.My destination was an artist's atelier called "the Milky Way," which is perched on a 936-meter-high mountain looking for all the world like a base camp for space aliens. Permission to construct the exotic building had taken many years to obtain and involved much controversy, and now that it had finally been completed, the owner was hoo1ing a celebration.
.The owner and designer of the building, Rhee Seund-Ja, is an artist who first left Seoul for Paris in 1951. She went through great difficulties before finally winning praise and recognition for her fantastic expressionism, which uniquely combines elements of the East and West
.Those who attended the celebration in June immediately recognized that the form of the building was based on the principal motif that has appeared in her works since the 19705. This motif embodies an Eastern way of thinking with a galactic world view; it has appeared regularly in Rhee's "City" and "Yin and Yang" series as well as in her most recent fanciful landscapes
.The artist had taken the motif from her paintings and translated it directly into a three-dimensional expression. She had transformed her major artisticmotif into a physical chamber used for the birth of her art. And, indeed, the atelier is yet another of her works of art.
.It has been 30 years since Rhee first discovered the site on which she would one day build her atelier. It is halfway up a mountain with no other houses nearby and a clear, unobstructed view in all four directions. Rhee came upon it in 1966 when she was working on a wall mosaic titled Le chant des congtees (The Bell of Learning) at a school in Touraine, a city not far from Nice.
.The area around Nice was once a major gathering place for notable Impressionists from Paris such as Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Matisse and Chagall, who were attracted by the beauty of its natural surroundings, its bright sunlight and the romanticism of the Mediterranean. It is still a popular holiday spot for the same reasons. Higher up the mountains are the cities of St. Paul Vince and Tourrette, which developed around the castles of feudal lords.
.In the mid-1950s, when she began traveling to the region, Rhee thought that one day she would like to build an atelier there. The dream was made p0ssible with the handsome fee she received for the wall mosaic in Touraine; it enabled her to purchase the 5,600-square-meter mountain site in Tourrette she had long had her eye on.
.Initially, she turned the simple s10ne shepherd's cottage that stood on the site into an atelier, which she used when she traveled to and from Paris. The garden was also cultivated to give it an Asian feel The night sky, as seen from that garden, is filled with brilliant stars that sparkle like jewels. The rapture of this scene and the seeming closeness of the Milky Way captivated not only Rhee's eye but her very soul It is this passion for the heavens that gives flight to her poetic expression and imagination.
.Rhee called her shepherd's hut "the Milky Way." On the posts of the iron garden gate, she created a stone mosaic of this name in Korean characters. Every summer and winter Rhee would come down to the hut and spend a few months working on woodblock prints.
.The beauty of Tourrette caught Rhee in its spell It gave birth to a new dream, the dream of leaving something of her an there for eternity. So on one side of the wide garden she decided to build an atelier that would be a physical expression of her artwork. And she decided to bring into three-demensiona1 form the circle motif that had always been the symbolic heart of her paintings and prints. The ground was broken for Rhee's dream house in 1991.
.The building is formed by two uneven semicircular walls of a lavender color. The flat roofs of the two structures are painted dark navy blue. In a photo taken from above, the building looks exactly like the motif in her paintings.
.Rhee has devoted half of the building to print work and the other half to painting. Upstairs she has created a study and living area. Taking a cue from traditional Korean lattice windows, she used wooden window frames and built-in doors in the low two-story structure.
.Linking the two workshops is a row of stepping stones for crossing a small stream that flows down from an artifical pond in a higher pan of the garden. A multitude of flowers grows alongside the stream together with a variety of plants and bamboo, which bring a flavor of her homeland to the garden The harmonious Oriental design of the garden is a reflection of Rhee's poetic mind, discriminating eye and refined character.
.In creating the atelier, Rhee received some help from her third son, Shin Yong-keuk, a businessman in Seoul. But contrary to what one would expect, her second son, Shin Y ong-hak, who is currently a professor of architecture in Paris, did not contribute to the plans at all Rhee planned the whole design herself. It was Rhee's eldest son, Shin Y ongsuk, a former Paris correspondent for the daily Chosun Ilbo for 15 years, played the greatest role by helping his mother with many of the little details involved in the construction of "the Milky Way."
.It is understandable that some of the area's residents expressed opposition when Rhee's exotic-looking atelier began to appear amid the traditional neighborhood of Tourrette. They did not want anything to clash with their traditional-style houses with tan-colored tiles, milk-white walls and wooden window frames.
.Many residents joined in a campaign to stop the city of Tourrette from allowing the building to go up. But Rhee, who was facing her 80th birthday, would not be denied, and ultimately she succeeded at last in convincing the mayor and the chief councilor in charge of culture and tourism, who was also an architect, to let her have her way.
."This atelier is not a home for many families. It is a place where I work alone for several months each year. When I die I would like to leave it to Tourrette as a memorial of my love for the city to be used as an art gallery or some such purpose. In the end it belongs to the city," she said
.Because of this simple petition, the city authorities finally gave in at the end of 1996. It had taken three long years to persuade Tourrette's residents, who had been so against "the Milky Way" to recognize the fururistic charm of the contemporary building.
.At the celebration for the completion of the building, delayed for so long, officials from the city of Tourrette and figures from the cultural community were present They, along with the Korean ambassador to France, Lee Sooyoung, and friends and family from Korea, congratulated Rhee on accomplishing her dream.
.In a congratulatory speech, the councilor for culture and tourism said, "The Nice area including Tourrette has always attracted famous artists and poets who have left behind many great works. But Rhee Seund-ja is the first woman to join the ranks and the fact that she is from Korea, an Asian country, holds special meaning. I hope that her atelier can become the medium for cultural exchange between Korea and Tourrette."
.That night, as I looked up at the Tourrette sky with its endless vista of brilliantly shining stars, I fully understood why Rhee was inspired to call her place "the Milky Way." Rhee has expressed the rapture and brilliance of the night sky in such works as Tourrerte Night. Her 1994 piece, Chemin des antipodes (The Road to the Antipodes), is also a tribute to the infinity of the heavens and the great beauty of the stars and the Milky Way.
.And, in away, Rhee herself is now a star in the night sky over Tourrette.