Once or twice a week I pass the National Veterinary School of Alfort, in Paris’s southeast suburb of Maisons-Alfort, on my way to play tennis. It’s an old complex (the school was founded in 1766), now covering 27 acres, and often in need of restoration or repair.
A mustard-color metal barrier was placed across the main entrance a month or so ago, signaling the start of restoration work on the school’s monumental archway and its adjacent wall.
Today, walking by, I saw that a canvas had been stretched across the length of the barrier. There are images of animals on it—dog, cat, owl, chickens, cow—and to one side of the canvas is an image of a painter before an easel.
I touched the cat on the plastic canvas to see if the images had been made with paint rather than printed on. Paint indeed.
To the far side of the canvas is the artist’s name, Gilles Sacksick, and beyond that, on a separate section of canvas, the title of the work: le Peintre Animal (the Animal Painter).
On my way back from the courts several hours later, a man with a paint brush, vaguely resembling the image of the painter, stood looking at the canvas. Rather, the figure on the canvas, made of broad brushstrokes, vaguely resembled the man.
I asked if he was the artist.
“No,” he said. “I’m a painter today, not an artist.”
I asked him to explain. He said that he was touching up the work that he’d first done in his studio.
He set down his palette to talk with me. For him, he said, his task in decorating the barrier also involved a willingness to talk with interested passersby, i.e. the intended audience of his work.
In my own neighborhood there are walls that individuals and groups get permission from City Hall to paint. Tags grow on other walls nearby and, after a time, on the “official” wall as well. I see it every day and pass by its edge on my way to the bakery.
Once, baguette in hand, I said to a fellow holding a can of spray paint, “Hello. Are you the artist?” “Apparently. Who are you?” he answered. “I’m your audience. What are painting?” “The wall,” he said. “What’s it going to be?” “A painted wall.” “And the image?” He looked at the wall. “Too difficult to explain,” he said. “Go ahead,” I said, “try.” “I have to work, sir. You can come back this evening to see, if all goes well,” he said, giving a shake to his can. He could only see me as an intruder, not a participant in the public space he was re-decorating.
Another time, another wall worker, another stick of bread, multigrain perhaps, I asked “What’s it going to be?” “A painted wall,” she said with a smile. Her retort may have resonated with more significance had she not been painting over someone else’s “It’s already a painted wall,” I remarked. The smile dripped from her face. “Then you’ll just have to wait and see,” she said. In a culture that developed the word repartee there’s a surprising lack of on the streets of the capital.
I like the changing wall before it gets over-tagged. Still, I wonder: Is it just my neighborhood or do Paris’s official artistes du jour have attitude? Or maybe the larger the wall—and this is a building-size wall—the larger the ego? On the smaller “official” wall in the neighborhood I once got a “thanks for noticing.”
Leopards were appearing on that wall. Here in Maisons-Alftort there were more animals. Perhaps, after watching so many charming pet videos online, I’m especially in tune with animal art.
Or perhaps, now that cultural institutions and other private and government enterprises have converted their scaffolding covers to advertisements in the name of budget wisdom, e.g. this shocker at the very heart of Paris on the judicial complex where passersby are now all sentenced to Life:
… it’s simply refreshing to see dogs and cats being touched up on the barrier at a national veterinary school.
We have been told, in France, that street art is a way in which young, upcoming urban artists can express themselves on the wide urban canvas before possibly entering homes, collections, theaters, museums. But the older artist/painter also has his place on the street.
Gilles Sacksick picked up his palette and prepared to climb the ladder.
“What’s wonderful about painting,” he said, “is that there is nothing and then there is something.”
Gilles Sacksick’s artist biography and more of his work (largely without anmials) can be seen at gillessacksick.com.
© 2014, Gary Lee Kraut