With Michelle “Mike” Ochincky

Healthy Planet Arts Editor


Experiencing Art:

The French Connection…


Albert Hubbard declared, “Art is not a thing; it is a way.” And ARTful living has many facets. A huge part of art, I think, is the experiencing of it—namely, the “way.”

When the opportunity arose to share rent on a little house in the Languedoc region of southern France for a month with another artist I know, I had to give it thought for no more than 5 seconds. So, as my column went to press last month, I was on my way across the Atlantic to the tiny village of St. Chinian, France. Never heard of it? Neither had I, but it didn’t matter—–I was going to spend time drawing in sunny southern France, in the footsteps of such artistic greats as Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso.


The Languedoc region is a mixture of landscapes: rocky, arid hills support vineyards and ancient olive groves with rosemary and lavender fields as far as the eye can see. Within a short distance, the Caroux, Grage and Espinouse Mountains begin to rise up, with dense pine forests surrounding pristine rivers and lakes. The sky is an intense, cloudless blue, even as night falls. This is the land of the Crusaders, and the Middle Ages seem very recent with a castle or ruins atop every other hill. In between the hills, ancient Roman aqueducts serve as a reminder that this country was also well known to much earlier visitors.


The primary benefit of spending a lot of time in one place is to truly slow down and experience the region. Some days, my husband and I stuffed our backpack with a chunk of cheese, fresh bread from the patisserie down the street, a bottle of local wine, and a few olives and nuts. With my sketchbook and pens in hand, we’d hike up the hills outside town to draw in the vineyards, or head for the cool shade of the Vernazobres River flowing by the house in an attempt to capture the waterfall on paper. Just across the river, high on a cliff, sat a stone windmill surrounded by lavender. Every direction offered artistic inspiration and I could easily see why this region has compelled artists for years to drag their easels to work au pleine aire.


Just a short drive from ‘our’ village was Sete. Situated on the Mediterranean Sea, this town overwhelmed the Impressionists of the late 19th-early 20th century with its shimmering light. The sea sparkles there as if diamonds had been scattered across its waves. Colorful fishing boats bob in the harbor. I couldn’t snap enough pictures!

In the opposite direction was Albi, the birthplace and ancestral home of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Following the young artist’s death in 1901, his mother offered his works to the Louvre in Paris; the museum promptly turned down the offer. Some years later, the works found a home in Henri’s hometown. The scope of his talent is impressive.

Music from a sole violinist lured us in Pezanas. Hailing from nearby Spain, he performed his own compositions in the shadow of the Catherdral of St. Jean. He played alone, in a narrow street, but his music was naturally amplified by the high stone walls. It was simply beautiful. Obviously other artists have found the town to be inspiring as well. Its twisting lanes are filled with tiny ateliers (artist studios). Playwright Moliere found inspiration for his works here, too, when he took up residence in the mid-1600’s.

I always love travel surprises, and a side trip to St. Remy in Provence provided just that.


Although we went to the town to shop at its huge weekly market, we’d also heard about ancient Roman ruins just outside town at Glanum. While walking to the site, we passed a grove of very old olive trees, a bit overgrown, but with a strangely familiar look. A tiny plaque under some weeds indicated that this was the site where Vincent Van Gogh painted his “Olive Orchard” in 1889 and that these very trees were the subject of the painting. (Olive trees live a long time). No wonder the scene looked familiar! St. Remy was the town where Van Gogh painted obsessively, with “The Starry Night” among the many great works he created while staying there. It was here, toward the end of his life, that he really perfected his characteristic swirling brush strokes.


Unlike Vincent, I returned with both my ears. We dodged Iceland’s volcanic ash and brought home a few drawings, lots of photographs, and a mountain of memories. Europe really is a treasure trove for art lovers. But, if a trip to the continent isn’t on the horizon for you, you’re in luck this month. You can still experience European artistry without packing a suitcase.


St. Louis is one of only three cities in the U.S. chosen to host Vatican Splendors at the Missouri History Museum, now through September. This exhibition of fine art and historic objects is expertly curated, presented in a style that will sweep you away to Rome. Many of these works have never been outside the Vatican, and some are not usually available for public view even there.

During the media preview, I spoke with the archivist from the Vatican. He was busily jotting notes (on his Blackberry!!) to correct any errors he found on the identification cards in the exhibition, before it opened to the public. Absolute accuracy is clearly a hallmark of this exhibition.


Letters in Michaelangelo’s own handwriting and the very calipers he used while working on St. Peter’s Basilica give visitors a sense of this Renaissance great. Imagine that the structures we now consider ‘classic’ were once just construction sites! I wonder if those who labored in such places ever considered how future generations would be awed by their artistry and immense talent.


And, as every June, St. Louis’ very own Circus Flora returns to present this year’s “Ingenioso,” a traditional European-style circus that the entire family will love. The Big Top goes up in Grand Center with performances June 3-27 . Tickets are reasonably priced, with families in mind. The one-ring circus accompanies daring feats with a delightful story line.  Prepare to be charmed!!