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Style Compass: Paul Gervais
By Andrew Myers
Down the Garden Path
Aesthetic appreciation is like religious faith in terms of reception: One must not only be willing and able, but ready. This similarity, and its subtlety, is not lost on Paul Gervais, critically acclaimed writer, painter, landscape designer and intrepid explorer of life’s pathways — particularly those involving a garden.
Born in Maine in 1946 of old stock (Dad was from a colonial New Hampshire family called Beede, his “fifth great-grandfather,” Elie de Bédée des Aulnais, a Huguenot whose family had fled France at the repeal of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, arriving in New England shortly thereafter; Mom’s people included Olivier Charbonneau, one of the first French settlers in New France), Gervais had an Arcadian childhood. “I hunted, with bow and arrow, with my friends in the dense New England woods that went on endlessly at that time, along the shores of the Merrimack River, and there were running brooks in our woods and stands of birch trees and purple views of the distant hills.”
Bucolic, yes; bumpkin, no. Think 1950s Cheever chic: Harris tweed, gray flannel, a dandy-ish father with an affinity for golf and a beautiful mother for whom all the world was a stage (preferably well accessorized, thank you very much), and perhaps a well-shaken cocktail. “I was saved from a very ordinary middle-class childhood, in North Tewksbury, Massachusetts, by my parents’ eccentricity, good taste and flare.” Receptors in place, not too dulled by what he describes as a “killing parochial elementary school in Lowell, Massachusetts” (a.k.a., nasty nuns), Gervais was more than ready for the wider world.
His first look came via Boston — Boston in the days of the Kennedys. “It had its own glamour and allure; it even had its own style, which was discreet and tasteful.” Home base was a prep school in downtown Boston, and young Gervais was soon at home in rep-striped ties (part of the school uniform), as well as conversant in the canon of Brooks Brothers (blue-and-white-striped oxford cloth shirts and a Chesterfield coat were game changers). Then there were the buildings — especially the houses. “I loved Louisburg Square on Beacon Hill, its crown glass and mauve tinted windows,” he says, adding that such architectural interests had precedent. “When I was ten I built a model colonial-style house out of balsa wood and real stone. One of our cats moved in and demolished it — months of work, gone with a feline stretch.”
Gervais graduated to St. Michael’s College (his father’s decision), a small Catholic liberal arts men’s college in Vermont where he majored in English (“I’d always loved literature, poetry in particular”), and minored in biding his time (“I should have been at RISD or Parsons or Pratt”). After earning his BA, he spent an additional semester working on a master’s in teaching English as a second language before realizing that road was not for him. Whereupon he hit the Bigger Road, to Europe, where he traveled for several months. As with so many American and specifically New England artists, there is where the epiphany occurred. “I’d always loved Europe, the idea I had of Europe, and I was not disappointed. I especially loved France and England. Italy, then, was a bit over my head. To get Italy, as an American, you have to ratchet up your aesthetic intake valve; it’s on a higher level, and I was too young and green for that then. Italy came later for me, and now I know it’s the pinnacle.” First, then, he had to climb the mountain.
Gervais’s next big step was to San Francisco, to work on a master’s in poetry at San Francisco State, then one of the country’s preeminent writer’s workshops. He studied under the acclaimed poet and author Robert Creeley. “He was obtuse and a genius. I couldn’t follow it, where his original mind wanted to take me. After one semester I felt I needed a break.” That translated to a return to Boston, where he worked in advertising. “I couldn’t come up with a better way to support myself,” he says, immodestly as he was, at only 28, already the creative director at an agency with a financial services client base.
But Mad Man he was not. The lure of San Francisco was great, and made all the stronger in 1974 when Gervais met Gil Cohen, the man who would be his life companion (they married in 2005). Cohen shared Gervais’s California Dream, and the two moved to the Bay Area in 1977, where they bought, renovated and sold a series of “ugly duckling” houses. “It was a golden age in real estate,” Gervais says, noting that while it was their business, “you had to have affection for the project or it wouldn’t have flown.” Lessons learned from the renovations and redesigns were applied to the couple’s ground-up construction of their own house in Marin County. Modern, in the middle of the woods, it was later featured on the cover of the Italian magazine Abitare and written about in Domus . “You could publish it today and it would still look stylish.”
These outlets, however, were not the main conduits for Gervais’s creativity. A life-long painter, he had started to paint professionally. “I loved abstraction, mainstream work, Kelly, Stella. I suppose I once tried the style of Klee, and then Mark Tobey, but my work became more minimal as that era opened up. I admired the peacefulness of it, the spirituality. What response it triggered in the viewer’s mind. If I were to name a real minimalist, I’d name Carl André. Or Robert Ryman, as painting goes. The sculpture of Donald Judd. My work had more elements, as the post-minimalists began to introduce more action into that austerity, more event.” He earned a master’s of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1980 (“I was the oldest in my class. Kids used to say, ‘Who are you? I mean, do you have a job or something?’”); was collected by behemoths like Bank of America; and saw his works included in public collections, such as at the Museum of the Legion of Honor. Gervais had, in short, a career as a collectible artist. But for him, it was not the culmination.
Success notwithstanding, and “in spite of the beauty of this remarkable house and its surroundings, and even though we had a flat in San Francisco to take us out of the woods once a week, we felt it was time to discover more, try more, and so in 1980 we bought a loft in New York and took up a real city life again.” Gervais continued to paint in their loft at 15th Street and 7th Avenue until the next autumn, when he and Gil took their first trip together to Italy. To Lucca. They were ready to take another step, but they weren’t quite ready yet. “We hadn’t even realized we’d fallen in love with Lucca till we returned home and began dreaming.”
What dreams may come, they returned to Lucca the following year and, “in a whimsical flash,” bought their home of almost 30 years, the Villa Massei, what had originally been the Renaissance country house of the Count Sinebaldis. As Gervais states on his website, “The property was then in British hands, but its recently widowed owner had decided to sell. What new and sudden fantasies the whole prospect of buying such a place evoked! I saw myself living off the fruits of the land: the berries, the apples, the peaches, the cherries, the persimmons, the figs, the grapes—I could go on. I saw myself wandering the grandiose halls like Byron in his Pisan palace, my head full of metaphor, my library growing, my manuscripts turning inevitably into published books, my tomatoes into conserve.”
From the above sample, is it any surprise Gervais began to write in earnest, with deliberation and purpose, building on a skill and interest that, like painting, he had had since childhood? The first result came in 1990, when he published Extraordinary People, his first novel. The story of two boys growing up in neglectful households, it was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Also at this time, Gervais took his first purposeful strides down another creative route. “I’d always loved gardens, but before this, maybe I was too young to fully appreciate their great joys. I’m totally self-educated in this department. I bought books and studied and traveled and visited gardens, and in time I became something of an expert.” As far as the most inspiring work and valuable reference materials, he credits the gardens of Penelope Hobhouse and her books, calling them simply the best. “Her book Garden Style opened up worlds for me. Her book on Tintinhull, called On Gardening, is a must for any gardener. I love English gardens, nothing compares to them in terms of genuine horticulture. France has wine, England has gardens.”
Gervais’s learning curve, as well as his passion for la terra, found form in his second book, A Garden in Lucca: Finding Paradise in Tuscany, published first in English in 2001, and subsequently in several languages and various editions. The garden has since expanded greatly and is visited by thousands each year. Although Gervais still writes (he is currently working on a novel), his brushes have been retired. “I no longer paint; plants are my paints now, and the ground is the surface upon which I work.” Nor does he restrict his work to his own property. Perhaps, inevitably, given the success of his book, the number of visitors to his garden, and his personality and work ethic, a new business was born. Garden design commissions have been plentiful, particularly in Italy but also throughout Europe and in the United States. “I make gardens for those who like my work and seek me out, and from this a business has grown.”
His process, it goes to follow, is multi-layered. “I work with memory as inspiration, applying images out of the library of my experience to the prospect I see in front of me. I never seek to ‘make it new,’ to break new ground. I distrust originality in the garden. For me, the garden is about nostalgia. Upon entering, you should always have the feeling that you’ve been here before, that you’d somehow forgotten this place, and that you’ve regretted this loss, but suddenly, here it is in front of you, like a symphony you once loved and haven’t heard in years having tried to recall what that piece of music was and failed.”
Thus has Paul Gervais found his artistic way, a path he continues to walk with the awareness that conscious exploration is very much a part of finding one’s true way. What has he learned in his exploration of many media? Where do they overlap? Differ? And what, if anything, does it all come down to? “My interest is in the visual arts. Writing, for me, is a visual art in which a visual result occurs in the imagination of the reader. The writer draws a picture, with detail and color, and the reader sees a picture. The picture may be different, but it’s a picture nonetheless. The garden is a picture, in three dimension; you enter into it. It’s an installation. It’s a living dream. It’s a symphony of the material world. I love the material world — shame it’s so underrated!”
How Green are you? We grow our own.
Hotel: I want a hotel to speak of “place.” I can’t bear waking up in a hotel in Amsterdam and being tricked into thinking I’m in Bali. Villa d’Este, the last grand hotel of a long-gone era of glamour is my favorite; I stay there
twice a year. But I’m also mad about Masseria Cimino in Savelletri di Fasano,
Puglia; everywhere you gaze it’s exquisite. Mansouriya Palace in Aleppo, Syria,
leaves you speechless with its style and refinement.
Travel: Gil and I are ceaseless travelers, but I love Europe the most—preserved,
ever changing, culturally rich and diverse.
Music: Patti Smith is a great artist, deep and original.
Shop: Deyrolle in Paris, for the gardener, the aesthete and the romantic.
Museum: The Essex Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and the house of
Yin Yu Tang.
Restaurant: Da Lorenzo in Forte dei Marmi. The Financial Times )named it “the
best seafood restaurant in Europe,” but I knew that had to be true before they
wrote it up! Gil and I also love La Pineta in Marina di Bibbona.
Gift: I don’t like to give a gift that I’m not in love with myself or wouldn’t regret giving away.
Entertaining: Lucca has a rich social life. There are more that 100 grand old villas
here and their owners never stop inviting. The whole world passes through this city’s portals; the phone
rings and we receive! We give parties for up to 100 in the garden in the summer. I
admire a host who provides well for his guests and seats them comfortably in
agreeable company — this is what I strive to do.
Book: A Voice Through a Cloud by Denton Welch — I have several vintage copies.
Colors: It’s not the color. It’s the combinations of colors. I admire the herbaceous
borders in English gardens for both their delicacy and daring contrasts.
Fashion: All my suits are bespoke, made in small workshops in Lucca by masters
who’ve been in the trade for eons. Paul Smith is my tailor’s most famous client —
it’s what he himself wears. My shirts are handmade for me here as well, but the
shoes I wear are from George Cleverley in London or from Aubercy in Paris.
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