lundi 28 mai 2007

Paris loves Artists

(Raoul Velasco in his studio. Copyright © by MA Shumin.)

I first fell in love with Paris during a weekend class trip when I was studying in Dijon, summer 1999. The class took a Bateaux-Mouches night cruise on the Seine and the city lights were just mesmerizing against the warm summer evening. On the Eiffel Tower looking over the city, with the lights and the romance, I thought to myself that I had to come back again, and I didn't want to wait too long. Most Americans like to wait until they are older, with more money, perhaps during retirement to experience living in Paris. But for me, I had no problem with being young and poor. Young just means I will have more energy and poor means learning to be more thoughtful, creative and resourceful. This was what I got out of watching RENT musical in New York City, "If not now, then when?" "No day but today".

So I came back to Paris right after college. I did not intend for my stay to be so long. I came in the summer but I liked the life here so much, more than I could have ever imagined, I decided to stay for longer. I fell in love with Paris for the second time in my life. This time, not for it being the City of Lights and glamour, but for it being the city of diversity, culture & inspiration.

Paris has been luring expatriates since the beginning of time. In the 1920’s, at a time caught between the first and second world war, the city was opened to change and new ideas. Paris then was a haven for artists, offering them the freedom, support and inspiration they needed. People from all over the world came here to write, to compose, to paint and to learn. One famous group of expatriates called "Lost Generation" included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein.

There was also a great migration of African-American writers, artists, and musicians to Paris at this time. The black Americans were eager to come to Paris to escape the oppressive racism and segregation of the United States. The African-American musicians popularized jazz in the Parisian nightclubs so much that Montmartre was known to be "the Harlem of Paris." On the list of well known African-American expatriates were Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker. In the 1950s and 1960s there was another famous group of expatriates called “Beat Generation”. This group included Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Harold Norse, Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder. Other expatriates included jazz musician Steve Lacy, rock musician Jim Morrison, and singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy.

The neighborhood of Belleville also had a share of this flux of expatriates. In the 1980s artists and musicians were drawn to Belleville because of the cheaper rents, the numerous vacant large spaces, as well as the old Paris charm of its smaller cobbled stoned streets. There are so many artists living and working in Belleville today that it is reputed to be the most concentrated area of studio workshops in Europe.

On 49 bis rue des Cascades, one of the many quaint cobbled stoned streets in Belleville is the studio of artist, Raoul Velasco. He is a 56 year old Mexican artist, originally from Mexico City. He claimed he has lived two lives. The first life was in Mexico, as a professor until the age of 34 when he had the epiphany to change his career. He wanted to do something new that works with his hands. He felt Paris was the city to make the change and came here to start his second life as a self-made artist.

Raoul arrived in Paris in 1989, knowing no one and speaking little French. He rented a little studio in Belleville on rue Cascades where he still works today. He learned various art techniques (painting, wood-sculpting, etching, etc) by himself, as well as from the many artists who were also renting studios in the neighborhood. Feeling immense gratitude for the neighborhood that gave so much to him and helped him develop as an artist, Raoul wanted to contribute to Belleville. From 1993-1997 he became president of the “Ateliers d’Artistes de Belleville” (a non-profit association that supports the artists in Belleville). In 2000 he created “Association pour l’Estampe et l’Art Populaire” in his own studio. Other than workshops and courses, the studio also does exhibitions of local artists, as well as foreign artists from Japan. These events give artists the opportunities to show their work, as well as get their artworks sold.

Raoul came to Paris with nothing but a dream to start a new life. Today he has become an important part of his community, and known to be “the most famous artist on rue des Cascades”. The culture and the arts are really vibrating in Paris and is an inspiration to any one who wants to create. But perhaps what is even more important is the solidarity among the artists themselves. The coming together, helping one another to grow and improve with their arts is what makes Paris a great place. Paris has been and will always be a haven for artists.

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