Postcard from Camac

by Jena Woodhouse


photo of CamacWhen I got off the train at Nogent, the nearest station to Camac and Marnay-sur-Seine, I was peppered with pea-sized hailstones - les giboulées de mars, as they're called here - a seasonal phenomenon. Two days later, having walked the five kilometres from Camac to Nogent with the other residents on a path beside the Seine, we found everything closed for the midday recess, and we almost froze. Now, although only two more days have elapsed, spring is stealing across the fields, crocuses and snowdrops are blooming in sheltered nooks, flocks of little birds are chittering morning and evening in the trees of the walled garden, a pair of swans glided to the water's edge when I took a walk by the Seine yesterday, catkins are appearing, as well as buds on trees that have yet to declare their identity, and the golden twilight lasts until seven in the evening. The skies are clear, especially at night, although this state/ment is perpetually qualified by the incredibly dense pillar of fumes that rises high into the sky from the nuclear power plant less than two kilometres away. To me, it seems an ominous presence.

And then there is the presence of the Seine, which flows just below the window of the study I've been allocated, and is visible also from the visual artists' studios in the old abbey buildings. When I walk beside the river, there is no bank, no parapet. The water almost laps my feet. Flat-bottomed punts are tethered here and there, but one would venture out into that current at one's peril. It has a purposeful air, does the Seine at Marnay. It knows where it's going, and is not about to dally or be distracted. I wouldn't want to mess with it.

I love the clock  chimes one hears in French villages. Here, the clock is on the belltower of the church that once formed part of the abbey. I am housed in the newer building that was once a private house, famous as a hub of musical activity, with its own recording studio, but the building where some of the other residents sleep and the visual artists have their studios dates from the 16th century.

The former abbey's tower has been assigned as a studio to Natalya, a collage artist who was born in Dagestan, in the northern Caucasus, graduated from Yale, is now based in London and is preparing for a major solo exhibition in Paris. She showed me the materials she works with, including some she unearthed while on a recent residency at Vladikavkaz. We speak Russian together, just for fun, and at the informal soirees after dinner, we sometimes sing Russian songs. She reminds me of one of Lermontov's heroines - or all of them.

Other residents include a writer from Mexico (narrative); an award-winning young playwright and performer from Glasgow; a young adjunct professor of visual arts from Boston; a young woman who grew up in Brisbane and is now based in Belfast, whose creative practice is experimental music based on field recordings; a young visual artist from Tel Aviv; a multimedia artist from the Canary Islands; and an artist from Japan who works in soft sculpture.The director tells me Camac has not infrequently hosted visual artists from Australia, more so than writers, so it seems I am one of a fortunate few.

The atmosphere is collegiate and convivial. Contact between the residents and exchange of ideas are encouraged, and the exchanges I've had so far have been stimulating and rewarding. Camac also has an interface with numerous communities in the surrounding Champagne-Ardennes region. (We've tasted some of the local champagne, and at 13 euros a bottle, it's vastly superior to others I've tried.) Camac is involved in creative programmes in local schools and other institutions. Last night, three of the visual artists attended a vernissage at Troyes, a nearby town noted for its architecture and cultural heritage, and the artists who exhibited there will be paying a return visit to Camac. The playwright from Glasgow and I will be giving a presentation at the library at Villenauxe-la-Grande, as part of the Printemps des Poètes programme, a national celebration of poetry that takes place annually in villages, towns and cities throughout France during the month of March.

I've been provided with an embarrassingly generous amount of personal and work space, and ideal conditions for creative activity. All that, and La Seine at my window. Quel bonheur!