Walking into the studio of multidisciplinary artist and designer Sara Plantefève-Castryck in Gent, Belgium is like walking inside a kaleidoscope. Splashes of color are everywhere, and textures, shapes, and patterns compete for your attention. It’s hard not to feel pulled to look in every direction all at once! Yet, for Sara, this studio space is the hub of her experimentation.
Through her work, Sara explores the dynamics between art, space, and the audience, with a focus on color. In this interview with Kinship + Craft, she invites us into her thought process and delves deeper into why community plays such an important role for artists.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
A stroll down memory lane
K+C — What I was struck by while we were both based in Iceland was the playfulness with which you approached your creative practice, and it’s been wonderful to see that continue to develop. Admittedly, I’m especially excited about your new works using light as a material, but I want to go back in time a bit first.
What inspired you to study graphic design, and how did you see yourself using that in the future?
Graphic design wasn’t my first choice of study. For some reason, I wanted to become a film director. This is interesting because I feel both visions/backgrounds still come back in today’s work. I think I finally decided to go with graphic design because it felt, at that time — you know, the time before the internet and Instagram – as something new, a medium I could really get to know and make my own. I’m still extremely happy that I finished my Bachelor’s degree in graphic design. It has been essential to learn to see the world and so on also envision my own world.
K+C — Did you already lean towards spatial and surface manipulation during your graphic studies, or did that come later?
Strangely enough, there was a class we could take within the graphic design program called “Graphic Design in Space.” But strangely enough, I never took part in it. As a young graphic design student, I was very insecure and unsure of what my voice was yet. The teachers also weren’t very stimulating or motivational at the time, so really experimenting and doing crazy or spatial stuff, as I started to do later on, wasn’t really an option yet. I think this aspect started to appear more when I did my Master’s in textiles design. I decided to build a space and really work with it and the surface manipulation. Maybe here I started to feel more at ease and ready to open up for discovering my own voice.
Variety is the name of the game
K+C — Describing your work leads to a very long list. Please add anything I’ve missed, but as far as I understand, it includes graphic design (specifically print and pattern-making); textile design; hand-painting on silk ad paper; tufting rugs; ceramic sculpture; light sculpture and installations; architectural installations — whether by covering a space in patterns, creating new spaces, or embellishing architectural features within them; and even performance pieces. It’s not uncommon for artists and designers to play with mediums, but what motivates you to work with so many different materials? How do they inform each other?
(Laughing) I feel your list is quite complete! I think this reflects back a little bit on my personality. I’m always looking, searching, for something new, something better… I love to learn new things, and I don’t think I could ever become this artist that only works with one medium and one shape/color, has it as a success formula, and feels satisfied with that. I think every material has its own qualities and difficulties and helps me to tell different stories. It also gives me a certain freedom to not feel bound by one material or technique. I also love making art with a medium that I can’t control or don’t know very well because in this state of no control or not knowing really how a technique works, the most exciting things can emerge! Sometimes if you’re too much in control of a technique, you miss being open for the unexpected.
Alongside that, I like the duality of confronting different materials with each other. In this installation, Rock o Paper x Scissors (2017), I combine ceramics wall installation with a paper installation hanging from the bottom to the ceiling. I felt they really enhanced each other in that space. Combining material for me is always about empowering the different qualities of the materials.
A colorful place
I think [the range of materials] reflects back a little bit on my personality. I’m always looking, searching, for something new, something better… I love to learn new things, and…I think every material has its own qualities and difficulties and helps me to tell different stories.
How the audience comes into play…
K+C — You’ve also often encouraged the audience to take part in creating with you. When does audience interaction come into play in the development of a new piece or series? Do you generally start a project thinking about the exchange you’d like to inspire, or does the element of creative inclusivity develop simultaneously with the material?
I love this question! It’s a good question! I do think that mainly the element of creative inclusivity develops simultaneously with the material and installation. An example is my exhibition, “An artist’s guide to seeing an exhibition” (2017). Here, I really started with the idea of both wanting to make a spatial installation and have an interactive aspect with books for the audience to guide them.
Before deciding to work with interactivity, it really means delving into the meaning of interactive artworks and what it means to an art practice or even the [physical] space/museum context. It also meant I had to investigate whether it would make sense within my own artistic practice to involve the audience because it brings this whole sociology layer to the work. For example, thinking about how humans react or interact with something isn’t always as obvious as one would guess, especially in an art or white space exhibition context. With my exhibition, I really investigated how to guide people to see or experience something the way I wanted, but on the other hand, you need to be careful not to force them into seeing or believing something they do not want. I guess this is an aspect I really enjoy about interactive work; being surprised by people’s way of perceiving or experiencing the world differently.
And when things just don’t go to plan
K+C — Human behavior can be challenging to predict. Do your expectations or plans for audience interaction usually go according to plan? Have the results ever led to new ideas?
It’s tough to predict how things would go. Of course, the setting here is very important; when you do an interactive piece in a big museum, you will get different results than showing something in a more public space. Also, how to react when something breaks down or tears off over time really interests me. When do you decide as an artist to fix something or let it be as it ends up being? What is more important, the interactivity or the work itself? How does the piece “exist” if there is no interactivity? There are a lot of things I haven’t figured out for myself. Still, my experience with different formats of interactivity is slowly giving me a better understanding of what I value and want to continue to work and investigate.
K+C — Do you have an example?
To elaborate more on the question, I can give one example when things didn’t go as planned. There was this one-night-only exhibition held in the concert hall of Bergen, and I thought it was a great opportunity to try out something interactive. I played with an idea of a torn-down billboard for quite some time, which also fit the venue perfectly. So I made a work where I layered this huge 4×2 meter billboard with handprinted posters that were supposed to be torn apart by the audience, creating a constantly changing billboard. But after placing the billboard — which was supposed to be there the whole evening – I imagined a slow-changing process — there was one kid that went completely ballistic on it. And of course, once one person starts, a whole lot of other people join in, as well. So after a good 15 minutes, the entire work was completely stripped to the bone! (laughing) I was really on the verge of, ‘Do I need to tell the kid to slow down?’ Not to go too far because, of course, there was an end to the layers I put on the billboard.
But then again, you can’t and shouldn’t really do that. I thought it was a great lesson for me to let go of wanting to control these things. In the end, it still turned out to be a fantastic work, in my opinion!
Exploring + thriving in new surroundings
K+C — You’ve also worked in a couple of different cultural settings. What was it like studying and setting up an artist collective in Bergen, Norway?
Going to Norway to do my Master’s in Fine Arts was really a way for me to discover my work and what the artwork represented for myself and how it situated itself within the art world. Norway is also like this secret paradise for artists. Maybe I shouldn’t tell everyone, or they will be flooded by international artists (laughing). Once I got accepted into the art academy, I got two years of free education, access to workshop spaces, studio space, development space, and guidance of great and inspirational artists-teachers. The school environment is really unlike the rest of Europe. The art academy actually has money! Can you believe it? It has the newest and best equipment to use for free or very low cost. It really means that as an artist, for once, you don’t need to worry about all money and practical issues that most likely are a constant cause for stress for the rest of your career. The school really represented a sort of freedom and place to (re)discover yourself.
What is more important; the interactivity or the work itself? Does the work “exist” if there is no interactivity?
K+C — And how are things after students complete their studies?
After graduation, there were plenty of ways and grants to really establish yourself as a new artist. Galleries have open calls, and young artists get many opportunities and support from the government and art community. So it truly was a great place. You really feel valued and appreciated as an artist. But hey, here I am back in Belgium, where there is an enormous lack of any value or financial support for art and culture. I can talk a lot more about this, but let’s say both places have their good and bad points about living and working there as an artist.
But I think Belgium, and probably many other countries, could really learn from how Norway treats art and culture in their country. Or even how supporting culture can be an asset to everyone and everything in the end. Nowadays, I’m happy to be back to my roots, though. I guess I also just missed being in the midst of everything. Sometimes in Bergen, I felt like I lived in this crazy, delusional art bubble that was going to pop any second.
K+C — How does community play a role in the development of your work?
Having a good community as an artist is really important, in my opinion. This was another great thing about Bergen — the incredibly strong, international art community this small city has! I almost find it necessary to surround yourself with other artists or art-minded people to develop your practice. To talk about your struggles, expectations, failures, hopes… It’s easy to feel alone with these struggles when you sit in your studio by yourself day in, day out, and it’s good to show your work to like-minded peers and discuss it or find new and different layers to it that you didn’t see before. It’s essential to keep in touch with your surroundings as an artist! In school, this is almost an evidential something.
Still, it can be hard to find the same connection after graduation when everyone is so deep into their own thing. Young artists also often struggle to balance work and studio time, so finding the time, resources, and people to really sit down and create a community can be tricky. In Norway, I had a lot of art-talk groups where we really took time out of our day to visit each other’s studio and talk about things, and I really need to pick up this habit again in Belgium too! 😉
K+C — Thank you, Sara!
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Interested in textiles? Check out another article here.