Teresa Baker at TASI

Artist Teresa Baker’s solo exhibition at The Art Studio, Inc. offers an interesting perspective on materials.

“So I’m always thinking, can an object have something that is, in some way, at least creating a reaction? Can you do that with just working with shape and color and material? I guess it’s kind of wondering how you can get belief out of a material thing?”

Here is my interview with her from the October 2017 ISSUE magazine.

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Artist Teresa Baker in her studio at 215 Orleans in Beaumont., Texas. Photo by Andy Coughlan

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The Grand Tour II: Conservation Makes Old Streets New

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Brighton, England — The hippest section of Brighton is a prime example of modernization and conservation done right. The North Laine was formerly a poor, slum area of town that has been reborn as a bohemian highlight of one of the most diverse and cultural towns in England.

Located on the South Downs and bordering the English Channel, 50 miles south of London, the town of Brighthelmstone has been around since Roman times, but grew in leaps and bounds when “Prinny,” the Prince Regent, later George IV, moved the court to the town to take advantage of the medicinal and recuperative powers of the salt water.

NLsalvageThe original village is still intact, although much modernized, in The Lanes tourist shopping district. The North Laine (notice the different spelling), was outside of Brighthelmstone proper — no more than a quarter mile.

“Laine” is a Sussex dialect term for an open tract of land at the base of the South Downs, the chalk hills that run along the south coast of England. “Downs” is Sussex dialect term from an Anglo Saxon term for a farming land holding.

Brighton once was surrounded by five laines, but by the 19th century, the town had grown up and municipal roads surrounded it, followed by housing developments, and Brighton Railway Station appeared at the top of Trafalgar Street in 1840.

In the early 1800s, the North Laine was known mostly for squalor and a high number of slaughterhouses.

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The Foundry pub still retains a sign from its former identity and the Pedestrian Arms.

Even into the 1960s, the area was still working class. I spent a lot of time there as a small child, at my grandparent’s house, and I still remember the outside lavatory. Even in the 1950s the houses did not have electricity. It should be noted that I remember that in the area around the North Laine (on Foundry Street especially where my grandparents lived at No. 21), there was a sense of community that comes from shared experiences. I remember playing in the street with other kids while adults from the Pedestrian Arms pub (now The Foundry) would rotate popping out to ask us if we wanted a bag of crisps (chips in American parlance) or a lemonade.

In the 1970s, plans were afoot to demolish much of the North Laine and build high-rise flats and a car park. Brighton Borough planning officer Ken Fines pressured the local council to designate it as a conservation area and the streets between Trafalgar and North streets have since blossomed. Fines is commemorated for his vision with a blue plaque in his honor.

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Mr.Magpie Collector’s Emporium on Gloucester Road

Wandering around the streets now is a treat. It is by no means modernized or glamorized out of recognition. The shops have the same, slightly run-down look I remember from my youth, But they are now “cool.” The glasses shop where my partner bought her very-hip English spectacles is cool (and so are she and the glasses). The vintage toys shops are cool. The bookshops are cool, with many of their titles aimed at the town’s large LGBT community. The here’s-something-smelly-from-Asia-that-will-help-you-relax shop is cool. And the we-only-sell-amazing-Cornish-pasties shop is very cool.

Anita Roddick’s original Body Shop began in Kensington Gardens in 1976 — I was frequent customer myself to buy some exotic moisturizer or hair product (yes, I used to have hair), all in recycled packaging.

Brighton is a two-university tourist resort, and on any given day the North Laine’s tight streets are packed with young and old alike, and the shops have something for everyone.

Brighton is a “sophisticated, cosmopolitan town, and the North Laine is the perfect example of how to “gentrify” an area and still retain its charm and individuality.

For more, visit www.visitbrighton.com/shopping/north-laine or northlaine.co.uk. Or buy “The North Laine Book” published by Brighton Town Press.

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Review: ‘Mauritius’ earns ‘stamp’ of approval

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Sydney Haygood, front, and Chloe Sullivan in Lamar;s production of “Mauritius.” Photo courtesy of University Press by Noah Dawlearn

BEAUMONT, Texas — When Jackie enters a seedy stamp shop to ascertain the value of her stamp collection, she sets in motion a whirling series of interactions that play out like beautifully choreographed combats, with each character in the five-person ensemble thrusting and parrying for the upper hand. Do the stamps have value? And if so, value to whom?

Lamar University’s production of “Mauritius” by Theresa Rebeck, crackles from the opening scene to the last. Much credit goes to guest director Carolyn Johnson for her sure handling of the piece, which is tightly paced, never allowing the audience to settle on the side of any particular character.

However, I am sure Johnson will acknowledge that a director’s first, and most important, job is selecting the cast, and Johnson picked a dandy. The always impressive Sydney Haygood plays the “damaged” Jackie, who has inherited the stamp collection following her mother’s death. Haygood inhabits her character brilliantly, showing us her vulnerability and desperate longing to escape her life, and the steel to fight for something more. She just hopes the stamps have some value to dig her out of the financial hole that is her mother’s estate.

The fly in the ointment is her step-sister Mary, wonderfully played by Chloe Sullivan, who left the family when Jackie was young, never to return until her mother’s dying days. The stamps are her paternal grandfather’s, so she claims the inheritance on sentimental grounds and would never sell them. Mary seems to be all sweetness and light, in sharp contrast to Jackie’s broken bitterness, but when it comes to the stamps, she reveals a steely side that is not quite so sisterly.

When the crusty stamp shop owner Phil, played by Chris Shroff, cannot be bothered to look at the stamps for less than a $2,000 consultation fee, Dennis, played by Eric Rozell, agrees to take a look. Rozell plays the perfect sleazy hanger-on, the kind of guy who is always just there, on the periphery, looking for a moment to take advantage of someone. We see on his face that he knows there is something good in the collection — the “Mauritians” of the title — something worth money to someone. And Dennis is the type of person who will make sure he gets his cut, morals be damned.

Dennis stalks Jackie, following her to her home, where he gets in the middle of a domestic squabble between Jackie and Mary. From there the plan is to set up a deal with Sterling, played with brooding, menacing, gangster-like entitlement by Ed Seymour.

Rebeck doesn’t bother us with an abundance of details. Sterling makes his money in a “murky” way. How much are the stamps worth? No one ever says. Why is Jackie damaged? Does it matter? How much is offered and how much is asked? That would tip one’s hand too much.

Johnson has taken another risk that pays off. The actors, being college students, are technically young for the parts, yet Johnson resists the urge to age them up with make up. When Phil talks about brooding over an incident eight years in the past (also never explained) we just believe it, because Shroff completely inhabits the character. How old is Sterling? Old enough to make a lot of money because Seymour is Sterling so we believe it.

This is as good a production as I have seen in 25 years of watching Lamar theater. If this was a professional show I would feel that I had got my money’s worth and then some.

From the set to the direction to the acting, this was a professional production. My only complaint is the short run. This production deserves more than four performances. There was a good crowd Friday and I hear Thursday’s opening night was a sellout. These students deserve more than the ridiculously short runs. If there was a second weekend I would certainly see it again.

“Mauritius” is an absolute gem, and you can’t “lick” it.

The show runs through Sunday, Oct. 8 at 2 p.m.

The Grand Tour II: A Master at Sea

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John Constable. “Rainstorm over the Sea” (c. 1824-28, Royal Academy of Arts)

Review: ‘Constable and Brighton’ shows painter at his best

BRIGHTON, England — The Beatles or The Stones? Manchester United or Manchester City? James Mallord William Turner or John Constable?

Britons are always bitterly divided about something, and for lovers of early 1800s art, that last one is a tough question. I have always come down firmly on the side of Turner, but a recent visit to “Constable and Brighton,” on display at the Brighton Art Museum, moved the two a closer in my estimation.

Don’t get me wrong, Constable has always been a large figure in English art, it’s just that Turner is a true giant, not just of English art, but in the pantheon of great artists in history. Where Turner’s greatest works have a vitality and visceral excitement, Constable’s have seemed technically impressive but not quite as moving.

However, the Brighton exhibition shows us a Constable that, through his sketches, is vibrant and has a connection to Turner’s specialty — seascapes.

After his wife, Maria, contracted tuberculosis, on medical advice, Constable moved the family to Brighton for long periods between 1824 and 1828 to help with her health.

During the four years, Constable produced 150 works in Brighton, including several commissions for the French art market, and many sketches from his walk around the town and its surrounds. “Constable and Brighton” included 60 works, including large paintings, oil sketches and drawings.

The show’s genesis began when, in 2010, artist Peter Harrap moved to Brighton, and he found he was living in the house where Constable had stayed, and painting the same attic space Constable had used as a makeshift studio. He set about researching the master’s work done during his stay on the south coast, which led to Harrap curate the show.

Constable was not enamored with the town. He wrote to archdeacon John Fisher, a close friend,  “I am living here but I dislike the place … Brighton is the receptacle of the fashion and offscouring of London. The magnificence of the sea and its (to use your beautiful expression) everlasting voice is drowned in the din & lost in the tumult of stagecoaches – gigs – flys – etc and the beach is Piccadilly (that part of it where we dined) by the seaside.”

However, Constable did enjoy his walks and he was productive. His images of the coastal English Channel, the South Downs, and the area’s working life pioneered the practice of painting from life in the open air, later adopted by the Impressionists.

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John Constable. “Stormy Sea, Brighton.”

In a letter view written from Brighton in 1824, Constable wrote, “It is the business of a painter not to contend with nature and put this scene (…) on a canvas of a few inches, but to make something out of nothing, in attempting which he must almost of necessity become poetical.”

The poesy of Constable’s remarkable sketches of the sea are the highlight of the show. They are vibrant and full of energy, best typified by “Rainstorm Over the Sea,” a truly magnificent wash sketch that captures the full force of nature. Seascapes were the province of his rival Turner, with Constable known for his pastoral scenes. However, the seascapes in the exhibition, especially the sketches, capture the scale of the scene and one can almost feel the strong breezes blowing the salt water mist inland. “Rainstorm Over the Sea” is almost abstract and Constable doesn’t not try to hide the brushstrokes. The piece is only 9 inches by 12 inches, yet, in boxing parlance, it really packs a punch.

Of course, Brighton is where I grew up. I have looked out from the land to watch the dark clouds raging in the distance. You will, I hope, forgive me a nostalgic connection, which goes beyond the academic.

A more detailed painting is “Stormy Sea, Brighton,” from 1828, which depicts a storm in more detail. It is also a wonderful piece, without quite the vibrancy of the former, but magnificent nonetheless.

While there are large painting in the show, it is the small studies that are the most impressive. In such small images, Constable conjures up nature at its most impressive, full of power, sound and fury, in this case, signifying a mastery of his craft.

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John Constable. “Hove Beach”

These “impressions” of the sea pre-date the Impressionists who adopted the model of painting in the open air. In “Hove Beach,” a small oil on board depicting a sunset, one can sense the oncoming Impressionists. Constable’s work had a good reputation in the French art market, and while it is a stretch, maybe, to say he directly influenced the younger artists, this piece certainly would not look out place in an Impressionist exhibition.

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John Constable. “The Chain Pier”

Constable also gives us marvelous sketches of workers plying their trade, and a wonderful image of the Chain Pier, a legendary structure that was blown away in a storm in 1896.

In the wonderful movie “Mr. Turner,” Constable’s rival was portrayed — accurately if one is to believe history — as a crusty and cantankerous. Turner was also in Brighton in 1824, and was, maybe, jealous of Constable’s encroachment on his specialty, saying, “What does he know of boats?”

The reality is that Constable is ill-served by his reputation in England as a painter of oh-so-British pastorals (“The Hay Wain” is reproduced on coasters, posters, and sundry other knick-knacks). “Constable and Brighton” shows an artist that is insightful and expressive, whose brushstrokes convey great energy.

Turner or Constable? That question got a lot harder to answer.

For more, buy the exhibition catalogue, “Constable and Brighton: Something out of Nothing.” It is available on Amazon for only $9.60 with Prime (regularly $36.50).

The Grand Tour II: Kipling’s Little Piece of England

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!”

— excerpt from “If” by Rudyard Kipling

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BURWASH, England — The first Disney film remember seeing in the cinema was “The Jungle Book.” I must have been eight when the film was released. I remember my father consoling me as I wept when Baloo the Bear died (I was sure there was no way back for the loveable scamp). I remember being scared by the malevolent tiger, Shere Khan and mesmerized by Kaa the snake. It was an early introduction to the works of Rudyard Kipling

Later, when I was in secondary school, we city kids were shipped off to Burwash, some 30 miles from my hometown of Brighton, to experience the countryside. The first night none of us slept due to the deafening sounds of crickets and animals — ironic, considering I lived on the main road and was comfortable with 18-wheelers thundering past my window all night. I am to this day uncomfortable in the “peace” of nature, but I digress.

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Rudyard Kipling

Burwash is also home to Bateman’s, the home of Rudyard Kipling. The Nobel laureate’s house is part of the National Trust, and is a must visit when one is in the Sussex countryside.

When Kipling first saw the house in 1902, he reportedly said, “This is she! Let’s make a good, honest woman of her quick.” The author and his wife, Carrie, were living in Rottingdean, on the outskirts of Brighton, but after the death of their oldest daughter, Josephine, at age six in 1889, the looked for a house that could give them some peace and allow them to escape the prying eyes of fans looking for a glimpse of the famous writer.. He stayed at the house for 34 years until his death. In accordance with his wished to “leave a little bit of England” to the nation, it was passed to the National Trust on Carrie’s death in 1939. He is appropriately interred in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.

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The 17th-century Jacobean house offers a glimpse into the lifestyle of one of Britain’s most beloved authors. For even the most nominal bibliophile (if I have to give you a definition, you ain’t one) will love the study where Kipling worked in the mornings. It is the sort of old-style library that has a lived-in quality. The fairly rudimentary desk sits in front of the window and one imagines Rudyard, in a pensive moment, turning to look out on the gardens while he waits for inspiration to strike. The study is deliberately a little unkempt, as if he had just stepped out for a moment, complete with papers in waste basket waiting endlessly to be emptied — although by all accounts, the floor is remarkably free of paper and clutter, which apparently was not the case while the author was at work.

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This clock, which dates to the 1580s, is the oldest working clock in the National Trust.

One room features, according to the docent, the oldest working clock in the National Trust’s holdings, dating to the 1580s.

The estate comprises 300 acres, including tenant-farmed land, and the 12-acre garden was designed by Kipling so the house fits into its surroundings “like a lovely cup on a matching saucer,” and features an orchard, the Pear Allée and the Mulberry Garden, as well s the Formal Garden, the Lily Pond, the Rose Garden and so much more. There is even a vegetable garden which supplies the tea house.

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The leaves of the Gunnera mantica can grow to 10-feet across.

Visitors must follow the path past the pond to the “Wild Garden” before crossing the bridge to the Park Mill — the bridge crosses the banks of the river Dudwell with the most amazing plant I have seen on its banks. The Gunnera manicata, or Brazilian giant-rhubarb, has leaves which grow from four to 10-feet across, making any photo look like an optical illusion.

By the time he moved to Bateman’s, Kipling had already written “Captains Courageous” and “The Jungle Books,” and was considered to be the “People’s Laureate,” and his time at the house produced “Puck of Pook’s Hill” and “Rewards and Fairies” which contained the poem “If.” He declined many awards, including the Poet Laureateship, a knighthood and the Order of Merit. However, he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, and the medal is proudly displayed in the house.

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Kipling’s place in the pantheon of British literature is assured, both for the quality of his prose, and his ability to spin a yarn. Disney has sealed his place in history with “The Jungle Book” movies, and many others have translated his work onto celluloid — my personal favorite is John Huston’s magnificent 1975 epic, “The Man Who Would Be King,” featuring in-their-prime performances by Sean Connery and Michael Caine.

Many a vacation is a whirlwind of activity, but a visit to Bateman’s is worth a day trip to take in the peace and tranquility of a quintessential English country house and garden — Kipling’s little piece of England.

Bateman’s is open daily, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (gardens 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Admission to the house and garden is 10 pounds for adults, children are 5 pounds, and 25 pounds for families (two adults, three children).

For more information, visit nationaltrust.org.uk/batemans.

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The Grand Tour II: Alice Neel in van Gogh’s place

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Alice Neel. “Rita and Hubert” 1958

ARLES, France — Alice Neel is a great American painter. What’s that you say? You are unfamiliar with her work? You are probably not alone. As good as she is, Neel doesn’t have the profile of Georgia O’Keeffe when it comes to name recognition (maybe that has something to do with O’Keefe’s affiliation with Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams, but let’s not bring questions of the feminism and patriarchal oppression into it).

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Alice Neel “Carlos Enriquez” 1926

Neel’s superb portraiture chronicled the 20th century, and the way she lived her life struck a blow as a proto-feminist. Born in 1900 into a strait-laced middle-class family, her mother once told her, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, you’re only a girl.” Neel studied art at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. She married Carlos Enriquez, a Cuban painter, and moved to Havana in 1925, where she became part of the avant garde.

The couple moved to New York where her daughter, Santillana, died of diphtheria, a trauma that influenced Neel’s life-long exploration of mothers, daughters, families and loss. When Carlos took their new daughter Isabetta and returned to Cuba, Need had a severe breakdown and attempted suicide and was placed in Philadelphia General Hospital. “Even in the insane asylum, she painted. Alice loved a wretch. She loved the wretch in the hero and the hero in the wretch. She saw that in all of us, I think,” her daughter-in-law Ginny Neel wrote.

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Alice Neel “Kenneth Fearing” 1935

In the 1930s, she moved to Greenwich Village. She also was paid to paint urban scenes for the government-run Works Progress Administration. During this time she met and painted Community party sympathizers, of which she was one. She moved to Spanish Harlem in 1938. One of her best paintings of this period was her portrait of the poet and novelist Kenneth Fearing. The image shows the writer in his natural habitat, a bar, surrounded by characters from his work. He is smiling and alive, despite the ashen hues of a night owl.

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Alice Neel “Andy Warhol” 1970

In the 1960s she lived in New York’s Upper West Side, where she began to paint artists and gallerists, including Andy Warhol and his acolytes. With these paintings, and her portraits of friends and family, she finally gained recognition. The American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters elected Neel in 1976 and in 1979, President Jimmy Carter presented her with a National Women’s Caucus for Art award for outstanding achievement. She died in 1984 of colon cancer.

The comprehensive retrospective at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles was an absolute delight. To see her work though the years really opened up her view of the world, casting a light on the shifting attitudes toward gender and ethnicity, reflecting American society.

Rejecting the modernism of abstraction, Neel’s searingly insightful portraits are stunningly mesmerizing. They draw the viewer in, with their slightly twisted and distorted poses. The paintings are often deliberately “unfinished,” with Neel leaving parts of the canvas uncovered and background merely sketched in. The flesh of the later portraits has an other-worldly sheen, especially noticeable in her 1970 post-shooting portrait of Warhol.

The sometimes expressionless stares connect the viewer to the subjects, but they also seem to see into our souls as much as we can see into theirs.

Alice Neel deserves to take her place among the important — man or woman — 20th-century American artists.

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The Grand Tour II: A day trip to Arles

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ARLES, France — I had read somewhere that there was a reproduction of Vincent van Gogh’s iconic bedroom in Arles, the town where he spent his most productive years. As it turns out, it doesn’t pay to have just read something somewhere and expect it to be so. The room had been a temporary exhibit and is no longer there, and the house where Vincent lived was destroyed in WWII — neither of which I knew before setting out.

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The Millau Viaduct

But there are worse ways to be disappointed than a pleasant day trip in the south of France. Arles is about a six-hour drive Southwest from our base in the Midi-Pyrenees and the drive through the mountains offered beautiful scenery and one man-made attraction — the Millau Viaduct, a cable-stayed bridge that spans the gorge the Tarn River. It is the tallest bridge in the world, with one mast being 1,125 feet above the valley floor. Designed by English architect Sir Norman Foster and French engineer Michel Virlogeux it is breathtaking, and even on calm days there are wisps of clouds floating by — but don’t look down.

Once we got to Arles, we once again found the difficulty of relying too heavily on GPS. We put in the address for the Van Gogh Museum and drove down increasingly narrow streets before getting stuck. After a bit of shifting and dodging, we managed to turn around and find a parking space from where we could walk.

This is an important car travel tip, and one I should have remembered from our trip to Santiago, Spain, a couple of years ago. The GPS will invariably guide you to the door. That does not, in any way, mean there is a navigable street by the door. I would like to think that next time I’ll remember that — although, honestly, that’s unlikely.

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Walking through the town, alongside the river, one gets the feeling it has not changed much since Vincent’s day. The houses are terraced and wind around twisty streets and alleys. I am a sucker fro roof tops, balconies and shutters, as a cursory glimpse through my slideshows will prove, and Arles has plenty of architectural charm.

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Vincent van Gogh “Self Portrait” 1888

The museum houses only a few Van Gogh paintings, recognizable to fans of the artist but not among the “rock stars.” Even so, the 1888 “Self Portrait” is superb, and is a welcome addition to the series (through which one can see van Gogh’s shifting states), and the face on “Head of a Peasant Woman With White Cap,” from 1885, articulates the wear and tear of working life.

“Blossoming Chestnut Branches,” from 1890, is a masterful example of the vitality and life that van Gogh was able to infuse into his still lifes. “Two Peasant Women Digging in Filed With Snow,” 1890, is a magnificent observation of ordinary folk. In his hands, the ordinary is elevated to be something worthy of a place in a museum.

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Vincent van Gogh “Two Peasant Women Digging in Filed With Snow,” 1890

A big surprise was the Alice Neel retrospective (which I will write about later). It seemed an odd combination, but made the museum visit something of a highlight.

On the way back, there was time for an obligatory sunflowers photo (not as easy as you’d think, even though the fields were full, as the flowers had turned their backs on the road and required a bit of finagling to get the effect).

Then it was a quick drive by to dip toes in the Mediterranean before heading home.

Overall, not the van Gogh pilgrimage we expected, but what we found was well worth the drive.

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