When Judy O’Shea, a corporate executive and aspiring artist, leaves the world of business to embrace the world of art, she and her husband, Mike, decide to pursue a mutual dream: to live in another country; learn its history, language, and culture; and become part of the local community. Water Paper Stone: Letters From a Mill in France is the story of their years in Southwest France, where they restored and lived in a beautiful 18th century water mill, became fluent in French, ran an artists-in-residence program, created their own art, and formed deep bonds with their neighbors. Told as a collection of Judy’s journal entries and letters to her beloved sister Linda, Water Paper Stone is an immersion in the real world of the heartland of France, complete with both its light and its shadows.
From Judy’s vantage point, the reader is carried through events authentic to everyday living on the outskirts of Plaisance, a small village of less than 100 people in the Aveyron department of France. Each scene, relived in vivid and genuine detail, explores the challenges, joys and cultural meaning of living in the rustic – and sometimes harsh – environment of rural France.
As they navigate the ins and outs of their new life, Judy and Mike become deeply connected to the neighbors they meet, ultimately changing a short-term hiatus into a long-term residence. As they adapt to the locale, they both embrace the land-dependent way of living in the Aveyron, including learning to grow their own vegetables, cooking nearly everything from scratch, and taming the forces of nature that surround them, whether those be water, stone or errant sheep.
Whereas as many Americans and Europeans dream of living in France, few come to realize the dream, and even fewer experience it with the authenticity that Judy and her husband Mike did. Determined to learn the language and committed to contributing to the community, Judy and Mike reach further into the societal and cultural experiences of French life than the average ex-patriot and do so without the romanticized varnish common to other living-abroad books.
Water Paper Stone follows Judy’s transformation from a corporate executive to an artist living and working in France. As the toils of refurbishing a crumbling building inspire her artist’s eye, every day at the mill, La Pilande Basse, brings new opportunities for Judy to create. Cleaning out the mill building leads to her first installation, The Chairs, as she moves 54 of them from the barn and aligns them on their bridge causing passers-by to stop, take photos and ask, “Who are these Americans living in our mill?”
Massive tools and devices that once turned the mill to grind flour and press walnuts into oil, call on Judy to transform the space around her and use them as inspiration for other installations.
As the mill building becomes more livable, Judy and Mike invite artists from the U.S. and France to reside at La Pilande Basse to work. In total, more than 30 artists spent time at the mill leaving their mark on the refuge, and it leaving a mark on them.
Beginning with the purchase and restoration of the mill building, which would be their part-time residence for more than 17 years, Judy and her husband boldly take on the roll of contractors as they oversee the work of native French craftsmen who speak little to no English. Devoted to mastering French, Judy becomes immediately immersed in the language. As the foibles and funnies occur, Judy recounts them with a humor and self-effacing charm that anyone who has attempted to learn a new language can relate to.
In the rural area of Aveyron, locals are very dependent on the land for their own subsistence, with the nearest major market 30 miles away. Judy gamely takes lessons from her neighbors in culinary explorations that are the literal representation of “farm to table”. Through the slaughtering of the Spring lambs, preserving homemade fois gras and duck confit, and baking bread in a classic Godin stove, Judy learns to appreciate the complexities that underpin a seemingly “simple” way of life and reflects on them with poignancy and humility.
The neighbors and friends who are the fabric of Judy’s life in France live very much in the present. They face the same personal threats, obstacles and celebrations that everyone does – familial relationships, financial troubles, illness, and accomplishments. Whereas Judy and Mike become dependent on their fellow townsmen to learn the language and practices, Judy and Mike bring a fresh perspective and pride to the people of the town whose families have lived there for generations. The Aveyronnais curiously wonder why these Americans, who could have gone anywhere, chose their corner of France. Ultimately, it is the personal connections that root Judy and Mike to their residence at La Pilande Basse for more than 17 years.