Antonella Bianca Meloni

Antonella Bianca Meloni : Elsa, you studied at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris, one of the most famous academies in France. There you followed a long tradition of artists like Aristide Maillol, Henri Matisse or Eugène Delacroix, where do you see yourself as an artist coming from such a prestigious school?

Elsa Guillaume : I must acknowledge that I was lucky to study at the Beaux-Arts of Paris. Students are given a lot of physical and intellectual space, and we were spoiled with many great teachers, technical studios, a beautiful library, workshops and a semester abroad. But what really mattered the most to me during my five years of study, was the freedom of time we had: I could dedicate my time to my personal projects. Those ones you really care about it pushes you to become more and autonomous. Nonetheless, I never imagined myself as an artist and had always been attracted to illustration and graphic novels. So every time I could, I travelled alone with my drawing book, scribbling, writing, sketching whatever I noticed, loved and lived – I thought my travels and my studies were seperated from each other, with no leaking interactions between them, but they naturally ended up mixing and enriching each other. It was also during my studies, that I discovered clay as a material for me. I had tried different printing and sculpture techniques, but nothing really caught my attention until the fall of 2010, when I encountered clay, in the St-Ouen studios. I carefully choose the word “encounter” to emphasize how alive this material is. It taught me both patience and method. It gives an amazing feeling of freedom, as if I was able to “draw” in volume, so it felt like the continuity of my graphic work. Clay canalizes my energy. When I start a new sculpture, it is the clay that drives me all along the process: following it is evolution, mindfully, carefully, depending on the heat, the humidity, cantilever I might be looking for. It is a material that engages your whole body, starting from the fingertips, which are the best tool you can have. I am still amazed, ten years later, about how much information can be transmitted thanks to the sensitivity of hands.

ABM : With ceramics as an addition to your sketches you chose one of the oldest art forms in the world, beginning in the Late Stone Age to so many adaptions in all continents. It is basically part of human history, not only as dinnerware, but also as independent artworks. Where do you see yourself in this tradition of ceramic makers?

EG : Until now, I never asked myself whether I belonged to any tradition, but I do acknowledge the universality of this art form. Anywhere in the world, at any time, clay has been used with different characteristics and for different uses. And there is something quite moving about this idea! When I visit museums and I see ageless beautiful ceramics, I wonder what was the thought of the maker, his own influences and for whom the piece was made – maybe it is this affinity I feel with some makers, that creates this affiliation, unconsciously. The several residencies I did in Asia, especially in Jingdezhen and Dehua in China brought me to realize how inventions and technics developed thanks to travellers, who carried – or stole – the science at the other end of the world. The story of the Silk Road is amazing in view of ceramics, but also concerning paper, fabrics, glass – globalization at its beginning!

Ceramics, either utensils or sculptures, testify reciprocal influences between cultures, thanks to patterns, shapes, glazes – but even more than a specific technique or shape, for me the most appealing thought is the story a piece tells, when you can feel the human behind the object. Clay has this power to take the shape you want, but it will always keep a track of the person who made it, like an invisible vibration of the hands, a certain kind of presence. You can see and feel the individual handwriting of the person behind it.

ABM : Like merchants and voyagers who took the long journey following the Silk Road, you travel a lot around the world, always having your sketchbooks with you. The artistic results are ceramcis showing real sea creatures, but also fantastic beasts or even historical ones. How does the inspirational process work for you personally?

EG : The way our brain intercepts information, and more than that, inspiration, is still a very curious process to me. Going out into the field and drawing in movement, while travelling, is every time a great experience: it requests attention, trains your focus. The notebook becomes your interlocutor. It keeps a memory of so many things, details, sensations, that a camera or a sound recorder wouldn’t catch in the same way. It is the complete opposite of our instant photography society. When I draw during solo travels, or when I join scientific expeditions on boat1, I feel I am in the continuity of books I admire, by Guillaume Le Testu, Paul-Emile Pajot, Anita Conti, Adriaen Coenen, Else Bostelmann – drawings are a worldwide understandable language, simple and not intrusive, and yet, fundamental. Diving has also been a mind-blowing experience for me, penetrating another world, where all references are blurred. No more distractions, no more noises and all movements decelerated – why hope for extra-terrestrial creatures, when you can just watch nature’s boundless creativity? So through time, I identified many subjects that strongly attract me, such as stories of expeditions and historical travels, humankind’s curiosity for unwelcoming and unexplored places, the bottom of the sea, black smokers, unreal underwater beasts, old navigation maps, mountain mythology, science documentary of all types, how Natural History Museums try to classify the world – and the more you dig, the more you discover!

ABM : There is an aspect we have not talked about so far, the strong reference between your distinctively cut works and the actual act of cooking. In a way you act like a real cook by cutting fishes and seafood, although made of clay. Do you see yourself as a cook?

EG : The act of eating, fishing, cutting, cooking or sharing fascinates me in many ways. It tells a lot about our relationship to our environment, to animals and plants that surround us – how we consider and use them. It is also a great way to understand a culture, how and why people gather together around meals. Once again, it is something we share with the rest of humanity. Also, the act of cooking can be both very cruel and joyful – maybe that is where my work connects with the food culture around the Mediterranean and Asian countries: dark humour, a certain aesthetic and the taste of feast! I often tell myself that there is clearly a proximity between cooking and making ceramics. Both are like alchemy in a way: by precise gestures, with chopping skills and the heat of a kiln, they transform raw and rough material into attractive objects.

ABM : With the strong demand for exotic seafood and fish comes the overfishing in the threatened oceans. Many species are facing extinction and images of plastic polluting the waters and beaches come to mind. During your travels, you are directly confronted with these problemes. How do you feel about them?

EG : The environment problem is now a global concern, even though we are so far from solving it. As most of the ocean space belongs to no-one, it belongs to everybody at the same time – and seas and oceans are to commonly seen as a limitless well of resources, or a desert place where all pollutants can vanish without any impact. Even when it “belongs” to some state, it is hard to be properly watched and protected, because of the distances, and the immensity of the areas. Besides, as we are terrestrial species with a limited access to the underwater world, we ignore so much of this universe. This could simply be summarized as “out of sight, out of mind” and could explain why humans behave so badly towards the oceans – a poor empathy towards something that represents 71% of the earth‘s surface and we should, in fact, consider as a volume too, not only as a flat area.

I often try to be optimistic, thinking the more you share the beauty and craziness of this environment, the more people will want to cherish and protect the fragile ecosystems of the abysses, of the coral barriers, of the mangroves, of every huge cetacean as much as the tiny and indispensable plankton. That would be a great start!

1 Art residency onboard Schooner Tara Expedition in 2016

interview with Antonella Bianca Meloni, curator, for the exhibition catalogue Studio — Kuma


© 2023 / Elsa Guillaume