Colin the Camper Van



 

It’s been a while.  Again.  But hey, would you like to see my awesome camper van?  I suppose making it this far, you really got no other choice.
So without further due, let me introduce you to Colin… Colin the Camper.  He’s a converted Ford Transit circa 1988, with a solid service record, 2L petrol engine and enough room to sleep up to four people.  The previous owners, a tidy elderly couple who clearly pioneered the whole glamping thing before it was cool, kept him in tip top condition. 
 

 

Yes, he is peak retro.


Yes, I still can’t drive.

And yes, he was dirt cheap.   
Although he is ready to cruise straight to sunny Margate or down to Costa del Sol, today if needed, I actually have another usage in mind; we bought Colin to serve as my artist studio. 

Turns out renting studio space in our neck of the woods is near damn impossible.  Either the potential land lords are turned off by the idea of an artist splashing paints everywhere or they are not dog friendly.  Rather than compromise on our living space in the good old West Riding Kindred Spirit I really wanted to find somewhere else to work.  The boat lacks natural daylight and setting up a table for my things each day would just be too much hassle, especially with Rusty nestling in my feet all day.  I was getting pretty down about it all and lo and behold, it was my wonderful James who thought about hunting down a camper van.  We went to see our Colin during the Easter break and less than a week later we had him driven down from Nottingham.  Absolutely no regrets, not yet anyway.  Sure, the interior needs to be updated, the engine needs regular tender love & care and I NEED TO LEARN HOW TO DRIVE, but I am over the moon to have a working space again.  
 

In other news, we will be back in France soon, mid-May in fact, and I am itching to crack on with the renovations Chez Nous.  In our absence we had some lovely tenants from the UK staying over.  Lucy with her partner bravely took on our bohemian den for a few month and you can read about how they got on here.  Seeing her amazing photography is really inspiring me to do better in the future.  I’m even thinking about setting up a chez nousinstagram account – what do you guys think of that?

Together with making art again, it would be great to get back to regular blogging, I’ve just been lacking the motivation lately.  Let’s hope the summer will inspire me to crack on with it…  

BLUSH – a two tone paint job


When the nights are drawing in and the trees turn golden, so does the painting season come to a halt.  In this damp old house anyway.  But before I got to pack up those rollers for the winter and curl up on the sofa with a blanket and a cup of earl grey, from where I greet you, Dear Reader, there was one goliath job to finish: sorting out the walls of my artist studio. 

To be brutally honest, my atelier, the old crèmerieon our ground floor, has been giving me grief ever since we moved in; from the grimy cement tiles neglected to the brink of disrepair to the brittle plasterwork covered in chipped gloss and a layer of mouldy wallpaper in the most depressing shade of sunshine yellow, the space was an all-round disgrace.  The wall-tiles that used to frame the space were long gone, but the original double doors and two of the cupboards remained.  A third cabinet used to stand by the wall.  It was put together in the early noughties by the previous owner to secure the electricity- and gas-meters, but needed to be taken down to make way for a modern fuse board.  All and all, the atelier needed sorting out:  After half-arsed wallpaper removal and dismantling and rebuilding the old locking mechanism that kept the double doors permanently shut, cleaning and restoring the floor was the first big issue we tackled.  That turned out to be, frankly, utter hell, but throughout the course of the spring I muddled through.  The cement tiles still show the wear and tear of a century, but that is why I love them so.  Having been cleaned and resealed, they should be good for another hundred years or so.
 
Just a few snaps of how the atelier looked like when we first moved in:  The walls were covered tip to toe in mouldy yellow wallpaper and what was underneath turned out to be even worse…

With the tiles looking fab and out of mind, I was finally able to set up a working space for myself.  A tobacco-coloured ceiling got painted somewhere between the watercolours and I started scraping paint from the doors.  …And just like that, it was summer.


And what a summer it was!

As the mercury climbed from the mid-twenties to the mid-thirties the newly exposed plaster started to dry.  It dried slowly at first, feeling cool and damp to the touch – a strange contrast really when the weather was as scalding as it was.  Then, as if overnight, it was completely dry… and flaky.  Small cracks appeared next to the old ones, the old ones growing into canyons, sending little feathers of paint and whole chunks of plaster freefalling onto my freshly painted canvases.  Not cool, I thought.  Upon closer examination of my walls, it became evident that some clever dicky had done a bit of patching up, using straight up lime plaster, rather poorly and straight on top of existing gloss paint.  No wonder nothing was sticking up where it was supposed to! 

At this point I had two options – to find a way to make these walls stay at least roughly wall-shaped or completely re-surface them from scratch.  I like to do things properly or not at all, but hey-ho, there’s a first time for everything.  I made an exception.  James and I had just agreed to spend some time away from Mazamet in the winter and starting the plasterworks during the summer at hand was looking unlikely.  I feared that if left untouched the plaster would go from bad to worse during the long damp winter and so a decision was made to bind them up with the toughest primer one could cook up, followed by a lick of paint and return to the problem in a few years’ time.
It may have not been a tremendous plan, but any plan is better than no plan…

…right?!
 
From a cracked up mess to… Barbie Dream House!
From the beginning I wanted to go for a two tone look as a nudge towards the rooms half-tiled past and the colours I chose were a subtle blush pink with plain old brilliant white.  Not exactly an epitome of timelessness, sure, but knowing this was to be a temporary fix I wanted to play around a bit.  I am not the first or the last to jump on the hipster pink-bandwagon, and that is fine by me.  Perhaps subconsciously all millennials such as myself are wishing to recreate the Barbie Dream House our Gen-X parents refused to buy us?  Perhaps it is because the Barbie Dream House is all most of us can afford?  For all I know, this house has gone through so many colour palettes and so many tastes – what’s one more in the grand scheme of things?  Besides, I thought it would look achingly cool.  Isn’t that all that matters? 

Now, boys and girls, try this out at your own risk – if you are not sure what products to use on plastered or any walls, drop by at your local paint dealership and ask around, there are qualified people being paid to help you not to cock things up!  I know a bit about paints and was willing to take a few risks with this primer job because the walls were already awful beyond the point of return.  After all, you can’t ruin something that’s already ruined.  This is not painting and decorating as I know it, it is damage management.  Now, with these words of caution, the primer I mixed was a combination of standard stain blocker, white emulsion paint (mr. Brico value range) and standard PVA glue.  Oversimplifying a little, most primers have adhesive qualities to allow them to stick firmly to the surface being painted and to offer a support for a top coat.  A good one has plenty of pigment for a complete coverage as you would want a neutral base (most commonly white) for the top colour of your choice.  I was willing to compromise on coverage in favour of ultra-stickiness to stop the surface of my poor walls from crumbling any further.  Adding PVA to the mix would also allow me to use a non-oil based solution to cover up the existing blue gloss paint.
 
 
Here you can see the various stages of priming and painting.  Last set of three images is illustrating the whole process from the beginning:  First picture is taken right after the wallpaper was removed and the walls were cleaned with sugar soap.  The ceiling has already been painted.  Second image is showing the same wall with just a primer and the last one features the complete paint job with the white top coat and Rusty the Good Boy lounging by the door.
Completely clogging up a wall with PVA is not exactly kosher: usually you would like your plaster walls to breathe a little.  Stopping a wall from breathing can eventually lead to moisture problems when condensation gets trapped under a layer of unsuitable paint and that, as you must know by now Dear Reader, is like pissing in your own cereals, i.e. not recommended.  In my case, however, sealing the plaster in a thick layer of unyielding primer was a necessary evil as I could not have these walls deteriorating much further.  Once the plaster is re-done – and when I say re-done I mean completely removing the old and re-plastering from scratch, I will be choosing my products with more care.  To mention a few UK based manufacturers, Farrow and Ball, Fired Earth, even the trusted old Dulux all have products suitable for priming, sealing and painting various types of plaster surfaces. 
But to continue on this priming journey – I chose to make my rather thinly pigmented primer bubble gum pink by adding a few droplets of fuchsia and ochre pigments and mixing thoroughly.  As a visual artist I got this stuff lying around, but if you wish to create your own custom tint, I warmly recommend hoarding paint samples and mixing them as needed.  By tinting my primer to the desired shade of blush I would need to use “real” paint only on the would-be-white top halves of the walls.  To completely cover up every last speck of that blue gloss paint, I chose to use a highly pigmented matte white emulsion.  The would-be-blush bottom halves did not have an existing coat of paint as they used to be tiled and thus required only a few layers of primer/sealant to achieve an even coverage. 
 
 
Before starting the long process of priming and painting I tore off what was left of the old rotten baseboards as well as the supports for the obsolete electricity cabinet, washed the walls with diluted sugar soap and covered my precious tiles with sheets of old wallpaper.  Remember boys and girls – reuse and recycle!  As one would expect, a lot of the loose lime plaster trickled off with a mere stroke, and plenty more came down when I was washing the walls.  In one or two places I deliberately chipped off some half-arsed repairs that were never properly bonded to the surface below.  If plaster has nothing to bond with, let’s say, when applied on top of smooth and unyielding gloss paint, nothing will keep it in place, not even a turbo-charged primer.  In these circumstances I would rather have lumpy walls with a few visual cracks than whole chunks of bad plaster falling down with the slightest touch.  

Crude, I know, but I am happy to say my butchery worked.  After a couple of coats of my special primer-brew the walls were set and crumbled no more. 
 
Working out the divide between blush and white areas was easy as the line between the old tiling and blue paint was still mostly visible despite of the odd splodge of lime here and there.  Painting a neat line between two different shades of paint isn’t always easy, but where I was able to follow the old tile-divide the job was done freehand with an angle brush.  Where I needed to work out a line, a used a roller and some of masking tape.  After the first layer of white paint had dried, I used the same soft brush to loosely go over the bottom line all around the room.  Some like their divides extra sharp, but I preferred a more organic look.  On balance, a bullet straight line in the middle of a lumpy wall would look a bit silly, don’t you think?
 
 

 

 

 

 
As far as I can trace it, the blue gloss that was covered up with that ghastly deep yellow wallpaper sometime in the late 90’s to early 00’, was only the latest of many coats of paint in that room:  Before the baby blue, the room had a tint very similar to Pantone’s colour of the year Greenery and before that, perhaps in the days of the crèmerie, it was clad in sophisticated warm grey.  It took me three coats of primer and tree coats of matte white to cover up these secrets, at least for a few more years.  More slivers of history can be read from the woodwork that remains to be restored.  Surprisingly it seems, the wood has always been painted – first in the same shade of grey as the walls of the crèmerie, then treated with a woodgrain effect (lovely reminder how commissioning a professional to create a look like that by hand used to be cheaper than just simply using actual wood), and finally painted white, rather poorly may I add, at the time the room was wallpapered.  It will remain to be seen how I will restore these details, but for the time being I am most intrigued by attempting to recreate the wood grain affect.

Artist studios have always been painted in light colours to reflect the maximum amount of natural light. I have visited only a few that would be anything but dominantly white or a specific shade of light grey.  The Art School Grey, as this colour is sometimes called, did cross my mind, but I wanted something more playful to adorn the walls of my atelier.  In the end, my own artworks have a certain frivolous aesthetic to them, something I actively try to explore though my usage of colour.  Perhaps, I also wanted to make a clear distinction this space is mine alone.  Not James, nor anyone else’s.  When it comes to the rest of the home we try to combine our tastes as well as possible, sure, but why risk a compromise of aesthetic in a space as important as my workspace?*  When the time comes to re-plaster and re-tile it all, I need to be more careful about my choices as they will be more permanent, but until then, I can afford to mock around a little bit.  Perhaps I will try out a new colour or a new material.  A cork pin board would be an interesting way to organise my notes, or I could give chalkboard paint a go.  Only the price of paint is the limit!
 
*Obviously, at a time when James wants to decorate his study he may choose the H-Block Beige for all I care.
 

 

From this angle, owning a house is great.  If a detail keeps bothering you – go and change it.  No storage – no problem, built some!  Change the lights or buy a new showerhead and go nuts.  The list of relatively inexpensive improvements is endless when there is no landlord to breath down your neck.  You can make a space your own with a pot of paint and a bit of elbow grease in a matter of days.  It is truly amazing.  Yet on the flip side, when the roof leaks or the boiler decides to go out of commission, you are at the mercy of your home insurance provider.  Succeeding to sculpt out a functional and beautiful atelier for myself is just one of those little things that I need to keep in mind when something unexpected happens or I get cold feet.   How boring would life be if everything was predetermined!  James and I are pretty level headed when it comes to taking on a project like this; doing the place up in small chunks, one day at a time, trusting our abilities and most importantly, knowing when to wheel in the cavalry of professionals.  

Speaking of, if somebody wants to come and help this strong and independent renovator get a few sacs of plaster dust and heaps of rotted baseboards to the déchèterie, I’ll buy you a beer.

Anyone?


Inspiration, Now – painting and drawing Chez Nous

Welcome back to Chez Nous.


Good news – as the renovation of my atelier d’art is progressing slowly but steadily, I have managed to reclaim my number one metier, painting.  And for once I am not talking about painting walls, but painting as in fine art and illustration.  Although the emphasis of this blog has been on the renovation and restoration of our house here in Mazamet, I feel it is time to come clean about my artistic endeavours also, as I am currently embarking on a painting project about Chez Nous and more widely, the region I am lucky to live in.
 
Getting back on my vocation full time has been both weird and wonderful after focussing on other projects for nearly six months.  On top of that, the last time I set out to paint a coherent body of work to be exhibited together was for my degree show, back in Edinburgh College of Art in the Auld Reekie in 2014!  To best explain what I plan to establish by painting a series of pieces about my own dwelling, I better start from the beginning… of what my art is all about in the first place:
 
Some of my earlier paintings from 2006 to 2010
Some people see themselves as artists primarily, but I have always been a painter.  Working towards perfecting my trade through mastering different materials, repeated sketching or meticulous base-work such as priming my own canvasses is very important to me.  It has been a long road to find out what my preferred subjects are, from early works inspired by art nouveau and surrealismto brash portraits of objects commanding to be gazed at, but at this point of my career I am most inspired by different materials and patterns, iconic brands and cherished things.  Acknowledging the weight of the history of art so far, as well as the significance of colour in two dimensional art, I still want my pieces to be playful.  The concept of nostalgia, too, plays a huge part in my way of painting things and wanting to inspire the viewer to start paying attention to the beauty found in everyday: how we dress ourselves, the products we consume, advertisement, signage, décor…  I firmly believe most things around us deserve a second look and by elevating mundane subjects into art by painting them in larger than life scale on canvas, is my way of doing so.
 
Some of my most recent, pattern based pieces
But leaving my artists manifesto aside, by choosing to paint my house, my home,and exhibit the pieces for all the world to see, is my way of documenting what is here and paying tribute to the people who built this lovely house as their home over a century ago.  This house is a treasure chest of ideas for a pattern-obsessed painter and a history buff:  The wallpapers alone would keep me busy for years in the studio, not to mention the intricate tilework and the plaster details with their hidden symbols.  And there are many homes just like mine on this street alone, some occupied, but many waiting for a fool of a renovator to take them on and love them again. 
 
Mazamet used to be one of the richest regional towns in France with more gold stored in its banks than in the branches of Paris.  The textile, leather and pelt-industries created a steady stream of wealth making it possible for merchants of all classes, including the cheesemongers who set up shop in Chez Nous, to build beautiful houses, using the most fashionable materials and decorating them stylishly following the latest trends.  It looked like the economic growth was never ending; even the wars did not stop the production in the Montagne Noire – if anything the war effort meant more business for the local mills producing textiles and gear for the military.  But come 1970’s and the rules of commerce had changed:  The local producers could no longer keep up with the competition once the cheap imports started flooding in from Asia, China in particular.  Today hardly anything is left from the glory days of the industrial dominance of this region, except the hollow shells of the factories scattered along the waterways tricking down from the mountain. 
 
 
Old postcards of Mazamet showing the town centre, processing of pelts – a key industry for the region and one of the now abandoned factories.
With no work and mounting social problems, people that grew up here were forced to look for their fortunes elsewhere, leaving homes built by their ancestors behind.  These properties soon lost their value and small townhouses as well as the grand villas of the factory owners were left to decay.  Investment and with it, new residents, are returning to Mazamet, though, have been for some time now.  The agreeable climate together with affordable properties and its authentic small town-feel makes this a popular spot for the English expats.  I have hear Tarn, our department, being describes as the best value for money in the whole of France by friends who invest in property here.  Due to spectacularly cheap rents for businesses, manufacturing and commerce are making a comeback too.  Just the other week I read about somebody setting up an artisanal sake distillery nearby and the town centre is been re-fitted as we speak to attract more shopkeepers and restaurateurs.  Our mayor has a real interest in encouraging all kinds of businesses and under his schemes especially young entrepreneurs have had a change to start-up businesses in Mazamet.
 
Not quite the renaissance of the Montagne Noire just yet, but things are improving.  People’s attitudes towards historic homes on the other hand, not so much.  We have been able to buy and re-claim so many materials such as tiles so easily because there seems to be very little interest in preserving the old.  From every one person I know who is interested in respectful renovation of their old house, there seems to be dozens who would rather skip the painstaking restoration process and cover everything with plasterboard and laminate.  Their home and their rules, of course, but surely there is no harm in giving the old another change? 
 
Small watercolour and pencil sketches inspired by the patterns of our wonderful encaustic cement tiles
By choosing to paint my tiles, the weather beaten front door of ours or 60’s floral wallpaper is not to say this is art – it is to encourage the viewer, you, to look again after something has been elevated into art.  What people take from my work is of course subjective, but if it inspires at least one person to start looking for the beauty of the everyday in their own lives, job well jobbed.
Tile sketches in blush pink, carmine and burgundy
Art does not need to be this monster that only lurks in museums, knobby galleries and hipster bars – it is all around us, where we choose to see beauty. 
 
Painting is my way to engage with the world around me.  It is a way to document my life and my feelings, but also a way to make a living, thus curated for an audience.  My work at its most truthful lies somewhere between these parameters.  By creating art inspired by my own home I am turning something very private into something professional, but in a way, this is what I am already doing by writing this blog.  These little watercolours illustrating my thoughts in this post will serve as a template to start working on canvas – canvasses that may one day be hung in somebody else’s home.  The idea of that is both thought provoking as well as bizarre. 
 
My front door.
Once the day comes to exhibit my creations out in the big wide world, I will naturally be starting local.  During my time here I have noticed it is often those that are the closest that can truly be the blindest when it comes to valuing our surroundings.  And as it is everywhere else, it often takes an appreciative stranger to convince the locals that it’s not all just doom and gloom here.  Mazamet really deserves to be loved again and through my work, I want to be the one carrying her torch. 

Making of.. L’Atelier d’Art Part 1 – The Floor

With all this pesky home improvement I have seriously neglected my awesome day job: being an artist.  I don’t normally take time off my work like this, but we needed to get this old house liveable, move our gallery into new premises Chez Nous, and get married in Finland.  The house is in order now, somewhat, and we are hitched, so it was about time to get the studio sorted out.
Luckily, as most of you know by now, N°21 used to be a crèmerie and has a neat little boutique downstairs, just itching to be turned into an atelier d’art.  We loved our old rental atelier artichoc which had enough space for a big studio space and a huge gallery but those premises had serious downfalls: even after we got proper lighting installed, there were never enough wall sockets, no heating nor hot water.  All rather essential for an all-year-round event- and work space.  Even with a great landlord and good visibility, we felt like it was time to move on.
Before setting up shop Chez Nous, there was this teeny-tiny little detail to fix: a floor full of gorgeous turn of the century cement tiles dirtier than a loo at a lorry stop.  Dominantly white cement tiles.  Oh boy.  After the closure of the crèmerie, sometime in the late 50’s to early 60’s, the shop front was used as a garage.  Neglected and barely sealed, the porous tiles absorbed all the grease, grime and dirt for decades and were in a pretty grim condition when we got here.  
We came to view this house on a warm autumn day and the light filtering though the frosted glass was just amazing.  Even under a layer of dirt and grime, these century old encaustic tiles steal the show. 
Normally, antique cement tiles would not be my material of choice for an artist studio for an array of reasons: they stain easily, are incredibly expensive to replace if damaged and difficult to keep clean if not sealed properly.  But frankly, they were here before me, and if restoring and keeping these tiles would mean needing to take better care while working… so be it.  Paint spills and drips are a daily occurrence in a working studio, but with a proper sealant and a never ending supply of wet-wipes, I should be able to manage any destructive bursts of creativity. 
Having had next to no bother cleaning and sealing the other encaustic tiles in this house, I thought sorting this room would be a piece of cake.
Remind me never to be so naïve again.
These types of cement tiles do not really loose colour due to wear and tear as the pigment sits in the cement itself, but they do, however, loose their protective finish.  After the sealant is lost, the porous cement is receptive to dirt that can be incredibly difficult to lift by using your regular household products.  Take my word for it, Mr. Propre was a complete waste of time.  In fact, any off-the-shelf cleaning product, no matter how specialised, had little to no effect on the greasy marks embedded deep in the pores of these concrete tiles.
Heck, even the old de-greasing agent made no visible progress, although it clearly got rid of something as all I was left after a good couple hours of serious scrubbin’ was a pair of matching blisters on both palms and water as dirty as a sailors smile.  The clearest results were visible on the border tiles that still had their original sealant.  The centre tiles with a nice burgundy and grey pattern on cream white background remained stained and dull. 
The tiles after a somewhat unsuccessful attempt in de-greasing them: the border tiles on the left cleaned out a bit whereas the tiles on the right did not react much at all to the scrubbing nor the de-greasing cleaner. 
 This is where a lesser (to be read: smart) home improver would call the professionals, but not me.  No.  I did, however, bully James to call a few friends for advice and soon had another product to try: a professional grade cleaner for cement tiles and marble.  This stuff was PH neutral, smelled like lemons and came in a reassuringly boring plastic jug.  By design, you were to brush the product on with water, creating a soapy foam that would sit on the tiles without drying for 10-20 minutes.  In that time the foam would penetrate the pores of the tiles and lift up any dirt and grease before being brushed up and rinsed with plenty of water.
 
In reality this meant half an hour of intense brushing, letting the stuff sink in from anything between 30 to 60 minutes, followed by more rage-brushing, tears, and some more brushing and rinsing.  I repeated the treatment twice and hated every single second of it.  Although I could see the foam turn into a satisfying shade of Yuk! on each rinse, the achieved difference was near invisible to the naked eye after each wash.  Needless to say, I may have been a bit underwhelmed.
I did spy some results once the floor had dried.  The weather, although nice and mild for most parts of the year was not quite so warm and dry as it is now, thus prolonging the time it took for everything to stabilise.  It seemed I had managed to remove some of the worst stains as well as parts of the old sealant that had yellowed over time.  And this is where I decided to call it.  More brushing was only going to start damaging these tiles and the dirty ones were clearly beyond rescuing, so I went to my local hardware store and bought myself a big bad roll of wood-effect vinyl.
Kidding.  God… just kidding!  
 

 

I decided to live with it.  These tiles have been in place since 1910 and I don’t really need them to look now.  A few are cracked slightly and others still bare the marks of the space being used as a garage… but that is fine.  I never wanted this floor to look new, just less grotty and this is exactly what I think I have achieved here.  After three coats of fresh sealant, my studio tiles certainly have got their mojo back, and in a way, so have I.  After all, what is a cowboy without their horse, an artist without a studio?
 
These tiles are not new but they got a century’s worth of character to compensate.
 
TO BE CONTINUED… Next time on the same atelier time, on the same atelier channel, I’ll be ranting on about painting ceilings as a shorty, French neighbours and dog hair.