Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Best Of The Best


One of the great things about living in other countries is learning how things are done differently than here in the United States.   I appreciate a great deal about the country of my birth, but it is certainly not perfect, and I am always first in line to express my thoughts about how to improve it.

While living in Paris I grew to rely on the superb public transportation system, from the buses to the metro to the trains, it is just not necessary to own a car or drive at all.  In fact a car is a liability, since there is really no place to park it and forget about the price of gas!  Since they use the metric system, the price of a liter is about the price of a gallon here, but it takes 4 liters to make a gallon, so you end up driving only if necessary.

Another feature of living in France is the way their health system works.  American is really in the dark ages when it comes to health care.  For example, if you have a simple problem, just go to the local corner pharmacy, and tell the person behind the counter what you need.  He then sells it to you without a prescription and at a very reasonable price.  For more serious problems, just walk into the hospital.

I had personal experience with the hospital, as my wife needed medical attention during one of our stays.  We were not French, and yet we were treated immediately and completely for our problem and walked out without paying anything.  It was amazing.

There is also something spectacular about the government.  I was watching TV one evening and the news reported that a protest by the fishermen in Brittany had gotten out of hand.  A historic 17th century library had caught fire and burned completely to the ground.  The next day everyone was upset and they showed a well dressed man standing in the rubble talking about how the government was going to pay to restore the building and all its contents.  He was the Minister of Culture.

It occurred to me that America doesn't actually have a Minister of Culture.  Then I wondered what exactly is our distinctively American "culture?"  Is it the movie industry?  Baseball?  Apple pie?  I thought, what if Paramount Studios burned to the ground.  Would the government rebuild it?  Not likely.  However, we were quick to bail out Wall Street, so perhaps that is our culture.

One of the duties of the Minister of Culture is to support the crafts, like cheese, wine, bread, and, of course, marquetry.  They do this by having regular competition, with knowledgeable judges, and a set of strict rules, open only to French citizens.  Winning one of these national competitions is exactly like an actor winning the oscar.  It is a universally recognized award, and sure to boost the reputation of the artist.

There are also regular shows, for marquetry for example, in different districts of the various cities around France during the years.  I went to dozens of shows during the few years I was there.  These shows were sponsored by private groups and supported by the government, both local and state.  I got to see a lot of marquetry and meet a lot of artists at these shows.


In 1994, I was at a show and stopped at the booth of Philippe Guerin, who had been awarded the "Meilleur Ouvrier de France Marqueterie" for that year.  Translated, this award is for the "Best Worker in France in Marquetry."  That competition is held every three years.  A design is produced by the state and all the competitors are required to execute their version of the same design.  Philippe won first place.  That means he can post the sign "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" above the door to his workshop so that all his clients can appreciate his talents.

Philippe is a very talented individual but also very humble and shy.  When I entered his booth, he was standing quietly in the corner.  His work was amazing.  He said very little.  I noticed a wonderful piece called "Trois Mondes," or "Three Worlds" which was after a M.C.Escher drawing.  It had a fish swimming under a lake of animal horn tinted blue, and there were hundreds of leaves floating on the surface of the water.  You could see the complicated reflection of three large trees in the background.

He said it had taken him two years to make.  He had made two copies only at the same time.  He had kept one and the other was on the wall of his booth with a price tag of $3,000.  It was the most talked about marquetry panel at that show.

Several years later, I happened to see him again at another show, and asked if he had sold the work.  "No," he said, quietly.  I said that it was a shame, and I would find the money to buy it for myself.  After I returned home, I saved the money over time, and finally sent it to him at the end of that year.  

He called me when it arrived and said that he had just had a baby girl born the same day.  He was as happy as a person could be, and thanked me for buying his work.  I told him that I wished I could pay more, as I was the one getting the bargain.  

It hangs on my wall at the school, over my desk, and I look at it every day.  It has many layers of meaning for me, and I like to imagine the three worlds living together simultaneously in harmony.

I wish we had a Minister of Culture.


Chuck said...

"I wish we had a Minister of Culture"

Certainly our Congress could agree on that, don't you think?

The United States is by its history and nature a multicultural society in the extreme. What we have is a goodly number of cultural agencies like museums, conservatories, institutions of higher learning, etc. some of which get a bit of funding from government agencies... sometimes and perhaps. Nevertheless, I like your point and wish more organization were in place to provide formal recognition to those deserving it.

Paul said...

Well said, Pat!

Sam Powers said...

The layers of elements in these two pieces are truly amazing.
The leaves floating on the surface of the water, with the fish below, really does create a 3 dimensional painting. Just wonderful.
As a craftsman I always find myself studying these works closely trying to figure out how they were created.

William Patrick Edward's, Minister of Culture.

Has a nice ring to it!

W. Patrick Edwards said...

Animal horn is a neat material. It is not expensive, and can be easily worked. The horn is heated and cut into flat sheets which are further reduced in thickness by scraping or sanding. Horn is transparent in places and has natural white pigment in other places.

Philippe created a large sheet of horn by putting smaller sheets together. Into this large panel of horn he used the Boulle method to cut the trees. Each tree was cut individually. That means, he put two layers of wood and two layers of horn in a packet and cut out one tree. Then he assembled the tree elements into each of the horn backgrounds to create a picture. Those two assembled pictures (wood tree into horn background) were then put into a packet with two more layers of wood, and a second tree was cut. That tree design was then inlaid into the respective horn backgrounds. Those two pictures were then put into a packet with more wood and the third tree was cut.

The same method was used to cut the leaves and fish. As you can see, it took some time.

Behind the horn he added acrylic paint to create the water designs.

Simple, when you think about it?