Photo by Chris Card Fuller ©2007
Armand LaCroix in his atelier at Cite Fleurie, 1977
Photo by Chris Card Fuller ©2007
I’d like to say I did it for art. Or quite simply, to become part of Montparnasse history.The truth is, for students in Paris,finding a summer job is no easy task. That was true in the 1970s and it certainly holds true today. Back in the days when the Cartier Museum was still the American Center on Boulevard Raspail, the front lawn and sculpture garden appeared slightly scruffy and untended. But it was also a place where students could drop in, free of charge, and check out the bulletin board for posted job offers.
I noted the handwritten ‘Sculptor looking for models’, and the usual thoughts ran through my mind. Is this a legitimate sculptor – or what?” A phone call couldn’t hurt, so I called up Monsieur LaCroix. A woman answered the phone. She had a very strong accent that could be none other than American, and New England American at that. It was Madame La Croix (who I discovered later in the week came from Maine).
Armand and Betty LaCroix lived and worked at the Cite Fleurie, an artists’ studio complex located on Boulevard Arago in Paris’s 13th arrondissement, not far from Place Denfert Rochereau. On a sunny July day, I rang the bell to walk through the front gate into a magical ‘secret garden’, where the vegetation appeared to dominate the row of studios created from the remains of a 19th century World’s Fair.
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A black cat wound his way through strands of ivy that dangled from the kitchen frame of the La Croix’s studio. It was Betty who greeted me, her graying hair tied in a bun, with wispy strands falling loose. Armand emerged from his studio, speckles of plaster dust powdering his hands.
“I placed that ad, ages ago!’ he said.
Needless to say, I was all needles and pins. Was I ready for this? Armand chalked off the area where I would stand. It looked like a very small bit of space comparable to the challenge of creating haiku with so few syllables. My bare feet smudged out a spot of plaster dust. I stood with one hand behind my back like Degas’ dancer and I stared at the towering sculptures of past models. They looked bigger than life – and I felt extremely fragile, mere skin and bones compared to their frames, fixed forever in time.
During the month of July, I arrived every morning at 9 am. We worked from 9 to noon with ten minute breaks. Armand would write out a check at the end of the week and declare with delight. “This is exactly as much as Rodin paid his models!” Rodin had never worked at the Cite Fleurie, but his bronze caster lived there and very often Rodin would drop in to share his personal woes and loves.
While Armand worked, he talked. He’d say, go to Rodin’s museum and see his Fallen cCryatides! They are masterpieces. He showed me the bust of a young girl, a little Ali McGraw at age 5. “She used to play out there in the garden.”
He’d talk about his ongoing battle to save the Cite Fleurie from demolition. (In the 1970s, developers wanted to buy out the Cite and convert it into more profitable income -producing properties. LaCroix and the other members of the Cite won their battle.
My summer job ended. Years later, I returned to say hello to Betty and Armand. Armand had just been treated for throat cancer (the studio used coal heating in those days). He died soon after our visit. His wife Betty died soon afterward.
The Cite Fleurie continued to pull me back. In recent years, Armand and Betty’s granddaughter, Jasmina lived there – and received me with the same kindness that her grandparents had offered. Jasmina kept Armand’s studio just the way he had left it – with all the statues of past models in the usual spots. I felt like I had come home to old friends.
Another black cat sunned itself in the garden. Jasmina introduced me to other residents in the Cite and brought me up to date. Always new battles to be fought when it comes to prime real estate in Paris. Nowadays tour groups often stop in front of the Cite to talk about all the famous artists who ‘lived’ in the Cite Fleurie. Some of them did – and some didn’t, but the I will remember the ones that still live in my heart: Armand and Betty La Croix.
When I walked through their front door, I had found my home in Paris.