Oct 24, 2014

The Last Time I Saw Paris.

The last time I saw Paris was many moons ago when my mother, sister and I took a trip on the Orient Express. I was very busy as a freelance cinematographer, a job that took me to the capitals and hamlets of the world filming feature films, television movies and documentaries. So when mother suddenly asked if I could take a ride with her on the Orient Express, I thought she was kidding. But I surprised her. A film project I was slated to work on fell through and I had some spare time.

"Ready when you are."I told her.
"What for?" She questioned.
"The Orient Express of course."

We spent a week walking around Paris, then an overnight trip on the Orient Express and on to Venice for a week. A most spectacular trip filled with memories and anticipation to see these wonderful places again. Unfortunately, that was the last time I saw Paris, and Venice.

I had landed in Paris many times thanks to my career. I got to know it well. So I naturally became a tourist guide for my family. We visited the Mona Lisa, walked the Champs Elysees, frequented the sidewalk cafes. We even had the opportunity to take my mother to Maxim's on Mother's Day. But that was many years ago.  I now felt I needed to visit this favourite city again.

Three years ago my wife and I journeyed with a single carry-on bag and a personal tote to Rome where we trod the streets for two weeks. This year we decided to reprise the experience in Paris. However, this visit was going to be a little different. Both my wife and I had taken up sketching and water-colour art, so art and the art experience was to be a major component of our trip.

Touch down at Charles de Gaul airport was easy, as was the skip through the airport with our small carry-on bags to the train, to the city. Our journey ended with a ten-minute hike to our rented apartment where we rested for the day.

The next day found us at Monsieur Fernand, a small bakery on the corner of our street where an array of croissants, buns and coffee greeted us. This was the Paris breakfast I remembered. Then we meandered through the busy Paris streets, winding our way up to Montmartre.

Montmartre is a small hill-top village/suburb of old Paris. Renoir, Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh and so many other artists lived and worked there. As we reached the base of the 300 steps leading up to Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur Basilica, we found the Funicular, a cable railway that transported us smoothly up the small mountain, that took the sting out of climbing.

On top, haze blanketed the spectacular views of Paris, but we found other avenues to explore. Winding cobblestone streets through the old village were laced with cafes and trinket stores, and Place du Tertre (the main square) was filled with artists selling their renditions of Paris to tourists who flocked and sipped coffee in the surrounding street side cafes. As we wound our way around the small streets and pathways, we found the Salvador Dali Museum and a square where Picasso shared a studio with many other avant-garde and soon-to-be famous artists like Mogdigliani.

The highlight of our first day was the discovery of Le Moulin de la Galette. Once a hot spot of dance and frolic, this was the place where Renoir painted his masterpiece "Bal du Moulin de la Galette." This has always been one of my favourite paintings. The sheer joy at the dance hall on a Sunday afternoon is depicted underneath the trees in dappled light. Colourful dresses and a joie de vivre, which so many other works don't have, exude from this painting. The place is now a cafe and the dance hall at the rear no longer exists. We decided to have lunch there to celebrate our first day in Paris. This was our small version of Renoir's painting, as we were served lunch on the small patio where sun light filtered through the trees to cast the dappled shadows.

Just down the road we found our first sketching opportunity at Place Dalida. Dalida was a singer, so beloved that they erected a statue and named the intersection after her. But facing up Rue de l'Abreuvior toward Sacre Coeur was a wonderfully sketchable perspective on Montmartre. We obliged. But of course every other artist who has sketched or painted Montmartre has found this special view too. We were in good company.

Late afternoon found us walking down the mountain streets past a home of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec and an apartment where Vincent Van Gogh lived with his brother Theo. Further down we sat at the cafe used in the French film "Amelie" and then past the base of Rue Lepic in the Pigalle area, where the famous cabaret theatre Moulin Rouge sits.

I remember on a 1980s business trip through Paris, I had a night off. I decided to take myself to the Moulin Rouge burlesque cabaret. Just me at a centre table served with French Champagne, filet mignon and topless dancing girls doing the Can-Can all around me. Ou la la.

On this trip, our walk home from Montmartre was spent shopping and gathering a truly French dinner; red wine from Bordeaux, a selection of cheeses from local farms and pate from northern France, with a local baguette to blend it all together. All this and the fine company of my wife.

This first day would be a reflection of the busy, yet relaxed Paris experience we were to explore. We wanted to find culture and humanity by walking the streets and getting to know the areas. This we did, yet we always found time to sketch.

The old adage of travel to get away from things has its drawbacks for some, because you always take yourself with you. You just can't get away from your own ego. But, with travel, you must be your own best friend and guide. Be enthralled by your own creativity and the way you find and discouver new experiences. Go out of your way to search out something. Let your minor troubles blow away. Enjoy the rain. Stop and delight in your surroundings. Find a few moments of quiet wonder in your day. For us, sketching has become a quiet moment. It's almost a meditation. In sketching you study details and connections, and observation brings things together in a way nothing else can. Too many of us journey through life and miss life itself. We want to see everything, but we end up missing most, and feeling nothing.

In Paris we attended a street art show at Place Bastille, sampled the Marais area and the Jewish quarter with lunch at the famous L'As du Fallafel. We strolled Ile de la Cite and Ile Saint Louis, and lunched by the Seine in Hemingway's favourite park. We browsed the Shakespeare and Company bookstore and bought "'A Movable Feast," where Hemingway writes about his adventures in Paris. We stood in the teaming rain chatting with a couple from Chicago for an hour while waiting to enter the Louvre, while a couple of celebrities where shown the "Mona Lisa." Paris was an every-day feast of great moments. Each had its qualities and we were never rushed.

The Louvre is a very special place and we quickly made a bee line for the "Mona Lisa" to view Leonardo da Vinci's great work before the huge crowds overwhelmed the gallery. I made it to the front where I was eye to eye with Mona for the longest time. Some think it's a small painting but its 21 x 31 inches. When it's close it doesn't look so small and for the first time I could see the colours, the landscape in the background and the eyes starring at me. The Louvre is filled with a wealth of great masterpieces. But Mona is the star. And a great one at that.

Mona's seduction of me was quickly brought down to earth by an Australian at the back of the group who shouted, "Give others a chance at the front."

I turned my head and shouted back, "Come and join me."

Then I turned back to experience my intimacy with Mona for one last time. Crowds were gathering, so we headed to another gallery where we were face-to-face with "Liberty Leading the People," by Delacroix. To think that this painting stirred a population from one revolution to another. This painting is big in idea, scope and size.

We soon found a cafe and coincidently were seated in a most spectacular spot. Before us was an ornate arch leading back to Delacroix's wonderful painting. At the rear of the gallery were doors leading back to the "Mona Lisa," and the view below us down the stairs was the back of the statue "The Dying Slave," by Michelangelo. Underneath and just down the hall stood "Venus de Milo."  All this surrounded us while we munched muffins, drank black coffee and sketched the scene in this place that was once Napoleon's palace.

One could spend a lifetime in Paris and not see everything. Best to experience the place slowly. We could always return. We didn't over-do the galleries, but aimed at specific things we wanted to experience. In the Museum D'Orsay we headed to the top floor to see the Impressionist gallery, and I aimed for one of my favourite paintings,  Renoir's "Bal du Moulin de la Galette." Yes, this was the depiction of the afternoon dance at the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre, where we had had lunch. Standing eye-to-eye with this work of art, I was struck by how large it is; 52 x 69 inches. It glows, like seeing the painting in huge, high definition. The colours are so vibrant, and the faces I had grown to love were just a couple of feet from my eyes. It's filled with fun and humanity where people are together and enjoying the dance in full swing, and I became so totally involved with this painting that I was enjoying the music in my own mind. WOW. The dappled light on the scene had so much impact on me. It was as if I was a part of the picture. Talk about emotion. My eyes were damp. It's such an overwhelmingly beautiful painting.

Then there were more. This museum is filled with great art by Renoir, Monet,  Pissarro, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Manet, Degas and a host of other artists I have studied and many I have not. The art in Paris is magnificent. Like the Orangerie gallery. It's a small museum across the river from the D'Orsay, at the Tulleries Gardens. You walk into two large oval rooms and, in each, you are surrounded by a continuous painting of water lillies by Monet. They are huge. Not just one room, but two. This gallery was especially constructed for, and designed by, Monet. I'm not a big Monet fan, but I was impressed by this gallery. And downstairs were more paintings by Renoir and others.

We walked the Gardens of the Tulleries and the Champs Elysees, we bought souvenirs at the Opera House and Maxim's, marveled at the Galleries LaFayette and sat down by the Seine and sketched Notre Dame Cathedral at sunset. Of our many sketches, Luxembourg Gardens was an experience where we both sat in chairs beside the gardens and sketched a panorama of the Palace and the gardens, while children were playing with sailboats on the large pond and a small orchestra in the gazebo filled the air with chords of wonderful, classical music.

The place we loved the most was Montmartre. We returned two more times at the end of our stay to feel the vibe of this little bit of restored Paris. We discovered the only remaining vineyard in Paris and bought a painting from an artist at Place du Tertre. But, by far the most memorable moment for me was to walk around the home where Renoir lived and painted (now the Montmartre Museum), where so many of his most memorable works such as "The Swing" and "Bal du Moulin de la Galette" were painted.

I have seen many of the world's great works of art during my travels around the world, but I must harken back to our own sketch group in Victoria, and the Urban Sketchers movement through out the world, and think that probably some of the greatest works of art sit in closed sketchbooks on artists' shelves, never to be seen.

Our ten day journey to Paris was filled with involvement of life and art at the speed of a sketch. What a lovely way to experience a place.

The last time I saw Paris, I was thrilled.


"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
- Mark Twain

Art is about emotion; if art needs to be explained it is no longer art. "- Pierre-Auguste Renoir

To my mind, a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful, and pretty, yes pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them."- Pierre-Auguste Renoir

"Do not be troubled for a language, cultivate your soul and she will show herself."
- Eugene Delacroix


My Paris sketchbook consists of twelve pen & ink and watercolour sketches:


"Bal du Moulin de la Galette."

Jun 29, 2014

Moved again

We landed on our feet when we moved to Vancouver Island two years ago. The first place we found to rent was perfect, a lovely house in suburbs like no other, surrounded by the sea, five beaches and a small neighbourhood that resembled an English village. We were in a house that seemed like it was placed in the middle of a park, where deer, rabbits, raccoons and other animals would visit, including a resident owl that would hoot at us in the middle of the night. And flowers, there was an abundance of flowers, tall trees, and hummingbirds. One hummingbird hovered a couple of feet from my face one morning as if to ask for more food in the feeder. It was a thrill. The air was clear like pure oxygen, except for the odd ship motoring past on the far side of the trees. And though it was not a waterfront property, it was still a small paradise. It was quiet, real quiet. But we missed the vibrancy of downtown living. So we moved.

Victoria is a vacation town where cruise ships visit while on route to Alaska, each one letting off a small town's worth of people each summer morning. Other ships ferry people from Vancouver, Seattle and nearby Port Angeles, across the Juan de Fuca Straight; so our small city gets lively.

Except for living in the San Fernando Valley on the outskirts of Los Angeles and for a short while in the outer suburbs of Toronto, I have always been a part of a vibrant downtown culture. I like a safe city where you can walk or take a good public transportation, where busses are plentiful and they take you almost everywhere, where a car is a waste of money, except on those days when you crave a drive to the country. So we found a new home near Victoria's harbour area, in the heart of everything, surrounded by an old neighbourhood adjacent to the downtown core.

Of course, the noise level has risen. Seagulls squawk, cruise ships blast their horns, passenger ferry's sound their arrival and the hustle bustle of everyday city living makes itself known. I hear neighbourhood conversations, guitar picking from a nearby balcony, crow conventions. I smell coffee brewing, barbecues sizzling and the fresh aroma of horse dung from the sightseeing carriages that drive tourists around. I hear a small band entertaining at a local old age home. Construction and hammering is also factor, as others also want to experience the charm of downtown living.

It was a month ago that we moved and downsized to our rental townhouse. That was the most difficult part. We still have boxes everywhere. A few years ago, both my wife and I had large houses with lots of "stuff". We downsized to move in together, but somehow we still managed to hang onto too much, and we traveled from place to place with too much. This time we are determined to cull.

Downtown is filled with a cacophony of life. It was a wonderful move, indeed.

Mar 26, 2014

Point No Point

A birthday surprise took me to the shores of the Straight of Juan de Fuca, to a small rustic cabin perched high on a rugged cliff at the edge of the world, with a seascape that stretched west to Japan and south to the shores of Washington State.

Why did they name this place Point No Point lodge? What was the point? For me, it was a celebration of a life. I had now reached the tender age of an official old man; semi-retirement, pension, free flu shots, a better price on the bus and theatre tickets, and many more perks of maturity.

So, my point for being there was for contemplation. Where had I been? Where was I going? Here, I was looking out at the end of land like the end of life staring back at me. Was I approaching cliff's end? Was the world?  Point No Point had a point for me: the balance of life itself.

The excursion was very much in the Now. We traveled west along a beautiful, tree-lined country road with lush green foliage that pointed us toward our hide-away along the cliff tops. This day it supplied its own drama; torrential rain, sleet, hail and high winds. And the logs of the tiny cabin rattled and the windows beat with spewing water. It almost seemed as if the cabin was going to be lifted off its perch, like Dorothy's home in the Wizard of Oz, far away, or, down to the black rock beach below where larger than normal breakers rushed and smashed at the base of the cliff, shuddering us. Outside the weather was wild, but inside we lounged. With a cozy fireplace to keep us warm, we added a log or two, painted pictures and read mystery novels.

Obviously, my life continued on those first days of a new age, enjoying the company of my wonderful wife and savouring the delicacies of fine cuisine at the lodge restaurant.

So why contemplate, as long as we were healthy and making meaning in life? We even managed to skip a few rain drops to dunk in the hot tub that was primed and ready to warm our bones.

Unfortunately, as with the rest of life, the days flew by too soon, and we were off on our journey home with a great many more future moments to contemplate in the months and years ahead.

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep."
- Robert Frost

"Come live with me and be my love, And we will all the pleasures prove, That valleys, groves, hills, and fields, Woods, or steepy mountain yields."
- Christopher Marlowe

"Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."
- John Muir

"There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age."
- Sophia Loren

Point no Point Lodge
Our Cabin #14

Jan 18, 2014


Immersed in the meditation of sketching, I was suddenly jarred out of my reverie by a shrill voice. 
"Are you from around here?" 
I looked up from my park bench to see a rather large white-haired woman with a Corgi dog. They were both staring at me from the beach. 
"Yes," I said, with a smile, fully expecting to be speaking with yet, another friendly fellow-Cadboro Bay villager.
 "Are you a voyeur?" She asked. 
Odd question, I thought. I was immediately inclined to offer my silly sense of humour and respond 
with a "yes," but, I paused and allowed my rational brain to take over, realizing that this person might be serious. 
"What's that?" I asked, feigning ignorance while pondering her situation.
"Don't you know what a voyeur is?" she steamed.
"Someone who spies on others?" I politely replied.
"Were you taking pictures of me and my dog on the beach?"
"I take pictures of the beach, the houses, the boats, the logs. I'm a sketcher." I told her. "I draw pictures then record the colours with my camera for later paintings. Would you like to see?" I asked, politely holding out my sketchbook.
"Well, no. I guess I'll have to believe you," she replied.
"I'll show you if you'd like." I offered, again.
"No." She said bluntly, turning around and walking off down the beach.

As the English expression goes, I was gobsmacked, astounded, utterly astonished that someone would think I was literally a voyeur. As I resumed my sketching, I thought about the word, "voyeur." I suppose I have always been an observer, a witness, a recorder of others. That's what a photographer is. That's what a sketcher is. That's what a human being is. But a voyeur?

I packed my sketch pad and headed down the beach to catch up with this woman. I wanted to tell her that I had been a photographer all my life and that I had never been called a voyeur before. However, when I did catch up with her, she began telling me she didn't like sketchers and photographers, saying they interpreted the world like journalists, with a point of view that wasn't necessarily the truth. Her attitude was anything but congenial. I tipped my cap and wished her a good day.
"I'm trying to have one," she shouted after me as I walked away.

A beach walk is a good place for contemplation and thought. Was I a voyeur? The dictionary says that a voyeur is an obsessive observer of sensational or sordid subjects; a person who derives sexual pleasure from secretly observing other people, or a person who enjoys seeing the pain or distress of others. Over the years, the word has been used very liberally to mean an interested watcher; someone who just enjoys observing life. Hence, among friends, I used to say, in fun, that I was a professional voyeur. But from this woman's point-of-view I was spying on her when I took some simple pictures of the beach.

Voyeurism itself has been around since the world began, when one neighbour peered in on another to see what they looked like in the flesh. In the past there have been "peep shows" at fair grounds, or fun shows where observers peer into machines to see women taking off items of clothing. Photographic or sketching of erotic art is considered voyeurism. Playboy, Penthouse and other magazines depicting naked bodies cash in on humanity's lust for erotic images. Today, the Internet is filled with graphic depictions of erotica to stimulate the masses. War photographers have often been referred to as voyeurs; people who record killing happening in front of their lens without lending a hand to help the person or people being photographed. 

For me, a lifetime as a photographer, cinematographer, film maker, sketcher and an interested observer did not make me a voyeur in the bad sense of the word. I was not the bad spying, sexual, deviant, stalker type. But I had photographed people without their permission. I had filmed people around the world, in many countries for documentary films. I had sketched people in coffee houses as life studies without their permission. So how many of the people that I had photographed or sketched without their permission would have objected had they known I was recording their image? Surely, this didn't make me evil or a bad voyeur?

Photographers, film makers, television directors, artists of all kinds have used humanity as their muse since time began. Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo sketched caricatures of people in their local pubs to eventually fit into their great masterpieces. Great composers were influenced by street musicians and folk songs from many cultures. Shakespeare and Hemingway found their art among the voices of ordinary folk. So for a photographer to shoot a scene that includes some people is quite normal. Life drawing/sketching nudes or photographing nudes is also considered quite a normal exercise.

The beach lady had spotted me snapping innocent pictures for my sketches and paintings, so, clearly, I was not guilty of voyeurism. But this experience has made me realize that one word can mean so much depending on its interpretation. Voyeur ...  good, bad, evil or innocent? Voyeur can mean erotic sexual peering, i.e, Peeping Tom, or taking dark, secret sexual photographs. Or, it could be totally innocent observation through art, photography or human curiosity. 

We are all innocent voyeurs. We all observe each other. That's how we learn. We see others and, through them, we see ourselves, gain knowledge, live our lives. Our visual interaction and understanding of others is the essence of who we are. We are people watchers, whether through our own eyes or someone else's eyes, such as via television, magazines or motion pictures. What is a movie but a peering into someone else's life? What is television but a means to bring others into our lives? But, then I ask myself, is not the United States NSA spying program a form of government financed voyeurism?

As a child, I was an observer. As an adult, I was a professional witness. I can have fun with the word, but could I ever admit to being a voyeur to strangers? No. The word itself has such a sigma that to admit you observe others, as a voyeur, is like giving small-minded people a rope with which to hang a good reputation. So, I use the word "visual artist." And that is what I do.


"Any photographer who says he's not a voyeur is either stupid or a liar."
- Helmut Newton

"I feel as though the camera is almost a kind of voyeur in Mr. Bean's life, and you just watch this bizarre man going about his life in the way he wants to."
- Rowan Atkinson

"Neighbours are the most indecent sort of folk around.  Nothing but voyeurs and gossipers. As a community we would be much better off without them."
- Bauvard - The Prince of Plungers

"We've become a race of Peeping Toms.  What people ought'a do is get outside their own house and look in for a change."
- John Michael Hayes - Screenwriter for Hitchcock's Rear Window