As an Athens artist, I’ve always believed in exhibiting my artwork in coffee shops and restaurants, because that is where the people are—and because in Athens, we really don’t have many other options.
I am grounded in Athens, but I’m going to tell you a story about Paris. Going to Paris is something I have wanted to do for a long time, and for many years I yearned to experience France. I relish every moment while traveling, and I don’t take these experiences for granted.
There is a coffee shop in Paris I have proclaimed has “the best coffee in the world.” When I had my first café latte there in 2013, it was the best I had ever tasted. I researched the café online after my introduction to it and discovered La Caféothèque de Paris is not only a café, but also a barista school and a cultural center—they are serious about what they do.
Returning to Paris a month later, I headed straight to the café for another fabulous cup of coffee. Entering the shop, I spied the owner, whom I recognized from the website, and blurted out (in terrible French) “Are you la maîtresse? I adore your shop, your coffee and everything you are doing here!”
It turns out that Gloria Montenegro, the proprietor and coffee guru, had been the Guatemalan ambassador to France. She was kind enough to sit with my husband Harvey and me and talk at length about what she is doing, what she hopes to accomplish and her sense of social responsibility for the coffee farmers and workers in Guatemala and elsewhere.
At the café, the coffee is roasted on-site, following the theory of terroir, a term recognized when speaking of wine—it denotes the complete natural environment of production: soil, topography and climate.
Gloria assumed I was also in the coffee business, but I assured her that my interest is that of an educated consumer—a lover of coffee.
As we got up to leave, I said, “I see you have artwork here. I admire it a lot; I am an artist, too.”
She immediately said, “You must have an exhibit here. Just let me know when!”
I handed her my business card with an image of my paintings on silk; she never even asked to see my portfolio.
After returning to Athens, I emailed Gloria images of my work and a proposal for an exhibit.
I planned to create a series of lino prints of the café experience in France. I quickly began the series and had arranged an exhibit at Jittery Joe’s downtown before I even left for France. After that exhibit, I continued adding to the series and exhibiting it—at Hendershots, The Grit, Donderos’, and Jittery Joe’s-5 Points—tweaking and adding to the work in the process.
Once I confirmed the Paris exhibit, I took the images that had so far been printed in black ink and began printing them in new, bright, beautiful colors on a wonderful, pale blue cotton paper.
When I arrived in Paris for the exhibit, I wanted to make a quiet visit to the café to rediscover it on my own, by myself. I watched the activity on the city streets through the large windows overlooking the Seine, Notre Dame de Paris and the Île Saint-Louis. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was in Paris, about to have a solo exhibition!
A few days before the exhibit, I met my contacts: the cultural events coordinator at La Caféothèque, Christina Chirouze Montenegro, and her assistant Laure Jubert, who had recently returned from gallery work in Canada. We looked over my art, decided how to hang it and discussed our philosophies of art and life. I could tell these talented women were going to make great things happen. We immediately became a team, a relationship that continues to this day. They have agreed to be my French representatives, and they continue to exhibit my work at venues in Paris, Strasbourg and London.
Nov. 12, 2014 was truly one of the best days of my life. There was a crowd at the reception, half of whom were people I knew and their friends, and half of whom were strangers. I answered many questions about my process and inspiration, one of which resulted in my teaching a printmaking class in Paris! Athenians sent friends; our Parisian friends came with an entourage, and a group of people we had met on the street when we first arrived in Paris showed up en masse!
During the reception, Christina addressed the crowd: “In René's artwork, you don't see people in the prints and paintings. There may be a dog walking around, but otherwise you see only glasses and coffee cups. With these cups, one can imagine the people behind the coffee; those who have prepared the coffee or those drinking it. These art pieces are 'inhabited.' They invite us all to pick up the cup and enjoy some coffee.”
Christina paused a moment, and then she went on.
“This reminds me of the saying, 'Tell me what you drink (or eat); I’ll tell you who you are.' René embodies this idea. She travels through taste: She often comes to France, and she drinks good wine and good coffee. This is how she came to La Caféothèque: because she was looking for good coffee to drink. That was one year ago. We actually found out that we make a great team! Enjoy!"
The exhibit, Un Café, S’il Vous Plait, was an incredibly satisfying experience for me. Now back in Athens, I continue to dream of France and plan to return, with new artwork in hand. The experience was so fulfilling that I am already working on plans for another show. I hope many of my Athenian friends will join me in Paris to celebrate my next exhibit.