Walking along the Seine on the Quai Voltaire one dark afternoon in the rain, searching for Sennelier, a magasin that for several centuries has sold ground pigments to artists. Once inside, dripping, I imagined breathing in particles of Degas and Lautrec, who ordered customized pigments here, mixed by chemist Gustav Sennelier. Little appears to have changed about the original store. Customers still line up at the counter to purchase alizarin crimson and yellow ochre by the gram. Colored powders in glass jars line shelves. Chubby palm sized sticks of pastel fill wooden slots. Pencils, everywhere, pencils. I would be here for hours, touching, sniffing, stroking.
You ascend on narrow wooden stairs to the second floor, where I met Birdie, a pen. Several Birdies, smaller than other pens by about half, were hanging out in a ceramic cup. Written in flowing ink on a card under their cup, 37e, or about fifty dollars. I walked by without making contact. Then I came back. I picked Birdie up, and that was that. Fifty dollars to fall in love for years and to produce hundreds of drawings together is a bargain.
When it was my turn at the Sennelier counter, the clearly an artist himself clerk picked Birdie up, turned him over a few times in his hand, and murmured, “tres cher”, which means both “very expensive” and “very dear”. I sighed back, “oui, tres tres cher”. We exchanged a knowing look and a smile. He took my roll of euros, wrapped Birdie in tissue paper and put him in a tiny bag, like jewelry. Birdie and I went back out into the Paris rain.
Birdie is a Japanese pen. While any tool may be loved, Japanese tools are instruments of worship. Pens, brushes, and chisels in particular, on picking up such objects, the heavens open and Japanese lutes play. Although Birdie and I have now spent years together, my breath still catches when I pick him up. It's a physical attraction.
Birdie has a fine steel point. The steel lives. It springs and flexes and bounces under the most subtle pressure. A line almost makes itself. Unscrew Birdie’s nib, and there’s small bladder made of the thinnest membrane. Squeeze it between thumb and forefinger once, and it is full of ink. Birdie will not run on any ink. Ink made with shellac causes him to stall. Ink made from simmered walnuts results in humming, so this is what we use.
Can you see all this in the drawing? The Seine, the rain, the scent of old wood and pigment, my feet on Degas’ footprints, the light, the heft of Birdie when I first picked him up, the clerk’s smile.