In the bar, the teachers say a bursary has come available for a student to attend a summer school at an American-run art college in Pont-Aven, Brittany, while living with a local family. Would I like to go for six weeks or four?
I say four, and mull it over. I start to feel concerned the course will be very prescriptive. I email Melanie Yazzie, our printmaking professor, to ask if I can steer things more to my own interests. She emails back, “Mike! I am totally about enabling people to do what they want!” Yazzie teaches at the University of Arizona. We correspond.
On the Eurostar to Paris, I hear a man talking, a monologue to do with culture. It feels familiar. It's one of our teachers. I say I'm worried about spending four weeks with total strangers, but he smiles and says it will be wonderful.
After 12 hours, the coach from Paris arrives in Pont-Aven and we wait in the car park for our host families to come and find us. I start talking to Jason, one of the young Americans I'm sharing with. Black flame tattoos shoot up both his arms. Diana the sculpture tutor introduces herself. So her students don't feel tied down by the art they've made before Pont-Aven, she's going to give all of them new names.
As I struggle to get my luggage into Anne-Marie's car, the second young American, Michael, picks up one of my bags. I look at the ground and mutter my thanks. The third American, Jeremy, or Jeremiah, towers over all of us. People perceive him as a hillbilly, he says later, ruefully. Later we become friends.
Anne-Marie, our new “house mother”, sits with the four of us in her dark kitchen. “That's awesome!” the two younger Americans keep saying, without irony. They talk to Anne-Marie, who can't or won't speak any English. “I think she's saying she's a nurse, and she works nights,” I tell them, thinking “Great.” “She's had a lot of art students stay with her before, always girls. She prefers boys.” We all smile at each other.
The first evening, I end up in the Bar des Amis with Jason. Sarcastically, I ask him what his new name is. Some burly transvestites come in then depart. I make my excuses and head off, unsure of the route back to Anne-Marie's. At midnight all the street lamps wink out. I get lost, and wander back and forth across the area. All is silent and the sky is full of stars. I hear two students conversing - then as they say hello, I realise they're only a few feet away from me, lying in the road, staring up at the sky.
The following morning, Jeremy, Mike, Jason and I go to a big room in the town hall, to meet the teachers and the other students. “Don't leave me!” I think. We sit down in a big circle of chairs. Caroline, who runs the school, welcomes us. She explains that the local greeting is “Kenavo”, and asks us not to be obnoxious and have respect for the local people. In light of this, she talks about the upcoming annual sculpture festival that Diana's students will organise, and about Gauguin. Gauguin arrived in Pont-Aven in about 1888, but there have always been artists at the house which is now the administrative centre for Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art. Her own special interest is Paul Sérusier, a follower of Gauguin's and a kind of early conceptual artist.
Caroline asks us to go round and introduce ourselves, and mention something we've noticed about Brittany, then she looks surprised as Melanie the printmaking professor, just arrived with a sandwich, shakes her head no, other direction. I have a head cold and rack my brains, as all the Americans are warmly positive about the half day they've experienced thus far. One student has noticed the women here are very beautiful, and looks disconcerted at the guffawing.
Later, the coach drives us on past fields of standing stones. We get out, and some of us stand on the stones – I choose a small one. Two students disappear for what feels like ages. I draw the stones and try to forget about needing the toilet. Caroline talks darkly about sending out a search party. At last they reappear, her white-faced, him nonchalant.
We go on a boat trip. Caroline has brought a big bag of macaroons from town, and talks about the area. We can only have one macaroon each. I make a few notes on colour, “white boat, grey reflection” and “pale blue skies, bright yellow grass”.
We go to a sculpture garden. The coach takes hours and I forget the packed lunch. In the sculpture garden is a huge round birdcage. One or two people step inside it and close the gate, while the rest of us look in.
The next morning, I have an art history class in the school's administrative centre in town. I arrive early. The room on the first floor looks down onto the main street. Belinda the art history tutor says there's not enough first-hand accounts about the creative process. She wants us to write about what happens first when we make art. A young man from Robert Reed's advanced painting class talks about his experience of painting at great length.
The printmakers' studio is in the basement, and there are a few spiders. The other printmakers are Gill, Jeremy, Lani, Emily and Liz. Gill sets up her paints and brushes and rollers next to mine, and warns me not to put my stuff in her space. Melanie, our tutor, wants us all to make a print about the family we're living with, to establish some kind of connection to this place.
The next morning I go to a hill and draw rooftops with a felt-tip pen on a piece of linoleum. In the evening, I sit at my desk in my room at Anne-Marie's, carving the spaces around the marks on the linoleum. I listen to one of the – it turns out too few – CDs I've brought with me. The window's open. The daylight fades slowly from the sky.
In Melanie's class, Jeremy shows us his linocut of some roses. Both of us give Anne-Marie a print. She frames Jeremy's.
Sandra from the school drives the printmakers to the beach. The sun is hot as we climb over rocks. Gill finds an orange umbrella in the sand, to match her long red hair and pale freckly skin. When Melanie tells her how pretty she looks, Gill twirls the umbrella and beams.
The next day is blazing hot as well. The printmakers visit a local artist, Claude, who reminds me of Rembrandt's self-portraits. Claude gives us cider. We sit in his garden. Sandra translates what he says. Claude shows us his linocut prints of the countryside, and black-and-white photographs of him in his heyday with poet friends. We go into his shed where he keeps his printing press. As I look out of the shed, Liz and Emily and Lani look in smiling, framed by the window.
Another night, I see twin violet lights zipping diagonally through space, and quickly walk back to Anne-Marie's house. I slide the garage door open, take off my shoes and tiptoe in through the kitchen. Tomorrow's breakfast is laid out under clingfilm. The American students have gone to the local disco - the music is terrible and the Breton DJs ignore all their requests, but they go every night anyway. Anne-Marie's cat miaows and scratches at the door to be let in. On day two, it scratched me - later on, her dog bit me. Now the fat old cat settles on my legs, purring like a radiator.
The next afternoon, in the print studio, I tell Liz I've seen UFOs and she says she has too - they moved really fast towards each other then suddenly stopped. I ask why didn't she tell me before, and she says I just reminded her.
One afternoon, at the start of the steep uphill climb to the studio, I meet Jessica from Mike and Jason's sculpture class. She says, “Hi, English Mike!” This is to differentiate me from American Mike. I'm flattered she recognises me. We walk up the path together, crunching gravel. She's doing drawings of Breton people with pigs for faces, as, after the US invasion of Iran, a lot of French people view the Americans as pigs. Some of her pig women wear traditional Breton costume and huge white bonnets. In a watercolour, which I find a little shocking, and the others funny, a euphoric Breton pig woman is masturbating.
Jess is usually in Diana's conceptual/site-specific/sculpture studio, above the printmakers' spider-filled basement. I get to like the daily ritual of walking up the spiral staircase into their light-filled studio. I borrow several of her CDs.
Early evenings during the week, we all eat together. They limit the wine intake to one glass per meal, as last year's students used to get drunk till they were under the table. The younger Americans regard the French food, fish, flans, quiche, salad, disconsolately. I ask Rebecca from the watercolour class what she misses about American food. “It's just better,” she says.
In the evening after food, we all go to hear one of the teachers talk about her work - Diana, who teaches Mike and Jason. Her first slide is an old drawing, the head of a man shouting, underneath which is printed “DAD”. She shows us a short video of the sculpture festival day, American Michael setting off a rocket firework, which fizzles out. Then a longer film, her voice narrating it, thoughtful, slightly self-mocking. She talks about desire, and there's a clip from Voice Of The Beehive, a young girl looking up yearningly. The screen splits into four reflections of goldfish swimming into each other. Then there's a coach coming into San Francisco, where she teaches, the bridge at night, the backs of people's heads, and a haunted-sounding song by a young woman on a late-night radio programme. I write down the name of the LA radio station, KCRW, and I listen to the show for years afterwards.
Most evenings I go to the bar with Jeremy and Geoff for a few glasses of wine. Geoff and I sit and draw, and Jeremy smokes, ruefully. Jeremy introduces us to Nadine, the dark-eyed woman who owns the bar. And the two women artists-in-residence at Pont-Aven town hall. Also a businessman who owns a yacht.
By the time Melanie does her talk, she has a full-blown cold. She shows us photographs of the Indian reservation where she grew up, sunlit and empty. As she had to attend the school where her father was the principal, the other kids would jump on her, and roll her in the dirt. The series of prints about those days is called “Little Fuckers”.
In Melanie's printmaking class, I say, “I'm not crazy about the idea of using colour. I'll stick to black and white, if it's all right with you.” Melanie chuckles and says, “No, you're doing colour.” I meekly tack my drawing onto the window - a sea-rescue hut on a pier that slides into the water. The hut has a tin roof, and a row of small square windows. Looking at the drawing, I roll the paint onto a plastic screen, wipe the paint off with a rag, and paint onto it again. An hour or so later, I put my first colour monoprint through the printing press. Melanie tells me to stick with the image, and use hotter, brighter colours. Soon there are pictures of huts in different colours hanging on a clothesline across our studio space.
I like the quiet afternoons when it's just Jeremy, Lani and me. Lani prints a colour linocut of some croissants. Generously, she shows me how to print the colours first, then the design. She prints a drypoint drawing of some clothes hanging on a line, and her father on a sofa reading the newspaper. She introduces me to a soundtrack by Yann Tiersen, a young French musician. “I love him,” she says simply.
One day Lani falls asleep on the bus next to me and I draw her. When I show her the print, she laughs. In the café, I draw Jeremy as he smokes a couple of cigarettes and looks rueful. I print them both, and stick the prints proudly on my wall space.
I draw Liz on lino in felt-tip pen - glasses, pale skin, bunched red hair, against the rainy green light from the path outside. The lino takes ages to gouge. The night before our group critique, I sit in the studio cutting away at the lino. Emily has a scarf around her head and works quietly. We talk about music. Gently she places her iPod earphones over my ears, and puts on a ballad by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The chorus goes, “Wait - they don't love you like I love you.” I draw a picture of Emily on lino, do a print of Liz and say good night.
The following afternoon, Melanie asks us to critique each other's work, and be really honest. “I'd say my work falls into the category of meditation on the landscape, wanting to retreat to these quiet places, by the river and overlooking the rooftops in the cool blue shadows,” I tell the class, thinking that that sounds nice, anyway.
When Belinda comes into the printmaking studio, she looks at our group photograph in the local paper, where my anorak hood has accidentally slipped over my face. “You don't much like having your photo taken, do you?” She sounds sympathetic. Everyone visits our studio, except Robert Reed, who teaches advanced painting.
Robert paints circles, triangles and colours. The teachers at my college agreed that abstraction was a bit of a dead end. After some group critiques, I felt the same way. Now, in the Café du Centre, I look at a catalogue of Robert's paintings and notice he has a presidential commendation.
One day, wanting Robert to come and look at our pictures, I run after him. Mortifyingly, he says he thought I was going to mug him. About a week later, he visits us printmakers. He looks at my hut monoprints and tells me I should make a lot of prints of the same image, over and over again, with different colours, including colours I don't want to use. “You love paint, you love the push and pull,” he says in his deep presidential voice. Wonderingly, I think “Robert understands me.”
Towards the end of the afternoon, the printing press blankets are a little messed up. Gill says happily, “Oh, man, wait till Melanie sees those blankets. She's gonna be so mad.”
It's early evening, and I've been drawing a house that squats over the lake. Later, when I'm stuck for a title, Melanie tells me to call it “Silly House”. A halo of nearby flies are buzzing, and my CD has finished playing.
At the group exhibition, Melanie beams and gives me the thumbs-up sign as the local press photograph Caroline making a speech in front of my prints. We all stand around while Diana videos a girl who's baked a heap of madeleines - her plan to imprint the memory of Pont-Aven on our tongues. The girl talks about how wonderful these weeks have been, about the friends she's made. As she reads from her diary, I look around at everyone smiling and wonder when I can have a cake.