Paris-based artist Zoe Ouvrier uses plywood as a canvas that she paints and engraves with delicate, Africa-inspired scenes that are constantly evolving. She discusses the origins and emotions that influence her work.
Zoe Ouvrier is not your typical model turned artist. Not only is her art a little practiced engraving technique (rather than the more obvious route of fashion photography), but when Ouvrier gave up modelling at 22, she went to Paris’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts for five years, learning traditional painting methods and where she met a respected Chinese artist who would become something of a mentor.
Now 37, Ouvrier has been using plywood as a canvas to engrave and paint on for over 10 years at her small Paris studio yet has only just begun working with galleries. “It’s fabulous. I’m growing,” she says of her new relationships with London’s Gallery Fumi and Paris’s Galerie Matignon among others. Previously, she had sold directly and quickly to collectors or – much to her husband, designer Arik Levy’s disappointment – had destroyed work she didn’t consider to be perfect.
Trees are the main feature of her most recent body of work, a series titled Forest. With a number of large scale folding screens, Ouvrier is aware that there might be said to be a hint of Asian aesthetics. “A lot of things influence me, even Asian art. But my influence is more from Africa,” says Ouvrier. “My work is always a question about origins – where I’m from and where I’m going.” Which means that right now, her work is about a modest but accomplished artist whose just discovered talent is quickly on the rise.
What is your definition of luxury?
Luxury for me is silence, which is not easy to find, especially when you live in the city. The second thing is to be surrounded by nature. The third element of luxury is liberty - to feel free.
It’s not a person but a philosophy.
It cannot be an object even if you have an object that gives you a lot of pleasure.
My big luxury would be to have a house in the middle of nature, where you can’t see another house or person.
When you are tranquil.
Engraving wood is an old technique – how did you discover it?
In the first instance, I was a painter. After that, I met a friend, a Chinese artist, who saw my drawings in calligraphy and he pushed me towards engraving. At school, no one had taught us engraving. He showed me two quick things that I could do with wood and it started like that. The first aliment as a human often appears on our skin. Stress, pollution, everything can be seen on your skin. My work is about going into the skin to reconstruct the origin within.
Trees feature heavily in your current work – where do they come from and what do they represent?
I cannot say that my work is about trees. That’s not true. I use the silhouette of the trees to explain something. If you look at my trees, I explain their skin. The story is about the trees but is more about the engraving. At first I didn’t do the trees. Instead, I did a lot with the body. At art school we studied the body a lot in terms of movement, muscles etc. The body became the trunk of the trees. I was starting to change. There is a constant continuity in my work. It’s never finished.
What is the actual engraving technique that you use?
Engraving is a type of savoir-faire but I have my own technique within that. It’s very old - it was the way they printed religious manuscripts in the 13th century. But it’s my expression of an old technique. The wood is very light in colour so to engrave I need to sketch the silhouette first. Then the work begins! I don’t draw the detail or the engraving. I have an idea but I don’t need to sketch it. Your body creates that.
What are the main influences in your work?
When people see my trees, I’m surprised that they sometimes think they’re more Asian. But for me they’re more African. What we do always comes from somewhere – your education, your life, your experience. My father lived a lot in Africa. When I was a baby we listened to African music. There was always an African ambient. My father is a mix of French and English, my mother is Mexican. My work is always a question about origins – where I’m from and where I’m going.
Why do you only work with plywood?
Five years ago I was in Tasmania. We saw a lot of huge trees, a whole canyon worth, that were being cut down. We were so surprised. The government decided to destroy one part of the forest to sell to the Japanese to make toilet roll. But we could hear the trees talk. After Tasmania, I decided I didn’t want to use exotic wood. And plywood is more supple. I use wood that humans already transformed to go back to nature.
You have only recently started working with galleries. How are you finding the art market experience?
It’s fabulous. I’m growing. Previously, I never did an exhibition. I just worked and sold quickly. The pieces never stayed at my home. But during this period, I never explained the ideas. And I used to destroy a lot of my work. When I met Arik, he couldn’t believe how much I destroyed. Or how many pieces I say are for my kids. I decided to keep one piece from each period for our kids. It’s important to make a small collection for them.
You were previously a model – when did you become an artist?
I started art school late. When I arrived in Paris at 18 I did modelling for a bit. This was my luck, thanks to my mother and father, to have this physical presence. I had so many opportunities to do things like cinema because I met amazing people in the business. But I never wanted to use these opportunities because I knew inside that I didn’t want to be a model or an actress. I was always sketching when I was doing castings. My lover during this period pushed me to do something with drawing or painting. I went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at 22. It was amazing! The university experience is important for everyone. At school they concentrated on photography and installation but there was not a lot of technical atelier work such as engraving.
Who was the artist that introduced you to engraving?
Link Sin, a Chinese painter. He didn’t want to show me but he saw something in me and gave me the technique. His Chinese culture is very strong and he was strong with me but I was never broken. I imposed myself on him and he accepted it but at the same time he didn’t want it. He installed a place for me to paint close to him. I loved his technique, which is very classic, very different to mine. I went every day to see him. He was a great friend and I can say thank you to him.