French artist ‘accidentally’ ends up in Newfoundland

Lillian
Lillian Simmons
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Raymond Verdaguer fills international commissions from his studio in progress in St. John’s. — Photo by Lillian Simmons/Special to The Telegram

How does it happen that a French artist — who was born in the Pyrenees Mountains and spent the past 20 years in New York — ends up in Newfoundland?

“It was a complete accident,” Raymond Verdaguer says with a shrug and a grin.

Verdaguer was born in Le Perthus, a small village in the mountains that separate France and Spain, a few hours’ drive from Barcelona.

These days he spends summers in St. John’s.

Verdaguer creates linocut images as illustrations to accompany stories and op ed pieces in magazines and newspapers, from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Harper’s in the U.S. to Prospect in London, Le Monde in Paris, and El Mundo and Letras Libras in Madrid. He also exhibits his work and gives lectures — including one for the Book Arts Association NL last year at the Queen Elizabeth II Library at Memorial University.

When he is commissioned to do a piece, Verdaguer first spends time researching.

“I get visual ideas, and submit sketches of the ideas. When they are approved, I do a final work and send it electronically to the magazine or newspaper,” he says from his studio-to-be on the south side of St. John’s, a 100-year-old saltbox he has been working on for the past five years.

“If you have the tools and a connection to the Internet you are able to take an assignment anywhere. It’s a privilege to be able to do that.”

Verdaguer started drawing when he was about four years old.

“I lived in an isolated area, high in the mountains, 1,800 feet high with six months of snow. The weather was fairly rough, almost as rough as it is here.”

There wasn’t much formal instruction for him, art-wise, in the isolated village.

“It is true you can be in the smallest village in France and you can marvel on a lot of artwork. There’s always a church, a door, always something with craftsmanship that’s been there for centuries. So I think I was very sensitive to whatever I saw. My father always insisted that, always, what you do is top-notch. He was very strict on that. You could not fake it,” he says, smiling.

Technique

The linocut technique Verdaguer uses involves sketching, engraving, then printing. Because newspapers and magazines have tight deadlines, “you have to have discipline to be able to create an image in a short time.

“The technique is primitive.”

Verdaguer walks over to his press and takes out a jar of thick black ink, the consistency of honey.

He retrieves a block of linoleum from a cupboard. The square has a top surface like soft rubber, backed with canvas.

Before he begins an engraving, he colours the linoleum square black, making it easier to see the cuts. He mostly uses a regular box-cutting knife to do the engraving, which enables him to make smaller cuts. Once the engraving is done, he rolls on the ink, places the linocut on the press, and tops it with a square of paper. Then it goes through the press.

“The sketching is important, but the cutting is most important — the (engraved) block is an interpretation of the sketch.”

Printing in colour gets a little trickier. Only one colour at a time can be used and the pressure during printing must be just right.

“Every commission is equally stressful because the deadlines are so short and there are many steps before reaching the final (one), more specifically because the technique I use is considered rather slow,” he says of the work.

This puts him at odds with a world where information is delivered at high speed. Working on a deadline while not compromising quality can be harrowing.

“It did not happen yet, but each time I live with the fear I may not make it.

“Also not every idea I submit can possibly be accepted, so in some cases I do experience frustration not to be able to share what I view as an important or relevant idea with the public. I don’t live it as a rejection but rather as a castration — a woman may live it as an abortion.”

In his early years, he performed museum quality restoration on period antiques.

“I was very fortunate working for private collectors.”

He learned a lot from the experience, not all of it good.

“I assumed major artwork pieces were all in museums, which was far from the truth. Some people do have their own private museum with pieces never shared visually with the public, only with their closest friends or guests.

“I was extremely disturbed by the idea that an extremely wealthy lady could own a priceless painting from an artist who died poor and of tuberculosis the same day as his girlfriend jumped through the window still expecting his child, committing suicide.”

France to New York

Verdaguer first visited New York when he was a young man, attending business college in France.

“I arrived the same time as the American cosmonauts landed on the moon (1969). Everywhere on Broadway they were selling pictures of the cosmonauts. America was the spot where everything was happening if you were coming from Europe.”

He wanted to stay, “and I tried” but at the time young men in the U.S. were being drafted to go to Vietnam, so he decided to see the world.

“It was a time when it was in the air with my generation. There was a lot of wondering about the world, asking questions that were never asked before.”

Conversations with people coming back from or going to Vietnam were disconcerting.

“I remember that none of those people wanted to go. They were so traumatized. It was very strange because I wanted so much to be creative and I was drawing all the time. I didn’t understand why this generation was stopping, like it was frozen.

 “At one point I travelled a lot, to Central and South American and New Zealand. That was a big discovery. I was 23.”

Travelling opened the artist’s eyes 

“I didn’t realize until then I had lived in a very privileged, comfortable society and there were places that were really struggling. But they were amazingly wonderful and beautiful.

“A couple of times I had a gun and a rifle pointed at me. It was in Mexico. I was very ignorant and foolish and didn’t realize the danger. That shaped a lot of the rest of my life, so I could not see the world the same way.”

New York to Newfoundland

After spending two decades in New York, five years ago he and his partner began looking for a place away from the city.

Since the catastrophic events of 9/11 “the whole atmosphere has been changed in New York and in the States too,” he says.

“We were looking for a place that is pleasant.”

They took a bus from New York and travelled to New Brunswick, then Nova Scotia, where they had originally intended to find a place.

Totally by chance, they ended up at the ferry in North Sydney.

“When we arrived in Port aux Basques, I don’t know if it’s because it was foggy, but it really looked like totally another world. We entered St. John’s at night and it was dark and nothing to see. But then next morning when we woke up and walked around, we were completely shocked by the view. It was a nice day and it was really very, very different. You could feel that it was very different.”

Seeing the fishing boats in the harbour takes him back to a time in France when he was a much younger artist, watching the fishermen pull their boats up on the beach in the Mediterranean.

“I think home is the people. It’s not really a building for me; it’s the people. When I see their faces, when they speak to me, I feel at home.”

See Raymond Verdaguer’s work online at

rverdaguer.com; or blog: rverdaguer.com/blog

A1: “Hunger,” B1: “Shredder” submitted images

Organizations: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Le Monde El Mundo Book Arts Association NL Queen Elizabeth II Library

Geographic location: New York, France, Newfoundland U.S. Raymond Verdaguer Pyrenees Mountains Le Perthus Spain London Paris Madrid Vietnam New YorkVerdaguer Broadway Europe New Zealand Mexico New Brunswick Nova Scotia North Sydney Port aux Basques

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Recent comments

  • Michelle
    August 12, 2011 - 21:52

    Great article, Lillian. What a fascinating story- and what an amazing talent! Welcome to Newfoundland, Mr. Verdaguer. May you find inspiration at every turn here in our mystical province. How about a local show of your work?

    • Alf Audlund
      August 18, 2011 - 13:20

      Art is not a hothouse flower, It blooms in any soil it finds.