Artist Highlight: Cathy Savels
Cathy Savels is a Belgian artist based in France. Originally trained as an interior designer, over the past eighteen years, Cathy has been using her creative skill to produce original art works.
Cathy's works combine the traditional medium of painting with the use of other materials such as string, paper and cloth to create beautiful textured works which are both striking and accessible for the viewer. Her paintings are always of a botanical nature and she shows the beauty of nature by zooming right in close to the subject.
What does art and environmental activism mean to you. Would you consider yourself an activist, an artist or do you think these two things converge within your practice?
When I was much younger, and before I became a professional artist, I was definitely an activist. I did voluntary work at a bird hospital rescuing birds that were covered in oil and cleaned them up, brought them back to health and then released them back. I also stood in the street handing out leaflets on behalf of Friends of the Earth and planted trees. These days, my activism is much more subdued but it’s still there. I try and buy ethically, I recycle diligently and I will step in if I see nature or animals being blatantly harmed on my doorstep (so to speak). In my art, I show the beauty in nature in the hope that if a person finds it pretty, cute, amazing, then they may not wish to harm it. I paint all my subjects bigger than life so that it cannot be ignored.
Can you pinpoint a certain moment or particular project that started you on your journey on incorporating nature into your practice?
Since childhood, I have been interested in nature as both my parents were. I spent many hours by the local lake rescuing ducklings and lots of other creatures and nursed them back to health and I also used to go bird watching with my dad. So nature has always been part of my life. However, in 2004 I spent a short time living in Vienna, Austria. Whilst there, I went to see an exhibition by the American artist Eva Hesse. I was completely fascinated by the way she looked at nature and made these beautiful organic structures. They were huge, you could not ignore them and she used different materials such as string, cloth, metal etc to emulate textures. This is what kickstarted me looking at different media in my work and how I could make my natural subjects much more tactile in order to speak to people using another sense, other than just seeing.
What is your home environment like? Do you live in a city? How and where do you go to connect with nature?
After living in the UK for 23 years and having to do the 9-5 thing as an interior designer, I decided that if I wanted to work full time as an artist, I needed to emerse myself in nature and live a much more simple life. I sold up and moved to France with my 2 children. They have been doing their own thing for some time now and since they left home, I have moved around France quite a bit, always living in very remote places with either woodland all around, lakes, vineyards or fields. I've kept chickens, have cats and grow my own vegetables. Currently I'm living in the Dordogne region which is less remote but my house stands alone and is surrounded by fields which I can see from my studio. I love the open space and the constant change that the seasons bring. Now it's time to move again and I'm about to embark on another adventure in Ghana where I will spend at least 2 years. I want to do an ecological project there but until I'm there, I have not yet formulated exactly what that will be.
How do you feel when you paint natural and organic elements and work within natural contexts? Which emotions are evoked?
For me painting nature is like a meditation, I can lose myself in it for hours. I feel peaceful and connected with nature and if it was taken away from me, I would feel bereft. I work in solitude which gives me mental space to be creative. I have many visitors, usually the bird kind, but also deer and hares often come into the garden. It fills me with utter joy to have these moments.
You recreate organic elements such as sea corals in your sculptural pieces, how do you feel in regard to the ongoing danger the magnificent reefs around the world face? Has this been something important to you in making these works?
Absolutely. I was brought up by the sea in Belgium and I saw it gradually degrading and being ruined by industry as a child. It broke my heart to see Zeebrugge recently and where I used to travel on the tram to school, is now completely under water. I've always loved the sea and on my father's side, there have been fishermen as far back as the 1600's. There's a definite deep connection. Seeing images of plastic floating around, aquatic animals dying of ingesting plastic and coral reefs completely dying off has a big impact on me. When I was rescuing sea birds in Cornwall and the many hours it would take to get the oil washed off and nurse them back to health, I would just cry at the utter horror that was happening in our seas. I'm terribly sad about all of that.
Where did your practice start and has it evolved or changed since you started connecting with organic elements? Has your practice evolved through the use of new and different organic elements?
Having trained and worked as an interior designer, I've always had to paint in one way or another. I used to produce decorative pieces for my clients but would also have to do more technical drawings and paintings of elevations or artist's impressions for mood boards etc. When I first moved to France though, I was painting everything and anything! Then, one day, I was fortunate enough to meet an art teacher from the UK who looked at my work and said, 'they are very nice but why do you paint this?'. This questioned floored me actually and I did not paint for over 3 months. I just kept asking myself, what is it that I want to paint? I tried to think back to my childhood years and what I used to draw and paint and what I seemed to be good at then. I remembered painting flowers and insects and birds in great detail and that it was the tiny details of nature that fascinated me most. I've painted botanical subjects ever since.
The only way that my work has evolved is that my 'signature' has gotten much stronger and I have used different materials to emulate textures etc. With my impending move to Ghana, I'm hoping that I'm on the brink of new developments. Today, I definitely feel much stronger, and feeling like I need to do more, about the disaster the planet is facing and I think that with my art, perhaps I can put out a much stronger message than I have to date. I also have quite a surreal way of thinking and recently, I have started producing surreal paintings but still based on nature but with an ecological message. I would really like to keep evolving this idea.
Do you have any particular artist’s who have inspired you?
There are many artists that I admire but I'll name a few that definitely have an influence on me and my art. As I mentioned, Eva Hesse with her beautifully tactile organic structure installations was a moment of epiphany for me in the beginning. René Magritte for his surreal take but also his way of simplifying and precise way of painting. Georgia O'Keefe for her take on botanical subjects and again, the simplicity in which she represents flowers in a big and bold way. I also cannot forget my father's influence with his macro photography as he taught me so much about how to observe nature in all its glorious detail.
Do you have any particular books or websites that have inspired or helped you?
Ways of Seeing by John Berger immediately springs to mind. I get very easily bored so there are not many that I have actually ever completely finished. I've started numerous books on different artists, like Matisse, Monet, Picasso, all the usual suspects but generally I listen to podcasts whilst I work. These can vary greatly from Beyond the Studio, to Art Curious and ArtTactic. Whatever I feel I need or want at the time, generally I find information about it online. My partner is a Dr in Philosophy so much of my thinking aloud process about art is often done with him. It's very handy. :-)
What advice would you give yourself when you first started out as an artist. (Have you learned any important lessons through trial and error?
So many lessons have been learned and are still being learned! The first bit of advice I would give myself is really spend time thinking. Don't just paint anything and make sure that it's something you feel passionate about as this will always bring about better results, not just with the artwork itself, but you'll also feel more fulfilled as an artist. The second piece of advice would be to not try and second-guess what you think someone might want to buy. Just paint from the heart and the rest will come. Thirdly, spend much time just observing, really observe and try to notice everything so you understand your subject that much better.
What advice would you give young artists who want to start to connect with their environments?
Again, observe, ask questions, many questions. What do I want to show in my work? What is important to me? What message, if any, do I want to convey? What is the essence of the subject? How do you show that? Where's the light coming from? What color is the shadow? Etc. …
Why is it important to you to connect with your everyday environment and furthermore nature in a broader sense.
It's a question of a need to feel part of this glorious planet and all it has to offer. Not to exploit but to participate and be part of it, be in harmony with it. I think it's totally basic, like needing to eat, drink and keep warm or cool. All living creatures have these basic needs. Wild animals live in harmony, they take only what they need to survive, nothing more. When I see issues in inner cities with people, I'm convinced they would be happier with a lot more nature in their environment. So many people living in concrete jungles have lost that connection as often there's not even a local park to go to, to feed the squirrels or watch the pigeons. There's no greater joy than to nurture a courgette or tomato plant and then harvest the delicious food. The feeling of achievement of having been able to put food on your own plate is really powerful. Today that seems like such a simple thing but it's not, that connection is vitally important. It's a cycle, we nourish the plants and animals, they nourish us but today, it's hard to see this cycle. Not knowing where our food comes from creates terrible cruelty to animals with battery hens, intensive farming etc. but if you don't see it, and you simply go to the supermarket and pick up something in a packet, the connection is lost and we (humankind) stop caring. I don't want to stop caring or become indifferent and this is why I hang on for dear life to have, at least in a small way, a continuing connection with nature in the way I live but also in my art. I also hope that my paintings can bring a connection with nature to others too.