For months I missed the unmissable. Hanging above the doorway of the bus shelter opposite our Tréguennec home is a most striking mask which, for almost a year, went unnoticed – it is the one on the left in the illustration. With its bottle tops for eyes and an upside-down hook for its nose and mouth, it is almost toy-like, but its proportions, humour and drama actually give it more; in reality it is a work of art! Oddest of all, it is one of a series in which all are different (again see illustration).
The shelter, which is used by children waiting for their ‘bus scolaire’, has its doorway facing the road and its back to the elements – in the winter the winds can be fierce and the rain horizontal. It has no windows and its inside is bare. There are five such shelters dotted in and around the village; all have wooden frames and slatted wooden walls.
I told my wife, Rohan of my discovery – she too had missed the mask – and soon she had found a second mask on another one of our shelters (see illustration, second from right), and within days we had found three more (the illustration only shows four – the fifth is not included as it has been vandalised and has lost all but one eye and a hint of a nose!)
We found no masks on shelters further afield. This was a very local phenomenon and a mysterious one at that. The hunt was on for the creator and, if possible, an explanation.
Even when presented with photos, none of our adult neighbours could help; like us, none had even seen them. I switched tack and asked children living nearby. Of my sample of four, aged from ten to thirteen, all immediately recognised the masks and all but one liked them; the exception was a boy who, according to his mother, now concentrated more on football. On direct questioning all were sure that the masks would have been made by Denis, an assumption shared by their parents.
Denis works at the ‘Mairie’. Amongst his many roles he looks after the local primary school (he is its caretaker) and, importantly, he installs and maintains the bus shelters. He is a kindly, smiley man and is the children’s hero – they love him. He knew the masks well, liked them a lot and denied being their creator. He suggested I ask Jean-Yves – “Outside his house is a home-made scarecrow with a cartoon-like face similar to the masks. They must be made by him”.
It was Jean-Yves’ wife who answered the door. She knew nothing of the bus-stop masks and said that the work was certainly not by her husband. “If they are not by Denis, ask Jacques”.
Jacques, a local sculptor, has a front lawn peppered with statues including overlarge flowers and insects; all are made by him and in metal. This was the first he had heard of the bus-shelter masks. “The are not my style”, he said, and I left disheartened.
Back to the children – this was, after all, clearly part of their world. Amelia, who lives a bus stop away and is the granddaughter of neighbour, knew the answer immediately – the masks were made by the uncle of her best friend. I tracked down uncle Julien who confirmed that he was, indeed, the creator.
Julien lives half way across France but for a few months in early 2017 he stayed in Tréguennec with his sister and his niece – Amelia’s friend. One of Julien’s hobbies is to make furniture from driftwood and bric-a-brac. While here, he grew very fond of the Tréguennec shelters, felt that they needed some embellishment and, with time on his hands, used his usual work materials to make five masks and then mount them on our shelters. Soon after, and without telling anyone, he went home. Before ending our conversation I told him that I found his work very special. In response he said he was pleased to hear that someone liked what he had done; no one had commented before! My enquiry was over
In this story Julien is the hero – how fortunate we are to have had in our midst such a creative and generous eccentric. Then there are the children, once again one is reminded that children and adults have different interests and lives. In many domains we both have our own hinterlands. Unlike grown-ups they knew all about the masks and gave me the lead that allowed the bus stop mystery to be the resolved. Denis, too is important – in his position he could so easily have removed the masks. He was the only adult with whom I spoke who had seen and liked the sculptures from the very start and who, by viewing them through the eyes of the children, felt that they should be preserved. No wonder he is the children’s hero.
As for me, I love the masks and find the quirky project extraordinary; I only wish that I could have noticed and enjoyed them earlier.
For helping me resolve the mystery and write this article, I would like to thank Julien, Denis, Annie, Amelia, Cecile, Monica (a techie niece who knows how to merge photos), Vivien and Rohan.