Like many artists, Freiman Stoltzfus took a trip to Europe when he was a young painter.
“Twenty years ago, I was traveling through Europe for six or seven months,” he recalled several weeks ago. “In the month of August, I landed in Paris. The ultimate place. I knew I wanted to spend more time there. It’s a moveable feast. If you go as a young man, Paris is always there.”
Today, Stoltzfus is back in Paris, serving as artist-in-residence at the American Church in Paris.
A spiritual home to an international and multicultural community, the church has a long history of welcoming visitors to Paris.
For more than 150 years, American CHurch has been a welcoming place for both Parisians and outsiders.
Stoltzfus says it opens its doors to believers and nonbelievers. Along with church services, there are language programs, music concerts and an appreciation of the visual arts.
When Stoltzfus came back to Paris a few years after that first trip, he found the American Church
“In those days, before smart phones, I was completely unplugged except for e-mails and the Lonely Planet Paris Guide,” Stoltzfus says. “It is highly recommended if you needed assistance to go to the American Church.”
And so Stoltzfus did.
He found an apartment on the cathedral’s bulletin board.
“I was in heaven,” he says. “I wandered all over the city. I had no money or friends, but I didn’t care, I was living off the beauty of Paris.”
The church offered a language exchange every week and Stoltzfus started attending.
“I met so many wonderful people. French people learning English and English speaking people who were practicing their French. Some of the people I met there remain friends today.”
He sang with the church choir.
“It was really a place of great warmth,” he says. “It really was the beacon on the Seine.”
After returning home, Stoltzfus went on to open a successful gallery on North Prince street and earlier this summer, another gallery in Philadelphia, at 1042 Pine St.
But he never forgot about the American Church of Paris
Throughout the years, he thought about the idea of becoming an artist-in- residence there and finally made inquiries.
“I think they had one other artist-in-residence before,” Stoltzfus says. “They were very generous with their terms, putting me up and giving me a stipend. The location is wonderful, in the heart of the city, near the Eiffel Tower.”
During his month-long residency, Stoltzfus is teaching children and adults, and advocating for the arts.
“They have such a mixture of people from around the world. Some are very much into art, others just enjoy looking at it,” he says. “ I am going over with the attitude of how may I serve? What can I do? I will give the church what I have to offer.”
One project he’s looking forward to involves musicians playing while he paints to the music.
“I create these one-of-a-kind works very much in the moment.”
Paris and France have always influenced his work.
“France is central to my life as an artist because of the gift of French finesse or delicacy,” he says. “Everything about France has a light touch — the Impressionists, the music — Debussy was doing with music what Monet was doing with water. The food, the fashion, the architecture. There is a lightness of touch. It’s a wonderful guiding light for an artist. Whenever I get heavy handed in my work, I think about Paris and that lighter touch.”
Stoltzfus notes that the beauty of France shakes him to the core.
“I carry that with enormous gratitude. You know, I didn’t have a lot of money in my 20s. I had imagination and fantasy. The French understand this. You can live beautifully with a little bit of fantasy, that you can always find a way to seek beauty.”
While Paris is always in Stoltzfus’ heart, so is Lancaster County.
“When I am in France, I will be thinking of the fields of Pennsylvania,” he says. “There is a cross current, they are related, though I am not sure how. But with distance comes more understanding.”
When he returns, Stoltzfus will be preparing for new shows in both his Philadelphia gallery and here in Lancaster. Perhaps a hint of Paris will fill the walls.