Thursday, 8 August 2013

OPEN STUDIO: Nathalie Hildegarde Liege

 'If I talk to you I may break everything. But that's not my fault; I can be very very sorry afterwards. But a break in a piece of glass can never be hidden.' 

Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2011 

This is the quote that leapt out at me from, the website of artist Nathalie Hildegarde Liege. Then, when I start browsing through the site I read this from Henry Moore:  'It is a mistake for a sculptor or painter to speak or write very often about his job.  It releases tensions needed for his work.' 

Oh dear. I arrive at the English Bridge Workshops wondering if I’m going to be personally responsible for destroying a work of art by forcing Nathalie to talk about it.  Or maybe I’ll find Nathalie unwilling to talk to me at all.

The English Bridge Workshops are situated in a large Victorian building just over the bridge on what’s known locally as the English Bridge gyratory. The building used to be a school, but now it houses a collection of artists’ studios, including those for a sculptor, a jewellery-maker and a couple of illustrators. Nathalie has space in it for firing glass, and a large airy studio that’s full of her work.   She’s primarily known for her stained-glass, but she sees herself as a fine artist in the widest sense. Her walls are full of paintings, prints and sketches, and every available work surface is covered in sculpted pieces using mixed media, including glass.

Nathalie is a tall woman with sharp eyes behind her specs and a long dark plait.  Today she has a flower tucked into her hair.  Her accent pins her down as French, but her English is very good and, despite my misgivings, I find her very open.  No problem about being prepared to talk. Nathalie claims to not be naturally talkative, especially about her work, but sharing is obviously very important to her.

Nathalie grew up in the suburbs of south-east Paris, the daughter of a computer analyst father and seamstress mother, whose greatest claim to fame was that she made the wedding dress for a Russian princess, the bride of Prince Michel Magaloff, married in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris.  ‘I regret that I don’t remember it,’ Nathalie says.  ‘I was a baby in the womb when that dress was being made, and only a few months old when the wedding took place.’

After school, Nathalie chose to study Fine Art at the Sorbonne where the concept of plastic art was stretched to include studies in poetry, theology, psychology and ethnology. Afterwards she worked for a while in the Pompidou Centre, where she was influenced by the work of Louise Bourgeois, which she saw at close hand on a daily basis.  ‘There was something in it,’ she says.  ‘Half-serious, half-naughty.  Something very French.’

Nathalie was very interested in the thinking of Joseph Beuys, in the ideas behind social sculpture and in Andrei Tarkovsky's concept of sculpting in time. The Sainte-Chapelle and Chartres cathedral windows unfolded for her a love of light and glass. 

Nathalie came to the UK in 1995. In France she was confronted with two completely separate worlds functioning side by side, very much in the Renaissance tradition. In the UK, however, the roles of stained-glass designers and manufacturers were brought together, so that designers were trained to get their hands on all the techniques involved in making their own glass - and this was what Nathalie wanted. 

Initially Nathalie attended the Swansea Institute, but left after the first year, disappointed that the teachers who had interviewed her weren't there on her course. The final straw came when her neighbour was stabbed.   'I had to rescue him from a bath of blood at four in the morning,' Nathalie said. 'It was another reason for wanting to leave. I moved to Wrexham University, where I was much happier.' 

Nathalie graduated in 1998 and received the Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass Journeyman’s Award for 1998-2000, which was a great honour  Her first workshop was in Ironbridge, then she moved to the English Bridge Workshop, where she’s been working ever since.

In recent years, Nathalie has produced stained-glass for private commissions as well as public and worship sites at Gobowen Hospital,  Shrewsbury Cyber Café, Bryn Offa School and St Luke’s Church, Grimethorpe. Last time I visited the English Bridge Workshop, it was the St Luke’s project that was being worked on.  Now Nathalie’s working on windows for St James’s, Ryhill in Yorkshire, in memory of parishioner June Mary Cooper, based on the theme of Our Lady of Walsingham – whose 950th anniversary, by a happy coincidence, was celebrated the year the windows were commissioned. At the same time, Nathalie is working on a series of small Icons, having been introduced to the medieval art of icon painting [‘I love the freedom that egg tempera brings’] by the icon artist, Aidan Hart.

Nathalie says that her work has changed greatly in recent years.  Concurrent with her stained-glass projects she’s working on a series of fine art pieces whose source are the words Enter into the rocks and hide in the earth, taken from the Bible - Isaiah 2 v.10. For some years Nathalie has had a battle with a type of cancer, lymphoma, of which she is now clear, but which has changed her perspective. ‘Before, my work was very different,’ she says.  ‘I was searching for something, but I couldn’t draw together all the strands that would make it one whole.  I finally became a Greek Orthodox Christian in the year 2000. This was the result of a long journey, starting at the age of ten, moving from a position of atheism to one of belief.

Many of Nathalie’s images involve recycled or reused items – survey maps, threads of wool, letters on wood, items that otherwise might have been thrown away. Nathalie is using them, she says, to develop ideas that have been going through her mind for a long time. She describes herself as a slow burner, things going on inside which will eventually emerge, like a lid being lifted on a boiling pot. The life of the spirit, her spiritual life, is of prime importance in choosing ideas for her to develop into pieces of art.  ‘We’re called to be humble towards things, but so often we’re far from humble towards nature and what is given to us.  This is something that I want to get across,’ she says. 

Nathalie sees her work as a form of story-telling.  Before the lymphoma, she says, her focus was different.  Now, however, the narrative drive of her work, in her own words, ‘just keeps going, keeps going.’  There are so many stories to tell, she says.

Nathalie’s second name, Hildegarde, is her Orthodox name. Becoming part of the Orthodox Church has plainly been a huge thing in her life.  She grew up typically French, she says, baptized as a baby but unlikely to enter church again except for her wedding day.  This non-activity to the point of unbelief, she feels, impacted on the way she worked, tied to deadlines, a slave to the notion of slogging it out.  Now, however, she is far more flexible. When she feels that something is happening that shouldn’t be lost, she will say ‘no’ to whatever gets in its way. Before, she used to say ‘yes’ when she should have said ‘no’, but nowadays she’s more finely tuned to the life of the spirit working within herself for others.  She feels that what she’s learning, and is able to create out of what life has imposed on her, shouldn’t be kept only for herself.  ‘Why not share more?’ she asks. 

Together we walk around the studio.  Although there are real differences in the works of art on display, repeating images begin to appear. I stop before one image, a head drowning in a sea of grass.  Nathalie is talking to me about the cancer and about her experiences at that difficult time. Her mother had a life threatening incurable illness too, and was slowly dying. Though miles away from each other, time had something to say to each of them and this experience enabled Nathalie to bring together the different sides of herself - artist, storyteller and seeker for a spiritual resolution. What happened to Nathalie over this period of years she describes as ‘an evolution in who I am’.

Many of Nathalie’s pieces speak of silence, everything stripped bare except the layers of self, one inside the other, interconnected mutely, as she puts it, by ‘the mystery of who we are’.  A sense of change runs through her pieces, a sense of what we, here on our earth, can hope to aspire to, and what change can do to us, ‘as bitter sometimes,’ Nathalie says, ‘as it is sweet.’ There’s a fascinating mix of control and lack of it in some pieces. Nathalie smiles when I point this out. ‘But then that’s life,’ she says with a half-shrug.

In recent years, Nathalie has been writing too. Poetry was part of her training at the Sorbonne.  She describes this period as ‘two years of smoke-filled rooms; an intense introduction to poetry.’  She’s been writing ever since, but more so since she started thinking about storytelling in new forms, and wanting to share more.  Her writing to begin with was personal, not for publication. It took Shrewsbury poet, Liz Lefroy, to dig it out of her, she says.  Since then she has gathered her poems together and given them more recognition.

Nathalie writes in French and translates into English.  As well as poetry, she writes occasional pieces of fiction. On the back burner she has ideas for a series of small illustrated books, inspired by her interest in the ways we talk to children about illness.  This perspective comes from being ill herself, and from losing her mother at the same time, experiencing everything stripped away except the child inside.  ‘I started listening to that child,’ Nathalie says. ‘She returned to me when I was ill.  What I’ve written is born of great challenges, and it’s something I very much want to share.’

In one piece of writing, ‘Grow and Hop’, Nathalie speaks about illness as an invader who’s found a kingdom to live in, using the image of a rogue seed implanted between the bricks of an old wall. Her story gives a separate voice to the child, a voice lodged in the child’s heart, speaking words of truth in clear, simple language while the adults in his or her life speak mysteries in long words to do with chemotherapy and drugs regimes.  Mummy loves you, the voice inside translates.  You are her little darling. These are the words the child needs to hear.

I like the way Nathalie puts things.  To me it harks back to what she said about Louise Bourgeois – half-serious, half-naughty, very French. ‘Days are ongoing creations,’ she says. That’s worth thinking about.  And worth thinking about too is what she means when, talking about presenting herself as an artist, she says that before and beyond anything else, she’s Nathalie Hildegarde, touche-à-tout – a manifold being.  

I also like Nathalie’s work. Take a look for yourselves, and see what you think. ‘Art can slay you,’ Nathalie says, ‘if you only open your eyes.  ‘Look, look. Slow down, people.  Pause and look.’

To read one of Nathalie’s short, short stories, go to the Flash Fiction Shrewsbury website 
Nathalie's Facebook Page 
Nathalie's website, Couleurlive  

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