Catherine’s way to street art was not straightforward but that makes it all the more inspiring. In her little studio in Friedrichshain, a patchwork of Parisian chic and Berlin anarchy, we spoke about life, art and the creative potential of destruction, if you have the guts to follow it.
J: You a part-time Berliner and part-time Parisian, why? Isn’t Paris one of the art epicentres of the world?
It is odd but I never had an easy relationship with France, starting from early childhood. I was born in Arthur Rimbaud’s town in France, Charleville-Mézières, but I never felt particularly French. Or rather as a half French, half Italian in the 1970s I was given to understand that I did not belong. People were openly racist back then. At the earliest opportunity I escaped. First, to London, then to Paris. Now I live part-time in France and part-time I come to Berlin to do my art. Berlin is my safe haven. Berlin gave everything to me. In Berlin I found my playground on its streets. I wouldn’t be able to do the things I do here in Paris. I feel free, more comfortable in Berlin to do my art, though Paris is an artistic capital of the world. I can’t wait to go to Berlin to play my way.
J: Your artistic career started much later in your life. How did art come to your life?
C: In my life I had to start from scratch so many times, from zero. When “running away” to London as an au pair and finding a job as a sales assistant in a fashion shop. Then returning back to Paris in 15 years and having to start from the very beginning all over again, already as a single mum with a child. My artistic inner urge saved me all along , I think, and it made me successful in fashion. Already back in Paris, when I had come back in 1995 with my little daughter after a devastating divorce. One day my boss in the fashion industry startled me: “You know, Cathrine, you don’t know it, but you are a real artist”. And it resonated with me, though I was not creating then. I think he just felt the energy. There were many pushes from others throughout my life. My second husband is very supportive. He took me to a museum for the first time in my life when I was 37. And there in Amsterdam I discovered Jacques Villeglé, a great affichiste who pioneered decollage art in the 1950s-1960s. It was love at first sight. I read it and it read me. And I knew straight away I found my language. That was my beginning. And I started and never stopped. Little by little, I collected little pieces of paper, cuttings to make my own collages. I felt ashamed, I always hid my art behind a big mirror in my bedroom, I did art when nobody was around. But it took me more than a decade to find my calling. In 2016 after yet another crisis I felt I had to move on again. I left my cosy life in Paris, my apartment and my loving husband for Berlin. I knew no one when I left my comfort to live in Berlin in a rented apartment. I was not scared of that. It is great for a person to challenge herself, to put herself in danger to evolve, to kick yourself, to experience something else.
“if you can’t imagine things, you can’t realise them and everything you imagine is real.”
J: How would you describe your art?
C: My space is the street. One of the central themes of mine is looking at things that escape people’s attention. The streets are never the same. It is a transitional, transitory space. There is always something happening, constantly, endlessly. I am drawn to the streets, they inspire me. They are chaos, they are ugly, but I find them beautiful, they intrigue me. I heard once, “Don’t neglect the imperfection, because it has a soul”. I am drawn to history, to places with soul, where all the traces of imperfections are the traces of life. I play with the environment and so many times the places I photograph would disappear soon after. So my method is to take a photograph or I gather an old poster, and will play with it. Dreaming of another world, I will paint on it, glue something, rip it here and there. And suddenly, a new world arises. It is a fantasy, but it makes me happy. As I said to my students recently, if you can’t imagine things, you can’t realise them and everything you imagine is real.
J: We live in quite dramatic times. Does this affect your work? To what extent?
C: It does. I try not to, but it creeps in. The war in Ukraine, everything, how can it not. Societal pressures are tremendous. But in art I am free to do what I want. I experiment a lot. I read books about artists, their ways. Their lives fascinate and inspire me. There are a lot of references in my work. I have just read about Rene Magritte. It is a long process to become an artist. Jacques Villeglé’s influence permeates my work, he is always there. We have similar ways of seeing destruction. My work is deeply, deeply rooted in anarchy. I am always searching for a balance between acceptable and unacceptable. I find beauty in destruction and decay. I do not fear it, I am part of it. It is inside me. It is destroyed, but still positive, it’s potent. That is why I think it is in my work, there is always hope and fun. I just want to forget.
J: You once said, “in destruction, there is a base for hope”. Isn’t this a paradox?
C: Yes, but you construct on destruction. I have been destroyed so many times. Some people really had hurt me, but I still started again, I had to completely rebuild myself. The love of the others helps. It is life. John Steinback said once, “The man himself is a hazard, but he is our only hope.” I believe in humanity. I am so happy and grateful to be doing what I am doing. I am so grateful today to be curated by the Urban Nation among 16 other artists. I am going to be 60 this year. It is beautiful.
J: How did you come to street art and paste-ups?
C: When I arrived in December 2016, it was snowing. I came for a weekend and decided to stay for a year. Three months later, I found a flat, my son went in a French school in Berlin. And within that very year so much happened. I met Yasha Young, the creative director of the Urban Nation Museum, which opened in 2017. She saw my work and said, “I have a wall three by two fifty, right opposite our new museum of street art, it is yours.” Since then I’ve glued. I love it.
J: Isn’t it illegal?
C: Oh, yes, but I was never caught. I don’t care. I respect people’s property and would not glue on somebody’s house. For me the environment plays a crucial role, it has to sit in context to bear its meaning.
J: Do you do it at night?
C: No! (laughs). Always during the daytime. I cycle around the city, everything prepared, and if I see a spot I’ll do it. I cycle about for a long time, thinking how it should sit. I look over my shoulder, act very fast, quickly make a picture and cycle away.
J: There is a fleetingness to the practice…
C: Yes, I hate that. It disappears so quickly. It does upset me.
J: How do you assess the street art scene in Berlin?
C: When I arrived, I did not know anyone. And now through all these projects I got to meet so many amazing, inspiring artists. But even in the streets, in public transport. One cold, wintery day I took a U-Bahn and right across from me there was my doppelganger! Dressed just exactly like me there was a young girl. Dr. Martins, the small hat, glasses, the coat everything was the same. We laughed and started talking got to know each other. And she turned out to be an artist too. We are still friends today. Now that I know so many great artists, I would like to do a joint exhibition. Of course, I do not have time and I am not a curator. The will to collaborate here is amazing. Everything is possible. I always miss Berlin when I am gone. I met a graphic artist and we want to make a book, a diary catalogue with the works I have done about Berlin, in Berlin through the last year.
J: Your work will be part of the upcoming street art festival at Urban Nation Museum. What should we expect?
C: I will bring a Paris street to Berlin! I will collage these two great artists’ hubs. Basically, I have a front facade in the main street around the area of the Urban Nation Museum. Urban Nation reached out to me and offered to take part in it three months ago. And the organiser asked me to ruminate on how social media affects the dialogue in the society which arrests any deep discussion of societal issues. And immediately the pressures of perfection resonated with me. You have to be a perfect me, in a perfectly set-up life, in a perfect world with perfect world. And you can never avoid it. And we give in to the pressures modifying ourselves virtually or in actuality to look the same. It is so far from freedom, it’s a new panopticon, new dictatorship. Beauty lies in difference, not in uniformity.
- UNARTIG – Art and Street Festival at the Urban Nation Museum will run through till 19.06.