A Blacksburg watercolor artist traveled with students to a village in southern France in late summer to trace the steps of one of Western civilization’s most celebrated artists, Vincent Van Gogh.
Jesi Pace-Berkeley, 65, organized the workshop, titled “Following Vincent’s Light,” and plans to lead another in the spring. A retired Blacksburg High School teacher and volunteer with the Lifelong Learning Institute at Virginia Tech, Pace-Berkeley was the recipient of a fellowship from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond in 2010. She received the honor for a small painting called “Sisters and Friends,” she said, “which is noteworthy because most of my paintings are really big.”
She has worked as large as 15 feet across, she said. At first glance, her paintings might look like acrylics, but they’re done in watercolor. “I really push the paint. I’m not afraid to use the paint, and I try to get others to do that, too,” she said.
With watercolors, mistakes can’t be easily painted over. “I taught myself, pretty much, how to do it. I’ve made every mistake in the book. That’s one of my strengths as a teacher: I think I can help just about anyone fix a problem.”
Pace-Berkeley and the six adult students who joined her for “Following Vincent’s Light” stayed in Saint-Clement, a tiny village in southern France. “The whole south of France is just dotted with all these little villages,” she said.
The idea for the trip began with plans for a reunion with Pace-Berkeley’s friend Maria de la Torre.
The two met at Norfolk Academy, a private school in Hampton Roads, before Pace-Berkeley came to Blacksburg. When Pace-Berkeley was artist-in-residence at the academy, de la Torre taught French. The two had not seen each other for 30 years, until Pace-Berkeley’s son gave her a gift of airline tickets to see de la Torre in France. When she visited in April, Pace-Berkeley learned that her friend, now a trained chef, owned and ran a cooking school. The two decided the school could also hold art classes.
“We decided we would offer it and see what happened, and the class filled. I took six people to France for 10 days, and we traveled all around,” she said. “It couldn’t have been more fun.”
The group took their easels with them and painted outdoors, a technique known as en plein air. “Truly the light in that area is different. You know how bright Virginia Beach can be, where you just have to have your sunglasses? It’s never like that. It’s not that glaring light,” Pace-Berkeley said.
True to the workshop’s title, they visited places where Van Gogh lived and painted. “We went to Arles, where he lived for the latter part of his life. We painted in the asylum where he spent two years,” she said. “We were truly there where he was.”
Van Gogh’s life story is dramatic and tragic. In the last years of the Dutch artist’s life, as his talent bloomed, he struggled with poverty and mental illness. His more than 800 paintings, commonly noted for their intense color and thick brush strokes, had only begun to gain acclaim in Europe when he committed suicide in 1890 at age 37.
Three years before his death, he came to the city of Arles on the southern coast of France, where he painted a series of still lifes of sunflowers in vases, one of which would sell at auction for more than $39 million a century later.
“We went everywhere that we could find where he had been,” Pace-Berkeley said. Five of the women who signed up to come with her were from Virginia, with one more from North Carolina.
“Combining painting with visiting museums housing the ‘masters’ was very invigorating,” wrote Mary Ann Lentz Poole, founder and owner of Blacksburg Homestay, a program that links international students and host families. “I wanted to focus again on painting and where better but France while on vacation.”
For more information, visit www.jesipace-berkeley.com.