In the spring of 1879, Ferdinand Cheval, a rural French postman, was going about his daily rounds when he tripped on a stone and tumbled headlong to the ground. As he dusted himself off, he was captivated by the mysterious beauty and striking shape of the stone that had caused his spill. He wrapped it carefully in his handkerchief, and continued on his way. It sounds like the beginning of the fable stone soup, does it not? What Cheval did next is no fable, though it certainly is fantastic.
Every day after that, for over thirty years, he scoured his paths for similar stones and quickly gathered a substantial collection. In the evenings, he began to craft sculptures from the stones, first creating small animals and then building a waterfall. He expanded on the waterfall to ultimately construct an incredible, sprawling monument including features like arches, columns, statues, and even caves variously inspired by elements of Egyptian, Renaissance, and Indian architecture. The final product is stunning from its grand scale to its minute details, and Cheval’s Le Palais Idéal is now a popular tourist destination in France.
I love the story of Ferdinand Cheval for so many reasons.
- The beauty was there. Cheval just noticed it. In fact, he didn’t even observe it intentionally; he was going about his usual routine when it quite literally caught at his attention. In our home, we strive to cultivate a spirit of wonder at the beauty that God has so graciously and liberally strewn throughout His creation. Yet, in the melee of a typical school week, if we are to notice it, we too sometimes need beauty to knock us on our back, or more appropriately, to our knees.
- He chose to participate. In her essay on what it means to be created in the image of God, Dorothy Sayers states, “The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.”[i] Moved by the beauty of God’s creation, Cheval decided to partake in God’s creativity. As he later explained, he decided that, “Since nature wants to do the sculpture, I’ll do the masonry and the architecture.”[ii] He understood that beauty, like love, requires a response.
In our Foundations communities each year during fine arts we invite our students to observe beautiful art created by master artists and then create their own art using the same techniques or a similar style. We are training them from an early age to notice, appreciate, and participate in beauty.
- He started small. His first sculpture was a simple animal. He gradually built his skills, honed his techniques, and expanded his influences and ambitions. I think of the OiLs, of tin whistle, of copy work, and of all the many ways we are preparing ourselves and our students by patiently learning the grammar of each subject.
- He did not have specialized training. In fact, he left school at the age of twelve. He didn’t take art classes or earn a degree in architecture or art history. However, he clearly read widely and observed carefully. As a postman, he often perused the magazines he was to deliver and explored the world in this way. He accomplished much with little. For homeschooling parents with limited experiences and finite resources, this is encouraging.
- He didn’t quit his job. He didn’t even drastically alter his routine. Instead, he simply followed his usual postal route during the day, and pursued his passion in the evenings. This is a realistic model. Our children may, and hopefully will, develop passions and more specialized interests as they mature, but as classical students, they should not simply abandon the study of literature if they develop a talent for graphic design; the pursuit of the sciences if they aspire to a career in law; or training in mathematics if they show promise as an athlete. Cheval’s accomplishment reminds me that, in most cases, we can adjust our students’ routines to accommodate and encourage their passions—whether artistic, academic, or athletic—without the need for them to quit their “day job.”
- He walked past many stones and remained unmoved, uninspired. But when the right stone did strike him, he suddenly acquired a new passion that was to last for a lifetime. If nothing we’ve set before our children has inspired them to rise to the challenge yet, if their studies and pursuits remain for them a routine or a drudgery with no spark, there is still time. Cheval didn’t begin work on his masterpiece until he was forty-three!
Ferdinand Cheval’s story makes me think of the poem that begins,
Let a joy keep you.
Reach out your hands
And take it when it runs by.[iii]
Let us continue to expose our children to the beauty in every area of life and wait for that moment when joy strikes them, when they are ready to reach out, to take hold, to participate in and partake of God’s creativity.