by Robynn Smith, California, United States
Artist-in-residence, October 2019
Somehow I lived the first forty years of my life without going to Paris. I’ve made up for it since then, returning many times for many reasons with many different people under many different circumstances. My personal history with Paris has been one of seizing opportunities, so when the opportunity of a 2 week residency with L’AiR Arts was offered, I didn’t hesitate for a second.
At the time, I was acutely aware that every moment of my October 2019 trip was important. The independent activities and the residency itself were all of a piece, all woven together, creating a strong web of experience about connection, professionalism and opportunity. It was the first time in an artist-in-residence program that I was one of the elders touched by the fresh experiences of much younger artists while gratefully and proudly offering up my deep well to them. As a newly retired college professor, I was grappling with my new status. When to receive, where to give, how to balance? The wide diversity of people and experience, the comprehensive L’AiR Arts program and of course Paris herself, kept my synapses firing on all cylinders at all times. I was learning, connecting, offering and accepting in a whirlwind of aesthetic experience.
Upon returning to my home studio in California, I spent about a month printing plates I made in Paris, and sending them off to new friends made during the residency. A spontaneous mail art project of thanks.
In response to my L’AiR research, Margalit Berriet of Memoire de l’Avenir - one of the galleries we visited during the residency, offered me an exhibition in April 2021. All the while, my Paris experience was percolating, I began making plans for the exhibition, which will highlight Print Day In May, the annual, global celebration of printmaking that I founded in 2007. I was very busy contacting artists, working on Print Day in May 2020, preparing for an international conference and another residency at the end of March, when Covid-19 hit.
Overnight, our world shut down. As in a nightmare, realizations hit in waves: No conference. No residency. No hugging. As the whiplash of the early days became a constant struggle not to accept an isolating, devastating new normal, I began to find solace in memories of travel. I looked through photos, read old writings and felt so profoundly fortunate for having traveled so much in my life. Rather than looking forward to new horizons in the future, I turned to past trips, giving myself the time to process what I was too busy experiencing at the time.
And that brings me back to Paris. With Print Day in May 2020 winding down and Shelter in Place still in place, I am processing L’AiR Arts October 2019. Our recent Zoom call with many of our L’AiR group was very powerful for me. I thought about the effects of the pandemic on individual artists. The disruption of so many lives, the opportunities lost, the paths unable to be followed. Mostly I felt connection though. The group of us, lead by the indomitable Mila Ovchinnikova, spent some of the world’s last pre Covid moments together. We were professionals together, comrades, open spirits drinking in the world, blissfully unaware of what was to happen. That is a powerful connection. We will never forget each other. We will always associate Paris with another time, the Before Time. And now, as we navigate Covid World, we have each other, colleagues for life, hailing from five different continents. As we take baby steps and then, hopefully stride into our future, we will offer each other opportunities. Exhibitions in Paris, collaborations in South Africa, residencies in California.
I dreamed of Paris last night. I was walking hand in hand with my husband, toward the magnificent carousel at the base of Sacre Coeur. “Look” I said to him, “It’s the carousel that we passed by on our last L’AiR Arts day together!” It was our last day in Paris together, but it is not the last day that we will be together. Not by a long shot.
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Cover Image: Artists-in Residence, January 2020