Adventures in the Beauce (1979)
After 10 years of teaching art at the Visual Arts Center in Montreal, I decided to make a change in my life and launch a summer painting school for adults. Somewhere.
I discussed my intention with Monique, a textile artist from the Beauce region of Quebec. She loved the area – especially the beautiful landscape and recommended I consider St-Joseph de Beauce for my project. She contacted her brother N, a lawyer and Mayor of St-Joseph, who telephoned me, and arranged a visit to the ‘Vieux Orphelina’.
I was excited about this promising opportunity but wanted to be realistic, so I made a list of my apprehensions:
I had never heard of the Beauce region of Quebec;
- my spoken French was adequate but, had a heavy Anglo accent;
- I had no car;
I had never initiated a business of my own;
I was low-income and had no startup money;
Once my list was complete, I immediately decided to go ahead with the project. St-Joseph is located by the Chaudière River, 45 minutes southwest of Quebec City. The Beauce is connected to Maine, Lac Megantic, and the Eastern Townships and, was primarily agricultural, specifically - pig farms, with small industries along the riverside. Besides the landscape major tourist attractions included, the Mae West cake factory in St-Marie, a bronze foundry in Inverness, and an annual big rig race. Thus informed, I found a bus connection that would take me to St-Joseph de Beauce.
40 years ago, the Voyageur Bus Depot in downtown Montreal sent buses out to most regions of Québec. From the larger centres, travellers transferred to private bus companies to reach smaller destinations. Bus fares were inexpensive, and the buses got you where you wanted to go on time. Mostly. Bus travellers were usually low-income: students, elders, and people without cars. Since the buses had no reserved seating, travellers lined up early for good seats. The ‘good’ seats were not near the toilet, not behind the driver(often playing loud radio music) and not in the smoking section. The entire bus, however, was veiled in a cloud of smoke, since the four designated non-smoking rows were sandwiched between the driver(free to smoke) and the rest of the bus(definitely smoking). These ‘seats of opportunity’ were precious, and I had to race and push aside the elderly, nuns and kids to get one of them. Once seated, I inserted earplugs and snoozed in cramped, contorted positions. My bus entered the Chaudière River Valley in the opposite direction that Benedict Arnold’s army took in 1775. His expedition experienced heavy rain and inaccurate maps - mine a raging snowstorm. As we passed Ste-Marie and Vallée Jonction heading toward St-Joseph, the entire landscape was enveloped in a whiteout.
Once arrived in St-Jo I found the town hall where the Mayor was waiting for me. N was the son of RC a respected Québec judge and politician. He was welcoming and eager to show me the ‘Vieux Orphelina’ - his special project, a renovated patrimonial building. In the 1960s Québec, the Catholic church divested itself of responsibility for orphans(Government-run social agencies took over) and the orphanages were closed or repurposed. We climbed the stone steps and entered 2,000 sq. feet of open space filled with an atmosphere of the past. The area had been the children’s dormitory and was beautifully illuminated by a row of large windows facing the river valley. In addition, there was office space and a remarkable bathroom designed for small children, with a row of twelve tiny sinks facing narrow cubicles with diminutive toilet bowls. It all felt very ‘Dickensian’ and provoked strong emotions in me. Later, my adult students(full-sized) expressed different emotions as they navigated the tight bathroom spaces.
In spite of my ‘apprehensions’ list, I made a snap decision to rent the space as a painting studio for my summer school, and N suggested we go to his home and work out details. We agreed on a fair rent that would begin in May and run to October, and I paid a month’s deposit. I asked him if accommodations for myself, teachers, and students would be easy to find. Pas de problème, he said, St-Joseph est fait pour le tourisme. I asked him about groceries and restaurants: Pas de problème, he said, St-Joseph est prèt pour le tourisme. Over the next two years, I came to understand N as someone who enjoyed exaggeration - for instance, he wore suits about 4 sizes too large that flapped about him and made me wonder if he had lost a lot of weight, or perhaps wore his father’s suits…in any event, we celebrated our entente over a can of soup and toast. N mentioned that his divorce papers had arrived that very day, and his ‘blonde’ was coming to celebrate, and would probably not mind if I spent the night. I declined his offer and asked if he would drive me to the closest motel. So, we drove to the next village - Vallée Jonction. Navigating the snowstorm, we arrived in front of the motel. N rushed to open my door, kissed my hand, and then drove his Cadillac into the white-out. Whew, I thought, my go-to man for orphanage space has a gallant but odd personality.
I entered the motel that appeared to be called “Motel” since there was nothing else on the sign. Mme Motel, whom I would later know as Mme G. Poulin stared at me from the front desk(actually a card table) where she was having her hair dyed and permed by Mlle Motel, her daughter. In my Anglo-French, I asked for a room. Vous êtes amie avec le Maire? asked Mme Motel. Oui, said I, thinking I might get a preferential rate(wrong answer). Mme Motel was a friend of the newly “exed” Mme Mayor. Mme Motel registered the following: she had seen me exit the Mayor’s Cadillac; she knew I was a stranger; she saw I was youthful, and finally, heard my odd accent. All these impressions mixed with the peroxide fumes and gelled into an illicit impression of me. She conferred with Mlle Motel, then asked me: vous voulez une chambre toute seule? Oui, I said, je pars demain en autobus. Mlle Motel whispered something into her ear. Etês vous danceuse? Madame asked. Non, I said, although the art forms of painting and dance are related. But Mme was not asking about ballet or contemporary dance, she meant ‘danceuse’ in the highway context, ergo, topless. Je suis peintre, I said, and although the tone of her voice remained harsh, she seemed reassured(of what I am not entirely sure). O.K. she said, 55$ pièces payés en avance, et(an afterthought), veut tu acheter du syrop d’erable?
O.K. I said.
When our transaction was complete, Mme G invited me into the bar for beer and more questions. She learned that I was not a test ‘blonde’ for a recently divorced mayor; that I did not paint walls and that I wasn’t an American. Comment ça, she asked, que tu parle Anglais? Mme G had never before met an English Quebecer. As we spoke, she warmed up to me, but it was my intention to start a business that clearly legitimized me in her eyes. When she began to call me “ma fille” I knew I was getting somewhere. In most rural Quebec villages there is someone who knows everything about anything – or, can find out about it. Mme G was that person in Vallée Jonction. She was years ahead of Google in providing information, contact people and opinions. Our exchange currency was maple syrup.
I began to stockpile.
Examples of information, transactions and cost-in-cans:
- transportation? pas de problème ma fille. An ex-chum of her daughter, Mario(informally Bob) drove his ‘for hire’ Chevy for short distances. Cost of reference = 3 cans of maple syrup.
- used wood? pas de problème ma fille. Pit, the guy who sells insurance and delivers bags of grain to farmers, was also a ‘de-constructor’ = 2 cans of syrup.
- used furniture: pas de problème ma fille. Ti-ga, who sharpened knives also sold cheap furniture out the back of his truck = 2 cans.
linens: pas de problème ma fille: Grandemama Menard vendes ces choses = 3 cans.
Regional current events were thrown in for free, as was news about robberies, divorces, political improprieties, musicians for hire, and kittens for sale….she knew it all. The next morning, I caught the bus to Québec, then on to Montreal, weighed down by cans of maple syrup.
The essays: Adventures in the Beauce(1979) are dedicated to my friends in the Beauce, fellow artist/teachers/business partners, and to the courageous students who followed me from Montreal or signed up ‘cold’ to AteliersBeauce-arts.
Stay tuned for Part 2:
Adventures in the Beauce(1979):
art, biker-boys, eau-de-porcine, and pas de problème ma fille.