garden.
Sometimes the moments that matter most are unplanned and unexpected: a twilit river and Piaf, shared with a stranger on a summer night. Or a day spent making impromptu art.
Art doesn't have to be confined to a gallery or a museum. It can happen anywhere.