Clémentine de Chabaneix’s atelier is empty this morning in early December, but for the one big headless clay bear in the middle of the room. The large blue kiln behind it provides the only color. It’s a few days after the opening of Clémentine’s show at Pierre Passebon’s Galerie du Passage, in Passage Vérot-Dodat, between the Bourse de Commerce and Palais Royal. Clémentine’s creatures of glazed clay and ceramics are having a life of their own in the gallery until January 27. It’s a world of bears and cats and frogs and crocodiles and young girls living in harmony. It’s an enchanting world like images that come to us in a half dream state or from childhood memories. The work is joyful and tender and pleasing to the eye, but never sentimental or cloy. The title of her show says it all: “In Praise of Radical Tenderness” - Eloge de la Tendresse Radicale”. 

Clémentine de Chabaneix comes from an artistic family. Both her parents were actors in the 1960’s in a famous and famously exuberant troupe, Jérôme Savary’s Grand Magic Circus. Her grand-parent were Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, two sculptors/artists whose wonderful sculptures/furniture of animals and nature are collected all over the world. Clémentine remembers waking up to the sound of hammer on metal coming from her grand-parents’ workshop, in the country where they lived. She assisted the multi talented American artist/designer Hilton McConnico in setting up the enchanting and unforgettable exhibitions in the Hermès boutique in the early 2000s. As a young girl, she was constantly drawing, but she started her professional life as an actress before slowly finding her path to sculpture. She even designed fantastical garments for a private party in a chateau. 

For the past 25 years, the 50 year old artist, mother of two,  has been living with her partner in Montreuil, in the outskirts of Paris, which she will soon be leaving to move into a house in the forest. She cannot hide her excitement talking about this new chapter in her life. Her work is in great demand. The show at the Galerie du Passage almost instantly sold out. She also has commissions from institutions and private clients. Right now she is completing a monumental piece for a hotel, which is still top secret. She's also about to show her work in Japan. 

We met in early December in her studio, sat on 2 stools she cleaned for the dust from her work and we started our conversation. 

SK Nature is very present in your work. How did it start? 

Clémentine de Chabaneix I am a city girl. I was born in Paris and I have lived in Paris all my life and I’ve been fed by the overwhelming energy of this city. At the same time, as children, with my sister we spent every weekend and every holiday with our grand-parents in the countryside. They were constantly working on their artworks. So, on the one hand, we had the city, and on the other we had a great interest in the flora and the fauna from the countryside. Our grand-parents had a garden and the house was adjacent to a really big forest which we would explore. These childhood experiences have triggered in me an interest for living creatures.  I could also see our grand-parents’ interest for the living and how they were interpreting nature, creating something very personal. From a very young age I was always drawing. I think these childhood experiences have given me an interest for modest things, for what’s very little, for things that are difficult to see, because this is what our grand-parents were doing. This natural environment is very familiar to me because I was immersed in it since I was a very young girl. Also, with our mom we lived in a big old factory. We had a garden and our mother was taking great care of it, and there were always lots and lots of animals. I was always in this environment, certainly more than any other city kid. I was born in this environment. 

SK You had this contact with nature, but in your grand-parents’ work was about animals an antelope would be sculpted into a table, a hippo would be a desk, a toad would be transformed into an armchair, etc. 

CC Yes ! Claude transformed nature into metal, and François-Xavier sculpted animals. It was very playful. 

SK Were you interested in their work? Did you talk with them about it ? 

CC Not really because they were really constantly working. But often either one of my grand-parents would look at my drawings and we’d talk about it. Later, my grand-father gave me little advices on what direction to take, for instance, which turned out to be judicious. 

SK You worked with the wonderful artist/decorator Hilton McConnico who was imagining extraordinary set ups for Hermès, full of poetry and joyfulness. Would you say it’s been an influence ? 

CC Hilton was a great friend of my mother’s. I met him when I was very little. I loved going to his place. The decor was absolutely amazing with a “cactus lamp shade”, or a huge cat head. It was always very surprising and fun. What really helped me was to observe his feeling of total freedom to share his universe with complete disregard for the very pregnant distinction between decorative art and art. It was also bothering my grand-parents. There’s a line between these two worlds. They know each other, but are in watertight parallel universes, apart from each other. I love when I am given assignments to work on wood or fabric or to design furniture. It really stimulates my imagination to be working on different mediums without making a distinction between decorative art and “beaux-arts”. I believe one feeds the other and it’s positive instead of constantly worrying about the way the work will be judged. Hilton was like this and that gave me the freedom to become myself. And he had complete faith in me. 

SK How do you explain your path ?You are a child drawing obsessively, your grand-parents are artists, but you begin by being an actress for several years. And how has it influenced and shaped your work today ? 

CC Both my parents were actors. We were with them until we really had to have more stability for school. I counted we moved 14 times. It was very loose. This troupe was very exuberant, with lots of music and amazing scenography. It was very joyful. It was not a very traditional upbringing. My mother was constantly entertaining people. There were always people sleeping in our place, a former factory. It was huge. There were always parties with musicians, actors, artists. Our home was very open to everyone. I have kept wonderful memories of that place, even if taking a shower in the morning demanded some courage. In the morning, our clothes were just frozen because we had no central heating ! So this creative universe was very familiar to me. With my sister, we were always with the actors, in the dressing rooms, backstage, etc. After high school, I did not have a great revelation about which path to choose. I loved music and art and there was a great familiarity with the world of acting and comedy. It is always easier to follow a path that’s familiar. I had a lot of fun and met great people. 

SK How did you move from acting to sculpting ? 

CC Drawing was a constant in my life. There’s not much of a jump from drawing to molding clay. It happened somewhat naturally. My first daughter was just born and we had moved here in Montreuil. I had met people in the neighborhood with whom I had designed costumes for an event. They offered me a small space in their own studio for a tiny rent. That was the tipping point. With my own space, I could start working. At first, it was not easy. I did not have much money. But this space forced me to be disciplined, to do something. The first pieces I sold were in paper maché. It was the material I could afford. I also went to a free modeling class given by the city. It was very austere. But there was a pottery class next door and I could hear people singing and laughing. I followed this class for two years. I learned the basics with potters. That’s how it all started and it was very joyful. And right from the start, my work was well received. From then on, I always sold my work easily. That’s how it started. It’s because people bought my pieces that I was able to continue working and it continues to this day. I have a network of people who buy my work. You can see there are no pieces in my studio this morning. Let’s hope it continues. It’s the energy from people which gave me the strength and slowly the absolute conviction that what I was doing was important, that people understood my way of feeling the world. To go back to your initial question about my sinuous path, on an unconscious level, it was difficult for me to right away start dealing with volumes because I had two grand-parents already doing that with worldwide success. It took me a very long time for me to tell I was from that family. I was hiding it. I wanted my work to be seen on its own merits before being known as coming from this great artistic family. 

SK What comes next ? 

CC I have been working with ceramics for seven years only, so there’s still a lot to explore. And I have started making more monumental pieces. That’s different. Now I am working on a piece for a hotel. It’s an important piece for the lobby. I am making huge bronze mirrors with birds, copper leaves. I like this kind of project which takes me out of my solitary studio and also pushes me to find new ways of doing things, force me to be more creative, to discover. 

SK You also did work for the Cartier Foundation ? 

CC That was a project I worked on for the yearly art extravaganza event of La Nuit Blanche. I was paired with a choreographer. It was at the Hotel Lutetia, in Saint-Germain des Prés. Her work was about sleep and I had made sculptures, with other artists, to go along with her choreography. This is the kind of project I love doing.

SK Your work features mostly or exclusively female figures. Is that a statement ? 

CC I was raised in a family of women ! It’s not feminist work and yet feminism matters a lot to me. For instance, I made a series of strong women lifting a big snake, or surfing on it, she’s powerful. And I really admire my mother who spent a huge amount of energy so that our lives would be OK even though we did not have much, and that she never gave up. We never went on vacations. Our life was very simple, we burned coal to heat the space in which we lived; it rained in the house. People who came to our place thought it was very poetic, but to us it was a little less poetic. So I have a very deep connection with the feminine, with feminism and all the issues around it - violence against women, for instance. In my work, I try to bring people to these issues very gently, very delicately. I am not an activist, or with a very weak signal and people hear it or not. But when I am working, I try to do something that’s powerful, but it’s like homeopathy. There’s no need for me to explain, and at the same time I have this fear that people will just like the aesthetics of the pieces. I sometimes don’t lack confidence as I think I am alone on that path between doing beautiful pieces and delivering a message through them. 

SK Now that the show has opened - and most pieces have been sold - what would you like to be doing? 

CC First of all, with Pierre, my partner, we’re moving ! We have found a house in the forest about an hour outside of Paris. It’s a house entirely built with wood, there are animals absolutely everywhere. I just finished building an atelier in an old barn. I’ll start working there in January/February. I am leaving city life ! That place is calling me. This new chapter is a great inspiration. I also have to work because I have accepted lots of projects and that gives me a huge amount of energy. I forgot to tell you: I always completely improvise. I never draw anything before starting a piece. I make notes in a notebook about objects or forms or symbols that I can incorporate in my work. After I had delivered all the pieces to the gallery, it was as if a door was opening on what was coming next. It’s very stimulating. It also comes from the material I work with. It is a living thing, there’s an energy flow which I give to the matter and which it sends back to me. This material calls me, it really does. That’s why I continue working with ceramics. I love the stoneware, I love the contact with it. It’s highly pleasurable. It’s soft, it’s warm, it’s very malleable, but it is also strong. There’s something very carnal and physical in my work. I have worked with metal and it’s completely different. It’s more about strength. I am not sure I could work with metal. With the earth, it’s a succession of movements to make the earth understand where I want to go and then it goes with you. 


SK How do you think this move to the country is going to influence your work ?

CC I really don’t know. I’m trying not to worry too much about it. But I want to be in nature when I step out of my house. I want to see the seasons, I want to see nature every day. So I am sure it’ll impact my work. I am also preparing an exhibition in a gallery in Japan. I have been thinking for a long time that there was a connection between my work and Japan. I was contacted by a gallery. It’s just the beginning, but I really want to develop my collaboration with Japan. I think the culture has an affinity for my work. Also, as my exhibition at the Galerie du Passage has been doing well, it is giving me some freedom for the moment. 

Clémentine’s creatures of glazed clay and ceramics are having a life of their own at Pierre Passebon’s Galerie du Passage, in 20-26 Passage Vérot-Dodat, 75001 Paris, until January 27, 2024.

January 17, 2024 — Jean Sebastien Stehli