An interview by Roderick MacIver
From time to time, Heron Dance has explored the creative process and the lives of artists. When I asked Frédéric for an interview about creativity, he was reluctant. “Oh, no. I am nothing,” he said. “I am nothing.”
Early in this interview, he objected again:
When I was teaching for five years, I was very uneasy about speaking about art. I am not so intellectual and complicated to give good answers. I am a peasant in painting. My work is by instinct. I cannot explain. I have no beautiful theory, no fantastic explanation. I am surprised by the reaction I get. If it looks good, I am surprised. I never expect to have any kind of reputation. I just try to make good work. Many times my brain is not working. It is the hand that makes the work. That is why it is important to draw very often. Some artists speak well of art and philosophy and of a kind thing like that, but when you see what they do, many times it is disappointing. It is not rich.
If I compare [my work] with the work of my master, or several other artists, I see where I fall short. So many people do much better than I do. But I am happy, even if I cannot do better. I have maybe helped some people become conscious about the beauty of life and nature. Maybe the message can go on. I do my best. It is not enough … even in success, I see much weakness in my work.
Art can hide reality. It can be a dreamlike way of looking at reality. Art is an interpretation of reality; it isn’t reality. Since the cave paintings thousands of years ago, we see that man has a need to represent nature and interpret nature from afar. It isn’t very realistic, but it is very evocative. It is a strong impression of reality. A photograph does not present as strong a representation as a drawing or a painting or sculpture, because the strength comes from interpretation. A drawing is interesting when you feel the intelligence and life experience of the artist. You feel the character of the subject and also of the person who did the drawing. You feel it in the drawing itself. You feel the depth of the artist’s life experience. People who haven’t experienced misery, who have had no contact with what really is the bottom of life, cannot paint, cannot write with the same depth as people who have experienced that.
I found many interesting drawings and paintings in your last issue of Heron Dance. Very simple. Sometimes though when you work from photographs, and you try to put in every detail, I don’t find it so interesting.
Writing must be precise. It is much more difficult to give an interpretation to what people have written. In visual art, what is fantastic is the liberty you give to people. You give them elements to think about, and they take that and think in relation to their own experience, their own feeling. And they give it each time their own meaning.
If you consider several people looking at a beautiful woman, one will just admire her for what she is, another will like to go with her overnight, maybe another will like to marry her in order to make her happy and have a nice life with her and have children, and another will just want to touch her and use her like a prostitute to make money. I think in art, you have all these kinds of attitudes toward beauty. People will buy a van Gogh, not because it is a van Gogh, but because it is money. It is an investment. Another will buy van Gogh because they want to share it with others. Another will buy it because they want to put it in a safe. It is a very big variety of admiration. If fifty people look at a work of art, you have fifty different reactions. [The same with] a piece of music—each has a different feeling depending on his character, from his experience in life, his sensitivity at that moment.
I recently had the opportunity to see the paintings that Toulouse-Lautrec made when he was seventeen or eighteen years old. They are amazing. His was an inborn talent, very strong and very subtle. He did many portraits of his mother in the garden and they are so beautiful, so kind. You feel the love in the paintings, the love and respect of his mother. And the horse and carriage, so beautiful. He possessed his art. His works are still, after so many years, very beautiful. They were made in a few minutes and were made for a futile occasions, but they are so interesting, so beautiful.
Many people, even artists, are creating for their own needs or their own pleasure. People must think of the pleasure and enjoyment that they can give for other people. Creativity is something that should be shared. Otherwise it is just experimental or egoistic. My art is my reaction to what is meaningful to me in life. I try to share my reaction to what I love. The pleasure is to give what means the most to you. If you do it just for yourself, it does not mean as much. But even in this kind of creation, you have art that can survive for a very long time, like the works of Toulouse-Lautrec, who did posters and sketches.
Art can be used as a manifestation or revolt or accusation of the way humanity behaves, or the lack of justice that exists in mankind and in nature. That is why I admire artists like Goya or Pieter Brueghel. Brueghel was such a fine artist, and he was so inspired and so openly painting against the terror of the Spanish Inquisition.
I always dreamed to make an exhibition about animals. I am very sad because of the treatment made to animals. Poultry, pork, dogs, cats. Mostly animals are raised for meat. Or horses kept for premarin. The pregnant horse is kept in [a narrow] stall and has no possibility of laying down or moving, and they have an ugly element to capture the urine. I would like to make an exhibition. I will not sell any paintings, just make an exhibition about the way people don’t care about animals. Each day millions of animals are killed after having no way of having a normal life. They are raised to be killed. They have no enjoyment of life because they are in conditions in which they cannot move. They can’t enjoy sunlight and liberty. That is an obsession for me. Each day I receive information about this. It is very sad about the situation of mankind, but in many cases the people speak out about that, and revolt against that, but about animals everybody seems to feel that it is a normal condition.
[Because of] the population explosion, never have so many people been put in camps and prisons and tortured, and never have so many animals been kept just to use as meat without any respect.
I asked Frédéric about the role of spirituality in his life and art.
Art is a way to express your inner world. I am not enough spiritual. Most of my scenes are not spiritual; they are based in reality, in the material world. Maybe I am not aware of my spirituality.
I did many interior decoration of churches because I find that for humanity it is an interesting way to come out of materialism and think about spirituality. I did my best to make churches very inviting and interesting and appealing for the people who tried to represent the Christ or God, in order to help the people to communicate with spirit. Myself, I was Protestant during the war. I was hidden in the home of a Catholic who was working hard at me to convert to Catholicism. Finally, I agreed, but I never had any conviction.
Do you go to church now?
You design churches, but you don’t go to them?
It is a place where you can find the silence inside. And think of something more interesting than the materialistic. I don’t need to go to the church. I go to the forest, and I have the same feeling.
In my most recent interview with Frédéric, I wanted to explore the impact of the message of The Man Who Planted Trees on his life. I wanted to probe further into what he thought the limitations and practicalities of the message were in our lives. At times I may have pressed him a little too hard with my questions.
In your mind, is The Man Who Planted Trees about tree planting or about how to live a meaningful life?
The trees are symbols of any kind of achievement.
The Shepherd lives alone, works alone. He doesn’t interact with the world. He lives very simply. How do we incorporate that into our lives? In the real world, having an impact requires collaboration, money. The Shepherd ignores the society around him.
A good message stands on its own. People see the film and it encourages them to do their own work of service. I cannot forgo that consequence. The film and the book are used very much, worldwide, even now. They have a good impact in many situations.
People have told me that when they are depressed they watch the film and after that they feel better. So just for the individual, it can be a relief from the stress and disillusionment with life.
In Japan, many cities have formed groups called The Society of The Man Who Planted Trees. They work planting trees and caring for nature. It is spreading in many, many directions. The film and the book have been translated into Korean and Chinese.
On some level the film is a spiritual film—the relationship between one man and his God. He does his work, and he does it as well as he can. He does not oppose injustice. He is not trying to change anything. He does not protest. He does his simple work year in and year out for decades. Can you take the message any further than living a spiritual life in close connection with one’s God? Does anything else matter? How important is it that we try to change things?
Many, many people understand that the most important thing in this story is doing something that you know is good, and you don’t look for any kind of big result. The reward is in the doing. You do what you feel you have to do.
If you make money, that is fine. But you don’t have a reward. If people are blind around you, don’t see what you are doing, that is okay. The objective is not to be rewarded; it is to be doing something that you feel is very important. Your reward is in feeling good. Your life has had a value.
Are you working on films anymore?
No, no more.
To do a film, you can have the motivations of the Shepherd, but the reality is that you are forced, just by the nature of the work, to collaborate with and rely on others. The Shepherd worked alone, lived alone, lived simply, but making films requires money, marketing and technological skills that aren’t your expertise. Perhaps others know more about the equipment or studio layout, or the other things that producer Herbert Tison contributed. It would be difficult for you to do everything you did and everything he did. Maybe you were dependent on others at Radio-Canada as well. Part of the beauty of the Shepherd’s story is that he did it alone. It would have been different if he was a person in the village trying to motivate the rest of the village. That would have been a different story and a more complicated story.
Yes. When I completed The Man Who Planted Trees, many people asked me if I had a staff of many people to help me. I worked mostly alone. When you work with many people, you change the whole context. You are the creator, and very seldom will you find the same passion that you have in other people. Many people work just to have an income to survive. The work itself has no great meaning to them.
When you write a book, you don’t ask three hundred or four hundred people to work with you. You have to keep inside your work, and you have to try to put your best in it and try to make each drawing better.
Even if you are among thousands of people, you are alone. You have many struggles, many people who are against you, many people who don’t care about what you are doing, many people who are not in favor with what you are doing. Many people don’t want to work too much. They prefer to go and take a beer. In the night, the people who were cleaning were my companions. I was always working late into the night. Many people were angry against me because I set a bad example for them.
The situation for each person is different, but the basic message of the book is very strong. The message is much more important than the conditions in which you are working. Many people did not believe in the message, because they did not believe in its success. For them, the success was the motivation. For me, the success was nothing. The motivation was to make the film.
You have to plant seed before you harvest. Too many people just want to harvest. They don’t think about giving out seed of any kind.
There is work to expose injustice, work in opposition to violence, war, environmental destruction. To do that you need to immerse yourself in negativity and despair. Then there is work that celebrates beauty, creates beauty. Do you have an opinion on the value or effectiveness of one type of work versus the other?
I was always in a situation where I had the means to give the message in a very strong technique. Animation is regarded by most people as something very special and interesting. I try to use this fantastic circumstance to give out all the positive messages I can. You try to help people change their own life to make it better, to make it more valuable to others, to make it more peaceful and open to generosity in any kind of situation.
I was invited last year by the Academy in Los Angeles to give a conference and to present my four last films to about five or six hundred people. They said how much they like my work in all of these films. I said if you like it so much, then why don’t you make a kind of animation film that has the same message. You have the money, you have the talent, you have the equipment. I did the drawings myself because I was alone, or almost alone. But they have a large number of trained artists and the kind of technician who can make the image richer. They have no limit to their power to make positive films. But in not one of those films have I seen any kind of positive message that can help people understand what is going on in the world, giving them feeling that they can participate in life on earth.
When I said that, all of the people jumped up and applauded. But actually I have not seen any change. They make films to make money. Funny films, entertaining films. They could participate in a world program against climate change, protecting forests, protecting the animals who are disappearing in each minute. Species are disappearing forever. But not one
of those films is related to these problems. The films that are made are about people going off and doing every kind of folly.
Everybody on earth should be an actor in favor of peace, understanding of Creation, of protection of the beauty.
Do you have thoughts on why someone who is an expert animator, filmmaker, can look at The Man Who Planted Trees and be inspired by it but not take it to that next step?
We were invited to the campus at Pixar. It is a fantasy place to work. They built a beautiful park and planted hundreds of beautiful trees. But the films they do inside have no relation to what they have done around their campus.
Do you have any thoughts on why not?
I have no idea. They make films about monsters, about nonexisting heroes. But in the world there are many existing heroes who should inspire them in creating an animation film.
How do you live a meaningful life in a culture that has lost its way?
You have to do like the Shepherd even if you live among thousands of people. You are alone and you have to do your work without consideration for all of the deceiving and despairing things that happen around. You have to just continue and be always positive. I am in despair when I see what happens, but my only reason to stay alive is to fight. Fight back against the stupidity. Give as much hope as possible to people who are balancing between hope and despair, and who are going to alcohol and drugs to escape reality. Someday you will be surprised with the effect your work has had.
We each have just a little power, but that power is very important. Much more than you can believe. That is the message of Jean Giono. Each word you say has an impact. History is full of fantastic examples, but humanity doesn’t learn from history. We don’t learn from all of the beautiful examples through the centuries.
In the work you are doing with Heron Dance, you are a fighter. You are a dam against despair. The things you publish are always profound and positive. You give a chance to save the spirituality and hope of many people.
When I started Heron Dance I was alone. It had pure motivations. Over time I got tired of the financial instability and wanted to make it bigger. In printing, or in films, if you do one or one thousand, the cost is similar. It is a lot less expensive per copy if you do a thousand copies of The Man Who Planted Trees than it is to do one. So I grew the publication, and that meant hiring people, and marketing, and financial management, and collaboration, and salaries. Sometimes I lost touch with the message that I started with. The business grew to a point where the expenses were over $100,000 a month. There was a lot of financial pressure to pay bills. And in the process I spent less and less time on the art and the words and more on the administration.
I think a lot about that process versus the process of the Shepherd in The Man Who Planted Trees.
It is complex.
But that doesn’t mean that the message of The Man Who Planted Trees is irrelevant. It just means that thought needs to be brought to the process. There are considerations having to do with effectiveness, compromise. There are major considerations around stress. The stress level of life.
Success can be a heavy load. Always when things are growing, you have a motivation. But when you reach your maximum and stay at a certain level, and you want to keep it at that level, it can be difficult.
In The Man Who Planted Trees, the Shepherd is very pure. But it is difficult to be effective in real life and be that pure. Jean Giono didn’t write the story about a real person.
Because in real life it is difficult to do that.
Yes, but basically the story was inspired by many shepherds who planted trees while they watched their sheep. If you go to the place in the story, you will see many trees. I was amazed to see so many trees. I supposed I would find empty space, but it is full of trees planted by shepherds. They did not make a work as amazing as Elzéard Bouffier, but each one did something that had a good effect. The only thing we can do is keep to our ideas as good as we can and try to continue against all the evil and stupidity and damage mankind is doing to the earth.
It took Jean Giono twenty-three years to write The Man Who Planted Trees?
Was it once much longer and he cut it down?
No. He wrote many different endings. The end changed many times. If you compare the different endings, the end he chose was the best.
Even an artist with great technical skill needs something else to create a powerful work. There is a spiritual component to a work like The Man Who Planted Trees or The Mighty River or Crac! It can’t be done by someone who just wants to make a living. You need to put effort into the search.
I was lucky enough to do a film of a subject in which I believed very much. Anyway, I never did anything for the money. The work I accepted I always believed in.
I repeat the message in every film in a different way, because the message needs to be renewed. I hope better films will be made. I am very surprised and happy that I made films that had so much effect, but I am not happy with my work.
Me either. I am never happy with my work.
When I saw three times The Man Who Planted Trees, I was depressed with myself. I hated myself because in too many places I should have done better. I was very depressed with myself sometimes and could not achieve a good drawing for weeks. I put them all in the trash. I was overstressed. I see very good and very bad things in my films. The quality of the message gets lost every time that the quality of my drawings is weak. Human power is always limited.
I am rarely happy with my work. Sometimes work I don’t like, other people like a lot. Sometimes work I like, few other people like.
How much have the time pressures affected the amount of time you spend on your art? Invitations to speak and other distractions—the phone rings more—how did that impact the amount of time you had for drawing?
I didn’t have the kind of life of which I was dreaming. I wanted to go more away and live in nature and with animals as much as possible. And give more time to my wife, Gylaine, who was so patient and so positive for such a long time.
There is a contradiction between The Man Who Planted Trees and the reality of trying to create a work that has longevity and impact. Where you make the compromise and where you don’t is a very difficult question. Your vision for your life was in nature with animals.
And I stay in the city. But on the other side of the equation, the films are used often in schools. There are about one thousand green schools in Quebec, and they are using the films and promoting respect of nature. And helping many species to survive, helping the quality of water. They make hundreds of drawings after seeing one of the films, and they make comments about what they see in the film.
I feel bad because producing the DVD and the books makes materials that are polluting. For the books, they have to cut trees. Any activity in which we are involved requires compromise. There is a contradiction between what you try to promote and which kind of means you use to make your promotion.
There is a cost and sacrifice in everything. There is a cost in how you live your life and a cost in terms of material.
We must keep working; otherwise, we just let go and everything will fall down. Many people have hope and work very hard to make people know. Many things have been created, and you cannot know the effects of what you do. Now a society [a conservation group] is created that helps industries see the effects of what they intend to do. Each day it costs more to fight against pollution. It is important to react as fast as possible. We must react. After the pollution is released, it is too late and too difficult to clean up. We cannot go this way a long time.
The Man Who Planted Trees is an illustration of the power each of us has. If hands and minds come together, we can have an important, beneficial effect. We have children, and we have grandchildren. We are motivated to react. Every reasonable person should have a reaction of this kind, to care for the future. We should preserve or replace so that the generations to come will get something as beautiful or maybe even more beautiful than what we discover when we are alive.