Jill Guillais is a visual artist and she also teaches visual arts. She studied at the Beaux-Arts, both in France and in England. She followed an art therapy course, before eventually becoming a teacher, while still practicing her own form of art. Today, the sparkling and curious young artist shares with us her views on Art with a capital A, and why it matters so much to her.
Let’s begin with the beginning: what does Art mean to you?
In art therapy, you usually divide art into two categories: art with a small a, which is a skill and Art with a capital A, through which you seek beauty. However, as we are told in the Beaux-Arts, Art with a capital A should not only achieve visual satisfaction. Shapes have meaning. Artworks are not only decorative – they raise issues.
To what extent can a shape have meaning?
I had a friend in the Beaux Arts who had amazing drawing skills, and she was a real scanner. She had a beautiful technique, and perfectly mastered figurative representation, but she couldn’t take a step back to question her work. Her quest was only aesthetic. A work of art raises questions, and offers some clues as to how to answer them. For instance, an artist can be interested in texture and, through his creation, will question the materiality of the work. Mastering a technique is one thing, but I think that the hardest part is to go through the reverse process, to go beyond this mastery in order to offer something new, and more personal. Picasso used to say: ‘I’ve spent my whole life learning how to draw like a child’!
To me, being an artist means being able to see things differently, because every detail has its own potential. It’s like a permanent philosophical reflection through which you are always questioning everything. Creating means interacting with the world, and realising how your own existence can impact matter. It is reassuring, in a way, because you can feel that you exist.
I like it when you can see the artist’s touch, when you can guess the movements that led to the final work of art
Where do you draw your inspiration from? Who is your muse?
Bricomarchés?! [French shops where you can find DIY material] (laughter) When I observe how varied shapes and materials can be in DIY shops, I feel really inspired. I like the idea of refusing to use noble materials, and that’s why I like the Arte Povera artists. Like Giuseppe Penone for instance, who uses bay leaves to remind us of breathing. I like it when you can see the artist’s touch, when you can guess the movements that led to the final work of art.
What about your own creations? How would you describe them?
It’s hard to describe your own process and your own creations. I like piecing things together, connecting them, placing them on top of one another until some meaning comes out of it. I don’t want my work to be too hard to understand. I’d like people to be able to appreciate my work when they see it, and to comment on what they see in a simple way, while being offered further food for thought. I’ve made a work out of potato peels. I had fun choosing this basic material. You can find the whole thing visually harmonious, and the spectator can talk about it easily. He doesn’t necessarily need to understand the whole narrative that emerged step by step, as the project developed.
I had no idea that you had used potato peels! I thought these were dead leaves. Could you tell us about that work?
It’s great; it shows that the work can surprise the spectator! What I like is going against noble materials, while using a modern presentation system, which is both simple and pure. It’s a way to highlight the object, to offer it enough space to exist and to impact the spectator. For that particular work, I was interested in the idea of container – in that case the potato peels, that usually contain something. Even without their content, containers learn how to exist by themselves, and embark on a new life, under a new shape. The skin, the slough, and everything that is apparent and makes something else inaccessible, the lack of information – you can find all these themes in most of my works.
This sculpture is alive. It shrinks, so I have to add some new peels, I have to feed it just like a mother would take care of a child. To me, the meaning of a work emerges gradually as I am conducing my experiments, and constantly going back and forth between practice and reflection.
I refuse the idea of completion. I can rework my projects, alter them, or change the title of my works from one year to the next
Why have you used potato peels?
When I was younger, I used to photograph potatoes, because I thought their skin was beautiful – the folds, the eyes, the colours. I had done a series of black and white photographs of half-peeled potatoes with sculpted flesh. One day, I found a photograph by Brassaï called Circumstancial Magic. It symbolically put an end to my photographic work. It carried within it all the meaning that I was looking for. You can see a potato on a black background, with sprouts, just like bronchi. I kept being interested in potatoes, but from a new tridimensional and conceptual perspective. I kept questioning the relationship between container and content between what is accessible and what is not.
When do you know that your work is complete?
I never do! That’s exactly what I have written at the back of my portfolio: ‘every project is a potential sketch for some future creation; therefore this portfolio is still a work in progress. I refuse the idea of completion. When I was studying at the Beaux-Arts in England, I wrote my final essay on incompletion and its subtitle was ‘how to avoid an end’. To me, a work can be exhibited because I shape it to show it at that particular moment. That’s why I can rework my projects, alter them or change the title of my works from one year to the next.
Would you have any advice to offer artists in the making?
There’s a word in English that I like a lot: serendipity. It’s the art of discovering something by chance, like, for example when a scientist is looking for an antidote against a specific disease and ends up finding a medicine to cure another. You have to remain open, and accept to discover things that are not part of your original plan. Be curious and pay attention to all the possibilities just round the corner!
Check Jill Guillais’ website for more.