Interviews with Christophe Tissot
and the writer and journalist Bernadette Costa-Prades
II – Conversation about … making artist jewelry
A message of love for my mother
I was born into an environment where jewellery had no rightful place, probably by being too closely associated with frivolity. It would nevertheless lie at the core of my reaction to that family environment in which I felt suffocated, I who did not hail from a readily dynastic world of artists and craftsmen. My paternal grandfather Joseph was the only artist, and he drew very well, but I didn’t know him.
He was nimble with his hands and, as an amateur potter, produced enameled ceramic pieces and objects enhanced by repoussé tin. My very first creative gesture was intended to love and be loved: at the age of five, even if my mother wore nothing apart from her wedding ring, that piece of jewellery was an attempt to talk to her and show her my affection.
In my pottery workshop in Créteil, I made her “prehistoric” necklaces of terra cotta beads, decorated with slip and patinated with wax; their strings would break in no time, and the beads would roll all over the floor. Similarly, I can still see myself once again making a butterfly of copper wire, in that summertime house in Annecy, where I was so happy, and a white enamelled dove, shaped like a broach, a symbol of peace–my dove flew away, like the necklaces. I had to resign myself to the fact that my mother lost what I offered her…
The impact of Tutankhamun’s mask
At the age of seven, I went to the Petit Palais with my father to see the exhibition of the treasures of Tutankhamun, on view for the first time in Paris.
Back home, in my own way I remade the sculpted wooden mask which fitted in my hand. So I started to make pieces of jewellery at a very early age, alone in my corner. Years later, I would paint series of faces on paper (57 Views of Mont Face, Faces, KeyHole, Dreamers), then turn them into artistic jewellery, like a faraway echo of that first aesthetic shock.
Wood, my Madeleine
My father was a chemical engineer employed in the pulp industry and working at the Tropical Forest Technical Centre, an institution hidden in the Bois de Vincennes, and surrounded by the remains of the pavilions of the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition.
A magical place where, once I’d pushed open the door, I was overcome by the smells, and already on a journey. In the storage unit, where tropical timber from all over the world was stocked to dry, I watched my father choosing his wood for making paper, among that veritable trove. At that time, few grown-ups were concerned about ecology and, at my age, needless to say, I was anything but aware of the ravages being caused by cutting down the world’s great primary forests.
As a boy, in the wood collection, I discovered the rich variety of all kinds of wood presented in the form of small polished boards, with their name written on them, like a colour chart. Tropical wood is my Madeleine, and my passion for it would re-emerge years later in 1987, when I met Sylvie (whose first name means ‘forest’!), an artist already recognized in the fashion world, who was turning precious wood into pieces of jewellery.
Engraving, a painstaking task
What would further influence my subsequent work? Those decisive years I spent in the decorative arts workshop at the Louvre, from the age of ten, where I drew under the watchful eye of the illustrator Pierre Belvès, and engraved in Jean-Claude Reynal’s workshop. Engraving taught me how to be meticulous and thorough, with effects obtained through the variety of lines, and the interplays of light and shadow. I embarked on engraving in colour with several overlaid sheets, filling me with the beauty of copper. I like the white skin of paper and the mystery of printing on the age-old handpress. Much later, I would transpose those simple techniques to my wood and bronze jewellery.
My muse, my partner
In 1987, my meeting with Sylvie rekindled my passion which had lain buried since childhood. Having become my partner and wife, she encouraged me to develop my talent. Without her inspiration, her joy and her enthusiasm, none of my pieces of jewellery would exist. As an artist in her own right, she is the muse who lies behind the hundreds of pieces of jewellery which stake out my artistic career.
For me, painting and jewellery are complementary, I feel the same personal commitment, the same emotional and spiritual satisfaction when the finished object appears, and when a painting is completed.
A world for giants
Over time, I have constructed a world of giants. I have seen my wooden and bronze cuffs, like geological arches, marked by the imprints of past centuries. Others are like the trunks of oak trees, or like futuristic forms travelling in space, draped and caught in midair, Indian ink pieces, and slumbering faces that have found their way into my paintings.
The function of multiples
My pieces of artistic jewellery emerge in waves and families. They tell a story, their story, and, to a lesser extent, my own story. Like portable ex-votos, they invite us to dream and are like so many keys for doors waiting to be opened. Artistic jewellery goes beyond boundaries, yearning for journeys and things multicultural—a free electron.
In a spirit of artistic coherence, I work on my shapes in series, usually inspired by my pictures. The motifs which emerge are in the first instance solitary, they are jewels in themselves. Depending on how attractive they are, they combine together, associate with each other and are sometimes divided like cells to produce family groups : this wealth of combinations which I call the function of multiples is one of the distinctive features of my work as an artist.
Like the sculptor Rodin, who, as we know, developed a store of heads, feet, hands and arms, which he associated as he saw fit, to compose his works, I, too, have a store of motifs that has been amassed over thirty years, and which I make free use of.
“In the river-like painting continuum in which I have been evolving for more than a quarter of a century, a host of little goldfish has come forth. I’ve striven to turn them into sculptures which have become artistic jewellery.”
Bernadette Costa Prades is a writer and journalist. She has published two biographies of Frida Kahlo and Niki de Saint Phalle with Libretto, and the biography of Tina Modotti, with Editions Philippe Rey. In her books she enjoys shedding light on the creative process, and the sensitive and poetic approach of artists, who often find their source in their childhood. Her interviews with the painter Christophe Tissot follow this same path.