A truly cultural exchange; Painters: Visitors from a French sister city are taking in art and life with their Howard hosts.


It's a scene French impressionist painter Edouard Manet would have loved: a festive lakeside picnic on a brilliant and beautiful autumn afternoon. Good food, better lighting and an easy exchange of ideas and cheer seem just right.

It's fitting, too, that five artists visiting Columbia from Cergy-Pontoise, France -- a sister city of Columbia -- should unveil their paintings by Lake Elkhorn. The friendly, informal setting perfectly matches the sunny paintings that adorn the walls of a Columbia art gallery this week.

As the protective bubble-wrap sheets are pulled away from the framed paintings that have made their way across the Atlantic, one thing becomes very clear: French and American artists might not be able to speak the same language, but they certainly know how to communicate.

"If you're an artist, language almost doesn't matter," says Linda Press, a Columbia-based painter and art instructor who visited Cergy-Pontoise in May and showed a few paintings in a group exhibition at a chateau. "Somehow, you just manage to communicate and get along.

"It's so incredible to be able to see their work here," Press says. "The quality of their art is very high, and it's such a pleasure to be able to talk to them about their work."

The Cergy-Pontoise and Columbia artists are part of an ambitious exchange project coordinated by the Columbia Association Sister Cities Program and Columbia Art Center. Their group exhibition will be on display through Friday in the Art Center's Main Gallery in Long Reach Village Center.

A reception for the show, which went on display Sunday, is scheduled Thursday.It is the first time the artists from the sister city have had their work exhibited in America.

One Cergy-Pontoise painter, Catherine Vanden Steen, is well-known in France and has had exhibitions throughout Europe.

"More than having some preconceived ideas about what Columbia might be like, I'm really interested to see how people live here and how American artists work," Vanden Steen says through an interpreter. "This is a short trip, so I'll probably only be able to whet my appetite for more of this sort of thing. But I would like to see what kinds of art is in contemporary galleries everywhere."

The initial leg of the art exchange began in May, when five Howard County artists traveled to Cergy-Pontoise for one week. Their trip included visits to the Louvre, painter Claude Monet's house and gardens in Giverny, and Vincent Van Gogh's house in Auvere.

"The spring portion of the art exchange provided local artists the unique opportunity to exhibit their work in a different country" and experience some of the most important museums in the world, says Rebecca Bafford, director of the art center.

The Columbia Association established the $50,000-a-year program 24 years ago to foster cultural understanding with its sister cities (Tres Cantos, Spain, is its other European sibling).

The relationships mainly have promoted high school student and cultural exchanges. Art and artist exchange is a new venture. The U.S. and French artists live with host families during their stay abroad and see firsthand the similarities between the two communities.

Cergy-Pontoise, a planned bedroom community about 25 miles from Paris, was created in the late 1960s. Sandwiched between Baltimore and Washington, Columbia seems more alike than different for the Cergy-Pontoise visitors, most of whom have other jobs and paint in their spare time.

The artists will have little free time on this trip, with museum excursions to Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and New York.

"The purpose of this particular exchange is not just to say, 'Let's go. Let's hurry up and take the art out and show it,' " says Louise Bowser, manager of Columbia's Sister Cities Program. "The main thing was for the artists to get to meet and live with other artists. All artists like to know how other painters or writers live and work and create."

Despite the language barrier, the artists are friendly and affectionate toward each other. Philip Press says his wife, Linda, has "an easier time communicating with other artists in French than with nonartists in English. It seems their lives are very simpatico, no matter where they live."

Ginette Morin, who lives on a farm outside Cergy-Pontoise, began painting landscapes and still lifes at an art school in February. Morin likes to paint outside, and a number of her small paintings that are part of the art center's exhibit are tranquil lakeside scenes.

"I didn't bring anything to paint with from Cergy," she says as she watches joggers and bicyclists round Lake Elkhorn. "It's a shame, I think."

Pub Date: 10/05/99

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