The Imaginary of Renewal: A Garden Project in France, Part I

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A surface covered in leaves, some are green, some are brown and dried, some have multiple leaves from one stem, others are a single leaf. All the leaves have been flattened and laid out together like a mosaic onto a light blue surface.

Seedlings

When Anne Brochot works in her garden, tucked into a tiny side street in Voulx, France, she is deepening her belief that our lives and the life of the garden are interdependent. Here between the squash, herbs, and lavender, in the hay and soil, are the elements that give us sustenance, not only as producers of food and herbs, but as nourishers of our existence. “As vital as air,” she has said. “For 500 million years, vegetation has been diversifying through its leaves, trees, and flowers. And all these forest and garden spaces that we find beautiful, deliver our oxygen, without which we can’t live for more than a few minutes.”

The garden, down a path one-half block from the Main Street of the village, was behind a green gate, next to a river. For Anne it’s a two-minute walk from Cour Commune, the artist residency where Anne is the resident director and where I was spending some of the summer of 2022 with my writing partner, Faith Adiele, and an artist from New York, Natalie Petersen.

On our first-day tour, we were introduced to the garden: When Anne unlocks the wooden door, we are met with the smell of lavender. We walk on a bedding of hay ground-cover sprinkled with sprouts of squash, cucumbers, and haricot verts. A few weeks later, the vegetables will make their way to our collective kitchen in the artist residency. But Anne does not have to wait for the garden to yield produce and herbs for her to find inspiration. The garden is a hope, an imagination, a promise, just like the arts residency she manages, which nourishes artists and the potential of their creations.

Photograph of teenage students standing around a long table with leaves from trees and other plants laid out. At the back of the table, prints of the leaves in green ink on paper are lined up.

I came to Cour Commune to finish writing my novel. The writers’ workspace is in the second-floor apartment which also served as our living quarters. To go to the market around the corner, or on one of my walks by the river, I descended to the first floor and passed through the art studio. It is a place of brightness and color, of tools and tables. A former dry goods store, the front windows feed the main room with light. And, in return, the printing press, the art tables, the jars of paint and ink, the floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with supplies are all visible to the street and anyone who passes.

Often, I lingered, inspecting the art books piled everywhere, the pots of color above the hot plate, the ladder leaned against the floor-to-ceiling shelves. Prominent in the studio was the printing press with its large, green treaded wheel and straps that looped around the motor. Next to it, two cast-iron book presses held down paper. Taped to the press casing and on the tables nearby, prints of leaves were scattered; some as small as my hand and others as large as a flag. The sage ink highlighted the ribs and spears, lobes, and edges.

One Monday, Anne informed me that she’d be having a print workshop. Would I come? I never had an art class, never drew a picture or mixed paints or shaped clay. Art intimidated me, and I was sure I would have embarrassed myself. Besides, I rationalized, my writing rhythm had taken hold, and I wanted to stick with my routine: coffee, writing, walking, shopping, exercise class, calls home, reading, then looking at the moon over the church across the street. All code for, I can’t do art. I stayed upstairs that weekend hearing the gathering downstairs. I imagined artists in smocks etching lines into linoleum or wood, rubbing effortlessly till a form appeared.

When I crossed through the studio on Monday, more prints of leaves graced the tables and walls, complex veiny images printed on special light paper, translucent. A forest scattered among the coffee maker and cups, the pottery, the books, and brushes. The paper, which I later learned was Chinese mulberry tree paper called wenzhou, flawlessly held the images, becoming a leaf itself.

A photograph displays stacks of prints of leaves from different plants that are printed with deep green and gray inks onto Chinese mulberry tree paper called wenzhou.

In the course of my residency, Anne took trips to the Belgium border to work on a project with gardeners, farmers, and art. The drive was tedious, and she returned tired. I was curious: I didn’t know art, but I did know gardens, the kind my family depended upon when I was young. We tended rows of vegetables and canned everything we picked. In the rural area where I was raised, art was not a subject or a verb. In the house where I grew up, we decorated with religious icons and family portraits.

In my final days at the residency, I started to talk to Anne about her work and that conversation has been ongoing for over a year. We sat in the studio on stools drinking tea, held glasses of cider in her garden, shaded by grapevine trellises, watching cats. We rode in her little car along two-lane highways, cutting through fields of grain. Anne expanded my understanding of how artists could contribute to the world around them, both simplifying and complicating it; how organizations could be honestly and practically devoted to sustainability; I learned how Anne had become someone who once created buildings as an architect and now delves into the designs of leaves and promotes the creativity and connections between farmers and gardeners and art. The connection between art and gardens played in my imagination.

Considering the Rural

The origin story of Anne’s project is multi-layered. In 2020, with funding from the Daniel Nina Carasso Foundation, La chambre d’eau offered a three-year grant for four artists to work in rural areas. La chambre d’eau (the water mill) is located in Favril in the Hauts-de-France region (near the Belgium border). Historically, this residency has offered many artists opportunities to work at the mill and has allowed artists to connect with the local communities.

The idea behind the grant was to share an artistic experience closely linked to the region with local residents. At La chambre d’eau, the four artists were given the opportunity to explore what their projects would be, how they would interact with each other, and how they would be part of the local community. Along with Anne Brochot, architect and visual artist, the selected artists, Marion Fabien, visual artist, Margaux Lienard, musician and composer, and Charlotte Pronau, actress and director, collaborated in designing both individual and collective undertakings.

During the first year, the artists worked together to attain a deep understanding of the region, to familiarize themselves with the residents, and to find inspiration for their specific projects. La chambre d’eau designated two areas in Thiérache, specifically Aisne and Nord, both near the Belgium border. 

A hand-drawn map of Thiérache, a region between France and Belgium, with jagged  black lines marking the territory. On the right side of the map, there are leaves sketched in green; in the bottom-right corner, brown leaves; and red dots are spread across the map.

Aisne reflects a rural less industrialized way of life, while Nord is more populated. The artists created a questionnaire which was distributed to local residents. The forty questions touched on aspects of their lives from their history in the region to their lifestyle, their home, and what was in their kitchen. Extensive feedback from over four hundred respondents reflected the experiences of living in Thiérache.

What was most striking in the collection of responses was the quality of the language—the voices of the residents, their words—reflected a richness in culture and terrain as they articulated about the very place where they lived, moved around, and the society they shared.

The artists created other experiences at festivals and events where the residents engaged with each other, the art, and the artists. Many residents had no relationship to art, but they created drawings that illustrated their relationship to the region. The pictures were displayed, so neighbors could share their images with one another and discover new or common ideas of being a resident.

The exchanges created a profound narrative, not only about the place, but also a reminder of what we can learn through sharing activities and exchanging ideas. The process aligned with a quotation from Robert Filliou: Art is what makes life more interesting than art.  For Anne, this quote captures her perspective: “This reflects exactly my position towards art today. Art as a lever of daily life, to displace, to question the banal, what we take for granted.”

A woman with short, gray hair and glasses stands at a table flattening leaves for making prints. She wears a black smock and bright yellow, rubber gloves. In the background there is a greenhouse and prints of leaves hang on the sides of the greenhouse tarp. Above the greenhouse there is a tree.

With input from her fellow artists, Anne created the book At Both Ends/ Speak Up// Par les deux bouts/ Parler debout/ Parler de Vous (La chambre d’eau). It’s a fascinating album chronicling the year’s activities in Thiérache. It models a methodology for studying a territory using techniques not normally associated with research—interaction, art, and exchange.

Through her work with the residents, Anne found the direction of her project for the next two years. In residents’ responses to the artists’ questionnaire, the word “greenery” was frequently used as a descriptor. Greenery is a word most commonly used where breeding and farming dominate the region. Residents recognized the importance of their relationship to vegetation, whether it was in the woods, a field, around a school, or in a garden. Anne reflected on this: “The greenery is like something very deep in the people. And what I thought is: People wouldn’t say that in my region. They would say nature, fields, countryside, I don’t know what, but not ‘greenery’.” The word came into being in the twelfth century and is used primarily in places that haven’t been affected much by industrialization.

While all the areas of greenery are critical, the initial focus on gardens emanates from a personal interest and practice for Anne: “Traditional gardeners have enchanted our childhoods with their leek rows, garden beds, and beds of dahlias. A whole home economy depended on it, a system of reciprocity and giving. In many ways that tradition was a species in danger of extinction.”

Without gardens, we lose not only the products they present us, from vegetables to flowers to herbs, but also the wonder of the power to grow something beautiful or nurturing. We lose the hope that gardens give us. Anne began to design a project, “to explore the practices of gardens, so [we can] recognize them as spaces of projection and utopia.”

The Imaginary of Renewal

“Our future is totally blocked because of war, because of climate change, we can’t project many things in our life. But we have gardens where every year we can begin something new, and we can project something. So, I think that’s why the gardens today are so flourishing and so alive…” Anne explained. The revitalization of gardens and the proliferation of different kinds of gardens demonstrates the basic need for us to create and grow things and to trust that the cycle repeats.

To proceed with the project Anne imagined, gardens and gardeners were contacted. Partners in the territory of La chambre d’eau responded first: They represented a shared garden in a social center, and then a market gardener came through the network. Anne set up meetings and events with gardeners ranging from the family gardener to someone who digs in occasionally. She called this phase of the project “La Révolution des Verts de Terre,”The Earthworms Revolution. In the Fall of 2021, another, more specific questionnaire was distributed focusing on the garden and greenery.

She asked simply, “What is your favorite time of year?”

Spring, according to eighty-five percent of the respondents. Even though the vegetables were not grown or ready to be picked, it was the imagination of their existence, the renewal of life in this patch of dirt, that excited the gardeners.

Spring is the preferred season; sowing and planting are the preferred activities.

In other words, the yield was not as compelling as the imagination of the future of the garden. The recurrence of these sentiments influenced Anne’s notion of the Imaginary of Renewal: The act of planting is the act of having faith in the process.

Similarly, when asking about flowers, “What flower do you prefer?” Gardeners often responded by the flower that they are growing at the moment. “So, the garden is the place of the present and a place of the future; it’s always the place where we discover also the beauty of a rose, the beauty of the taste of lettuce….” The conversations, meetings, and relationships supported the notion that greenery moves us closer to a natural life. Clearly, when in the setting of the garden or other green spaces, we thrive with a hope of renewal.

Until I visited Anne’s workshop at La chambre d’eau festival the following year, I did not understand how fluidly the rural residents connect with art. I had imagined two cultures clashing, reflecting my own rural roots. But the artists and the work of La chambre d’eau reframed my understanding of how we come together through art and gardens.


Return to read Part II of The Imaginary of Renewal on June 24.


Image Credits: All images courtesy of Anne Brochot.
All quotes not cited are taken from personal communication with the author.
  • Elmaz Abinader

    Elmaz Abinader’s recent work has appeared in Michigan Quartely Review, Prism International, and Mizna and the anthologies Essential Truths, Beyond Memory and the journal Minding Nature. Her poetry collection This House, My Bones was the Editor’s Selection 2014 from Willow Books. She has a memoir: Children of the Roojme, A Family’s Journey from Lebanon and a book of poetry In the Country of My Dreams… winner of PEN Oakland. Elmaz was a co-founder of The Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA/Voices).
  • Anne Brochot

    Self-taught, Anne Brochot approaches art as a certain poetics of the ordinary. She likes to quote the words of Robert Filliou, member of the Fluxux group in the 60s–70s: “Art is what makes life more interesting than art.” As an architect she is less interested in constructions than in the uses of “living” in the broad sense, from housing to the environment including public spaces, the place of collective life.

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