When Florence de Bretagne places ripe apples on the kitchen counter, they are not an invitation to snack. Nor is she saving them for company.
In fact, she may be watching them go bad, so she can capture the changes with her camera, or discover a tiny star at the end of the core or new life in a tiny seed. In an artichoke or pepper, de Bretagne sees a flower, a tree, a hip or an image of birth. A cross-section of a walnut may be a brain.
A mushroom, one of her favorite images, explodes into a sea anemone, or its cross-section may become a crater or a sand dune. Fascinated by the metaphor of new life, she used her apple-seed photo in the birth announcement of her first child and included it in her book of photographs titled "Semences," French for seeds.
"Mushrooms are amazing," she says during an interview in the converted garage of her Palo Alto home, which serves as her atelier. "For me, they're like tenderness, new life, so fragile, like a newborn baby." She also captures that feeling of tenderness in close-ups of nuzzling feet or toes.
De Bretagne's atelier is also filled with paintings of whimsical lollipop-like trees in vibrant, sun-saturated colors; imaginary landscapes; balloon-like circles; starburst flowers that explode like Roman candles; and trees that are part painting, part sculpture. Although she doesn't paint people, she infuses her subjects with human attributes, including "trees that are like people." Some are strong and solid; others fanciful, childlike.
"All my work is very colorful, very joyful," she says. "I like to express imaginary landscapes, and imaginary flowers or plants. I take my ideas from nature, but paint in the atelier."
When friends wonder if a whimsical work was done by 7-year-old daughter Zoe, "I take it as a compliment," she says. "I don't try to be intellectual."
Nonetheless, her photographs taken in a Paris supermarket have an edge. A red-orange freezer case filled with boxes of Cuisine Creative meals is flanked by row upon row of juice bottles labeled "50 mil Gratuit" (free). Other images include duck-shaped toilet cleaners, push brooms and plastic garbage-can liners. They're meant to be "both attractive and repulsive," she says.
Born in Paris in 1972, the former Florence de Laguiche comes from a Burgundy family with aristocratic origins, associated with the renowned wine Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche. After marrying, she took the surname of her husband, Thibaut, now an engineer with Cisco.
While art was always a strong interest, de Bretagne once approached it as a hobby, rather than a respectable profession. In France today, "artists have no prestige," she says with some degree of irony.
Instead, she completed her training at a business college and also earned a law degree. But a health crisis became an opportunity. For 18 months, a bad back kept her out of the workplace, so she painted. During that time, she also read Rainer Maria Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet." Inspired by his call to embrace the artist within, she passed an examination to enter the National School for Decorative Arts in Paris, where she studied both painting and photography.
Since then, she's had myriad exhibitions in both genres, both in Europe and in California. Awards include first place in the all-media category at the 2004 Contemporary Art Fair of Montrouge, France's second most prestigious art fair. In 2005, she was one of 10 French artists selected for the European Contemporary Art Fair.
Currently, her work is at the SFMOMA Artists Gallery at Fort Mason. She's also had recent shows at the Los Gatos Museum and at Michael Rosenthal Contemporary Art in Redwood City.
Two years ago, the de Bretagne family — which also includes 3-year-old son Domnin — decided to move to the Bay Area, and they plan to stay. De Bretagne, who had spent summers as an exchange student in England and Ireland, was already fluent in English. While they were still in Paris, she got the children ready by hiring an American nanny. Now the children speak English at school, French at home.
These days, even her appearance shows the blend of two cultures. Like many French women, she is dark-haired, lean and lithe. But on this particular day, she is wearing a wine-colored sweater, a pale orchid shirt and light blue flowered pants, instead of the Paris uniform of black and white.
In many ways, coming to California was liberating, she says, noting that the decision to relocate was a joint one. "One of the reasons I wanted to move is that in Paris you are quite (cooped up) in your flat, with people above, people below and people beside, and from your window you just see the building across the street. Here I like very much the space."
With the move, she began to paint trees with renewed passion. "I think it's because I was looking for new roots in my life. In one painting, now at the SFMOMA Gallery, she began the work in Paris, completing it here and adding "sunny colors. The vegetation here is so luxurious. Much more luxurious than in France."
She's grateful for her business and law training, which she says taught her to be organized. Mornings, she paints or deals with the business side of her art. At 2:45 p.m., she puts her energy into mothering. The produce of California inspires her palate as well as her painting. She also teaches a cooking class for children in her kitchen. Going to the farmers' markets, she has been intrigued by the varieties of fruits and vegetables, some of which she had never seen before. Like many newcomers, she was at first baffled by the puckery persimmon.
In addition to cooking and outdoor activities, afternoons may include art projects with her children, such as collages with Cheerios or household objects. On the wall of the kitchen is one of Zoe's collages done with bottle tops.
While Zoe's works are not being marketed, de Bretagne shows her own work to interested visitors in her atelier, but her goal is to find a local gallery to represent her. Her paintings and photos are priced from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Meanwhile, she's getting ready for a major 2009 exhibition in Paris.
But these days, her inspiration is coming from California, where in addition to the loveliness of the landscape, pollution and global warming are major concerns. She's taken photos at the landfill in Palo Alto, as well as the industrial junkyards of San Francisco.
As in the brightly colored photos in the Paris supermarket, she captures a sense of beauty amid ugliness, with billowing plastic that looks like clouds against a blue sky. "The pictures are poetic, but also scary," she says.
But the California countryside continues to revitalize her. She relishes hiking in the hills, kayaking in the Bay, watching the vistas along Interstate 280. "I find new energy in nature."
Info: Florence de Bretagne welcomes visitors to her atelier, by appointment. She can be contacted through her Web site, http://www.florencedebretagne.com .