In the Countryside with Gilbert and Lora – D. Hamilton

We took a 24-hour excursion to the country home of Gilbert Shelton and his wife, Lora. It’s a little more than an hour southeast of Paris on a slow train from Gare de Lyon in an idyllic village so small it’s only on the most detailed local maps. There is no commercial activity in the village, just a cluster of ancient houses, including one very grand chateau and a little pre-gothic church. The one recently-built home had to be built so as to conform to the existing housing. The village is in a shallow valley covered by forests and wheat fields, with poppies blooming along the edges. The nearest small city is 10 kilometers away and out of sight over the ridge. The area was the scene of considerable fighting between the French and the Germans in both world wars. Rusting ordnance is regularly uncovered as fields are plowed.

Their house itself is 18th century. Although somewhat remodeled during the 11 years they have lived there, it retains its original character. It is surrounded by gardens of vegetables, flowers, herbs and fruit trees and is enclosed by a moss-encrusted rock wall. Gilbert has plans to grow a giant pumpkin there. We had the quintessential French lunch on the terrace, accompanied by the bottle of Chateauneuf de Pape we had brought as a gift.

Then it was off to another nearby cute-to-die-for village where they were holding an art competition at the principal local chateau to benefit some local cause. The chateau’s current owner explained to us how the extensive gardens had been originally designed by Le Notre, who had also designed the gardens at Versailles. Much of it had grown over since the original work had been done. The chateau itself had been partially destroyed in the Revolution, but had been rebuilt by the family of the present owner. He explained that the property had only been owned by his family since 1848, “at the beginning of the Second Empire.” The competition was quite informal, with children and adults, amateurs and professionals participating. Gilbert did a pen-and-ink drawing of a forest scene centered around a straight row of poplars lining a stream that runs through the property. The chateau is only open to the public this one day a year and many neighbors were frollicking on the lawns and among the rows of antique roses. Sally and I appeared to be the only non-locals.

Gilbert continues to publish his cartoons. His current cast of characters centers around a modernized Freak Brothers-like rock band called “Not Quite Dead.” He says that copies of his recent work may be available at Oat Willie’s. He’s not sure. Lora works in Paris as a publishing agent for English-language books being translated and published in French. They also have an apartment in Paris and Gilbert has a studio nearby that he is in the process of converting into an art gallery. He urges Austin artists who want a Paris show to get in touch. It will only cost them a few thousand euros. He’ll supply the wine and cheese.

They have now lived in Europe for more than 20 years and have no plans to return to the US, even temporarily. “There isn’t much back there for me,” says the surprisingly understated Gilbert. He adds that they are currently boycotting the US. When asked under what circumstances he might end this boycott, he said, “When I can fly with my nail clippers in my pocket.” Don’t count on that happening anytime soon.

David Hamilton

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