Thursday, September 13, 2012

Richard Wright Painting Hangs in Normandy Town Hall

Colleague Julia Browne of Walking the Spirit Tours recently led a group of students from the University of Lausanne to the Normandy town of Ailly to follow the footsteps of Richard Wright. She graciously granted permission for me to reproduce her "Spirit of Black Paris" blog letter, which vividly describes the experience, for you here.


Many a French masterpiece found life and nurture out somewhere in the French countryside.

Black Paris expats also drank in that country air, let it course through their creativity, and voilà - many an African-American masterpiece came to life beyond Paris, too.

University of Lausanne students at the town hall of Ailly
© Walking the Spirit Tours

In this latest BlogLetter, a group of University of Lausanne students, their brilliant professor Agnieszka Soltysik, and I follow Richard Wright's path to Normandy.

We trod where he lived, we breathed the air that infused his haiku. Then, we left a reminder for locals and for those of you who might go looking for Richard.

Our 1-day visit had several goals. First, to present to the town hall of Ailly a painting that would remind all who passed there of the great American writer who lived among them in the late 1950s. The painting, made by young Paris-born artist Shannon Figuereo, shows Wright as well as an interpretation of his family’s home.

Julia Browne presenting painting of Wright to
Ailly Municipal Councillor Evelyne JUHEL
© Walking the Spirit Tours

It was an emotional ceremony on all sides. Municipal Councillor of Ailly, Mme Eveylne Juhel, was very touched to receive our gift and promised the painting would be displayed in the new wing of the town hall under renovation.

The town administration gave to us a beautiful book on the history of their town, along with a written presentation by its author, local historian Eric Portier.

"You are welcomed and in fact we are proud to meet you, who came in a kind of literary pilgrimage. I hope that the visit will engrave in your heart the gratitude to that man who fought for a better respect of human beings." Eric Portier

We, in turn, were delighted by the reception they so kindly prepared for us. There was not a drop of the local cider nor a crumb of the regional sablé biscuits (butter biscuits) left!

Reception at Ailly town hall
© Walking the Spirit Tours

Next, we visited the grounds of La Folie Muse, the farmhouse where Wright enjoyed playing ‘gentleman farmer’ with his family. It was wonderful to revisit this residence after having seen it first when working as a production assistant on Madison Lacy’s PBS documentary Black Boy in 1994.

Wright farmhouse - our guide and M. Hesloin (r), who knew Wright
© Walking the Spirit Tours

Back on the bus, we followed Wright’s next move - about 15 minutes down the road to the Moulin D’Ande. At the time, this 12th-century mill turned artists retreat allowed writers, artists and musicians to develop their craft in a bucolic, friendly atmosphere.

Moulin d'Andé Cultural Centre
© Walking the Spirit Tours

Today, the cultural centre still carries that mission. And it is still run by the woman who invited Richard Wright after the Sorbonne’s 1956 Negro Writers Conference.

The students, professors and I hung onto every word of Maurice Pons, a French writer also residing at the Moulin d’Andé and friend of Wright. Oh, the stories he told, the pictures he showed!

Author Maurice Pons opening the Moulin d'Andé Book of Memories
© Walking the Spirit Tours

Wright relaxing at the Moulin d'Andé
© Moulin d'Andé Archives

Put This On Your Itinerary

Ailly lies about an hour east of Paris. It's a community of 1052 souls - about the same number at Richard Wright's time. The Aillytiens, as they're called, take great effort to maintain their 'home sweet home' feel of old time French country living. But visitors are warmly welcome! There's even a soft spot for Americans. On the 24th August 1944, American troops liberated the village, as they did many others in Normandy.

A trip down Richard Wright's lane can be arranged by Walking the Spirit tours for individual travelers and for groups. And, if you've got a novel you'd love to write in this peace and calm, or a musical score to finish, it doesn't get much more idyllic than here (and the food's great).


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