By Cynthia Adams • Photographs by Amy Freeman
Sharon and Tom James didn’t like the idea of retirement, per se, but as they left their corporate lives, opted instead for a grand rearrangement. This was a rearrangement with a stated purpose: to pursue joie de vivre. Both agreed to retool and reboot, and they knew exactly how they would do it — by living in two residences, one on each side of the Atlantic. So, Tom, once a corporate executive, is now a financial adviser and an assistant professor at High Point University. Sharon, formerly a hospital administrator in Chapel Hill, travels internationally with a firm that accredits hospitals worldwide.
The Jameses rearranged their work lives in order to summer in Burgundy, France. For a few months each year, Ancy le Franc is a refuge that affords them this luxury. Their ancient Burgundian townhouse, filled with French antiques and treasures, is a traditional 18th-century village house. It most expresses the couple’s mutual admiration for culture and history.
“From Ancy le Franc you have easy access to an embarrassment of cultural, architectural, gastronomic and spiritual riches,” the Jameses explain in an online vacation rental post. “As the famous food writer Mireille Johnstone has written, ‘The pre-Roman crypts, Roman ruins, monasteries, fortified cities, castles and Roman and Gothic cathedrals still seem to grow out of the land according to some natural law.’” In short, it was nothing like Stoney Creek, where their permanent home backs up to a golf course.
Five years into their experiment in life rearrangement, the Jameses discovered a way to import a bit of Burgundy to Whitsett, thanks to the talents of artist and muralist Dana Holliday.
While working abroad for various large corporations, Tom had made frequent business trips to France and Italy. He scoured for a home. Approximately an hour south of Paris, he found Ancy le Franc was accessible and attuned to a different pace. Here was a place where things stopped during the lunch hour and villagers enjoyed a table wine, or vin de pays, with bread, butter, radishes and pâté. Ancy was also a place where the wine fields were an easy drive away, and where golden fields of mustard grew — the very scenery that dazzles viewers during the Tour de France.
Once the Jameses discovered the townhouse, “We completed the purchase in August of 2002,” recalls Sharon. It still features a slate roof, stone flooring on the fi rst level, a restored limestone fireplace and original beams. It was even chosen as a featured home on the Fine Living Channel television series “Around the World in 80 Homes.” The rusticity of the place was enchanting for them both. And as an avid collector, Sharon was excited by the variety and access to French antiques, especially furniture, pewter and faience. Tom, already fluent in French, spent part of a summer with Sharon in Nice in 2013, while they took an intensive conversational French course. Both were besotted with France.
Here in Ancy, as their entry at vrbo.com, a vacation rental site, says, “you have a recipe for the perfect escape to one of the most ancient and beautiful regions of France.” Although the village is compact, it is large on charm and everything is within an easy walk. There are boulangeries, butcher shops, restaurants, a bar and grill, wine bar, a newsstand and bookshop, and a village park. During the Tour de France, support teams for the famous pelotons had sped right past their windows.
Better yet, the townhouse lies within the shadow of an exquisite Renaissance château. The Château d’Ancy le Franc, with its architectural beauty and manicured grounds, is a short walk away. The Burgundy Canal is mere minutes from the Jameses’ doorstep. “Watching the boats on the canal or walking and bike riding on the renovated tow path is a favorite pastime of our guests,” says Sharon.
The Jameses would return in August to their traditional neighborhood in Stoney Creek and resume their work lives. Their suitcases were filled with tokens of their summer life, such as antique linens picked up at brocantes and a few French toiletries and wines. Yet the Jameses couldn’t walk outside their door, turn right and stroll to the canal, or visit the bakery for a baguette.
Enter an O.Henry magazine article on the work of artist Dana Holliday, who is also a professional muralist. Last spring, Sharon James began to turn the article over in her mind and reached out to Holliday. She had always imagined a mural in her dining room, which already features a striking Louis Philippe mirror. Now she began to think about what that mural might provide — a bit of France permanently brought home to the States.
Sharon felt Holliday could help her achieve her goal. She contacted the muralist last
May, just before leaving for their annual French idyll. The artist and the Jameses had a conversation, getting a firmer sense of how the project could proceed.
“First I met with Sharon and saw her living space and went over how much area she wanted covered,” says Holliday, “and what accessories would remain, and which ones to work around. For example, their huge mirror and the fancy French barometer.” Working with sketching paper, Holliday prepared a virtual layout of the mural. “It took me a day to sketch and I painted her a sample on canvas with colors that would be used in the painting.”
The mural sample itself was an instant hit, and Sharon framed it for her home back in France.
The Jameses suggested they would provide pictures of favorite French scenes so that the muralist could incorporate them. In the interim, Holliday would begin her preparations and review photos as the couple shared them from France. They took pictures with their cellphone, one during a hot air balloon ride, and others of Ancy and beyond. Holliday sketched them into the design.
How difficult was it to synthesize those in a realistic way?
“The village they live in is right in front of the Château d’Ancy,” says Holliday. “I wanted to put their home in but not the whole village. Getting the perspective and placement were tricky.”
It was a large project, but hardly Holliday’s largest. She has completed a 30- foot mural in downtown Thomasville. Working through the logistics, Holliday plotted how the mural would work dimensionally, and wrap around the room.
“I also had to show the backside of the Château and the Burgundy River flowing through. That’s the fun part of creating the illusion. Another biggie is making sure I set it up so it can be seen properly. For instance, there are two doorways (in the dining room) and it’s like reading a book for me. There has to be a flow of view.”
Sharon left Holliday a house key so she could begin work during their absence. “She was out of the country a lot,” the artist recalls, “and I had to rely on my gut instincts. It was a very personal mural, so I left the last third incomplete until they returned.”
Once fully worked out conceptually, the entire mural required eight days of painting. “It is monochromatic,” but Holliday says in order to achieve the end result, she mixed and matched about six color tones. “I essentially used the wall color base and mixed that with varying umbers and ochres.”
“It is reminiscent of Zuber wallpaper. It is quiet yet so beautiful,” says Sharon. “Most of these images are ones we had photographed and sent to Dana. For us, this is what makes it special. She even put in Angora goats, horses and Charolais cattle that are typical of the area, so they bring back memories of places, friends, or things we have done.”
What did Holliday like best about the mural once completed? “It’s subtle yet striking feeling. Most of all that Sharon and Tom loved it! That’s the most rewarding.”
Sharon praises the muralist in turn. “She exceeded all of my expectations,” says Sharon. “Tom said it was one of the most fun and rewarding projects we have done in the house.”
Last fall, a group of 20 friends were invited for a French-inspired cocktail party, complete with pâtés, French cheeses and wines, to see the completed mural. It drew admiring reactions from guests, many of whom were well-traveled and had lived abroad themselves. Jack Hull, for one, is High Point resident and former antiques dealer. “He once taught interior design at Old Miss, Radford and Old Salem,” says Sharon. Hull called it “extremely well done” and toasted his longtime friends, the hosts.
“He liked the placement of the images, the fact that it was well conceived in relation to where you were viewing it. He especially liked the execution of the trees and how they lent a perspective,” says Sharon.
Todd Nabors, who works for Thayer-Coggin furniture, and holds a fascination for spaces that reflect the passions and personalities of their owners, commented to me in a later email, “This room was already beautifully appointed with fi ne antique furniture and silver, but the murals make dining in this room a truly special experience.” He goes on to observe how “the rich taupe color takes a cue from the grisaille tones of period, French paper by Zuber, but the finely rendered imagery of hot air balloons drifting over the Renaissance style château at the heart of the village of Ancy le Franc transport the viewer into the charming landscape of the owners’ summer residence. It’s a magical effect.”
As for the woman of the hour, Holliday arrived from High Point, where she was racing to complete murals for furniture clients in the run-up to the furniture market. Holliday joked about emptying the Jameses pantry while working there. “I was staying onsite and working through lunches. The starving artist!” In response, the Jameses playfully presented Holliday with a can of mixed nuts, set off with a festive bow.
Later, in seriousness, Sharon sought the words to express the pleasure she takes in the artwork. “Beautiful. Exquisite. Compares to a rare French wallpaper, except this is much better!” says Sharon. “It really does add so much to the dining room, and I love its simplicity overall. I can discover new things I missed just by standing and gazing at it for some time. And, now, we feel as if we are never far from France and Ancy le Franc!”
Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor for O. Henry. When she went to Ancy le Franc, she had to settle for a Tour de France flag and some fridge magnets as reminders of her trip.