Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Une artiste genevoise

My great-aunt Natalie de Buren was a very talented artist and I have often felt that she never received the exposure her art deserved. Whether that was a product of the time, or her desire not to have her work continuously shown is unclear. As a token of my personal esteem for her creative body of work I designed a small booklet to introduce more people to her genius.

She was born in 1903 in the small town of Santa Victoria near Chazón in the Argentine state of Córdoba, where her father had emigrated 12 years earlier from Switzerland to start a cattle ranch. She was the fourth of eight children and lived on the family ranch known as “La Elisa” until she was seven, when in 1911, the de Buren family returned to Switzerland for the children’s schooling. Only Natalie’s younger brother Charles (Carlos) would return to Argentina to live—he appears to have been given no choice. Most of the children when they came of age preferred to stay in Switzerland.

Natalie had a great passion for art, one that was certainly nurtured by a recognition that she was continuing a long family tradition of creative endeavors. She was a prolific artist, her most important creative period occurring between the two world wars. She engaged in many artistic styles, but sculpture appears to be her first love.

Like many artists of her generation, she looked beyond Europe’s borders for creative inspiration. Hers came in the 1930s when she ventured to Haiti to visit her sister Jeanne who had married a major coffee exporter on the island. One of the most successful art shows (and tragically, one of the only I can find information on) for Natalie came when she displayed her “Martiniquaises” inspired by Caribbean latitudes.

In 1940, Natalie would marry Alfred Copponex, a dashing man from an old Geneva family eight years her senior. Alfred was a widower, his first wife Rachel Hélène Revilliod, an extremely talented watercolorist died in 1937, leaving a young daughter that Natalie helped raise.

I met Natalie for the first time in the mid-1980s in French-speaking Switzerland when she was being cared for at a nursing home. She was still a beautiful woman, but tragically the ravages of dementia were slowly taking their toll. In that afternoon meeting one thing was clear, she still cared deeply about her art. She became visibly agitated when she pondered about who would look after her life’s creative work. It almost seemed like a plea for help.

Soon after much of her art—which had not had any interest—was purchased by my father and brought to California. As she was a relatively unknown artist, it is my view that he saved many or her drawings and sculptures from an unknown fate.

Natalie de Buren, une artiste genevoise can be purchased through blurb here. Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Lifetime of Memories

All that is left is for the cleaners to come. All that is left is for the last couple of items to be taken to the new house. All that is left is for a new family to make it their own. All that is left is for me to remember what was.

My parents recently sold their home of 44 years, I assumed they would always live there.

My mother’s frequent insistence of one day downsizing and finding a small house on the water (to which I would glance at my father slowly shaking his head as if to say “never gonna happen”) was the stuff of fantasy. She was telling me all along what she really wanted, her happiest childhood memories were trips to the shore in her native New Brunswick, I don’t think I ever properly listened.

When my parents announced last year that they would indeed place their home on the market, I was taken aback, but supported them fully in their decision (my own complicated range of emotions only surfacing later). Thus began an odyssey of countless open houses, private viewings, and initial tepid interest.

Earlier this spring my parents were about to take the home off the market–resigned to stay in a house that was now too big for them–when three solid offers arrived in quick succession. The offers, most importantly, were from people who loved my childhood home, as is. The home that my parents built and loved for four decades is no fixer-upper and as a result they did not want to sell to someone who would merely knock it down and erect some gaudy particle board mega-mansion.

When the inspections has all been cleared and the papers signed, the news hit me with grim finality. I remember penning a Facebook post on the day the deal closed, emotion washing over me in waves, tears streaming down my cheeks.

When I was very young, I was a very sensitive child, and the world can be a scary place for a misunderstood soul. I now find my emotional resonance as a gift, but I didn’t for a long time, choosing to focus on my aptitude for intellectual rigor and the ego convenience of proving myself right when it suited me. I have been changing for years–reuniting with my authentic self–and parting with this place was merely the final act, the refuge of my youth gone forever, I have come full circle.

Construction site, 1970

Here I want to remember what I loved most about the home I grew up in. Were there arguments there? Yes. Did teenage angst pay a visit? A long one, yes. Was it gum drop sweetness and light 24/7? No, but which home is. I would be clearly disingenuous if I claimed it was. It was however a place of warmth–one where music, art, food and nature were celebrated.

What follows is a thematic ode to what I remember best about my childhood and the home that made it unique. They are not in any specific order of importance–they all left indelible marks.

The Swimming Pool

Sometimes I felt that I must have been a dolphin or some other aquatic creature in a former life because I loved the water so. The pool was the scene of countless cannonballs contests of whose splash was the largest and close-eyed games of Marco Polo with my siblings and friends.

My greatest joy by far was being under water, sounds muffled and filtered sunlight passing through the undulating surface creating rhythmic patterns on the bottom of the pool. It always gave me a sense of indescribable peace and in those moments my mind would go blank and what ever preoccupied me would fade away.

The Garden

For many years I had a love/hate relationship with the garden. One part of me was in awe of all the work that my father had done, transforming a barren acre lot in 1970 into a lush oasis. The other part of me felt the heavy yoke of being gardener second class–the rake and the wheel barrow my trusty sidekicks. Gardening was therapy for my father, after all the raking I needed some.

The house early with a very prominent fence a couple of small trees

Spring and Summer were by far my favorite times of year. The garden was in bloom, the roses fragrant, the fruit trees laden with peaches, cherries, french prunes, and later on pears and apples. Fall on the other hand was not, enough with the raking already.

Truthfully, I don’t know how he did it. Many people over the years walked on the terraced hillsides dotted with mature trees, flowering plants and countless rose varieties and asked my father, “so who is your gardener?” When they learned the truth, their jaws would drop.

The new owners are getting one of the finest gardens I know of, designed by a true artist.

My Dogs

Our first dog was a long haired German Shepherd by the name of Baron who was an incredible companion. He was very gentle with me as a baby and I loved playing with him as I got older. We would go for long walks along the fire road on the unspoiled hill behind the house and explore nature together. We played fetch, I would sneak him treats at dinner time and he always tried to rescue me when I went swimming.

Baron died at eleven. He had returned from a procedure at the vet and was very weak. The next morning I found him unresponsive in the entryway of the house on the cool stone floor–his favorite spot. We had many other great animals (all Shepherds) but there is nothing like your first dog, and nothing as crushing as your first loss.

Watching the 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers were in their ascendency as I turned 10 and for the remainder of the 80s I remember watching many games with my Dad, siblings and friends. There were many highs, “The Catch,” Super Bowl victories and a number of gut-wrenching losses, but I reveled in rooting for a team that always had a shot.

I remember often having lunch with my dad by the TV on a Sunday afternoon, cheering on Montana, Young and crew. My dad, not one to lose time on the weekend, would quickly do some yard work at halftime and then watch the second half on and off depending on how far ahead we were.

The games that stick in my mind till this day are the win against the Dallas Cowboys in 1981 to go to our first Super Bowl, the 1986 loss to the NY Giants, the 1987 loss to the Minnesota Vikings and the 1994 win against the Cowboys in the NFC conference championship. The 1994 game was especially memorable because it was the last NFL game I saw live for a number of years, as I moved to Switzerland soon after.

Music, Art & Literature

Music was almost always on in our house. My father adored Opera and would listen late into the night in the living room, arias reverberating around the large space. My mother preferred R&B, Gospel and Country, and when I was older I found New Wave. I would sit for hours in front of the stereo in the living room listening to records with the headphones on, often singing aloud, making reel-to-reel party mixes or cassette compilations for my walkman or my friends.

A highlight for me was when my dad received the gift a state-of-the-art SONY stereo system as a thank you for a project that has gone well that including the newly released CD player. My father immediately purchased a number of CDs–all Classical–and I was allowed to purchase one for myself. After some deliberation I chose Sweet Dreams by the Eurythmics.

Art and literature surrounded me growing up as well, and I am deeply thankful for that. As a creative I learned that there was value beyond just the finished work. There was also great worth in the act of creative exploration and artistic expression. I absorbed this through my ancestor’s journals, letters, sketches and visual studies. Their example taught me to look beyond my own deeply critical eye, remove my self-imposed shackles and see where a line, a color, a word, or an idea could lead me.

Food & Entertainment

My parents entertained a good deal, or at least that was my recollection. My father is an accomplished cook, my mother a consummate host. They entertained both regally and simply. An informal dinner for close friends or a multi-course dinner for 20 complete with lavish table settings, fine china, silver service and floral centerpieces. I learned both the art of cooking from my father and flower arranging and setting a table from my mother. I have gotten out of many a tight scrape knowing the difference between a Burgundy and Bordeaux wine goblet.

While the settings may have at times been formal, the atmosphere was never stuffy. There was always a warmth to the hospitality, and for those who appreciated good food and fine wine, a satisfying evening was always in store.

Christmas was a time I remember fondly. Garlands adorned the banisters, familiar festive songs played, a fire roared in the hearth, and a 12-foot tree with so many ornaments, its branches were hardly seen. There were also the familiar dishes that I can still taste now; turkey with stuffing, candied yams and lemon tart.

One event though clearly stands out above the rest, my wedding day. May 19, 2001 I married my wife outside in the garden with family and friends in attendance under a rose trellis. I couldn’t have imagined taking such solemn vows anywhere else.


As with any great celebration of life, I will always remember what this hallowed ground has meant to me and will carry the spirit of this place with me for the rest of my days. It inspires me to foster an environment where my children can make lasting memories in our own house, their childhood home.

Monday, April 14, 2014


In 1791, the Baron Charles Philippe de Büren of Vaumarcus, a dedicated artist and someone who saw the divinity in all nature, made a series of copper plate etchings which he grouped under the name "Etudes aprés Différents Maitres" or Studies after different masters. I have grouped all those that I can accurately identify as his work, as they were not bound together in one volume. More information on him can be found here. Enjoy.

Message in a Bottle

My parents are moving house. An event that is both emotionally draining and psychologically liberating (but much more on that in subsequent posts). In helping them downsize, many decisions needed to be made about the true value of household objects. What is precious enough to keep and what can be discarded or donated – a fond memory – its enduring legacy.

Over the four decades my parents lived in their home, they often entertained, many times simply, and on occasion quite lavishly. My father is a great cook, a skill he learned from his father, and one that thankfully has been passed down to me. My father was raised by his Swiss-Argentine father to cook in the French culinary tradition, and a critical part of Gallic gastronomy is its reverence for wine.

Wine was present at all of our dinners, and I learned to appreciate its complexities at a young age. My parents kept a couple of empty bottles as a memento from a memorable party in the early 70s and thus a tradition was born. As the collection grew, they crowned their high kitchen cupboards with bottles from dinners both regal and informal. They are touchstones for me of long tables, summers on the patio, gleaming stemware, overflowing floral centerpieces, silver service, laughter, music, smoking jackets, a convivial atmosphere and guests always put at their ease. When I think of those dinners I can still taste boeuf bourguignon, escargots, salmon with dill, turkey with chestnut stuffing, and potato leek soup.

The bottles alas will not being moving to the new house, but in recognition of their animation of many a memorable meal, I want to document them here. Enjoy.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Voyage Across the Americas

Blending adventure and social commentary, the journals and letters of Henri de Büren, a young Swiss nobleman, detail his grand tour from his family castle overlooking Lake Neuchâtel, Switzerland, to the still youthful Americas of the 1850s. His voyage—on foot, horseback, and by boat—would take him through the Eastern United States, the waters of the Caribbean, the vast expanses of Mexico and the stunning lakes and mountain ranges of South America. Henri would not return home for two years.

Henri’s first-hand accounts of his travels in the New World reflect his observations on a variety of subjects: the grandeur of nature (made both from the vantage point of an artist and avid botanist); racial injustice and social inequality; his meetings with noted Swiss scientists such as Louis Agassiz; and his colorful encounters with European emigrants and wily government officials.

Henri’s journals and letters to his family, seeing the light of day for the first time in over 150 years, will fascinate readers who value wit, history, and the broadening qualities of travel. His thoughts and observations on the 19th century open a larger window into the past, one that shows at times how far we have come and at others how far we still have to go.

Six years from when I started this project, Henri’s entire work will finally see the light of day. The journey to publication has been like his voyage—countless twists and turns, an uncertain fate, and a deeply satisfying conclusion.

The book is available in print Paperback, as well as an ebook for KindleNook and iPad.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Swiss Explorer Comes to America

"Like Henri de Büren's adventure, my project concerning him has continued to evolve. When I found the original journal, my fascination with it took me in its grasp and refused to let go. Beyond the intellectual calculations of its historical value, there was a deeply emotional component. The journal felt viscerally part of me, a creative product that called to me, desiring to be expressed."

My first published article in an historical journal has just gone live. After countless stops and starts, numerous rewrites, and a few additional gray hairs I am very pleased with the result. I tried to not simply write about my ancestor's voyage, but also what the journey has meant for me personally.

Please go over to common-place.org and read my Tales from the Vault article Following in His Footsteps – A Swiss Explorer Comes to America.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ruff Times

I am always intrigued by how certain fashion defines an era. I adore the fashion of the 18th century, but the austere aesthetic of the 16th and 17th centuries fascinates me even more.

The first time I saw a double cartwheel ruff and a fur hat in a painting of an ancestor, I was shocked. I am no fashion maven, but the somber appearance of the black robes, chains, undulating stiff cloth propping up sullen faces and gloves in hand ready to strike the insolent commoner was not the most inviting look. Yikes.

The ruff fell out of fashion at the beginning of the 17th century in most of Western Europe in favor of collars and bands, except for Holland, where it was worn for many more years. It appears the Swiss were taking the fashion tips from Amsterdam and not Paris.

As I have done research, the style appears over and over again in paintings of my ancestors and of other prominent Swiss families from the period. I have grouped a sampling of the fashion below in all its puritanical and repressive glory. Enjoy them, just not too much. 

Barbara von Wattenwyl, painted 1621.

Margaretha Fries, painted in 1670. Photo courtesy of the Swiss National Museums.

Helena von Wyttenbach, painted in 1638. Photo courtesy of the Burgerbibliothek Bern.

Salomé von Erlach, painted in 1623. Photo courtesy of the Burgerbibliothek Bern.

Magdalena Nägeli, painted in 1622. Photo courtesy of the Burgerbibliothek Bern.

Regula Hirzel, painted in 1583. Photo courtesy of the Swiss National Museums.

Lady of Zürich, painted in 1650.  Photo courtesy of the Swiss National Museums.

Maria von Manuel, painted 1638.  Photo courtesy of the Swiss National Museums.
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