That’s me—in my last hour at the castle, having some fun with fellow castle-dweller-artist-friends and some crowns that begged to be a prop of some sort.
It’s been a little over two months since I returned from my month-long residency in the beautiful Chateau de la Napoule in France. In early 2022 I decided to do something brave and apply for a residency so I could finally find a space to write the origin story of Mad Gab’s, which I've been telling in different arenas for years. I had never applied to a residency, nor did I expect to be invited—let alone the one I picked was in a castle in France, for 4 weeks, and was a paid fellowship. Yeah, it was a stretch. I had to put together a resume (my first!), an artist statement (what is that?) and submit writing samples (yikes!). Somehow, I managed to get the entire application together, and be selected. When I was notified in April, I may have shed some tears of delight and surprise. The fates were really aligned in the timing of this amazing adventure; I sent my youngest off to college in September and three weeks later I was off to France!
The castle setting was breathtaking. It sits perched on the Mediterranean Sea, waves lapping at its foundation, surrounded by palm trees, castle towers, gardens, and sculptures. Even after one month there, I'm not sure I saw even half of what there was to explore! As my mother would say: I guess I'll have to go back.
The other artists were intimidating to me before I arrived; they are all working artists in different fields, which felt so foreign and admirable coming from my small-business world. Many were visual artists; painters, sculptors, drawers, mixed media artists. As someone who can barely scribble a moose for packaging design, I was continually floored by their skills and talents.
Every weekday we went across a small cobblestone street from the Villa where we slept, to the castle for breakfast outside at a stone table overlooking the water. At lunchtime we were on our own (and I may have prepared a meal or two at midday), and then we gathered again at the castle for dinner in the gothic dining room. In between we were scattered to our studios in various corners of the chateau.
My intention was to finish the origin story of Mad Gab’s, a 30+ year history of adventures, misadventures and all the failures, fires, and flops along the way. I began writing it in the first winter of Covid and decided after I was about ¾ of the way through it might be even better if I integrated memoir tales into it. (I was a weird kid.) I’ve been writing personal essay and memoir for about 16 years but have never published or really explored the whole submissions and writing professionally.
I sat in a new sacred space, my space, a simple and small room, that if I craned my neck, I could see the ocean through a clover shaped cutout in the castle.
After I got over the initial shock of having the time and space, I got to work. Initially I spent a lot of time organizing the history of MG, first in an excel doc, and then with index cards of assorted colors in a timeline on the wall. Alia, the (other, experienced) writer in the group would sometimes bestow upon me some nugget over lunch that would help propel me to the next phase of organization. Alia published her first book in March of 2020, unfortunate timing, to great reviews, and well deserved recognition!
Have I mentioned that I have never written a book? It was funny to be in this amazing place with that as my purpose and have zero clue about what that entailed or looked like. Lucky for me, I've been winging it in my job since day 1, so I'm comfortable with figuring stuff out—but I do appreciate help, experience, and wisdom. I also didn’t want to be a pain in the neck, so I tried to keep my questions for Alia to a minimum and run with all the advice I got when we intersected at meals or for Pastis during apero (the fancy French term for “drink before dinner”).
The month started off deliciously slowly, and we all agreed that we should never get so used to our magical surroundings that we would lose sight of how lucky we were. On day two I suggested we come up with a word or catch phrase we could periodically throw out if we needed some grounding. Meera, an artist from India (who had done a residency there 20 years earlier!), came up with “Pink Elephant”. So Pink Elephant it was. We sprinkled the words in our group text thread periodically as well as in funny moments like the time we galivanted in the basement of the castle (Scooby-doo style single, file, doors shutting behind us).
My oldest friend, Lise came down from Paris for two days, as did my older son, Silas who is living in Paris. Silas’ visit coincided with Open Studio—something I had never heard of but soon learned meant exactly what it sounded like. The artists each opened their studio to the other artists, to guests, to towns people, anyone was welcome. Instantly I began to wonder what I would share—and how it would work. I was not ready to read anything from my book, so I decided to revise an essay called “Felt Up in France;” a story about getting my first bra when I was 12.
It went okay. Not great, but not horrible, and of course I learned a lot. I was nervous before, but I got the story out, even heard a few laughs and lived through it! Alia gave me a little advice, afterwards, about how to project your voice; something I need to work on. I realized later that I’ve gotten used to microphones and had no idea how to speak in front of that many people without one.
After Open studio, things got a little quiet in the creative place as folks were wrapping up their work, and we took turns helping/playing with other artists—we worked with Kristin suspending her paintings down the side of one of the towers, and we sent Afton’s bowls out to sea. We took trips to Nice to see the Chagall Museum, and Antibes for markets and restaurants, and wrapped up our work and prepared to go back to our lives.
This reluctant entrepreneur who loves words, people and France had her heart filled, in a new and beautiful way. My gratitude for the residency, and to the Napoule Art Foundation is endless; they took a chance welcoming me, which opened a new and creative chapter in my story, and one I will treasure.
I’m continuing to work on finishing my book (Current title: Meander to Meaningful) and looking for a publisher this year! Stay tuned for excerpts and updates.