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a word on art

ARTIST IN LOCKDOWN: STEWART LEES



As an artist, self-isolating was a huge issue for me at first. I felt completely alienated, totally alone in my studio every single day with just my easel. But that was nearly fifty years ago and I’ve since grown to really enjoy it. Then, in mid-March, here in France, lockdown happened and suddenly everyone was self-isolating.


The house was no longer empty most of the day. My wife was home all day. Her walking groups, conversation groups and her visits to friends all came to an end. I found that every time I made a cup of coffee I had to make one extra.


In my studio I had a large still life, The Garden Shelf, as my companion. I was working on it long before lockdown started and I was still working on it as it ended. I always keep a good stock of paints and brushes but, as the weeks passed, my Titanium white was going quickly enough to cause a little flurry of panic every time I had to squeeze out some fresh on to my palette.

I use a particular small, handmade sable brush for the finer detail, which I buy in lots of ten, but as the painting progressed my stock dwindled. I ordered another batch from the UK supplier online which took a lot longer than usual to arrive but came just as I was about to use my last brush.


Lockdown in France immediately meant that every time we wanted to leave the house, we had to download a form, fill it in, sign it, date it and even add the time of signing. We had to tick a box next to one of the listed legitimate reasons for going out:


· Getting to and from work, but only if working from home was impossible.

· Going shopping for necessities.

· Visiting doctors or hospital for long term conditions or if home treatment was not possible.

· To help vulnerable people or people with children.

· To exercise, for a maximum of one hour a day and going no further than one kilometre from the house.

· To attend court if summonsed.

· To attend an appointment at a Government department


Most days that we left the house we would realise after ten minutes that we had forgotten to do a form, making the rest of the excursion tense. The fine for not having a form was 135 euros. We somehow got away with it each time. As lockdown was eased travel was sanctioned for up to 100 kilometres. My daughter and family frustratingly live 140 kilometres away but all travel restrictions have now finally been lifted.


There was no significant panic buying and our local supermarket was almost deserted with most shelves well stocked. My wife, Caren, had a birthday in the second week of lockdown. The postman had stopped delivering which meant no cards and no presents. The doorbell did ring that morning, and on the doorstep was a present, while on the other side of the road, at a safe distance, were two friends loudly singing Happy Birthday. The cards and parcels did eventually trickle in over the next week or so.


Restaurants and bars were shut. But friends who live by the canal have a bench opposite their house which strangely, but conveniently in this case, has its back to the canal and faces them instead. At a pre-arranged hour we would arrive there to find a tray with two glasses of red wine left on the bench and our friends on the opposite side of the road, on the edge of their property, sitting in garden chairs ready for some long distance conversation.


One thing we have certainly enjoyed is the peace and quiet. The canal is normally lively at this time of year, filled with rented boats and pleasure cruisers. At the moment it is absolutely deserted and the water perfectly still. We live in the middle of the village, on a street normally noisy enough to keep us awake at night unless we close windows and shutters. We are also not far from the village square. In summer there is a procession of events, with music earsplittingly loud and normally a Johnny Hallyday impersonator topping the bill who will never take the stage before midnight. Our bedroom is at the front of the house but in summer we usually move to one of the rooms at the back so that we can sleep in relative peace, even with the window open. This year all events are cancelled.

Annoyingly, while we heard the UK was basking in record amounts of sunshine throughout lockdown, France was enduring wind and rain. At one point we had over five days of constant, steady downpour, day and night, without stopping. Our garage was flooded and there was fear that the river Aude might burst its banks.


When we could get out into the garden, we had to be resourceful about filling flower beds and containers. With garden centres closed, and no idea when they would reopen, we could only take cuttings from existing plants and divide others.


We are very aware that we have been much luckier than some in this crisis. We have even managed to enjoy some aspects of lockdown but, on the whole, we are glad that, for us at least, life is gradually returning to some sort of normality. We are certainly looking forward to booking a table at our regular lunchtime haunt around the corner.



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