a conversation with Catherine Willis

"Prenant appui plus sur le vide que sur le plein"
leaning more on emptiness than on fullness.

"Forms happen in an effortless, natural way."

slate, copper, perfumed silk, feathers, 2005, J.S. (U.S.A)

It was a few years ago that I was introduced to Catherine Willis' works through Ivan Terestchenko. Immediately, I found myself connected to her forms, her connection to nature, and to her use of scents, or "offerings", as she might call them. She told me that "if you are really quiet, everything has a scent, even the pebbles, even the meteorites."

It is in this stillness, that we can see, I believe. It is through artisans such as Catherine Willis, that we are able to "see" and experience the world. Catherine's work has many layers, and it has been difficult to wrap my mind around it without spending an afternoon with her in her studio. Scent is important to her work, and the experience of being present. Perhaps, it will happen in the future that we shall meet. But in the meantime, here is the conversation between Catherine and I, some of it in French and English. Letters passed back and forth in an attempt to understand her forms through images and words.

It is late tonight, and I am quiet, off to look for meteorites.

Thank you Catherine, and to Ivan. Always. - David John

above photograph by Ivan Terestchenko

I wrote to Ivan about Catherine when I began working on this interview, asking where they met:

"I met Catherine for the first time is the most auspicious and hospitable garden at a common friend's party. She was wrapped in the one of these textiles from a far away exotic and unpronounceable somewhere. It was a good start. Catherine turns whatever she touches into art. She eats, breaths, sleeps in art steadily, persistently, relentlessly with a communicating enthusiasm. Catherine is the ultimate artist in every possible sense of the word and a wonderfully gifted one too."

- Ivan Terestchenko

top: "PERFUME RING" January the 17th meadowsweet dyed silk, figtree branch, tonka beans, black cotton ligatures, sprayed with cardamom and labdanum tinctures. 2012

bottom: "TOOL FROM MY SHAMANIC GARAGE" seeds, porcupine quills, figtree twig, shell from Capbreton, cinnamon colored cotton ligatures, black cotton, sprayed w/labdanum tincture 2012

The conversation :

Scent. Will you explain how the sense of smell comes into your work?

Catherine: I consider my work as an exploration and a celebration of nature. To pay attention to smell is my way to observe quietly what I encounter on my path, a form of meditation, "Caminando se hace el camino." (translated, "walking is the way"). My blog is called Chemin Faisant. If you are really quiet, everything has a scent, even the pebbles, even the meteorites.

It is my way to acknowledge the mystery of being alive on this planet.

the perfume rings: exhibition curated by Diana Esnault-Pelterie.

Where do the scents come from, plants or other material? Where do you find these materials?

Catherine: I like to experiment. So, often I will use the propolis from my beehive, or precious scented woods brought back from souqs, or given by friends. The Perfume Rings are half filled with scented fragments and the pomegranate-dyed silks are impregnated with perfume.

How do you arrive at the forms in your sculpture? Do the scents find themselves involved in your works on paper?

Catherine: Forms happen in an effortless, natural way. I like the concept, developed by Soetsu Yanagi in his book "The Unknown Crafstman," of objects born, not made. On paper (I am always looking for interesting papers) I often use essential oils as pigments. But, I can also use bought beeswax based pastels or watercolor

the beast, 2010

Home of Ellen de Generes &Portiade Rossi. Photo from Architectural Digest, by Roger Davies

Catherine Willis' work, "Perfume Captor/ Capteur De Parfum."

Tell me about the bronze works?

I am only beginning to translate my white plaster sculptures into white patina bronzes. So far there is a photo of Bronze Parfume, the piece that now belongs to Ellen de Generes and Portiade Rossi on my site. Also in my site a photo of La Foret, portrait en pied ( with green patina bronze feet ) a piece that belongs to an Italian collector of mine, in Paris.

How long have you considered yourself an artist?

About 30 Years, I suppose. I consider being an artist is a way of life. So it does not stop when I am outside my studio.

Does sound influence your work? I noticed your installations with others involve music.

Perfumes, colors, sounds are wave lengths. I recently have begun a performance-concert project with a Brazilian musician friend from Paris, Pedro de Alcantara. He sings in overtones and plays his cello while I burn perfumes.

I'm particularly interested in an older work of yours,
7 DOORS, 7 PLANETS, 7 PERFUMES, Paris from 1985

This was the first time, in front of Charles Sablon Gallery, it has now become Musée du Montparnasse, that I was doing an installation with this correspondence between heaven and earth, between the days of the week, planets, metals, colors, perfumes. Monday, the moon, silver, pale yellow, an oak moss perfume. The spectator would go through these seven light cotton doors and smell the perfume hidden in the hems. (the ancestors of my Perfume Rings)

Since I have done several installations on the same theme ( two in the baroque Paris chapel of the Salpetriere, one performance in Venice with a pianist friend J.P.Armengaud at Ca Rezzonico in the Pulcinella room. The last one on this correspondence team is a perfumed garden I designed in Goa (together with French garden architect Alain Richert and Indian architects Nita and Arvind de Souza) for an Indian friend.

Seven granite altars on which the perfume of the day would be burned at sunset, seven colors for the flowering plans of each section of this garden by the sea.

lustre blanc, led, white plaster chandelier.2009.Pièce unique.Collection Cl. de B. France.

LUSTRE BLANC LED, the white plaster chandelier. Have you made any more hanging lights?
Were you happy with this work?

Lustre Blanc is une commande (the english word is probably commission ) from a French collector & friend of mine for the dining room of her manor house near Paris. Yes, I was happy with this work!

I have another lustre in preparation, also white plaster but bigger and with all the wiring outside, apparent. At the moment I am also making white plaster candle holders, waiting for a collector to order 2 or 3 before having them cast in white patina bronze.

The direction of your new work?

It seems my work tends to be more and more like a celebration of Nature, shamanic offerings. From cosmic events to scented plants, I celebrate color and perfume of the origins, the tension & lines of evolution, the patterns that connect.

It seems it gets lighter too, "prenant appui plus sur le vide que sur le plein": leaning more on emptiness than on fullness, like for my sculptures to be hung from the ceiling.

Who or what influences you?

Brancusi, Noguchi, Tea bowls masters, Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese Rothko, Man Ray, Piero della Francesca, John Berger, Krishnamurti, Eckardt Tolle, Jean Giono, Nicolas Bouvier, Gary Zukav, and recently Michael Ondatjee As for music, Jean Sebastian Bach, John Cage,Iranian and Indian music. Oh, I have forgotten Rainer Maria Rilke, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Wolfgang Laib.

Catherine Willis' portfolio here

visit Chemin faisant here

Not all those who WANDER are LOST." J.R.R. Tolkien