Mike and Timothy tell their story
Mike Snow (a painter) and Timothy White (a photographer) moved from the US to France in 2005 and opened an art gallery within a château in the Dordogne. In between workshops at their base in Saussignac, Mike sat down to take FrenchEntrée through their journey from Hawaii to hunting for antique frames at brocantes on Sunday mornings.
What attracted you to the Dordogne?
During our first year we lived in Provence, spending over 12 months searching all over France before deciding on this area. We found the countryside here quite unique: rolling hills, vineyards, beautiful villages, friendly people, (relatively) mild winters, warm summers and reasonably priced real estate.
We wanted to find an old stone house with tall ceilings in a small village with great views. This house more than said yes to all of our requirements. We live in a 400 year old château, but are only responsible for 1/6th of it. The building was divided up in the late 1880s.
What were the reactions of your friends and family to your move?
I think everyone was surprised, but we had been living on the island of Maui in Hawaii for 6 years which was already a long distance from family, so the change was probably easier for them. Friendships have drifted away, but the important ones last forever.
How did you go about finding your French property? Was it a long search?
Finding property in France, but also in much of Europe is not easy. You can drive to one town and there may be 20 different estate agency offices in one town, each representing a different client. Rarely are listings shared, so it is unnecessarily complicated.
We would look at websites, get ideas of areas and set out for a week-long trip with the dog. We made about 10 week-long trips, during which we continued to come back to the Dordogne. In the end we found our dream home through the Notaires de France.
Was there much work to do on the château?
The house was in great condition, as a Swedish couple had been working on it for over 12 years. The only thing we did not like was the kitchen. We built all new contemporary cabinets, a kitchen island, and replaced the ugly red floor tile with off-white stone to match the walls.
How does France influence your art?
France is a different world for artists. They are respected and art is an important cultural component of Europe that was quite foreign to us coming from the US. Most of the artists I like and study had lived in France at some point in their lives. The resources are limitless here.
You offer a wide range of retreats. What is the most important thing students will take away from the experience?
I started offering one-week painting retreats for small groups, limiting classes to four and found that people liked to come and work one-on-one with me as well. In the summer we offer one-day classes. My classes are about pushing you to try to discover new things. I have established artists and art students that visit.
Timothy has started offering photography classes to help people take better pictures. We find it amazing how many people think nothing of paying €500 – €2000 for a camera, but never invest in learning how to take a good picture. It is not the camera that makes the picture good, it is the skill of the photographer.
Do you have a top tip to instantly improve our holiday snaps?
Get closer to your subject! You’ll be amazed at how your photos will improve by incorporating this one change.
You’ve published a book about Saussignac and its inhabitants. How easy did you find it to integrate into the local community?
This was initially a major concern of ours. Boy were we surprised! We have been fortunate to find a village of wonderful people who have welcomed us in and made us feel at home.
Moving to a new country is not for everyone. You have to try very hard, especially with a language you are not accustomed to speaking.
We just seem to fit in with this special place… perhaps it’s because we want to be French! The village has people from all over the world living here.
Is it difficult to part with your art at sales?
A small painting I may paint for just a day or two, but a huge 2m x 3m painting may take months to get right and then hang in the living room for a year. Once purchased it is gone, so those are the ones that I really miss.
Take us through a typical day, if there is such a thing.
After breakfast, I read my e-mails, then by 9am I am off upstairs for some painting. If I am in a groove I may paint for 7 – 10 days straight but if I want to take a day off, go hunting for antique frames or just do nothing, I do.
Living and working in the same place can be difficult, how do you find a balance?
We do take vacations, but they really are working vacations. Earlier this year, we went to Paris (visiting clients, friends and delivering a painting), Berlin (11 museums and a business meeting) and Rome to see friends, take pictures and visit more museums.
We love time with our dog Picasso and hunting at vide greniers and brocantes on Sunday mornings are always fun, even though we are looking for things for new projects.
What have been the main challenges with regards to living and running a business in France?
Nothing in France is simple, many people have different answers for the same questions, sometimes multiple answers, though often it is just difficult because it’s new for us with new rules and not our native language.
Setting up a new business can seem difficult, but once you finally know what is needed it is quite straightforward. If you have passion, whether as a chef, an artist, an engineer, you will succeed wherever you are.
If you think you will move to France and get a job in a couple of months, think again. Patience is number one here, don’t fight the system, figure out how to flow in the system. Both of us had previously created our own businesses and that helped us.
How does life in the US differ from life in France, is there anything you miss?
The first year I missed peanut butter, but now I couldn’t care less. We left America for very strong reasons and see no change in where the US is heading. Timothy has been back once and I have been back twice. In fact, we are in currently in the process of becoming French citizens.
What advice would you give others hoping to move to France?
If you do not know the language and do not want to work at it, you will not fit in so well. We know many English-speaking people that only socialize with other English-speaking people… to this I say, why live in France? One has to throw away the peanut butter and open a bottle of wine!
Atelier Snow & White is open for the first two weeks of August and by private appointment.