Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cécile Comblen - Interview

Cécile Comblen
Blue Mood I

Cécile Comblen - A Bold, Expressive Artist and Active Contributer to St. Vincent's Visual Arts Scene

By Marina Vatav Posted: January 13, 2010

Cécile Comblen, an artist originally from Belgium, settled in St. Vincent about 10 years ago. She believes that art can boost the Caribbean countries’ economies. She was one of the founders of St. Vincent and Grenadines' Visual Art Society, which was formed to unite the artists and to convince the people and government that art is worth to be taken seriously.

Cécile is an art educator who has taught art for many years. She was born in an artistic family. Her grandfather was a well known architect, and her aunt was a watercolorist. She says, "I have some background in art and some interesting people in the family."

Q: How is the art environment in St. Vincent, in terms of institutions, etc.?

From my point of view, there's a lot of work to do, but it’s growing. We’ve been joining hands to get some art shows together, and the art organization, founded in 2003, to move forward. The awareness is growing, as well as the sense of artists to help each other more, to put on shows, to tell people about the things to look at and to collect. Now people coming back to St. Vincent are building these huge places based on North American standards. They will need art for their big homes. It takes perseverance to keep doing things and to interest people.

Q: You are one of the founders of St. Vincent and Grenadines' Visual Art Society in 2003. Why was it necessary to create this organization?

When you said "art" in St. Vincent a few years ago, it meant craft. People didn’t even know the difference because they probably didn’t see enough of it. Our mission was to give an expression and importance in the arts, to value the arts in the community, to encourage people to take it more seriously. It’s a profession, and not just an activity to pass the time.

Q: What changes have occurred since the organization was founded? Now shows are more professional.

We taught people how to organize a good show, how to frame, and arrange their art on the walls. We had two major events. One was a national workshop for all the kindergarden teachers. It was really good to make them aware of art, and how they can influence the young children. The other was an art exhibition in 2004. The Art Society made the Ministry of Culture more aware that artists are to be taken seriously and not for granted. It made them aware that they needed to give more obvious support to artists who wanted to go abroad. Most of the time, artists had to have their own money or find sponsors in order to exhibit abroad. If the government values culture, they have to put more money towards art. It’s a long term evolution.

Q: What new opportunities emerged for the artists after the founding of this organization?

It was great to start working together. Foremost because artists were isolated. You need to connect and make the links and work together as much as possible. We had to learn to get our act together and come to meetings and get things done. The Art Society gives the voice. If you want something done and you come as a group, people listen to you. If you come alone, well, you must have a lot of good friends in the government to make things change. We didn’t go as far as having studios, and maybe opening an art gallery, I think these things will come.

People have to put energy, but sometimes you do your own work and you wonder "why should I put some energy for a group?" But that’s where the awareness comes in that putting energy in the group will help you in different ways. We are learning to work together and be more cooperative.

Q; Can you name a few things that should happen in St. Vincent for the arts to develop?

First, develop a more open and positive attitude towards the visual arts. People should know that art is a serious endeavor. There is this St. Vincent attitude that a student who is bright in math and academics is valued in the educational system. But the attitude towards art is, "You are not so good, you can do art." That needs absolute change because it discourages the children right there. If a child is gifted, parents would say: "You can't make a living doing art, and it’s not serious." These attitudes need to change at every level, including the education system. Creativity is not dangerous, creativity makes life exciting.

Second, the country will have to have a physical space to show art. Up to this point there is no formal official art gallery or museum. There is a private gallery, but I didn’t see many local artists bringing art from the outside. There are some spots in town, a couple of government buildings where you can rent some space, but you have to negotiate each time. There is a real need for displaying finished work. It’s a big task, but it can be done.

Third, the Minister of Culture must be much more proactive and understand the value of art. I am sure he supports some projects. There is a lot of value in visual arts, but maybe they haven’t understood that yet. They know that if you organize a big jazz festival, they will make a lot of money. However, they haven’t understood that there is money to be made in the visual arts as well.

Last, they can buy art for the official buildings, for example. There’s no art on the walls when you go into the government buildings. It’s really depressing. They also have to start buying and have a National collection of art.

Q; How can art effect economic change for St. Vincent?

Art will develop more with the international airport coming. They need to have an art space right in town for tourists who want more than T-shirts and wraps, a place to be able to see some decent local art. If the government offers grants and artists don’t always have to look for sponsors from overseas or international organizations, it will give a good boost to the visual arts. I see that the Minister of Culture has to take things more serious financially, because what makes an island interesting is not just the beaches and palm trees. You have to have something culturally strong to offer.

In Jamaica or Trinidad people are open and interested in art. In St. Vincent, unfortunately, it’s not there yet, but it’s coming. Art events can boost the economies as well if the promotion is made properly, like in Trinidad. There, they have a big art exhibition next to the stadium where the Carnival takes place. There are some young artists coming up in St. Vincent, and I am sure they have lots of energy and they will shake up things.

Q: How did you get involved with the Caribbean?

I visited Trinidad in 1994, then a friend invited me to St. Vincent and I was absolutely attracted by the colors and the light. I was coming back regularly with my art materials and I did quite a bit of production, so I knew I was in the right place. It started with just a holiday trip and it ended up with me realizing that I was carrying on the dream of having my little place by the sea. So I ended up building it in St. Vincent in 2000, and settling there and having my studio there.

Q: What inspires you in St. Vincent?

I’ve always been very impressed. St. Vincent is a great island. The nature is wonderful and the light is beautiful. Because I tend to express myself in an abstract way, I take all the elements around me into the painting. When you have strong colors and beautiful light around you, it naturally gets revealed in the works. I love color. Painting is emotional and color is a strong medium to express emotion. St. Vincent, as is the Caribbean in general, has a raw beauty. It may change over a few years because of the development of the International Airport. Hopefully it will not change it to the point that it’s not St. Vincent any more.

Q; What is different about the light in the Caribbean?

People may be taking it for granted there, but I am absolutely amazed. I call it the golden hours. Between four o’clock in the afternoon and sunset, you have these amazing warm colors all over. For me this light is magical. I don’t know if the local people notice it, or they are so used to it, but it’s quite noticeable. And with so little pollution, the air is so clear, more transparent, and brighter.

Q: How did St. Vincent change your art?

I think it made me bolder and not afraid of really expressing intensity of feelings, intensity of experience through colors and generally through the artwork. I am looking at one painting in my living room now, and definitely you can see that it’s not made in a Northern country. It’s something there that’s connected with my Caribbean experience. With all the effort it sometimes takes to organize yourself to move to the Caribbean, it’s worth it. I think it definitely is a place where I can expand my horizons and my art.

Q: Is your style a combination of you living in different parts of the world?

Style is absolutely a combination of life experiences, of personality, of vision, of talent and technical skills, and a lot of work behind it. Someone once made a comment about one of my paintings, saying that in that painting was a mention of my European roots and Caribbean atmosphere and composition. It’s all melted into something, and it would not be the same if I lived all the time in one place. The more you experience, the richer you are and the richer your expression is. It doesn’t mean that somebody who lives all his or her life in one place is not a good artist, but it can expand.

Q: What topics are most common in your art?

I let my hand go and I don’t have a specific plan to start with. But I have a series of symbols that I use, like a house or waves.

Q: What do some of the symbols that you use mean for you?

I guess, it’s fairly simple. The house is the sense of security and belonging. You know, as we are children, we draw little houses all the time. And you have this simple, basic shape which is yours, and for me it’s a place where you can be and relax. It means protection, security and belonging.

The spiral is the symbol of growth and extension. Water and waves mean a lot of things, like movement and being conscious.

Q: What are your current interests regarding your work?

Regarding my work, it’s not just to produce, but to show more and to increase visibility for it. But also to continue to paint and to expand into printing, for example. A lot of artists love to produce, and when you have to share your time between producing and promoting, you tend to lapse. I tend to lapse with promoting because I love being in the studio. I think that’s what I’m doing now, looking at being more out there and try to make a better living out of it because of all the energy you put into it.