Jacques Owczarek, elevating sculpture to cult status
In a cramped Parisian studio, in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés end of the Latin Quarter, sculptures take up all the room. An intimate place, a sanctuary of hidden treasures, a place of silence and art, where time stands still. There are sculpted animals, a bear, elephants, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, a dog and a giraffe to name but a few. All moulded in immaculate white, waiting to be dressed up in a precious material such as bronze. Amid a medley of tools, you start to make out forms in white bronze, solid silver and various leather tans. You feel the magic gradually working, appealing to your childhood imagination. Such is the studio of animal sculptor Jacques Owczarek.
A self-taught artist, Owczarek first attempted sculpture at the age of 30, when he met three people who were to shape the course of his life: Lucien Bourdon, a renowned gallery owner and art collector, smelter Didier Landowski and Pierre Dumonteil, a reputed art dealer in Paris. Since 2000, his sculptures have been exhibited worldwide, on display in the smartest international art fairs. His collectors come from all over to acquire his artwork, objects of singular beauty to have and to hold, to sense the ethereal magic emanating from each work. His works are rounded, with but a few pointed tips, inviting a gentle gaze and inciting the urge to feel them and hold them as one’s own. The sculptor’s hands guide us, explaining to us. They determine each curve and right angle. He has decided nothing in advance, simply moulding the animal from the material, elevating it into art.
Maison Sensey: How did this all start?
Jacques Owczarek: Purely by chance. I taught myself, even though I couldn’t draw as much as a straight line. I’m not even that much of an animal lover, it just so happens that it’s animals I produce. I just picked up a lump of clay one day, as a way to release stress and relax. I had no idea the course of my life was about to take an about-turn. I saw that what came to me spontaneously was animals. I continued in the same vein, quite simply, doing what came naturally, I let it all happen. And so 25 years later I still sculpt animals!
Does your work on animals have any roots in your past?
Not in the least. I’ve never been to the zoo, never felt any special love for animals. I don’t have any pets, and I don’t have any literature on the subject. I have discovered animals via my sculptures. If you look at the tortoises, frogs and pigs that I have made, they’re not exactly the stuff from which dreams are woven. There’s no commercial appeal, yet here we are!
A sculpted lion might capture your imagination, I don’t think I’ve ever made a lion in fact. There’s no point making rabbits for that matter, even though I love it, one of my favourite pieces. In fact I have no explanation for my creations, there’s nothing to explain. It just comes to me, spontaneously. I’ve always felt that there’s a higher force, as if I were animated as if by a guiding force that takes me where I have to go.
I don’t know how to do what I do. I’m no sculptor! I start with a lump of clay rather than a hard material like marble or stone. I shape it, then use a cutter. For example, I don’t know how to make both sides the same, in other words, my sculptures have no symmetry. Yet I feel as if my lack of skill is what makes my sculpture unique. I’m not out to achieve anything even if I call my work a quest.
Do you achieve perfection in your works? What do you think of your work once it’s finished?
I love perfection. But I’m very demanding, which is why I only work with people who strive for excellence. Contrary to what you might think, my sculpture is not produced alone. Even if I’m the one to design the work in my studio, there are a lot of other contributors. There are four hands on deck. When I go to the smelting works, I call on a moulder, people who work the wax, the chiselling and patina. This is all of a piece, it’s teamwork.
The sculptures are co-signed by the foundry Fusions, in Auvergne (in central France). I work very closely with them, as with the Landowski foundry previously, who I worked with for the first 20 years. When they closed down, I had to find another foundry. I have always maintained that it takes talent to find talent. The search took a long time. My exacting requirements are now clearly aligned with David de Gourcuff and his foundry.
Do you research each creation beforehand?
Nope! Research can be a real pitfall. I don’t like learning, I prefer chance discovery. I made a horse once and got stuck at one point, for sculptures can take a few days, or a few months. One day a friend came over: he said it was normal because my horse looked nothing like a real one. So, for the first time, I took a look at some documents and made my horse look real!
So my horse was recognisable as a horse, but not as a work of art of mine. In the end, I salvaged my original horse, as being more authentically mine. In creative work, you achieve quality in imperfection, it’s all part of the package. Like Giacometti’s figures: they are disproportionate, it’s what makes them Giacometti. Our defects turn out to be qualities!
Isn’t being an artist all about embracing a different view of things?
An artist doesn’t embrace a different view, they view things differently. I plan nothing, I live for the moment as do my sculptures. They are spontaneous, I grab lumps of clay and manipulate them, I see shapes yet I can’t explain why these shapes? Why these animals? When I start on a work, I take a child’s approach. I work on a clean slate and let my hands do the talking.
I started taking an interest in other artists only recently, those I met, out of necessity. As far as I was concerned Pompon was a kind of key-ring, Bugatti was a make of car not a sculptor. I much preferred painting to sculpture, but I have always loved shapes. My sculptures are shapes first and foremost.
I don’t consider myself to be an animal sculptor, I create shapes as they come to me. They turn out to have aesthetic value, as a graphic work, with their own architecture, and they look like animals. But above all, they are shapes. I create shapes, shapes appeal to me!
Looking at your sculptures, there are a lot of curves, they are very feminine. They are devoid of aggressiveness, they exude pure gentleness. Is it always the same movement you make, or is this your signature style?
Yes, I’ve been sculpting for 25 years, so it’s become my signature, at any rate it forms my body of work. There’s nothing accidental about it. When you’ve produced more than 50 pieces and you see something they all have in common, that’s what makes it my work, sold all over the world, it’s obvious something has happened to me in artistic terms. But I really can’t put it into words. I remember once, I had artist’s block. Surprisingly, I went, not to the Louvre, but to smart department stores. I wandered from aisle to aisle, drawing inspiration from clothing, furniture, whatever. It all served as enrichment. The riches of the outside world and the joy of living in Paris, an extraordinary, incredibly inspiring city, it all powers me up.
Outside Paris, would you be capable of creating as much?
I don’t know. It’s not like I’m planning to leave. Paris has its own, very special energy. You have to lift your head and look around. It’s absolutely extraordinary! Looking at the architecture, feeling the mood and breathing Paris in, OK it’s polluted but it’s a pollution I love because it drives me.
My studio is in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, I could have a much bigger place out in the provinces but I get the impression I would wither away anywhere else. I need Paris, I doubt Paris needs me, but it’s vital to me at any rate.
Nowadays, looking at Paris with its streets all empty, people in masks, in this strange, sometimes oppressive atmosphere, is Paris still the same for you?
It’s a most peculiar time. It’s like people are just starting to understand my experience of the past thirty years. The precarious, random anxiety, and new sources of joy. For me it’s changed strictly nothing. I don’t get the impression that people are bothered by solitude, more the uncertain future. Because people like looking forward to the unknown. Yet we have to live our lives, which now means trying to survive the pandemic. The sight of Paris empty is actually quite magical. It sparks a feeling of freedom. The walls of Paris still radiate liberty.
Lockdown deprives us of art and culture, yet we long for it. How can we bring beauty and imagination back again?
Call me back when I’ve been appointed Minister for Culture!
Can art change the world? According to poet Jean-Pierre Siméon “poetry will save the world”. Do you agree with that?
No I don’t. I think art reflects the time. When times are bad, art is bad. I don’t see how the Paris art fair can save the world! That is not art. It fails to capture my imagination, violence and imposture are rife.
Has learning as you go been a help or hindrance?
I reckon I learned to make the most of my lack of skill. Art school graduates might be gifted, but it can be hard to break free from technique and their Masters’ teachings, to find your own voice. I was able to find mine without any structure, or support, and for a long while I didn’t dare call myself an artist or sculptor.
At my age I no longer have time for such questions. I’m hardly going to change now. I have produced a body of work, which will survive me, because I’ve sold enough of it all the world over, in a lasting material, bronze. So you could speculate about that, and of course it can be taught. The collectors of my work like what they buy, on an emotional level. My work will be worth more over time since it’s a new form of expression. Art breaks down barriers. This is why art is all-essential. It’s a vector, a common denominator that helps bring people together.
In Kant’s “Critique of Judgment”, he wrote “If you say something is good, it’s a moral judgment. If you say something tastes good, it’s a sensory judgment. If you say something is true, it’s a rational judgment. But if you say something is beautiful, there is no criterion for judgement”. Do you agree with that?
Yes, I do. We all have our own criteria, things that make us tick. The important thing is to be yourself, authentic, ultimately attuned to yourself. I think that the learning curve of life is about finding out who you are. And I now know that I’m not an imposter, unlike the great pretenders and cheaters. They will be the ones to bear witness to rubbish, being rubbish artists themselves.
Does art bear witness?
Art helps reveal your inner self, but it resonates differently from one person to the next. I find it hard to talk about art, it’s not like I ever dreamed of being an artist. Art came to me. I’m not setting myself up to dispense the word, I just shape little things. I have ambition only for my collectors, they’re the people I strive for today. I’m not here to bear witness, I’m here to make an offering.
Do you mean you’re on a mission?
That would be the case if I had projected that intellectually. I’m just trying to keep to my place and spread as much joy as possible. That is the ultimate goal. I don’t believe art should be put on a life machine. I think being an artist should be a matter of make or break. Art is very simple, people seek to intellectualise it but ultimately it’s very simple. You don’t decide to become an original sculptor celebrated through the ages.
I don’t know if everyone needs art or whether art will spark a planetary revolution, but I do know people need something to fire their imagination. That’s what sparks creation. My work captures people’s imaginations. One thing I regret is that only the rich can buy my work. Ultimately I’m not an artist, I’m a seeker. But to claim that I’m on a mission…
Are you living a dream?
Complicated, because I am part and parcel of society. But I do try to serve creation. To turn my studio into a beacon of peace and harmony. A place unto itself, where anything is possible, especially the impossible.
Do you surprise yourself?
Absolutely! How could I not? I’m surprised to be living the life I’m living, I never thought I was made for that. I feel like I’m living a non-stop gift. Knowing to let myself by guided. Learning to accept who I must be. You can express yourself best in silence. I offer my thanks every day.
You say you don’t consider yourself an artist, so what are you?
That’s a very good question… I don’t know. When I picture artists, I don’t see them as radiant or serene. The stereotype is of the artist as tortured soul, weaving complexity, often in despair, for whom life is tough, saying you’re an artist as an alibi, a non-life, when in fact it’s life lived to the full. It’s believing!
So it’s a religion, are you more religious than artistic?
(After a few seconds thinking…) Totally! My way of life is a vocation. A mission. When you enter my studio, time stands still. It could be a hundred years ago and people would speak in exactly the same way, nothing would have changed. Yes it’s indisputably religious. And I’d love people to have this faith. Having faith in another world helps believe in this one. We need this. This is what is lacking nowadays. And if art can provide that, yes, I’ll agree that art is essential.
It’s difficult to describe that which is beyond us, for me only silence helps to express what I feel properly. And when we talk of silence, it’s like religion, there’s a sense of reverence but also joy, blossoming, in a spirit of loving and sharing. Others, always others.I got into it like you get into religion, with hope, hardness, doubt, but always conviction.
It’s so reassuring when you feel it is right! It’s a surprise. Thank you, because it’s a stranger whose shoes I love to walk in. Thank you for the other place. Even if thanks come across as lightweight and fragile compared to this gift.
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