The city of Sete, in the south of France, lies on the shores of the Mediterranean close to the Spanish border and far removed in both distance and attitude from the more glamorous environs of the French Riviera. One of its neighbourhoods, Pointe Courte, is a small world unto itself within that small world - a delicate peninsula of land jutting into the Etang de Thau, an abundant fishing ground lying on the opposite side of the city to the Mediterranean.
Though a place of ancient pavement and cement, rather than rock and sparse vegetation, the quartier bears a remarkable resemblance to the Battery in St. John's. Like the Battery, it has long been inhabited by those who fish for survival in the adjacent waters that have shaped and defined its character. And, also like the Battery, it now provides permanent and seasonal homes for artists and tourists alike, who live mostly in harmony with their more established neighbours - accepted if not always fully welcomed into the community.
It was this small piece of southern France that Cathy Driedzic first fell in love with in the summer of 2010. Driedzic, an artist living in St. John's, had accompanied her husband, a marine biologist doing field research, to the area. It was a working holiday for the pair, so while her husband studied the varied life of the encircling waters Driedzic pulled out her paints and spent three weeks trying to capture the scenic vista that surrounded her. As is inevitable in such a small community, her work didn't go unnoticed. Eventually, it caught the attention of her landlord, Olivier Khonig, a fellow artist living in the community.
As the two chatted about their mutual occupation, he suggested that Driedzic might consider putting on a exhibition in the neighbourhood community centre. With only nine watercolours finished, Driedzic didn't really have a large enough body of work to show and the idea was shelved. However, it didn't actually go away. The two corresponded over the following autumn and by Christmas what had started out as a suggestion had become a reality. It was arranged that when Driedzic returned to Pointe Courte the following spring, it would be to host her first foreign solo exhibition.
It was after Driedzic received a formal invitation from the city of Sete to exhibit her work that, she says with a laugh, "things got out of hand."
"I was swept along, not speaking the language very well, which was difficult at the planning stage. It could take several hours to translate emails because the language of organising an exhibition is different. I puzzled for a long time over a word that seemed to mean a grant and turned out to be something different, although along the same line."
She started taking French lessons, not just so she could communicate with her contacts in France, but so she would be able to chat with the people who she hoped would attend the show - a task made more difficult by the fact that the people of Sete speak a dialect of French every bit as distinct as the English spoken by Newfoundlanders. And, just like in Newfoundland, the accent can change from one small part of the land to the next. Driedzic wanted to make sure not only that she was comprehensible but that she would be able to understand what people were saying to her. Finally, of course, while in the midst of preparation she had to keep working so she'd have enough paintings to actually be worthy of a show.
It was a hectic time, culminating in the headaches involved in shipping the work to France and figuring out how it was going to be properly displayed in what was a non-gallery space. Driedzic overplanned everything and worried constantly about the paintings' transport. After seeing one of her husband's parcels set down in a puddle when no one was there to receive it, she ended up carrying the work herself as part of her luggage rather than trusting them to a shipper. She still blanches at the memory of the damage that would have done to one of her watercolours.
"My paintings are precious to me," she says. "Every one has many memories of people and places and stories. I could sell them, but I could never lose them."
Everything arrived safely and Driedzic even managed to finish a few more paintings on site before the big day. And a big day it was. The powers that be in the municipal government sent out what was reported to be thousands of invitations to the opening reception. Posters materialised in windows and on every corner. New plumbing mysteriously appeared in the building where the show was to take place and No Parking signs sprang up all around it. (Pointe Courte has a unique road system shared equally by cars, pedestrians, alfresco diners and what must be the largest population of somnolent cats in all of Europe, making the signs completely useless if well-intentioned.)
The result was a resounding success. Hundreds of people arrived on the day of the opening to partake of the show and the bountiful tables of food, wine and pastis (a favourite local aperitif).
"It was much livelier than a Canadian opening," says Driedzic. "Because it's a community centre the whole community celebrates in this space. Half the event was outside so it was more like a mini festival."
At the same time, she found similarities to the way her work is received at home. "People loved the pictures because they're so personal. People relate to them, saying 'I planted that tree' or 'that's my father's caban (shed).' I get a similar reaction in Newfoundland where people will often buy a painting because it's personal."
One thing Driedzic didn't expect, however, was how the show changed her position within the community. Pointe Courte has always been a kind of poor stepchild to the city of Sete. To have the mayor and other civic representatives attend an event being held there was quite significant to the residents. Driedzic stopped being just another summer visitor. "I'm now treated more like someone vested in the community because I've been able to give something to the community. The exhibition has been my doorway into the community."
Driedzic's watercolour paintings from France, accompanied by some Newfoundland paintings, will be exhibited in Champney's West, Trinity Bay during the Champney's West Days celebration Aug. 5-7 and at Five Island Gallery in Tors Cove from Aug. 14 to Sept. 4. The opening reception will be Sunday, Aug. 14 from 2-4 p.m.