If you were walking past her, you would think Frédérique Soulard was scrawling random words on the pavement. On closer inspection, her use of a little white arrow gives the game away.
The words she writes are the names of the little scrawny plants or weeds growing out of the cracks in the ground, the ones that most of us ignore, even step on. It is a way for her to combine her love of words and storytelling with her herbalist knowledge and upbringing – and her desire to keep history and the seemingly insignificant alive.
“Giving a name to things makes them exist,” Soulard said.
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Soulard traverses the streets of the French city of Nantes (and other neighbouring cities), a jar of her special paint in hand and a group of budding botanists in tow. She is theatrical and eclectic, pulling faces and dancing with the zeal of someone three times younger. Her free show, Belles de Bitume, which translates to ‘beauties of the tarmac’, is part guided tour, part performance art.
Giving a name to things makes them exist.
She stops and points at an unassuming green and yellow sprig emerging from the crevice between a wall and the pavement. After she announces its name in French, her followers bend down and paint the word on the ground. She slowly spells the name for the followers who aren’t native French speakers.
“Some words keep the same meaning in each country, others don’t,” she explained. “The dandelion ‒ pissenlit or dent de lion in French ‒ is well named, in reference of its indented leaves that remind us of lions’ teeth. It has the same name in Spanish: diente de león. In English, it’s called a dandelion, so it’s a translation of the music of the word, not its meaning.”
Born in Paris, Soulard moved to Nantes with her two sisters when she was 25 to work in her grandmother’s herb shop. When her grandmother died in 1998, Soulard left to study theatre in Paris. But her interest in botany never waned.
View image of Frédérique Soulard writes the names of weeds as part of her performance, Belles de Bitume (Credit: Credit: Helen Soteriou)
When she returned to Nantes in 2001, Soulard wanted to find a way to combine her love of storytelling with her interest in plant life. “I saw all these little plants, and I thought, ‘I should write the name’,” she explained.
It took more than a decade for Soulard to craft her artistic proposal and receive approval from the Nantes government. When she launched Belles de Bitume in 2014, photos of her neat handwriting quickly went viral.
Today, Soulard is somewhat of a local celebrity, but her goal has not changed. “I would like to make the audience happy and curious to know more about plants,” she said.
So next time you see tufts of green emerging from cracks in the pavement, think of Soulard – and take a closer look.
View image of Belles de Bitume is a way for Soulard to combine her love of theatre with her herbalist background (Credit: Credit: Helen Soteriou)
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