Morning walk to Marchutz
I came home today covered in bits of paint, dirt, and turpentine from an afternoon painting in a sun-lit field of the small town of Tholonade. It's a weird feeling, knowing that the detritus of art class had its origins by a little canvas in the shadow of Cezanne's mountain, but that's just another day at the Marchutz school. Epic paint sessions and discoveries happen every day, and it's all part of the routine...Speaking of which, is that the sweet smell of dinner from the kitchen? (my host family makes the best fig jam from the tree in their backyard).

What was strange one month ago has strangely become part of Regular Life. Speaking French at the market has become a no-brainer. Tomorrow I can expect to walk at least twice to downtown and back (without getting lost), to have at least three portions of bread and pastries (hello, pain au chocolat!) and to learn at least four new words or phrases with my French family at dinner (the term "yum" is universal). My designated painting clothes, having mocked me in my closet for the last few months, are finally getting their fair share of cadmium yellow splatters and it feels so right. 

Oui, it has been a month of French-speaking, market-wandering and fun with new friends, American and French, over dinner tables and late night drinks. It's the lifestyle I've dreamt of. And, for me, attending the Marchutz school has brought this life to another level; to the land of art where Rembrandt, Giacometti, Van Gogh and Cezanne send down their wisdom to us mortals via professors John Gasparach and Alan Roberts. What has amazed me about the study of painting and drawing is how much it lends itself to the study of any other creative discipline, meanwhile opening up big, existential questions about what it means to "see." I've been surprised to learn how much architecture has to do with philosophy, or drawing to fiction writing. 

While most of my "aha" moments have come through rapid fire drawing sessions or in copying masterworks, I found myself most inspired during our trip last week to the Vaucluse, a beautiful mountainous region 70 kilometers from Aix. In one word, we were studying architecture and, simply put, the nature of a harmonious, timeless building, its space, and is place in the landscape it inhabits. Our exploration of the Vaucluse was largely in response to a selection from a book called “Timeless Building” called “The Quality Without a Name” by Christopher Alexander. It is, to quote the author, is “a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.” That sentence alone may give you an idea of how deep the study of art (or just a building!) can get. He talks about architecture, but he goes where no blueprint or mathematical formula could. 

That morning on the bus everyone I talked to seemed just as impressed by what we read, since it pins down, as much as words can, that quality that makes a space or a person or a piece of art feel…right. This something that had crossed my mind in considering what I liked about Aix, or a certain painting, or a certain garden. But on what grounds could I justify my impression of it? What was it that made one space feel discordant and another comfortable? The answers depended on the presence or absence of that 'Quality Without A Name.'

Because there's no word in the English language to describe the Quality, Alexander takes a look at qualities of the Quality, like “alive,” “whole,” “comfortable,” “free,” “exact,” “eternal,” “egoless,” “natural.” We learned it is not self-imposing and respects the patterns of nature. Strikingly, this this quality is true for a person or a moment as much as for buildings, as Alexander observes: “This character will happen anywhere, where a part of the world is so well reconciled to its inner forces that it is true to its own nature.”

Our bus parked at the side of the road by a prairie and we began walking down the winding mountain road. We stopped for a moment at the top of a valley and looked across at a small town that was built around the face of a large hill. What about this town gave it that quality? We were asked. It was well-integrated into the landscape, with trees throughout it that It was made up of a pattern of little stucco buildings varied one to the next, each with windows the color of the sky, and trees in between like the landscape around it; it respected the pattern and variety of nature. 

Here's what Alexander said: 
When a building has this fire, then it becomes a part of nature. Like ocean waves, or blades of grass, its parts are governed by the endless play of repetition and variety, created in the presence of the fact that all things pass. This is the quality itself.”

We took a break for lunch and photos before departing for a short hike in the woods and a visit to a local monastery. There, we took 30 minutes of silence to observe the space of a limestone foyer room before wandering through a cathedral where light was streaming in from the windows at each end. It felt peaceful, comfortable, alive, egoless..It had that Quality to it. 

After settling back into the bus we were given yet another stack of papers to read (no matter, when it's reading hand-picked by John and Alan, you're better off with a pen for underlining than an eye for the trash can). My favorite quote came from the first passage we were given, which describes what gives the city of Nuremberg, oh, you know (the Quality):

“Whereas so many constructions of our epoch lack artistic unity, even though they may be the long meditated work of a single man, the town of Nuremberg, shaped successively by several centuries, offers the opposite impression, striking proof that beauty resides less in the unity of historical style than in the observations of the immutable laws which lie at the base of all artistic creation and which have the same value for us as for the masters of antiquity and the gothic period, even though our own mode of expression is necessarily different.

It has been days like these that excite me for what's left to be discovered between walks to class and dinner time. Which is, to say, a lot.   

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