Cave diving, an art residency, and a creative journey in France


Cave diving in Marchepied cave in France

In late August 2022 I went cave diving in France. I'd ALWAYS wanted to dive there but never really had the opportunity to get there. There were always other dive trips to take, teaching of scuba students and art to make - UNTIL, I realized it was the perfect topic to explore for an art residency.  Sometimes it's the SIMPLEST realization that will spur action!

Dreaming but never doing - until now

For y-e-a-r-s now I've been dreaming of applying to an artist residency abroad and making art in a completely different country. I even went so far as researching and narrowing it down to three places to apply to in France. After creeping the Instagram accounts of each residency, I decided on the one that was right for me - socially. This was Studio Faire in Nérac, a self-funded residency run by an artistic Scottish couple who had been living in the south of France. They accept up to three artists at a time. I'm a social introvert so the number three sounded perfect - enough people to have the possibility of interesting connections without it becoming a huge party every night with a large group of people.

So I applied - and my proposal to explore, then paint the caves of the Lot region,  as my subject matter was accepted! OVER THE MOON! I'd been racking my brain trying to come up with something profound and it was just so simple - paint what I love to explore - the caves and they were all new to me which was a bonus.

Diving and drawing inspiration from everything

Gregory of Lot Filling station and Grace Marquez selfie at the end of their dive

I spent my first week diving various caves and getting to know my host and guide Gregory from Lot Filling Station. I can't recommend him enough. He was a skilled diver. He was also thorough, knowledgeable, thoughtful, and well-prepared with everything we might need for fun, safe and successful dives. In addition, he was very flexible with what I wanted to do. Twice after our first dive, I was just so incredibly content and happy and satisfied and all I wanted to do was nap in the warmth of the summer under the trees or just chat and exchange stories over lunch. 

The dives were beautiful. The caves were all varied in depth and composition - some wide open and huge with walls you couldn't even see, to some with sections we had to crawl through. But the caves were only part of the actual inspiration and stimulus. 

Sketch of goats having dinner in Rocamadour France

Inspiration came in all sorts of forms including the goat farm where I picked up all sorts of delicious goat's milk cheese from a lovely family. We were just in time to see all the goats being fed too. It was remarkable. I felt like a happy child in discovery mode. (Can you tell I grew up most of my life in the city?)

It was in the moment Gregory pointed out all the tiny tadpoles in the muddy pool of one cave or the salamander hanging out at the entrance inside the same cave. The tadpoles were everywhere and at first we didn't even notice them. Funny how you notice life everywhere when you're looking for it! 

sketch of Tadpoles and salamander spotted at Font Del Truffe

It was getting lost in conversation over lunch by the riverside; in seeing three generations of a family nearby that were all lively, laughing and playing one minute and the next, taking their siesta and snoring in the shade of the trees.

It was wandering along the river and through the medieval cobblestone streets of Figeac -  my home base while diving. 

I made quick sketches of these moments in the little black journal I carried with me everywhere, noting names of places, special features that Gregory would point out and anything I didn't want to forget. After diving, instead of spending each night reviewing video footage as I normally would, I spent it writing in my journal and just reflecting on the day and every detail I had experienced.

Getting down to work in the studio in Nérac

Grace Marquez in the studio at her art residency at Studio Faire in France

It wasn't until I arrived at Studio Faire to begin my art residency that I began to review the videos and re-live the dives. On my dives, I carry a GoPro with me and will take many short clips of sections of a cave that I find striking for one reason or another - sometimes it's how the light from my torch is reflected, or how the structure of the cave is shaped and other times it's the quality of the colours brought out by our lights. Not only am I gaping with wonder at these new sights during the dive itself but I'm also making a mental note of what I might want to explore in a painting later on.

It was easy to get started and I started working on each painting immediately once I identified the key features of the cave and key moments of the dive. Lines became layered washes of paint. Washes became more defined shapes of colour. And shapes became scenes to remind me of the dive.

The Process: from inspiration to art

These are the paintings I created while in Nérac. You can see the section of the cave that inspired each painting. Some paintings resemble the inspiration more directly than others. I don't paint to reproduce. I paint to remember and to give a sense of place.

Ressel is perhaps the most famous cave of the Lot region if not all of France, so it was fitting that it was the first one I dove. It's located in the village of Marcilhac-sur-Célé, in the heart of the Lot. I fell in love with this bright cave whose entrance is along the river Célé. What I loved most about this section of the cave was as we dropped down into the chimney pictured here was how beautiful the rock patterns were. I always try and envision how these patterns were formed and what the water levels must have been to erode and shape them in this way. It inspired the painting "Into the Darkness"  

Inspiration at Ressel cave

Diver dropping down into a chute at Ressel cave in France

Painting "Into the Darkness"

Painting of diver dropping down into a chute at Ressel cave in France

 

Inspiration at Ressel cave

Diver entering Ressel cave in France

Painting "Trust"

Painting of diver entering Ressel cave by Grace Marquez

 

Cabouy was a HUGE cave. Through many sections, I couldn't see the ceiling at all or the sides of the cave. I felt like I had landed on the moon or some distant planet - another world. The scalloped limestone waves in one section were mesmerizing to me! Just look at that surface! Now imagine floating through it! It felt completely unreal to me and I was there! It inspired the painting "Waves of rock". 

Inspiration at Cabouy

Diver hovering inside Cabouy cave

Painting "Waves of Rock"

Painting titled "Waves of Rock" inspired by Cabouy cave in France by Grace Marquez 

 

Font del Truffe proved to be the biggest surprise as a cave dive. The entrance on the surface was a puddle on the side of the road! When we got in, the shallow and small pool muddied immediately from our movements while gearing up. It was brown and it was gross. But - as soon as we entered, slid sideways through a restriction at the very beginning of the cave, it opened up into a stunning clear cave. It had a variety of shapes in the walls and ceilings.  There were stunning beautiful arches of rock and rhythmic patterns were opening up into the depths of a chimney.  The unique sections inspired three paintings. 

Inspiration at Font del Truffe

Diver beside rock formation at Font Del Truffe cave in France

Painting "Follow Me"

Acrylic painting by Grace Marquez on paper of diver beside rock formation in Font Del Truffe 

 

 

Inspiration at Font del Truffe

 Cave Diver at Font Del Truffe cave

Painting "Rhythms in Rock" 

Acrylic painting by Grace Marquez of diver at Font Del Truffe cave

   

Font del Truffe was also my first sump dive. For non-cave divers, this is when the cave you're diving in isn't filled with water throughout its entirety. This means that when we reach a section where the water is low, we get out, and along with all our gear walk to the next section where the water continues deep enough to dive in again. 

It inspired the painting "Pause at the Pool" which was actually at the end of sump number two. The water level was so low that the normally wet section between sumps one and two was completely dry. We got back in at this point and continued up until sump number three where we decided to turn the dive. 

Inspiration at Font del Truffe

Grace Marquez in sump at Font Del Truffe

Painting "Pause at the Pool"

acrylic on paper painting showing a pool inside Font Del Truffe cave   

I also dove the beautiful light-filled Marchepied cave and the dark, masculine and mysterious Landenouse cave. I will have to do a follow-up post on these paintings as I only began work on them after returning to Canada. I found so much inspiration to keep me going for some time painting these beautiful sites. 

The Collaboration

Artist Grace Marquez with cellist Emily Adele Williams in Nérac France

While I was working on these paintings at Studio Faire, I just gelled with one of the other artists - a talented cellist by the name of Emily Adele Williams. She plays the cello in dry caves. She loves caves as much as I do! It was fate that put us together at the same place in time. I shared my video footage with her and she crafted music from her cello to accompany them. We put together a short 11-minute performance comprised of my video footage showing short clips of a section of the cave that inspired each painting while she played her cello live. It was magical and moving. I had never re-lived my dives in such an emotionally evocative way with her cello music and the sharing of the paintings embedded in the video. Her music brought to life the feelings of wonder, curiosity, and mystery of diving a new cave; of the sense of discovery with each new twist and turn of a passage. What a wonderful and memorable experience for me as my first collaboration! 

It was also incredibly gratifying to have spelunkers and cavers in the audience as well as a retired art professor! Talk about the law of attraction at work in a small French town! 

What did I learn from my trip (besides how to choose a good quality rosé wine)? 

I'm making an effort to always learn from what went well and what didn't go so well with everything I do. I learned a lot from that trip. My big takeaways were:

1. Journaling is a great activity, but the power of journaling comes from taking time and reflecting on what you've just journaled. It will yield a lot of insights and nuggets of information to help you realize behaviours about yourself and how we move through that world - at least that's what I learned from my consistent and daily practice of journaling while I was there. I had never really taken the time to slow down and reflect on each day as I did while I was there and as I've done since. 

2. Verbalize what you want. I think the reason the collaboration happened was that I had vocalized to someone well in advance how interesting that would be if there was an opportunity to have a show when I got to France. And it happened! I believe in quantum physics and the theory that there are multiple instances of our lives happening at the same time. I believe that how we think and what we believe and the words we say have the power to bring to life different possibilities for each of us. You might think it's tooty fruity but I've found that it really works and when my energy is vibrating at a higher level, it's been amazing to see how it can be a magnet for the things I want and more importantly - how much it spurs me to action. That's the key. Action. I was fortunate to have been at the art residency at the exact same time as another artist who also loves caves and makes it a part of her musical art process (seriously - what are the chances of that happening?) but it never would have happened if I didn't take action in the first place.

Paintings by Grace Marquez in a row on a table at Studio Nerac

3. Focused, uninterrupted time to work on what you want to work on, works! I was incredibly productive during my short art residency. I produced six paintings in that time and still have more ideas swimming in my head. I used my time to recharge, refocus and then got to work. I made the most of every day there painting but I also experienced so much that Nérac had to offer. I would recommend an art residency for any artist if you haven't ever applied to one and a retreat for anyone else who may want to pursue their interests for a focused period. 

4. Never give up on your dreams. I had all but forgotten about doing a residency until just a few months before I applied. I don't know why that was. Sometimes life puts us on different paths and it makes what we initially wanted foggy. I loved every day of my short time in France (almost a month) and it fulfilled a lifelong dream for me. Take the chance. Try. Go do the things. 

5. The simple things can be the richest. I enjoyed the diving very much in France. But I also really and honestly enjoyed the simple things that they value so much there - the warm hug of a freshly baked baguette, delicious quality wine from the local vineyard served in a lovely glass, the morning ritual of espresso on the patio of the town "tavern", evenings with new friends sharing a meal, drinks or laughs together outdoors, and best of all meeting new people to enrich and open your eyes to new ideas, experiences and possibilities. 

I read a line in a book somewhere some time ago that the "universe conspires to make you happy". You just have to have the eyes to see that. France showed me a lot of things I needed to see.