Ejo #159 – What Is An Artist?: The Orquevaux Diaries (Part One)

In May of last year I spent two weeks in Chateau Orquevaux in the French countryside, taking part in an artist’s residency programme designed to give artists a “respite from real world energy”, immersing them in a natural, beautiful environment surrounded by other creative people and the opportunity to find inspiration.  I’m not even kidding bitches, I actually did that!!!  As you all know, I’m a writer, and I’ve always been a writer.  But am I an artist?  I’ve never really allowed myself to identify as that.  Calling myself an artist in the past has always felt inauthentic and ostentatious.  So when David and I visited our friends, Nat and Andy, in rural France about four years ago, and they suggested I apply to a local artist residency run by a friend of theirs,  I was flattered that they saw me in that way, but never imagined, in a million years, that I would actually do it. 

And then a pandemic happened.  I don’t know if you guys remember, but everything kind of… changed.  I changed.  And in March 2021, during a global lockdown, I decided that I would apply to the Chateau’s artist residency programme after all.  Plot twist: I was accepted!!  This both thrilled and terrified me.  I would now have to come up with the goods, and I would have to justify my acceptance.  I would have to be an artist.  Following is Part One of the diary/immersion therapy notes I kept during my two weeks in the Chateau.

DAY #1 – FRIDAY, 13TH MAY 2022
I’m not superstitious so I wasn’t worried about having to travel from Amsterdam to the French countryside on Friday the 13th.  Perhaps I should have been a little more wary.  Or at the very least I should have been a little more sensible about it.  Foolishly, David and I stayed up stupidly late last night, not getting to bed until 3.30am.  Listen, when you’re on holiday in your favourite city in the world, being sensible can sometimes be a little too much to ask.  Anyway, 45 minutes after I closed my eyes, the alarm clock went off and I had to get up and pack for my 8am flight to Lyon.  Ouch.  David’s travelling to Australia to spend some time with his parents while I’m in France, but he’s not flying until tomorrow.  Saying goodbye to him this morning was really tough.  Maybe because I was still hammered, maybe because I was running on empty, or maybe because I love him very much, saying goodbye was absolutely gut-wrenching.  Part of me was genuinely tempted to say, “Fuck France!” and cancel my trip, so that I could stay with my boo.  But the grownup part of me forced myself to go through the motions of saying farewell, getting into my Uber and waving goodbye.  My adventure had begun. 

Being fatigued while you’re travelling is pretty damn unpleasant.  But at least I could steal a few zzz’s during the flight.  The really hard part started when I had to find my rental car at Lyon airport (which is no mean feat, as the office is located away from the terminal and reachable only by shuttle).  After seeing an orange Sixt sign whiz past us in the bus, I got up to ask the driver if we’d be returning to it, just as she executed one of her more violent manoeuvres, throwing me around the bus like a rag doll.  None of the other passengers seemed to mind that I was sprawled on the bus floor, arms and legs akimbo.  C’est bon bitches, don’t worry about me, I’m absolutely fine. 

I got to the car rental office and, in my vulnerable state, allowed myself to be talked into spending an extra half a million euros for full insurance coverage.  I might be exaggerating, but fuck me, I might not.  I was in a fugue state, so who the hell knows.  I found my car and spent about 45 minutes figuring out how to change the language settings from French to English, and another half an hour programming the navigation system to take me where I needed to go.  If only the car could drive me there too.  But alas, I had to drive myself.  And I really had to focus on staying awake. 

Four and a half hours (and a few rest stops, including a coffee nap) later, I texted David, “I MADE IT!!”  It felt wonderful to drive through the gates that finally announced my arrival at Chateau Orquevaux.  I followed the road up to the house and felt a sense of elation at the iconic building that I’d grown so accustomed to seeing in my Instagram feed.  It was even more wonderful and beautiful and awe-inspiring in real life.  I parked the car and walked up the road towards the chateau, crossing paths with a lovely young woman holding a flower walking the other way.  We stopped to introduce ourselves and have a chat.  Her name was Marcie and she’d also arrived today for a two week residency.  We waved goodbye to each other as I carried on to the kitchen where I met Otto, the general hand, and Quentin, the assistant chef.  They helped carry my heavy (oh, so heavy) bags up the stairs and showed me to my room on the first floor of the chateau. 

Chateau Orquevaux, in all it’s springtime glory

My room is, of course, absolutely beautiful, but I have to admit it’s not what I was hoping for.  I’d requested my own accommodation in the village and been told that I could expect that.  But it’s OK, I’m here now.  Sure there’s no lock on the door (eek!). And sure, I have to share a bathroom.  But I’m not going to make a fuss about it.  I’m going to Go With The Flow™.

My gorgeous room. Home for the next two weeks.

Welcome drinks were followed by dinner, and we all ate family style around the large dining table, introducing ourselves and getting to know each other.  A couple of people confused me with Marcie, which I took as a great compliment.  I guess we do look kind of similar.  Everyone is super lovely, but it does seem difficult to make one-on-one connections because most of them have already been here for two weeks of a four week residency. I had hoped that I would very easily feel like I belonged in this group, like we were all in it together, but instead I feel a little bit like an interloper, like someone who’s gatecrashing and doesn’t belong.  Maybe it’s just because I’m so exhausted.  And so drunk.  Hopefully I’ll feel differently tomorrow.

DAY #2 – SATURDAY, 14TH MAY 2022
Today was the group shopping trip to Chaumont, a large town about 45 minutes drive away.  Beulah, the Chateau’s Artist Residency Director, drove us in her minivan, and on the way there Marcie and I bonded some more in the back seat, talking about the trauma of our mothers recently dying.  I was grateful to her for sharing her story with me, and for wanting to listen to mine, and it made me feel even closer to her.

I didn’t buy anything at the art store, but it was fun to look around.  Afterwards, we drove to the huge LeClerc supermarket in town where we stocked up on provisions, snacks and booze.  The chateau has an amazing kitchen crew, headed by Chef Marie, and they cook dinner for us most nights, so I stuck to the necessities.  Rosé and sparkling water. 

Super cute on the outside, but very rock’n’roll on the inside, the magnificent Chef Marie. 🤘

When we got home I accidentally nodded off in my armchair for half an hour, and I dreamt that I kept passing out but was unable to alert anyone in the chateau that I was about to faint.  In my dream, I couldn’t speak or make a sound, so I silently fell to the floor, losing consciousness as people left the room, or walked around me.  I mean, c’mon, Freud would blow his fucking load with that shit.

Along with most of the others, I’ve been assigned a studio on the second floor of the chateau, but my room has a perfectly lovely desk in it and I prefer writing here. After my disquieting nap I decided to move my desk, which had been placed against a wall, turning it to face the window instead. The feng shui of the room was instantly improved, and I settled down to an afternoon of writing.

At 5pm, Ziggy, the founder of the residency and owner of the chateau held an oral history presentation of the property and its metamorphosis into an artist’s retreat.  This remarkable man inherited a dilapidated, 19th century chateau and in the last seven years has transformed it into a place that invites artists from all over the world to gather, create, collaborate, explore, learn, grow, stretch, and to just be.  Hearing about how Ziggy made that happen only increased my awe at the Chateau, and how he’s managed to turn his lofty dream into a reality.  I feel inspired and invigorated.  I love being here.

DAY #3 – SUNDAY, 15TH MAY 2022
Today we went for a walk.  Quite a long walk, through the fields and forests of the surrounding area.  It was beautiful.  We were looking for The Source.  The birthplace of the fount of water that flows from the ground, and which has moulded and shaped this part of the world for centuries.  It started off quite easy, strolling through grasslands, and later became a little more challenging, as we traversed steep, angled inclines, jumped over slippery, mossy logs, crisscrossed rocky river beds and even, at one point, balanced over a thin beam as we navigated across a wide stream.  It was a lot of fun, and despite a couple of wrong turns we eventually made it to The Source, sadly already dried up for the season. 

From left: Andrew, Marcie, Jad, Charles, Elissa, Jonny, me, Christine, Noah and Avital. Missing are Catherine, Viktoria and Alonso.

When we got back to the chateau, all hot and sweaty, most of us headed down to the swimming hole to jump into the icy cold water.  Afterwards, the sun glistening on our wet bodies, we lay on the grass and talked. It was such a carefree scene, and I basked in the tranquility of the idyllic surrounds.  I allowed myself to nurse a very tiny and tentative sense of belonging, quietly holding it close.  I wish I could feel this way all the time.  All I have to do is stay out of my own head. 

Despite having a really lovely day, I had a terrible time at dinner tonight, feeling isolated, and on the outs.  Definitely very much in my head.  One of the group commented that I was always drinking wine.  Yeah, so what?  I also caught a couple of the younger kids just staring at me every now and again, like they were examining a specimen on a petri-dish.  Was I imagining that?  I couldn’t tell, but it made me uncomfortable.  And that made me even more awkward, which made everything worse.  I silently berated myself for not being able to just relax and fit in with everyone else.  What the hell is wrong with me?  Am I really suddenly incapable of conducting a one-on-one conversation?  Whenever I spoke, eyes glazed over.  People listened out of politeness.  They were uninterested, because I wasn’t being interesting.  I was being inauthentic.  Why couldn’t I just be myself?  I was sucking the energy out of the room.  I’ve never sucked the energy out of the room in my life, but thinking that I was, made it so.  I was not having a good time.  I was spiralling.  So, I drank more.  Even if it didn’t make things any better, I noticed it less, so it was better for me. 

Tonight I didn’t stay up with the gang.  I wanted to be alone.  I needed to figure out what was happening to me, and more importantly, how to stop it.  I sat in my room, in the fading light, nursing a whiskey, listening to the hubbub of lively conversation floating up from the fire pit below my window.  I didn’t begrudge their easy friendship, their breezy closeness.  I just had to figure out why I needed so badly to be part of it.

I haven’t always been like this.  Way back in the day I used to be gregarious, outgoing, extroverted, sociable and confident.  And then in 2008 I moved from Melbourne to Dubai, leaving my entire family and all of my friends behind.  In the time it took to fly 15,000km, I completely lost my entire support system.  My tribe back home was so close-knit, so accepting, so reinforcing, so supportive and so loving, that I’d foolishly expected to easily find friends in Dubai.  But I didn’t.  I couldn’t connect with anybody.  I developed social anxiety, and I started thinking that something was terribly wrong with me.  It took a lot of therapy to accept that I was OK.  But I’ve been having major flashbacks of those feelings the last couple of days. 

I sipped my whiskey, and I ruminated.  And I travelled even further back, to the eighties.  Back to high school.  Even though I was always a weird kid, I never felt bad about myself.  I just didn’t make friends easily.  I spent most of high school on the outside looking in.  And I had some really difficult experiences.  Rejections.  Bullying.  Name calling.  Even by the people who I thought were my friends.  One pivotal moment for me, when I was 14, was being on a school excursion and being abandoned on an escalator going down, as my “friends” ran back up.  At first I thought it was a game and I started running up too.  But I stopped when I saw them running away.  Something inside of me broke when I realised that they were running away from me.  They didn’t want to be my friend.  They had just pretended to like me.  And that hurt.  I felt bewildered, humiliated and betrayed.  This was high school for me.  I learned to be fine with it, but it left a scar.  Guess what Chryss, it looks like the scar might still be there.  And I’ve been picking at the scab. 

Finally, sitting in the dark, my whiskey glass empty, it started to become clear to me that I’ve let myself down these first few days of my residency.  I brought fifty years worth of baggage and an almost pathological need for approval to the Chateau, and ended up having some kind of mid-life crisis in a place of artistry, creation and beauty.  I’ve been imploding inwards, instead of blossoming outwards.  All my feelings of not belonging, of being too weird, of being the odd one out, of people not getting me, are ancient feelings that no longer belong to me.  They belong to that young girl on the escalator.  I didn’t come here to make friends.  I came to write, and I’ve allowed myself to get sidetracked by feeling that I need to become BFFs with everyone here.  Realising my mistake will hopefully make it easier to just let it go, and refocus my attention towards my work.  I don’t need to stumble my way through any more awkward conversations.  I’ll work during the day, eat with the others at night and keep to myself the rest of the time.

DAY #4 – MONDAY, 16TH MAY 2022
While selected artists beat out hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of applicants, you still have to pay to attend Chateau Orquevaux’ artist residency.  Nineteenth century buildings don’t look after themselves you know.  They require a lot of maintenance, especially if left in disrepair for a couple hundred years.  The first few residency intakes functioned almost as working bees, helping to slowly bring the chateau back to life.  It’s been beautifully restored but still needs a lot of work.  Luckily, each artist is generously awarded the Denis Diderot Artist-in-Residency Grant, which goes some way towards paying for our room, board and studio space while in residency.  In return for the grant, artists are requested to bequeath one of their works to the chateau. A charming pact. 

As a writer, I wondered what I could possibly leave behind as my contribution.  I pondered the question for months, before being struck by inspiration.  I decided that I would interview everyone, gather all the interviews into a printed compendium and gift a copy to the Chateau.  Fucking brilliant, if I do say so myself.  The only problem?  I would have to interview everyone.  I am painfully aware of my inclination towards shyness in large groups of unfamiliar people, so a few weeks before we arrived I’d brashly announced my intention to interview all the artists in a group email, as a way of forcing myself out of my shell.  It seemed like a great idea at the time, but so far I’m not really feeling it, and I kind of wish that I had never made such an audacious declaration. 

I did have an amazing breakthrough last night, but I’m still feeling a little vulnerable and withdrawn.  To counter that, I have decided to artistically express myself sartorially, by dressing up for dinnertime.  I brought a couple of dress-up costumes with me, so why not?!  Tonight I wore a very short, very low cut black velvet dress with sparkles on it.  I was initially very uncomfortable with how short the dress was but I gained confidence during the night, and by the time midnight came around I was absolutely rocking it.  Did alcohol help?  A little.  Did my newfound confidence also help?  Definitely. 

And of course (of course!!!), once I stopped caring so very much about making these young artists like me, we all seemed to click more easily.  Our conversations weren’t as laboured.  I didn’t feel like a total social leper.  Had I been creating drama where there was none?  I’m certain that everyone here would be shocked to learn what I’ve been putting myself through.  There’s no way they could know that I’ve been torturing myself about our interactions.  I think it’s time to let it all go.  It’s day four and I am fully focussed now on being here, being present, and getting down to the business of creating beautifully written work. 

DAY #5 – TUESDAY, 17TH MAY 2022
Today I figured out my daily morning routine.  Yoga on the small platform jutting out over the lake, followed by a dip in the nearby swimming hole.  I took my bikini with me, but decided at the last minute to swim in the nude, shedding my clothes and slipping into the freezing cold water in just my birthday suit.  There’s something primeval and visceral about swimming naked, communing with nature as nature intended.  It evokes a sense of oneness with the environment, stripping away the formality and structure of modern existence.  I gazed up at the early morning sky as my feet brushed against the reeds.  I swam deeper, floating away, luxuriating in the feeling of playfulness and freedom as my skin prickled with the cold and the feeling slowly drained from my fingers and toes.  Afterwards, while drying myself with a towel, I wondered if a prudish neighbour might complain to Ziggy or Beulah about the chubby Aussie chick prancing around the grounds naked, but I figured if you can’t skinny dip at an artist’s residency, where the hell can you skinny dip. 

Walking barefoot back to the chateau after my swim, I came upon a copse of trees and noticed a path, guarded by two deer sentries carved from stone.  Giving them each a light boop on the nose, I followed the path and entered their woodland paradise.  Motes of dappled light shone through the canopy, shimmering on the green foliage. I looked around in wonder, feeling my heartbeat slow down in the enveloping serenity.  Were these woods infested with ticks?  Probably.  Was the path latticed with spider webs?  I can confirm that it was.  But I had discovered a perfect, tiny, natural wonderland, within a wonderland.  And for now, this place was my secret.    

My secret garden.

Later that day, I took a break from writing to have lunch in the shade under a big tree, overlooking the lake.  It was a simple meal of boiled eggs, cheese and a glass of white wine.  Afterwards I went for a walk down the hill to the waterfall, and looking down at the water I was reminded of the meditation exercise I sometimes do to calm myself when I’m anxious.  I tell myself to soften, and allow.  To just let things be, and to allow my troubles to flow around me.  I could see the water flowing over rocks and moss, into the lake below and I softened, and I allowed myself to become the water.  And in doing so, a torrent of tears welled up from deep inside of me and cascaded down my face. 

In the gorgeous French countryside, surrounded as I was by beauty and peace and serenity, I wept.  I lifted my gaze towards the chateau, in all its majesty.  Were my tears precipitated by the previous few days of mangled self-perception and anxiety?  No, I don’t think so.  I was simply overcome with emotion at the sheer beauty of the place I find myself in.  And, despite my self-inflicted emotional rollercoaster ride, I still feel completely at home here.  As though a small part of me was born in this house, and was being welcomed back with loving arms.  What Ziggy has created here is a truly special place on earth.  It is a veritable paradise, and the artist within me feels small, but real for the very first time.  I could imagine myself living out the rest of my days here.  Writing at my desk, overlooking the vast, and glorious expanse of natural beauty.  Serenaded by the breeze murmuring through the trees, the distant, babbling waterfall and the lazy twittering of the birds.  Stopping every now and again to have some wine and cheese, and then writing some more.  Every single day from now until I die.  I could imagine this.   

I softened, and allowed it all to flow out, and the flowing brought with it a sense of being swept clean, followed by a feeling of peace and catharsis.  It’s OK to cry.  I am in a magical world, and it’s taken me a few days, but I finally do feel that I’m in the right place.  I know that I was embraced from the moment I arrived.  I just had to allow myself to be embraced.  I had to allow myself to feel that I deserved it and that I belonged here.

Walking back to my spot under the big tree, I heard footsteps coming up the hill, and I turned to see Marcie approaching with a plate of food.  She asked if it was OK to sit with me while she ate her lunch, and I said yes.  If it had been anyone else, I think I would have made my excuses and left, embarrassed by the evidence of tears in my eyes.  Instead, I found myself telling Marcie about my experience.  She sympathetically recounted her own feelings of heaviness from the day before, and we cried together.  We shared our stories and our pains, and our burgeoning bond was strengthened even more.

Tonight was kind of quiet after dinner.  Most of the regular night owls went to bed early after their big day trip to Dijon.  But Marcie and I stayed up and shared a bottle of rosé with Jonny and Jad, following them up to their studios on the second floor of the chateau to check out their work, where I was absolutely blown away by Jonny’s portraits.  He’s got such an interesting and unique style, very distinctive.  Very Jonny.  He uses his old, handwritten rap lyrics as an element of découpage, incorporating the paper and words into the background, and sometimes even into the portrait itself.  I absolutely love it. 

Once we were finished in his studio, Jonny jokingly asked me to walk him home to his cottage in the village, and I said fuck yeah, why not?  We poured ourselves a dram of whiskey each, and ambled back to his beautiful village house, arm in arm.  Along the way I mustered up the courage to ask him if he would paint my portrait, and he said he’d love to.  Squee!  After I’d made sure he was home safe and sound, I immensely enjoyed the stroll home by myself in the dark, under a canopy of bright stars.  Everyone else was asleep, and as I meandered around the Chateau, drinking in the night sky and savouring the cool air, I lovingly kept watch over them all.

Today, I quietly snuck out and drove to the supermarket in Chaumont to stock up on more rosé, snacks and sparkling water.  I felt a little guilty about not asking if anyone else wanted to come with me, but it felt fantastic to get out by myself, and I enjoyed the freedom of having the rental car.  Later that afternoon, I had a lovely video chat with David who is in Adelaide with his family.  We are missing each other a lot, but I imagine that it’s much harder for him because I am so busy and engaged with everything that is happening here.  It was nice to have a chat and to see his beautiful face. 

And then, despite my cold feet, I just bit the bullet and went upstairs to interview Jonny in his studio.  And I am absolutely thrilled with the way it turned out.  He is such a wonderful subject, and such a cool, easygoing guy.  He really put me at ease and answered all my questions so beautifully.  I adore this young man.  He’s a delight to be around and we really connected in his studio.  I’m so grateful to him for making my first interview so easy, and now I’m actually looking forward to interviewing everyone else too.  I feel like it’s going to produce something really special. 

Afterwards I looked for Catherine’s studio, as we had talked about doing an interview in the afternoon, but she wasn’t there.  I wandered around and accidentally stumbled upon Beulah’s office, and she invited me in to chat for a bit.  We ended up talking for nearly an hour, and she told me all about her career in Australia and then Hong Kong, and what led her to the Chateau (and to Ziggy, wink wink).  She is so fun, so nice, so engaging, so encouraging, so lovely, so kind, so empathetic and so compassionate.  Yes, I know I’m gushing.  It’s on purpose. Beulah is perfect in the role she plays at the chateau, of making sure that all the artists are taken care of and are feeling OK.  I told her about the anxiety I’ve been experiencing, and she assured me that it was not unusual at all for people to feel like that coming into the residency, especially when arriving mid-way through a month long programme (which is something they’re working on avoiding in the future). It really made me feel a lot better.  We chatted lots, had some laughs and took some selfies. And I walked away feeling like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Just two Aussie chicks in a chateau in the French countryside.

Before arriving at the chateau, all the artists had been introduced to each other on social media, and Christine was the person I’d instantly clicked with, and was most keen to meet.  She’s kind of like the perfect person, which can be a little bit intimidating.  She’s extremely beautiful, and a very talented artist.  But she’s also witty, and funny and charismatic.  She’s just very fucking cool.  I had really hoped that we would hit it off, but unfortunately that hasn’t been the case.  She seems quite aloof towards me, which isn’t really surprising considering the shitty vibe that I’ve been putting out.  For some reason I really feel the need to connect with her, but I just get so nervous around her.  So when Christine complimented me on my dress at dinner tonight, saying that she likes the way I’m making an effort to do something special every evening, it absolutely made my day. 

DAY #7 – THURSDAY, 19th MAY 2022
I woke up early today, with the beautiful morning light streaming through my window.  I’m already fantasising about buying one of the rundown cottages in the village and moving here when David and I retire. 

The big news today is that I found a tick in the crook of my knee, leisurely sucking away at my life force.  I was sitting down chatting with Marcie and just happened to touch my leg, feeling a protrusion behind my knee.  I thought it might be a zit or something and tried to scratch it away, but it wasn’t budging.  I looked down and saw a horrible, chunky brown thing sticking out of my skin, like something growing out of me.  Being a country girl, Marcie knew exactly what was up.  “It’s a tick,” she said, matter-of-factly.  And so it was.  I freaked out and ran upstairs trying to keep cool.  This was my first tick situation, and being Australian I can’t help but assume that all animals wish to do me harm, especially the ones that attach themselves to my body by burrowing their heads into my skin.  Beulah popped her head out to see what all the screaming was about and jumped into action as soon as I told her I had a tick.  She just squeezed that little fucker out, right then and there.  She’s my goddamn hero. 

After the excitement, Marcie and I spent some more time together, just chatting, checking out her latest installation down by the swimming hole, and then moving another of her pieces to the stables to photograph it in some beautiful light against a shabby chic background.  It turned out absolutely perfect.  I then interviewed her in her studio.  I could sense that she was a little bit nervous during the interview, but I think (hope) that I was able to put her at ease.  As always, it was really lovely to spend time with her.  She’s so easygoing and self-possessed, and I really enjoy being around her a lot.  I have a feeling that we’ll be friends long after this is over.

Standby for Part Two of my Chateau Orquevaux adventure.

Who’s that girl?

Header photo © Andrew Putschoegl


    1. I’m so grateful to have met you too Avital. Grateful for our friendship beyond the Chateau experience too. ❤

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