How did your artistic journey start, Valérie?
When I was a child, I remember one of my now oldest friends telling me about her grandfather. He was a painter, and I was intrigued by the possibility that you could play and create as an adult. Throughout primary and secondary school, I tried out different hobbies – I attended art, music and dance classes. I would draw or write when I was up in my room and I remember how much I enjoyed this time and space. I studied Clinical Psychology at Ghent University in Belgium and during my Masters I reconnected with the arts. One module I choose was ‘Psychoanalysis and Art’, and I wrote my dissertation on the subject. I was circling around it but what I really wanted to do was to create myself. However, I felt I lacked the skills and confidence. When I graduated from university, I enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Aalst, a local art school that offered adult classes. My art teacher provided an explorative and encouraging space where we could try out different materials. My preference went to painting so I continued to take classes before I moved to Scotland where I studied Art Psychotherapy.
How did you arrive at the theme of your work?
I remember early on in a class where we were painting in monochrome that something clicked. I had always been fascinated by old family photo albums because they offered a small glimpse into my family’s past. In a way, I was (and I am) trying to understand myself through previous generations. The black and white photos give a sense of bygone days but asking my grandfather or parents about it, helped to create a narrative. Gradually, I incorporated the pictures into my art practice. When looking at the photographs, I get a sense that some things will always be left unknown or unsaid, and by engaging with the image through painting I’m trying to envision what that might have been. The painting process creates a way for me to be part of, and to recreate family history, to find a way to connect with family members that I never met or who aren’t here anymore. It’s a way to challenge a linear sense of time. When I paint and engage with the material, it evokes a sense of loneliness and melancholia but at the same time the painting process soothes those feelings.
Can you walk us through your creative process?
From time to time, I browse through the photo albums. Even though there’s a set number of pictures and they don’t change, there’s always another photo that catches my attention and that I suddenly see in a different way. I’m drawn to the contrast in light and the clothing or fabrics. I will have a photograph in mind that stirred up something but it usually takes a while before I start painting as if it needs to simmer. There’s also a mixture of holding on to this feeling of endless possibilities before I start the actual painting and a fear that I might have forgotten how to paint. I have a vague idea of what the painting could look like. I have it in the back of my mind but it can change throughout the process. Initially, I focus on the background by adding different layers of colour in various consistencies. I’m not trying to think too much about the composition of the figures. When I add the figures, I try to integrate the background into the shapes at the forefront. The parts of the painting that I’m often most pleased with are the bits that, although a result of my actions, were never intentional.
How has your practice changed over time?
It changed in the sense that I’ve found my own rhythm and pace to producing work, and how it fits into my life. I’m not a full-time artist and I’ve struggled in the past to find a balance between working and art-making. I’m sure this is something that won’t go away completely as circumstances change and it’s a matter of adapting to the time that is available. Recently, I have been able to carve out a space that is designated to painting, drawing or writing. I would always want more time but I’m very grateful for the stability my work provides which dissipates the pressure of having to be productive and earn a living as an artist.
How do you overcome creative blocks?
For me, there are two types of creative blocks. One where I can’t begin with something new and one where I am in the middle of painting but suddenly I don’t know what to do next. I trust the process, even though I can be impatient. Forcing myself won’t work. If I’m stuck, there’s usually something to it so I try to make sense of it in order to move forward. I work as an Art Psychotherapist so I implement art materials in the therapeutic process with my clients but the training also helped me understand my own creative process. After finishing a piece, I need time to disentangle myself from the work, separate myself from it and understand it as something on its own. The actual painting is only a small part of the process so a lot is in the making before and after. In order to overcome stuck-ness, it helps to take a step back and do other things. I can get inspired and motivated by seeing other people’s work or going into nature and take pictures. I have a playlist that I listen to which helps me connect with my ‘painting mood’. I make reflective images in my work as an Art Psychotherapist to process clinical material but I also use it when I struggle with painting or life in general. It has a similar function to a journal; it’s private, it’s not about the end product, it doesn’t need to be aesthetically pleasing. Finally, talking to my partner, who listens patiently, brings me at ease and encourages me to continue.
Who influences you? Which other artists work do you love?
I’m very intrigued by the work of Berlinde De Bruyckere, Marlene Dumas, Peter Doig and Frank Bowling, among others. All of them have their own personal and unique way of working, which inspires me to want to do the same.
What advice would you give to artists who are just starting out?
Give yourself time to explore your identity as an artist. I agree with Brian Daines from the May interview that’s available on your website – try not to lose sight of your own interests, creativity and way of working wherever possible.
Is there anything else you would like people to know about your work or your experiences as an artist?
The work that is exhibited in the Summer Show are paintings that I made since I moved to Scotland in 2016. This meant being further away from family and figuring out how to stay connected. Making these paintings has definitely been part of that. You’ll notice that all the figures are painted in shades of Payne’s Grey, a colour that I very much enjoy working with and keep coming back to. It’s a connection with the monochrome photo’s that I use as a starting point.
See Valérie’s work at our Summer Show, running at Six Foot Gallery until 6th July 2023.