Great Barrington — To call Aurélien de St André an artist is an understatement; stepping foot into his studio, on “The Hill” in Great Barrington, is wholly satisfying — if not a bit overwhelming — from a visual perspective. I immediately spy a pile of fabric remnants, sporting the recognizable cactus and pineapple motif that marks a line of hand-printed original clothing entirely made in Massachusetts; a mountain of green and yellow Greenager’s t-shirts spills from a cardboard box in front of a low slung series of clotheslines over which a slew of Hosta Hill t-shirts are drying; and in the middle of it all, Aurélien and his wife Molly are printing tea towels.
“It’s a brand new screen that we’re testing for the very first time,” she explains, using a rubber squeegee to adeptly maneuver a thin layer of water based acrylic ink through the silkscreen. Working both meticulously and methodically, the husband-wife team applies a just-created-yesterday Taste the Berkshires logo to the front of white cotton tea towels with red stripes running along both vertical edges. I am mesmerized, and quickly lulled into a routine that consists of tearing tags off of each towel, laying it flat, taping the edges, applying the ink, and lifting the wooden framed screen to begin again. The pair takes turns doing the printing, and before long a second clothesline is strung across the studio space to collect the morning’s work.
Funny enough, I’ve made an appointment to talk about moss. Moss graffiti, to be more exact, but to understand de St André is to realize that he — a self described artist, creator and generator of ideas — never does one thing for too long. It is this fleeting impermanence — a hallmark of the moss creations that have been cropping up in the narrow alleyway next to Tom’s Toys — that are creating quite a stir in the community this summer.
“I like to be busy and I love to create,” de St André explains. Of his medium, “a patchwork out of moss on walls,” it was learned from a friend in France (he hails from LaRochelle, a coastal city in the southwestern part of the country.) There is a combination of great animation and great passion as de St André explains how this moss can be “put on everything.” Last summer he took advantage of the brick wall on the Tom’s Toys building to create a dinosaur; this fall, moss became a medium for communication when he made a living logo on the exposed brick inside Fuel; currently, a pair of moss octopi have appeared in the shaded alley downtown, and de St André has made it a habit to be present on Saturday mornings for those who want to learn more.
Passersby are often in awe. de St André explains the versatility of his plush medium — one that can be adhered to almost any surface save for glass and metal — thanks to a homemade paste consisting of flour, sugar and beer. The latter ingredient provides just enough yeast to create an adhesive that is dually functional — as it allows the moss to stick and simultaneously feeds it. Of the process? “It’s pretty versatile and amazingly easy to work with,” says the artist, noting that he forages for moss in the forest and then manipulates it using scissors. The aforementioned octopus is depicted with three of its tentacles “gripping” a pipe running the vertical span of the building. In this way, the artwork becomes interactive.
In the right conditions — one replete with the shade and humidity found in its natural environment — the moss will actually grow. And while a porous background is ideal, anything will do — wood, brick, stone, plywood. While a quiet chorus of naysayers might worry that the plant’s roots will erode brick and mortar — like the invasive and destructive English Ivy known to wreak havoc on houses — this is simply not true. Mosses rely on anchoring structures called rhizoids, superficially root-like, but without the absorptive functions of true roots. As a result, thriving moss collages “keep a lush, vivid print,” according to de St André and conversely, once past, “don’t leave a print that is permanent.”
de St André is quick to call his moss graffiti ephemeral; in this way, like the great sand mandalas that are swept up and returned to running water after hours of painstaking efforts, the beauty of a moss collage is temporary. It is a beautiful medium, but one that eventually fades.
“I never want to have one job forever,” de St André jokes. “[Making moss collages] empties your head,” de St André explains. “Your eyes are focused on the task — it is soothing, like gardening.” There are endless varieties of moss — more than 22, 000 worldwide — resulting in a panoply of choices ranging from round moss and moss with long hairs to moss in dense clumps or mats. “It is very fulfilling,” says de St André who, in a nod to the etymology of the word graffiti — derived from the Greek graphein, to scratch, draw, write — is literally scratching at the surface of a novel means of expression, one that is a delight to the senses and begs of us to slow down and be present in the moment — lest it pass us by.