View Artist Statement
| || || |
Gallery Direct Interview with HENRI BERTRAND|
Henri Bertrand, a Swiss geographer, is a sculptor who works with pieces of wood and transforms them into a combination of folds, forms, tensions, colours and rhythms which he associates to heterogeneous metallic elements. His pieces are inspired from the past and present forces that have contributed to the shaping of the terrestrial globe. In some of his most recent work, including numerous human silhouettes, his inspiration is completed by a clear expression of his sensitivity to Human fragility as opposed to “eternal” and powerful Earth’s forces.
Could you share your earliest memories where you knew that you had this interest in the world around you and the forces that shaped our earth?
As a geographer, my interests and studies were shared between physical and human geography. I have always been fascinated by the never ending powerful inner forces which permanently shape the face of the Earth’s crust, sending parts of continents closer or further apart, to higher levels or deeper depth. While surface forces act as levelling agents, immediately eroding heights and filling lows, thus preparing new resources for yet to come inner forces actions. While these fundamental processes still take place at geological time scales, life keeps developing its complex evolution paths at time scales that humans have largely constricted to their own, thus tending to consider their role on this planet only through this narrow point of view. These latter considerations led me to widen my fields of interest. Studying geological elements focused my interests for quite a while, but the attitudes of Humans faced with these environmental conditions later took over. Searching to understand interactions between human societies and environment led me to the study of landscape creation. From the very first scattered human groups of hunter gatherer to our omnipresent high technological societies, understanding the creation of landscapes, the relationships established between human societies, and the environment to satisfy their “needs” became my main field of interest.
Where did you receive your formal education and at what point did you decide you wanted to become an artist?
All my schooling and university studies were done in Geneva, Switzerland. During secondary school, I felt attracted by graphic expression and visual arts in general. I therefore expressed the desire to start Art classes, but at the time, this was not approved by my parents. End of this story. Choosing geography studies gave me the opportunity to develop a broader and deeper understanding of human and natural environments. After completion, it led me to some years of assistantship in the Geography Department, Geneva University, with a specific interest in teaching cartography to students. This implied studying graphic semiology and working with the Department graphic designer. I was getting closer to my early field of interest, perhaps not as artistically as I wished for, but it was very stimulating. It was at that time I felt the need to participate in several creative drawing and sculpture workshops. Stretched over several years, some on week-ends or now and then during the week, these moments have been most rewarding and enriching. After I’d left University, I got a teaching job in a Secondary High School, with the opportunity to organize exhibitions to sensitize students to specific topics and art. This led me to contact local artists and imagine ways to present their work and creative processes in attractive ways, which ended up stimulating my own creative needs. It wasn’t long before I felt the need to master graphic creation more professionally which lead me to undertake an evening course in computer graphic design for a couple of years. Still teaching, I started to work for local firms and associations, producing all kinds of graphic material, posters and presentation booklets. For myself, I created many images using Illustrator and Photoshop as soon as these programs became available. The final step was soon to materialize. During the 90s, I found myself more and more obsessed by the need to express my thoughts in some visual way that focused on the importance of places, the smallness of Humanity’s time scale in regard to geological ones and the weakness of the seemingly endless power of humans in regard to underlying forces connected to the making of landscapes. I followed a couple of thinking paths in these fields and eventually produced a few pieces of sculpture and paintings. By the end of 2003, a friend gave me the opportunity to show some of these pieces along with my first “bas-reliefs” carved out of wood planks. Almost 40 years after having first felt the will to express myself as an artist, I was getting somewhere close to it! Or so it felt.
During your career, who or what has given you the most inspiration and how do you feel this affected your career?
If I consider the development of my artistic feelings, maybe I should start with my father, despite his reaction to my wish to study art, mentioned in my answer to your previous question. He was a real craftsman and probably made an early impression on me. He made use of all the things one usually gets rid of, he showed me what could be done with seemingly useless bits of wood and other materials. Creating out of scrap the little child’s scooter I was dreaming of one Christmas, he deeply impressed me and I think my love for woodworking can be rooted to this event. Imagining and creating small objects has been part of my life ever since. As for the object of my inspiration, I can only say that I’ve had all the time to accumulate knowledge and feelings given by life to a sensitive person. This accumulation allowed me to develop my present artistic project. The professional topics I worked on kept me interested in Humanity’s history and achievements, constantly questioning myself about their fundaments and meanings in regards to Earth’s history itself. As I mentioned in your question about my formal education, geography studies completely changed my understanding of landscapes and human activities in general. Maybe the seed that developed in my recent artistic quest should be tightly connected to these earlier moments of my life. Particularly if one considers my work as an expression of my natural landscape’s perception as an ever changing fundamental element rather than a constant one given for human venture. I have also been inspired by artists’ work I have discovered, books I have read, people I have exchanged with, landscapes, human attitudes that have impressed me, all which have left some traces in my brain. Surely, these must be present somewhere in my artistic creation.
You recently spent two years in British Columbia. Could you tell us what drew you to Canada and specifically the province of British Columbia?
Life sometimes comes out with unexpected presents and spending two years in BC was one of them. The fact that my wife, a medical doctor, had to develop a two year research program abroad induced a discussion about which possible destination to choose among the few adequate research centres to consider. Among those, North American centres of excellence in the right research field emerged as the most appropriate as, on top of giving the best scientifically, they fitted our other considerations well. We valued a place that would be as different as possible from the one we were living in (relatively rural Swiss environment), as well as the fact that it should be an English speaking place (a good way to practice a different language from our French mother tongue). Vancouver, with its high quality research centre added to Canada’s many human and physical qualities, became the obvious choice. Living there would give us the opportunity to experience life in a large North American city with an easy access to great wild spaces. Hopefully, it would also allow us to get a better knowledge of the life and influence of First Nations in an occidental dominant modern society. The perspective to leave Switzerland for two years also gave us the opportunity to discuss my professional situation and finally decided I would leave my teaching job completely to focus my activities on full time sculpting. Facts were soon to prove we had made the right decision. Within a month of my arrival in Vancouver, I found a studio at 1000 Parker Street, a famous place where more than 100 artists and artisans work. Things just seemed to fall into place. I arrived in July 2004, started to work by the end of August and managed to show some pieces in November for the East Side Culture Crawl. This was the beginning of a long chain of positive events.
I understand you use pieces of old growth wood. Could you tell us how old you prefer this wood to be and where you find such precious pieces to use in your artwork?
When I first started on what was then my imaginary geography project, still very influenced by my previous computer graphic activity, I was not too attached to the age or origin of the pieces of wood I chose to work on. As long as their appearance created some personal resonance that allowed me to imagine what I wanted to make out of them, I was happy. But, after a few months in Vancouver, the strength of landscapes, natural and built up, the brutality of their contact, in comparison to European landscapes that I was used to, drew me to a more organic approach to my work. The importance of the connection that exists between trees, from which my pieces originate, and the places where they grow, as well as their life spans, was becoming an important part of my process. Older trees have taken decades, if not centuries, to grow, carrying into their structure the characteristics inherited from the soil and climate of their living place. BC’s primary rain forest made me aware of an important discrepancy between the meaning and conditions of their life compared to ours. Vancouver’s history, for example, from its birth to present time had taken place in a shorter period than some local trees’ lifetime. Becoming aware of this caused a meaningful evolution of my work. From then on, I looked for pieces of wood of known age and origin, if possible over a century old, carrying scars and faults that could witness their life conditions and the passing of time. Small wood mills in the Fraser Valley became my main source of raw material, mainly western maple and cedar wood. This gave me the opportunity to add some new experience to my life, getting to know more of British Columbia’s history through men who were so close and fond of their country. Back in Switzerland, my quest for wood took the same direction. A search based on finding a very specific network of wood mill workers who take note of every detail they can about the trees they cut and store. It became quite an enriching adventure. Until recently, my choice of wood has always been focused on boards I chose for their interesting appearance, for their faults and, if possible, first traces of decay. These latter traces can be very interesting as they draw captivating patterns in the wood structure. One has to be careful though with such wood, as the action of the bacteria and fungi causing these motives eventually lead to an important loss of wood density, making it unusable. Nowadays, they can sometimes be old growth tree trunks showing interesting outer shapes and, if possible, major damages caused by lightning or very strong meteorological accident for example. With these, wood resistance to weathering must be considered, as these large sculptures stand a good chance to end up outdoors, which is not the case for the bas-reliefs and other smaller pieces I produce.
When you find a piece of wood that interests you and fits your criteria, can you picture in your mind what you will do with it, or does this come later when you start working with it?
Searching for pieces of wood I can work on is a lengthy process. I take a long time to find pieces, either planks or trunks, for which I feel the right vibration. Once I reach this stage, I usually get a very quick and fairly clear idea of what I would like to express out of the chosen wood. In fact, only very few pieces attracted me without giving me a precise idea of what they would become once sculpted. One red cedar piece in particular attracted me without a finished image attached to it. Meant for a First Nations sculptor, who eventually decided not to buy it, it attracted me despite its apparent muteness. Back in my studio, I placed it standing against the wall where I could see it every day. It took over six months before it finally gave me an opening. All of a sudden, I knew what should be done with it, what meaning it would finally carry, as if the piece of wood was as responsible as I was for this change. Within one morning, I drew the outlines of its future structure and finalized it within a couple of weeks. You can see it on the site: its title is “Getting Organized”. I must add that if I choose wood pieces for the clues they offer me right away, taking these first visions to physical sculpting is a long mental and sensual process that can expand itself over months.
Your sculptures appear to be of many different pieces of wood. Could you tell us a little about how your sculptures take shape and if you use different types of wood in each piece?
Each piece I sculpt is made out of one single piece of wood. Apart from a few exceptions, I attach a great importance to keep intact the natural uncut side of the piece of wood I work on, using its outline as one element to generate the main structure of the strata I draw on the wood piece. My technique has evolved and shows two different periods. At first, I worked out a very technical way to physically achieve what I had in mind. It combined very simple traditional ways of expression with new technologies. Basically, after I had drawn the outlines of the strata structure on the wood and photographed it with a digital camera, I used computer techniques to produce a mathematically defined image of the drawn lines ensemble. It could then be read by a water jet cutting machine to cut very precisely and finely all the desired strata. From this point, I was back to traditional sculpting techniques to give, by hand with wood chisel and sanding paper, a regular undulating relief to each stratum of the sculpture to be. This achieved, a colour scheme was applied to the strata before reassembling them to the original wood piece shape. More recently, I decided I would no longer go through the technical part of the process described above. Keeping the wood piece as a whole, without cutting it into pieces, is the major meaningful change introduced, allowing me to keep the wood integrity. In the final aspect, there is no noticeable variation, but the work is quite different, taking longer hours of accurate shaping and colouring. Of course, this more traditional way also suits my work on large tree trunks better, allowing much greater wood thickness than before. This transformation was probably induced by my evolution towards a more spontaneous and organic expression, as well as my move in the direction of much larger sculptures.
Your sculptures all seem to have a meaningful story. Could you tell us the story or symbolic meaning behind your pieces “A Particular Shine” and “The Winner”?
As a matter of fact, for most of the pieces I produced until I left Vancouver and soon after, I played little games with myself, finding titles that were not related to the basic source of inspiration that had led to their birth. Titles I used allowed me to find a certain humorous distance to my work, a kind of second degree. This approach, which I still use from time to time, allows me to avoid giving too strong a lead towards what I really want to express. Talking about one’s visual production is a dangerous business, as I think words will only end up with narrowing possible interpretation of the work. But, as you’ve asked, I will give you some keys about the 2 pieces you have chosen. “The Winner” This piece has been carved out of a piece of Western Maple with very strong natural characteristics that made me think of a rather tormented landscape. It has been treated with colour combinations used by Native West Coast Sculptors on some of their work. It was produced at the same time as a number of pieces including metallic discs, a symbolic universal representation of the Universe, Eternity or Peace, combined with my ever present representation of terrestrial landscape shaping forces. The latter, being expressed by the repetition of simple undulations and strata, hopefully convey the idea of movement and power. When I later looked at that piece, the fugitive image of a swimmer’s strong crawl appeared to me, as an uninvited but respectable passing guest. For fun, I called it “The Winner”, considering this image of a competing swimmer and keeping my first impression of primal powerful strength . “A Particular Shine” This piece has been carved out of a piece of Western maple which had got to a very advanced stage of decay, left with just enough solid matter to carve an interesting piece. I guess I could say that, in my mind, the split bronze sphere, nested on top of the strong folds of what could be seen as the evocation of a powerful rock bed, summarizes a planet Earth deeply influenced by human activities. Thus, the splitting into two parts and the mirror finish of each inner flat surface gives an endless/timeless number of reflections that lead us to a never reached centre. To echo what I expressed above concerning describing words, I’d stress the fact that beyond the intentions I put into this piece, impressions and feelings it might give to viewers appear to me as the most important meaning it can carry.
You must have a very big studio where you work. Could you tell us a little about it and what tools you use to create your pieces?
Actually, my studio is not that big as I use a bit less than 60 square meters of actual working space in a studio of about double that surface. It is a place loaded with good memories still alive in the heart of many older villagers. For many years, it had been the workshop of the village weelwright, who eventually changed its activity into carpenter work in the 1950’s. When I managed to rent it from his grandson, it had been unused for 5 or 6 years. As this workshop is situated in the middle of the village, in a very old and large historic house, it did not go unnoticed when I started to work in it. With its worn out floor boards and ancient large wood working machinery it has a very distinct atmosphere, very much appreciated by myself and visitors. Outside, I keep a large amount of tree trunks waiting to be worked on. The tools I use are mainly hand and machine wood chisels, electric sanders and special grinding chain discs to take away large amounts of matter from tree trunks. A very large old band-saw is sometime used to cut special shapes in big wood pieces.
How many pieces do you work on at any one time and how long would you say it takes you to complete a sculpture?
I often go through the drawing and rough shaping stages of several pieces at a time, usually somewhere between 3 and 5, depending on supply and characteristics of my raw material. At the moment, 14 pieces are more or less advanced and about five others have reached a conceptual maturity, ready to be materialized soon. This is a very unusual situation due to the fact I am preparing a personal show for next Spring, mostly based on new pieces. For several reasons it is difficult to talk about time taken to complete a sculpture. Should thinking time from the first creative spark to the achieved conceptual image be included? But how could one evaluate the duration of such a process? As I mentioned earlier on, the first idea often reveals itself very quickly, almost immediately after I have chosen a raw piece of wood. But then, its finalization can develop into a lengthy period, showing active thinking moments followed by dormant ones, before it reaches completion. The actual sculpting, colouring and finishing would probably take somewhere between 70 to a 110 hours for sizes shown on the site. It will be quite different for the larger more technical pieces I’m working on now. For the pieces including human silhouettes, until now between around 50 to 70 different characters in one sculpture, around 15-20 hours must be added. All this time, during which simple repetitive movements develop themselves for hours running, I reach a very peaceful state of mind, a strong feeling of adequacy with the World. A gift I appreciate every day.
What are your favourite pieces of work you have done so far and why are they your favorites?
Yet another difficult question to answer. Of course, I sometimes feel a special satisfaction with some piece or other, it would probably have been easier to explain why some pieces satisfy me less than others, as I can often find objective reasons of dissatisfaction. My favourite pieces are always the ones to come, the ones that still convey the challenge of materializing the mental sculpture image that invades my mind every minute of every day for such long periods. Favourites lie in the future.
Copyright (C) 2009 www.GalleryDir.com - GALLERY DIRECT - All rights reserved.
| || || |