RETURNING: Page 12
Below: "Outdoor Lunch". NdA. Acrylic
We came back from Brazil refreshed and invigorated. After much soul-searching and animated conversations with my father, we had arrived at the conclusion that the practical, financial and psychological problems of living in the wilds were wearing us down. Nearly five years had gone by since we arrived in Paraguay and there was very little ressemblance between the reality of our day to day routine and the dream we had brought with us of living a carefree creative life, close to nature, far from all the pressures and stresses of civilization. Trying to cope with those aspects of life which were not "civilized" (ie familiar) was precisely what was draining our energy and resources. Even our recent move to more comfortable Asuncion hadn't really changed that situation.
I say "our" and "we" but the truth is that Reg and I had very different responses to our environment and circumstances. He was much more adaptable and easygoing, not driven as I was by the need for more time (never enough time!) to create, to express, to Be An Artist. Putting it down like this, stripped of all embellishment, makes me squirm with retrospective embarassment. What kind of idiot was I to think that it's necessary to be free of problems in order to be an artist? In fact I was being creative, so was Reg. It just didn't seem to my inflated ego that we were being creative enough, or not in the "right way". Had I been a different sort of girl, more down to earth, more of a pioneer, Reg and that Other Natalie would probably have stayed in Paraguay and made a go of it eventually.
As it turned out, pushed by my restlessness (echo of my Russian-exile father's permanent restlessness?) Reg agreed that it was time we pulled up stakes and gave civilization another chance. To Europe this time - to Rome, whence my sister and her Italian writer husband were urging us to come and work in their thriving theatre organization. But first there was a lot to do, a lot of complications to sort out. Just how complicated we soon found out. The formerly-dishy Pieds Noir, our presumed tenant at the quinta, had dug his heels into our red soil and refused to budge, to pay any rent whatsoever, to speak to us or to see us. The fleeting attraction I had felt evaporated as I saw how truly unhinged this guy was. He had made enemies everywhere, even his own father had left. The cringing bride stayed, maybe too scared to move - or maybe he kept her chained to the kitchen sink.
When, by sheer cunning, we did manage to gain entry to our property, it was a heartbreaking shock. Chickens were cooped up in what used to be our bedroom. The whole place stank of excrement and machine oil. Parts of machinery, trunks and unopened packing cases cluttered every room. Outside, the chaos continued. Nothing was recognizable as the place we had lovingly made into our home.
Below: "The Village" NdA. Acrylic
CONCRETE REALITY: Page 13
The squatter on our land wasn't budging so we had to get the law involved. Threats and insults flew back and forth but gradually a tight-lipped agreement was reached and a deadline was set for his departure so we could get on with finding a serious buyer for the property. Meanwhile, having made the decision to leave Paraguay, we were very busy in the way one always is when pulling up roots, building up nostalgia for future reference, when it will be too late to go back. A fragment from my journal about six months before our departure:
This is where I was a little braided girl in my beloved San Antonio, now a bone in my throat, a sad, faded place with an oppressive atmosphere brought to it by strangers with hard hearts and cold eyes who never saw its beauty and innocence but only its weeds and sand and thorns. Now that is all I see too and my weeping figures sketched on the studio stucco are all that remains of the castle dreams, the garden of Eden never flourished again. Dust and crumbling papers found in old trunks, crumbs of the magic brought by Monsieur le Prince Alexandre straight from Boulevard Suchet to Mbocayaty, grand piano and all. He was the one who created that Eden, perhaps it never existed in fact. For me the smell of certain herbs and oranges and the beautiful wildness lasted through all the years until I was back here again. But it was never the same though I tried to recreate it. All I saw were little figures scurrying, stealing wood and watermelons and trespassing on my land. Now the latest strangers have put their stamp indelibly on my sacred ground, the castle is a chicken-coop, a pig-sty, a warehouse for rotten fruit. The room that was my beloved childhood room lined with beloved childhood books is now filled with sacks of hay and potatoes and the rats run free and the air stinks and the hard, mad Frenchman of Algeria sleeps with his cringing wife on our Louis XV bed tainted by moths and cockroaches and the dust beneath it is like a poisonous cloud. Better to leave, sell it all and close my eyes to its fate than to hang on and watch its slow disintegration.
I had entered a competition to design a mural for a modern hotel in Asunciòn and to my astonishment, I won first prize. It was as if fate was saying: see? You don't have to leave, you are still wanted here. But I was too engrossed in the technical complexities of actually executing the damn thing to think about subliminal messages in this stroke of good fortune. My design was based on an abstract painting I had done, painted from life but translating an apple and the space around it into vertical blocks of colour. I felt that the same design would work well in this setting on a hugely enlarged scale and in muted tones rather than in the painting's bright hues.
Below: "Abstract Apple" NdA. Oil on canvas.
The plan was to divide up the design into individual blocks to be cast in cement and coloured and then assembled one by one on site. My budgeting for this task was, as usual, way underestimated and I hadn't bargained for the gargantuan physical effort involved, never mind the mess.
With the help of Reg and a loyal friend I cast and coloured about 70 large blocks of concrete in our back yard, working through December and January, the hottest period of the year in this latitude. The mural was finished and installed by early February and in the end I was pleased with it, the effort involved was not apparent. It was outdoors on a sheltered terrace next to the swimming pool, a spiral staircase winding upwards alongside.
Sometimes I wonder if the Hotel Guarani still exists or if my "Apple" slices have long since bitten the dust from whence they came.
Below: The artist and Hotel Guarani mural, Asuncion.