Moulin Rouge

A painting by Betty Sitbon inspired by Le Petit Paris, a French restaurant in Chicago once owned by her former husband. Sitbon and Hillary Falconer are celebrating French art and culture with Moulin Rough Paint & Wine Soiree for adults on September 23.

WASHBURN – After a wildly successful Washburn Summer Art Camp for children, parents have been asking artists/instructors Betty Sitbon and Hillary Falconer when they’re going to have one for adults. Maybe next summer, but meanwhile, they’re hosting Moulin Rouge Paint & Wine Soiree for adults on Sept. 23.

“We’re going to have paint-your-own French posters already drawn and enlarged,” said Sitbon, a painter and muralist for over 40 years. “You make it look like you, but very French, adding feathers, rhinestones and glitter. We’ll do an hour’s worth of painting and a half-hour decorating then have some wines, cheeses and chocolates, maybe red licorice in champagne glasses, because it’s Moulin Rouge.”

This is so Sitbon, bubbling over with enthusiasm for all things that glitter. Kiki de Montparnasse, she said, will also make an appearance. A flamboyant and progressive woman from the Moulin Rouge era, Kiki was painted by Soutine, Modigliani, Foujita and Kisling, and photographed by Man Ray, her lover for eight stormy years. She also sang bawdy songs, exhibited her own naïve paintings and wrote a revealing memoir when she was 28 years old.

“We don’t know who she is yet, but Kiki will definitely be there – might even be me,” Sitbon giggled.

Founded in 1889 in the Paris district of Pigalle, the Moulin Rouge is best known as the birthplace of the can-can and contributor to the evolution of cabarets. Transforming her pole barn into a facsimile thereof, Sitbon has pushed the tractor aside, set up art tables that were left over from summer camp and, with Falconer’s assistance, will soon decorate the place à la Moulin Rouge.

“We don’t know what the weather’s going to be like. It might be a little cold, so people might have to wear shawls, but it doesn’t matter. We can have a fire outside,” said Sitbon, encouraging guests to wear something très French, “with lots of reds and blacks.”

Though not a native of France, Sitbon married a Frenchman and lived in or near Paris for 11 years. She helped her husband run two restaurants, first, Le Petit Paris in Chicago before moving overseas, then Pizza Gato in Boulogne-Billancourt outside of Paris.

“I cooked a lot, but most of the time I painted,” she said. “I also decorated the restaurant and had a gallery upstairs.”

And she had two sons, Gaston and Louis.

Falconer grew up in Alberta, Saskatchewan, close to the Montana border.

“I paint a lot on all different kinds of refurbished stuff, like salvaged wood and also do beading,” she said. “Although my family history is Native American — my grandmother is Chippewa Cree — I never learned to bead from anyone in my family. I learned it in Mexico. The Huichol on the west coast of Mexico do the most amazing beadwork.”

For summer camp, she led a Native American arts class, making medicine sticks that the kids wrapped with feathers and beads.

“I pulled out all my beads and said, ‘Pick anything you want and put it on your stick – all the crystals, everything, just take it,’” Falconer said.

Sitbon and Falconer gave the generous gift of art enjoyment to 27 children, ages 7-13, for two weeks this summer. Held at Sitbon’s home, kids arrived at 9 a.m. and left by 4 p.m., eager to return the next day. Sitbon’s colorful murals painted on barn doors and root cellars, a magical fairy garden, a turtle pond and acres of natural wonderland, who wouldn’t want to linger?

“We had a different theme every day and a different artist or two to talk about, plus an art project to explain each artist.” Sitbon said.

They had over 40 projects lined up. One focused on Jackson Pollock for which the kids painted their own jeans. Sitbon talked about Pollock’s unique painting technique, how he intentionally drizzled paint across his canvases as opposed to sloshing it around as one might assume from his maelstrom of colored dots and river-running streaks. She showed a video about Pollock then placed a drop cloth on the lawn with a constellation of cups filled with colored paints.

“They put their jeans out and every time I’d say ‘Jackson Pollock’ they’d trade colors,” Sitbon said.

After paint, they added glitter, Sitbon’s signature art material. Picasso, Salvador Dali, Monet, Matisse and Frida Kahlo were just a few of the other artists studied.

“They all kept journals,” Sitbon said. “For Picasso, I showed them an art book with a lot of his portraits, one after another, and had them sketch what they saw, five seconds on each page.”

They also took notes describing what they saw. This practice, she said, enhances tactile memory of that particular artist’s style of painting.

“I had them do a front and a back Picasso portrait,” Sitbon recounted. “Then Hillary and I cut them out and made them into sculptures for the kids —Picasso sculptures, which we put on a great big mirror in the polebarn, which made it look lot twice as many sculptures.”

For Monet, they ventured out to the pond.

“The kids did a Monet painting with lily pads, frogs, tadpoles and goldfish—everything around the pond,” she said.

For Salvador Dali, a surrealist artist who always sported a black moustache, the kids painted portraits of him gluing curly black pipe cleaners for his moustache.

“When we talked about Matisse, (an impressionist painter), we studied color,” Sitbon said.

To get the full effect, they layered cotton balls, glitter and shiny objects in glass jars then poured liquid food coloring on top, creating a swirl of magical colors.

Besides teaching classes, Falconer handled promotion, marketing and healthy meal preparations.

“For Frida Kahlo Friday, she made tacos,” Sitbon said.

For those unfamiliar with Kahlo, she became a great Mexican artist following a crippling bus accident. Her haunting self-portraits elevated Mexican culture and folk art to new heights. To bring Mexican culture to life, Yazmin Bowers was invited to lead the camp kids in a musical dance.

Several businesses contributed to summer camp. Heart Graphics donated paper; Karlyn’s Gallery and Olson Lumber contributed scholarship money; and several individuals made cash donations.

There is no question Sitbon and Falconer will do this again next year.

“This experience really humbled me,” Falconer reflected. “It gave me a deep appreciation for teachers, because they do this 9-10 months out of the year. We only did it for a couple of weeks.”

Meanwhile, Sibon has returned to her career as an artist: hand painting purses and offering Party Painting for all occasions, such as weddings, anniversaries and birthdays

“I just finished a wedding picture in Chicago for a Fox News broadcaster,” said Sitbon, who’s been painting murals since she was 12 years old, telling the stories of her life as well as her clients.

Besides taking care of her own two children, Falconer is currently working as a nanny and paints whenever she can-can.

To make reservations for Moulin Rouge Paint & Wine Soiree ($55/person or $100/couple) contact Falconer at or go to the Washburn Summer Art Workshop Facebook page and leave a message. In the meantime grab that boa out of storage and strap on a pair of red stilettos, or for the gents, a black beret and start practicing your French.

(Copyright © 2019 APG Media)

Load comments