Home is where the art is
Some people move to France because they fall for a local, or a house; Melissa Ferreira came to teach a six-week art course in Pont-Aven and fell for the town and its people. Annaliza Davis learns more about this happy meeting of kindred spirits
Picturesque Pont-Aven in Finistère has inspired numerous painters, and convinced one American artist to move there
Exploring Brittany’s picturesque town of PontAven, you’ll be captivated by its gurgling river, Fine Arts museum and winding historic streets filled with galleries. One of these tiny galleries just off the main road is run by an American artist, Melissa Ferreira. The window display itself is an invitation into another world, filled with curios and original artwork; even as you enter, you know you’re in for a treat.
Melissa is probably perched there sketching in a travel journal or intent on fine-tuning some artwork at her desk, where she is surrounded by comfortable clutter. She will greet you warmly in French but, as she’ll happily admit, her ‘charming accent and heavy heap of grammatical faults’ reveal immediately that she’s not from Brittany.
So how did this American come to settle in such a pretty corner of France?
“Back in 2002, I was invited to teach summer courses at the Pont-Aven School of Art, part of a programme set up by art historian Caroline Boyle-Turner,” Melissa explains. “Caroline was based at the Rhode Island School of Design, where I had also been a student years before, later working there for six years as admissions officer before becoming a freelance illustrator and teaching courses myself at Rhode Island.
“I’d never really travelled, I hadn’t even taken a plane until I was 25, so when Caroline suggested this trip to France, including expenses, it was an opportunity not be missed!”
In 2005, after three seasons of working here, the Pont-Aven programme became a year-round event, and Melissa was invited to teach regular courses in figural interpretations and illustration, all in
English. Over the following four years, Melissa spent more and more time in France and finally made a permanent move, leaving America to settle in southwest Brittany.
“This happened organically, like so many of my life ‘choices’, through several small steps without an absolute objective. The notions of ‘go with the flow’ and ‘slow and steady’ are important to me. So, here I am!”
It sounds wonderfully simple... but surely it couldn’t have been quite that easy?
“Well, when I first arrived, the regular teaching post at the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art provided a certain financial stability, and it was an inspirational bonus, too. All of which meant that when it closed a little over five years ago, I lost more than just financial stability; everything changed.”
Melissa set up her own business within ‘La Maison des Artistes’, a national association for professional artists that collects social contributions and gives them a formal framework, as well as being a platform for networking with other artists. OPENING A WORKSHOP “Setting up with La Maison des Artistes enabled me to create a workshop that’s open to the public with a gallery in which to show my own work. My gallery sales remain modest, mostly because I shy away from self-promotion, but I get by on an income from workshops that I offer to adults.
“The sad truth is, regardless of my country, I possess a lousy business mind coupled with an artistic spirit that’s wholly disinterested in such things! My aim has always been to break even with some small extras from time to time.”
It’s one thing leaving behind your homeland to emigrate to a laid-back rural town when you have a regular income, but it’s quite a different story when you need to earn a living wage in a foreign language.
“True, I earned much more money in the USA because I taught several courses at Rhode Island Design School all while doing freelance work and the occasional exhibition, too. Thankfully, even during my time in France, I’ve continued to teach two winter courses each year at Rhode Island, which helps
“If one likes encountering world travellers or those with deep Breton roots, if one loves forests and riversides and the coast, if one wants to savour simplicity, it’s all here”
financially, although to be honest the engagement is worth far more than the salary alone.
“Money is necessary but it has never been a priority for me. My life goal is to remain active in the arts by making images and objects that please me, as well as guiding others who wish to discover creative play.”
With this as a mission in life, Melissa is clearly in the right environment. PontAven is renowned as a hive of creativity, having attracted and inspired great painters from all over the world since the 1800s, so it seems a perfect place in which an artistic soul should take root. Does being a foreigner help or hinder when it comes to settling in?
“Actually, both the maternal and paternal sides of my family moved to Massachusetts from the Azores (São Miguel) so even though I was never exactly an oddball outsider, I did always feel out of place. We were steeped in Portuguese culture, but my parents gave us an unequivocal USA emphasis, and I was often at odds with the family rulebook and what was deemed acceptable; I’ve always felt somewhat out of step,” says Melissa. CREATIVE POTENTIAL “It was not until I arrived in France that I understood my true creative potential, away from all the familiar norms that I contained and that had also contained me. Coming here, I actually believed myself an artist.
“Perhaps it was the displacement plus my limited verbal capacities that pushed me to develop a more intense studio practice. There’s constant stimulation in this environment – the Breton and French languages, the cultural references, the sheer beauty of place. Not one day passes wherein I am unaware of the balance of my former American life and my current expat existence. I love it.”
As for the language, Melissa only had the remains of school French when she arrived here to teach her first course 16 years ago.
“I’d chosen French as my foreign language through high school with no expectation that I would actually use it except perhaps if I travelled through Quebec. It was a paltry base but it provided some scaffolding for my slow adult learning!
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say outright that the language deficiency makes my
professional situation more complicated, of course, but I shamelessly speak my version of French with gallery visitors, neighbours, friends, strangers of all stripes. I notice that Francophones seem to enjoy practising their English with me, not simply to shield their ears but for their own pleasure. One would think that after all these years, I would be fluent… mais non!”
Melissa claims that her circle of English-speaking friends and fondness for listening to the BBC when alone mean that she doesn’t make much progress on perfecting her French, but if you see her out and about, it’s clear that using her second language puts no constraints on her ability to socialise. Some locals talk with her in French, others in English, and when speaking English, Melissa unselfconsciously peppers the conversation with snippets of French and Franglais. It’s a bilingual, bicultural existence that is unique – and has probably served her well as an artist, differentiating her from others in her field.
“Undoubtedly, yes. Over here, I am somewhat of a curiosity and, at the same time, in the States I have added value because I live in everromanticised France.”
Returning to teach each winter at the Rhode Island School of Design means that Melissa stays in touch with friends and family, and some relatives have also made the trip to far-flung Brittany over the years, including her parents, sister and nephews.
This year, Melissa hopes to welcome her niece, too, but her work goal is to develop her profile on social media.
“That is top of my 2018 list. In the past, I understood its value but I just couldn’t prioritise hours to that end given that those same hours could be passed with paper and ink, scissors and glue. I realise now that I absolutely need the former to finance the latter.”
This gives the impression that Melissa intends to focus on sensible things such as her online presence and the practicalities of making a living, but when meeting her you feel that this isn’t going to be completely straightforward. She somehow combines an aura of thoughtfulness with a barely restrained enthusiasm, coloured by an endearing, intense humour that filters into every mannerism. She is probably one of the most likeable and inspiring people you’re likely to meet, so you can understand why people love her workshops and ask her to join or run countless projects.
This Américaine de Pont-Aven is bursting with ideas, including plans for collaborating on a new Pont-Aven art centre, so it might be that her practical business goals continue to take a back seat for a while. Whatever the future may bring, Melissa Ferreira has certainly found a home that fits her in this wonderfully picturesque corner of France.
Facing page from left: Pont-Aven in full bloom; pots of pencils ready to be used Below: A piece of Melissa’s artwork featuring hands and feet
Left: Inside Melissa’s workshop in the centre of Pont-Aven Below: Pont-Aven has attracted a great many artists over the years, notably Paul Gauguin
Top left and right: One of Melissa’s paintings; putting the finishing touches to the window display Above: Pont-Aven is named after the river that runs through it Bottom: Hard at work in the atelier