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Artists’ studios at Soleil Rouge

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At first, as you step into the cluttered, vast space, nothing is recognizable to the uninitiated eye. Little by little, you begin to make out intimidatingly large machines and collections of tools beyond comprehension. As you learn to see the order in disorder, things come into sharp focus : tangible sculptures and beautiful objects created from pure craft, ingenuity, and talent.

Walking into a professional artists’ studio – where sheet metal, ceramic, and glass are privileged materials – is a little like entering a twilight zone. For the past two years, I’ve learned to occupy and navigate the strange space between raw materials and meaningful (and often useful) art at a studio called Soleil Rouge.

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The Brooklyn of Paris

Every Friday, I’d pedal my bike out to Montreuil, the suburban town neighboring my home in the 20th district, and spend the day practicing a favorite passion (learned in high school) : creating contemporary stained glass windows.

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I’ve written about Montreuil before – about its smoked salmon production and historic peach walls. Known as "The Brooklyn of Paris," Montreuil is a cosmopolitan mix of some 90 nationalities, young families, and artists. In fact, there are so many artists in Montreuil that the brochure of the recent Portes Ouvertes, or Open Studios, event listed no less than 800 artists’ and artisans’ workshops to visit, and Soleil Rouge was among them.

Top-floor loft

Owned and run by Nicolas Desbons, a sculptor as charismatic as he is easy on the eyes, the Soleil Rouge welding, ceramic, and photography spaces are spread out over two floors of an immense former factory. I worked with my studio-mate Laure up on the 2nd floor, in the ceramic studio, a peaceful light-flooded space.

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Spending one day a week creating glass was one thing, but on occasion, I also cooked lunch in the large kitchen of Nico’s top-floor loft. Sometimes there were just two or three of us, and other times up to ten artisans and designers gathered around the long wooden table to eat, drink wine, chat, joke around, or collaborate on projects with Nico.

Above and below the belt

Improvised lunches tend to be the house style : Nico would often speed up to the local Portuguese grocery store on his motorcycle to pick up freshly ground beef for his famous tartare. In summer, he’d grab some pork ribs and zucchini to marinate and cook up on the outdoor plancha (griddle) that he welded and installed with care in the courtyard.

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In fact, we ate most of our summer lunches in the bucolic courtyard, surrounded by sculptures large and small. Sharing meals with the other artists, and especially my studio-mate Laure Colomer, was a joyous event, full of esprit bon enfant (playfulness) and jokes both above and below the belt !

Play of light and shadow

Laure, a sure-footed and talented sculptor, studied prehistoric and medieval archeology at the Sorbonne, and then attended Beaux-Arts, the short name for École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Laure’s work, also created during artistic residencies and exhibits in several countries, explores the boundaries between animal and human, night and day, and sleep and insomnia (which I can definitely relate to at the moment).

One of her works, entitled Labyrinthe, is an uroboros – the serpent which devours its own tail. (The primitive archetype represents an endless cycle or immortality.) Clouds projected over the piece create a play of light and shadow, a paradox between piercing clean brightness and a disconcerting darkness. (Uroboros also happens to be the name of my favorite glass company, located in Portland, Oregon.)

Burning bright

Sharing space with Laure, and with the other artists working in different media, was a revelation. For as long as I’ve been making glass windows – whenever I could carve out a little time and space to create them over the last quarter of a century (gulp !) – I almost always worked alone. Error !