At once deeply expressive and highly-technical, Colette’s meticulously-rendered compositions invite deep, meditative viewing. Operating at the nexus of spirituality and science fiction, the artist utilizes a refined geometric language to depict mental and emotional landscapes, liminal spaces and expanded states of consciousness.
Interview with Claire Colette
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Claire, can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist?
I am originally from a small town in France where my mother grew up. My father is American and we moved to Southern California when I was a child so he could pursue his career as a screenwriter. I lived in San Francisco for ten years after undergrad, and completed my MFA at Mills College in 2013. I’ve been back in LA since 2014 where I live with my husband and newborn daughter.
No one thing motivated me to become an artist. I was very creative throughout my childhood and teenage years, though I didn’t hone any one medium or field of study until my late twenties. It happened slowly over time based on following my interests and instincts. Actually being able to call myself an artist was about overcoming my insecurities and acknowledging a deep part of myself that had been there all along.
Can you walk us through your creative process and planning stages for the paintings? Do you plan the compositions beforehand?
Yes, the paintings are meticulously planned and laid out before hand—usually in Adobe Illustrator. Sometimes they begin as sketches, but often they are just an idea in my mind I have to figure out how to translate. I like to lay it out digitally to ensure that it is balanced and usually work directly from the computer so I can keep the measurements. If I didn’t have a computer I would probably be doing quite a bit of math.
Are there are any recurring themes that you keep coming back to in your work? What is at the forefront of your mind at the moment?
Planes of consciousness, the sublime, deep time, math, and esotericism are all recurring themes. I’m interested in systems, boundaries, order – such as the idea of a universal order, systems in nature, a game with a set of rules, etc – and the infinite possibilities that can occur. The process I explained above works well with these themes, and my interests continually circle back.
I just had my first child a month ago, so at the forefront of my mind are things related to being a new parent; sleep cycles, breastfeeding, caretaking. Luckily my general concerns have not dissipated and in fact seemed all the more relevant in this new reality. Such as: how to move slowly, be present, stay open. I’d like to learn more about the natural world- around me and in general. I’m always searching for what affects change in the culture and in individuals. Also: how to be a better ally. And of course, the painting series I am working on. That’s always there,
Are there any specific imagery that you reference in the geometry in your work? Are the shapes symbolic in any way?
For the past couple of years I have repeatedly used the circle – and the most obvious reference is as a planet, or a sun or moon. I also like to think of it as an exalted figure or object of worship. In some paintings I think of it as the infinite, or consciousness, or the self, or god—or all of the above. Sometimes it’s a mistake in reasoning.
Your paintings maintain a steady low-value range of color across the surface—giving them a dreamlike quality. Have you always worked in this way?
I didn’t really start using color at all until after grad school. I used to work in graphite only—and that was enough. Now I think of my color palette relative to the place or time that I imagine the painting exists. Mostly it’s evening, nighttime, or dawn. I’ve always liked working in a reductive way—exploring big ideas with minimal materials. It is the same with color. Also, I love bold color in other people’s paintings, but I become physically uncomfortable when I try it in my own work. It’s a strange phenomenon but one I believe is important to respect.
You work in acrylic on canvas—what keeps you coming back to acrylic as a primary material?
Simply put, acrylic does what I want it to do. Which isn’t to say another medium couldn’t, but I have developed a working knowledge of it and a certain alchemical process (as I believe all painters do) that is mine. I still experiment quite a bit with it and incorporating other materials and mediums-but at this point I have no reason to stray from it as my primary material.
Are there questions about your work that you wish people would ask?
Not any one question in particular-but I like when it makes people curious. I am enjoying these questions.
What artists have you looked at the most over the years? Who are you looking at now?
I’ve regularly engage with the work of Etel Adnan, Agnes Martin, Jay DeFeo, Vija Celmins, Henry Darger, Isa Kenzken, Eva Hesse, Pete Alexander, Ad Reinhardt, light and space artists, minimalists, and land art.
Recently it has been Chris Ofili, Forest Bess, Sara Vanderbeek, Sam Gilliam, Holly Coulis, Ann Craven, Bernard Piffareti, Xylor Jane, Joan Snyder, Chris Martin, Alex Olson, Ellen Berkenblit, Tantric painting, The Transcendental Painting Group, Mayan architecture.
What have been some of the biggest influences on your life and your work thus far?
That is a tough question—so many things really. Certainly grad school had a big impact on my work, as well as moving back to LA four years ago after 10 years in the Bay Area. I’ve made a lot of big shifts in my work the last few years because of those experiences. Less immediately is a range of events and circumstances. Spending my early life in France and subsequent visits, having parents who were writers and literature majors who raised me as an avid reader, working in music venues in my twenties, experiencing loss, a yoga and meditation practice, and travel all come to mind.
What is a typical day like for you?
As I mentioned I just had a baby, so nothing is typical at this point. I have been getting in the studio almost every day for a few hours in the morning before my husband goes to work as a music instructor. Exercise is a priority for me so I try to get out every day, either to walk or to yoga. I’ve had some time off, but soon I will be back to working part time as an artist assistant. It’s a lot to juggle, but my husband and I are fairly adept at navigating busy lives.
What type of studio scenario do you need to get work done? Can you tell us a bit about your workspace? What are absolute necessities in the studio?
I’ve worked in all kinds of settings. I’ve had studios out of the house, in a collective, in my bedroom, in my living room, in the back of an art gallery, etc.
Right now my studio is in my converted garage. I can really work anywhere—as long as I have enough space. I’ve always adapted based on whatever circumstance I am in. With a new baby having my studio attached to the house makes the most sense and is working well. My ideal space is a proper studio outside of the house with ample natural light.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
Ideally I am well rested, well fed, and have a clear mind in the studio. For the most part I just deal with whatever is coming up—I work when I can.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Much too much to list but off the top of my head:
Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. Glass, Irony and God by Anne Carson. Master of the Eclipse by Etel Adnan. Laurie Anderson live. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. Anything by Ursula K. Le Guin
Hearing Joanna Macy read from her translation of Rilke’s Book of Hours. Parable of the Sower/Talents by Octavia Butler. The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir. Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse. Anything by James Baldwin. White Ink by Helene Cixous. The film Call Me by Your Name.
Right now I am reading: Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich on audio, and on my nightstand is The Paris Review.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
I listen to music or audiobooks depending on which stage of the painting process I am in. I have a pretty eclectic taste in music, but some favorite musicians for the studio are Alice Coltrane, Nick Cave, Grimes, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam, Gene Clark, Rihanna, Girma Yifrashewa, LFZ and currently Joni Mitchell.
How important is the place where you live to your studio practice? This could include geographic location, city, neighborhood, community, etc.
I am definitely sensitive to my environment—and every new studio/neighborhood/city/commute changes my studio practice in small or large ways. I can be influenced by something I see daily on a commute, the way the light shines through a window, or simply the energy of a place. I can’t predict how, but I know eventually it will show up in the artwork in one way or another. One thing I have noticed is that my work changes based on the amount of natural light I have in the studio. I’ve had studios with no windows and a few months later realized I am making dark, static paintings.
What is the art community like in Los Angeles? Does the weather have an effect on your work or mood
Trying to explain the art community in Los Angeles is like trying to explain what it is like to live in America. The art world here contains multitudes, and I am aware of how singular my experience of it is. I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by a large crew of (mostly female) artists who are wildly talented, scrappy, loose, driven, kind and supportive. We regularly champion each other’s work without much competition. The struggle here is the same as many other cities—in that mid range galleries are closing, blue chip galleries appear to be thriving, and project spaces are picking up the slack though unable to support artists financially. Regardless (or because of?) it is a very charged, creative moment and I feel lucky to be here.
The weather definitely has an effect on my mood and work! The first year I was here I felt like I was thawing out. I don’t think I realized how much the tepid San Francisco weather had affected me. That year I made a series of paintings with very bold colors-a southwest palette. I couldn’t stick with it, and ultimately settled on more muted tones, but my work has certainly expanded and shifted.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
Not advice really, but years ago I was doing a residency in NYC at the School of Visual Arts, and Jerry Saltz was a visiting lecturer. I remember said that most of us would not continue to be artists past a certain point; that, percentage-wise, very few do compared to who is in grad school or in a residency program. I remember in that moment knowing, absolutely without a doubt, that I would always be an artist and I was in it for the long haul.
A couple years ago I went to see Ursula K. Le Guin speak and she was asked what, in her opinion, was the key to success as a writer—and she said, “persistence. ” I think that’s the ticket –well, that and some level of talent of course, but that can evolve. So few artists are successful right off the bat. For a long time you live in failures. If you make it through enough of those you become like a cockroach—impossible to kill. I think my friends and I are like that. We are here to stay.
What is one of the biggest challenges to being a working artist?
Career wise, the path is nonlinear. There is very little security of any kind. Even artists I know who are doing enormously well seem to have a knowledge that the bottom could drop out at anytime.
Of course the real challenges are in the studio—but that’s the good stuff.
How do you view technology and social media and has any particular platform or tool impacted you as an artist?
I have mixed feelings about it. I think Instagram has been a very powerful, connecting tool for artists. It’s also a great platform for expression (albeit limited), and of course promotion. The kicker is the addictive nature of it. Someone else could speak much more eloquently than I on how the internet and social media has changed how we view art. For my part I try to utilize it as a force for good, not stare at my phone too much, and make sure I am going out and seeing shows in person as much as I can.
What is one of the best exhibitions you have seen recently?
Xylor Jane at Parrasch Heijnen Gallery. Most of the shows at Parrasch Heijnen Gallery last year would qualify.
Besides art, what are some of the things that interest you or that you enjoy the most?
Music—I’ve always bee surrounded by musicians and now am married to one. I love practicing yoga and dance. Reading of course. Being in nature as much as possible.
Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
Group shows at Gallery Also and 0-0 LA in July. A solo show at Ochi Projects in September.
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Claire and her work, check out her website.