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

Living France - - Contents - in­sta­gram.com/speedy_s­nail com­plete­france.com

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

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