Facteur Cheval | Lives well Lived

“Dear Sir,

One day in April 1879, during my country postman’s round, when walking rapidly some quarter of a league distant from the village of Ter-san, my foot hit something and I was thrown to the ground several feet away.

I wanted to understand the reason of my fall and I was taken aback to find I had unearthed a stone, such a strange yet fancy shape of a stone that I looked all about me and I discovered that it was not the only one.

Gathering it up in my handkerchief I carried it very carefully, promising myself to spend my free time collecting others. Since that day I have never ceased to do so, from morning to eve.”

 

This letter was sent from Joseph Ferdinand Cheval, a postman living in the dusty and dispersed French countryside, in 1897 to Entre le Quoi, the head of county archives.

Ferdinand Cheval was a postman who built his dream: Le Palais Idéal, an amazing palace build as homage to the natural world and as a feat of endurance that he enjoyed immensely.

Cheval kept the promise he talks of, using the stones he collected to build his Palace, stone by stone.

At first, he carried the stones home in his pockets as he delivered his letters. Later he used a basket on his back and finally took a wheelbarrow around with him.

He scoured the countryside for days and nights at a time on his mail round, sleeping in farmhouses and under the stars returning only to build.

He was 34 years old when he begun collecting and building, working alone for 27 years – 90,000 hours of work.

With no training, no rules, no help you can see his progress, starting with pebbles and shells and completed as a master stonemason making these breathtaking palace.

My inspiration.

I have drawn lots of inspiration from different bits of his story, I am going to run over a couple but then focus on what I believe is the most important lesson I have leant from Cheval.

 

1.            As a postman Cheval completed a 33 kilometres route daily, he would pass the time by dreaming of what he would build. This is how I felt about education system getting through the necessary, by dreaming of the possibilities ahead.

 

2.            Cheval’s life changed because he tripped up on a stone, this taught me that inspiration can come from anywhere.

Make sure you allow yourself the “unproductive” times because the best ideas don’t tend to come when you are at your desk looking for them.

 

3.            As he described – on seeing the stone that had tripped him he looked around, and saw that the natural world was full of beautiful stones he had never noticed before. Your perceptions can always change.

 

4.            So be open minded. In his designs, Cheval took inspiration from Christian, Egyptian and Indian architecture, engraved various philosophies on the walls and built both church and a mosque in his palace.

 

5.            In the letter I quoted, he was asking permission to be buried in the palace he had built. When he was denied permission, he dedicated a further 12 years to build his own mausoleum.

No bullshit problem solving.

 

6.            Have a sense of higher purpose, Cheval found this in bringing his dreams into the real world, but also as a proud French postman in a time when many people depended greatly on the postal service. He writes, “I may not have served my country as a soldier, by near on 30 years I have served her as a postman.”

 

7.            Do what you enjoy, and you will do it well and have fun.

 

One of Cheval’s inscriptions reads:

“In creating this rock, I wanted to prove what the will can do.”

I interpret this as both ‘the will’ as in self control and motivation – but also as what the willing could do.

No one could make what he made if they were paid to. He never stopped his duty as a postman – because he did what he wanted to do, he could just take on more and was an architect by night.

 

However, all to often, there perceived barriers that make you think you can’t do the things you want to do.

Cheval taught me to ignore the expectations others have of ‘people like you’ by age, status, sex etc. The unwritten rules that stabilise our culture, sometimes, need to be broken.

The key is the ability to disregard institutionalised barriers.

 

Cheval did this in two respects.

The first was his resilience in the face of judgement.

As the piles of stones build up on his land, Cheval’s neighbours became convinced he had gone mad.

Nowadays we would probably say Cheval had Obsessive Compulsive ‘Disorder’. For years, living alone, meticulously collecting pockets full of stones and dreaming of fairytale castles.

But to illustrate the danger of using these exclusionary labels, I would like to ask you to do something for me.

I would like you to write:

“I hope that …”

Now enter the name of someone you love very much.

“…dies in a horrible car crash.”

You don’t want to do it? How ‘mad’ is it for you to think that writing it down will have any effect on anything?

This hopefully gives you a firsthand experience of the power of the irrational mind to find pleasure or displeasure in what we do. All we can hope is that the things we end up being compelled to do are meaningful and enjoyable.

The second way in which Cheval dispelled institutionalised boundaries was in the disproof that only artists can make art and in the accepted way to do so.

He was unconventional in his lack of planning, with no plans or blue prints outside his imagination. Like a child playing with lego, he tried it and saw how it looked.

This allowed him to truly indulge creativity because he wasn’t building it for anyone else.

While, for most of his life he was vilified as mad and excluded, ironically, just before he died, big names like Breton and Picasso hailed the postman as an artist and suddenly everything changed. With the flip of a coin his palace changed from a mad mans compulsion to a key feature in the brut art movement and surrealism – but of course to him nothing had changed.

The art world’s definitions are great examples of dangerous, fickle institutionalised boundaries. They regard his palace “as an extraordinary example of naïve art architecture”. We are experts and you are naive, but art is what you make of it with a value determined by what we would pay for it.

Cheval’s ignored what others had done, seen and accepted. He wasn’t looking for the approval they indulged themselves to offer him but at least it meant that the palace has been protected.

The barriers I face are of course completely different, but I believe that if you want to do something new you can’t do it while pandering to the expectations those that have gone before you, and must be prepared to face judgement while you do it.