Thursday, June 30, 2016

Marais: Street Art

Street art by Konny Steding
Street Art. Visual artists everywhere lack for galleries. When artists in Paris have that problem, they say "No problem," and put their stuff out on the street -- creating a changing exhibition space out of mailboxes, lampposts and any other surface they can find. Yes, I know, artists everywhere do that, but not to the sheer density as they do in Paris. The walls are thick with multilayered expression: cryptic stickers proclaiming "J'Existe," mocking distortions of street signage, sad-eyed women crying bloody tears. That dolorous image is ubiquitous in Le Marais -- high-speed brushwork on huge paper posters signed Konny. Who the heck is Konny? Well, in an unlikely chain of events, I wind up talking to Konny and Jacques Halbert (our mutual neo-Dadaist friend) at an iron-wrought table in a French pizza place. (I'd admired her art; suddenly I'm talking to the actual artist. What are the odds?) So I grill her. You've got a fluid style, but the proportions are perfect. How do you do it? A pencil under-sketch? Some kind of grid? Or is this all just brilliant freehand? Not willing to spill her secret, Konny pretends not to understand the question.

St. Michael or Michel

I wish I had taken his photo. We were sitting having an apertif at some nondescript cafe in a residential hood of Montmarte. Champagne for me; Heineken for him. Watching the world go by, which was mostly parents taking their kids home from school. Young lovers met and kissed over a glass and lit up cigarettes, a few ancients muttered in street as they bent to check that glittering object, hoping for a lost centime. We looked up to see a man standing in front of us. (He told us, eventually, he was 83 and had just come back from the doc who was checking on his new hip.) He started talking and everything from his mouth was gold, was silver, was pure. As happens during this magical time in Paris--before le repas and after the chaos of the day (around 7 p.m.), we spent some time with une verre and a conversation (in broken French on our side) that led far into fields we could wander for a long time still. He was born in the Caribbean but moved to Paris in his young 20s. He was a musician--and eventually a sought-after music teacher. Taught and played with some of jazz's greats. During the conversation, I noted that, well, he seemed happy. Happy from a deep inside place--despite old age and the hip, which made him obviously lame. I asked him where that happiness came from and this is what he said: "Happiness takes practice--like exercise. It's not just exercising the smile. It has to come from deep inside--from the bones, the sinew, the deep heart of who you are. It can be hard work!" And he laughed in that deep Caribbean way. As he left, we asked his name. "Michel," he said. And then he was off. Michel? Was he an ange? We had several visitations like this with, of all things, mostly older men--each who reached out to us offering words of wisdom and, almost, warning: Be happy!