Go Figure

He’s back! Thiebaud Thiercelin, former artist-in-residence at the Arts Council of Princeton who moved to France several years ago, is returning for an exhibit, Go Figure, at the Dalet Gallery in Philadelphia, Aug. 22-Sept. 1, with a Sept. 3 opening reception.

Here’s what I wrote about him several years ago, when he exhibited at the Bernstein Gallery in Princeton:

Five-year-old Valentin tells his parents he’s hiding. He holds up his hand over his face.

“When he says, ‘I’m hiding behind my hand,’ he thinks we can’t see him,” says Lisa Salamandra, his mother.

This has inspired Valentin’s father, Thibaud Thiercelin, to paint “The Rabbit Behind the Tree.” It is a small painting of the head of a white rabbit with big rabbit ears, hiding behind a small tree that barely obscures a section of its face.

“There’s a poetry Thibaud feels when he hears Valentin speak,” says Ms. Salamandra. “He identifies with him.”

Thus, the title “Valentin c’est moi” (“Valentin, it’s me”) for Mr. Thibaud’s exhibit of work painted during his two years in the United States, based on his interactions with his autistic son.

Before Valentin was diagnosed with autism, “he was repeating everything we would say,” says Ms. Salamandra. To teach Valentin his name, Mr. Thiercelin would say, “Valentin, it’s you,” pointing at his son.

“Valentin, it’s you,” Valentin would repeat.

And so Mr. Thiercelin, a Frenchman, would say, “Valentin, c’est moi.”

Having lived in the U.S. for two years, Mr. Thiercelin’s English is at the advanced beginner level, but to help him express complex emotions and thoughts, Ms. Salamandra, a Hamilton native, offers translation help.

The couple met in Paris, where Ms. Salamandra had moved in 1994 to work in a group studio, the Atelier Lasson. The couple cofounded Group 144 to create site-specific public art, then moved three hours south to a little village in the countryside. They restored an old warehouse for their studio and home, and Valentin and his brother, Elias, were born.

As a small boy, Valentin was scared of dogs and was late to talk. But his parents didn’t think there was a problem until told at the day care center that Valentin wasn’t responding to his name. They thought he had a hearing problem.

Ms. Salamandra and Mr. Thiercelin consulted a child psychologist, who first used the word “autism.” When reading the symptoms on the internet, it became blatantly clear that this was Valentin’s behavior.

“That was ‘The Sky Falling on Our Head,'” says Ms. Salamandra, pointing to a large painting of her husband’s in the small studio of the Arts Council of Princeton, where Mr. Thiercelin has been artist-in-residence for two years. While Ms. Salamandra was making arrangements for treating Valentin, Mr. Thiercelin was telling the story in pictures.

“It was a big shock,” he says. “I didn’t analyze it, I painted directly from life.”

Valentin had echolalia – the (often pathological) repeating of what others say. He would utter “fish fish fish fish.” And so his father kept painting fish. One untitled painting shows a red boy, simplistic in shape like a gingerbread boy, surrounded by fish.

“As a self-taught artist, Thiercelin’s work shares certain aspects of outsider art,” writes Bernstein Gallery curator Kate Somers. “While the definition of outsider art today is murky at best, it was initially described as spontaneous and unpremeditated, and almost always associated with artists who had no academic training.

“Sometimes called visionary art, this kind of visual expression is often associated with a sense of psychic immediacy, and often the subject matter, if there is any, has a childlike and naive quality in its rendering,” continues Ms. Somers. “These aspects of unfiltered expression are all evident in Thiercelin’s work.”

A postcard for one of Mr. Thiercelin’s exhibits in France, about five years ago, has a black-and-white photograph of him as a child, age unknown, sitting at a table with a watercolor painting he has just completed, looking pleased as punch. “I was always interested in paint and color,” he says. The 39-year-old has been painting seriously since he was in his late teens, but first picked up a paintbrush at 14 when his grandfather paid for him to take Saturday-morning art classes.

He considered himself too “chaotic” to be in a classroom – “It was not my time,” he says – so rather than pursue art at an academy, he visited museums and worked with other artists in groups to learn. His first studio was so small, he had to use a camera lens turned backward to view his work with some distance.

His paintings “move between figuration and abstraction, narration and non-sequitors,” writes Ms. Somers. “…the work taps into our collective memory and goes far beyond one artist’s experience of the world.”

After learning about Valentin’s condition, a cousin of Ms. Salamandra’s whose son also had autism told her about the renowned treatment facilities in the Princeton area. Within three weeks, the family had packed up and moved to America, residing with Ms. Salamandra’s parents in Hamilton.

Even before leaving France, they had received help from Anne Holmes, director of outreach at the Eden Family of Services in West Windsor. Fifteen percent of the sales of Mr. Thiercelin’s paintings will go to the Eden Family of Services.

In 2003, when the artists were still living in France and exhibiting internationally, Mr. Thiercelin had a show at the Arts Council, and was welcomed back as artist-in-residence in 2004. Ms. Salamandra works in the office at the Arts Council, and had an exhibit there last year. Mr. Thiercelin’s work has been on view at Gallery 125 and Ellarslie in Trenton, at the Morpeth Gallery in Hopewell, and the Diane Boisvert Gallery in Brooklyn since he has lived here. Valentin attends the Joseph F. Cappello School, Mercer County Special Services School District, in Hamilton.

“He has made lots of progress,” says Ms. Salamandra. “Now we have the tools, as parents, to help our kid. We go to workshops and seminars to learn to work with him.”

Like his parents, Valentin loves to paint and draw. He is considered high-functioning, and at 5 can read full books. He loves to read, his parents report.

So confident are they that they have learned the necessary skills, Ms. Salamandra and Mr. Thiercelin plan to return to France in December. “Valentin has made enough progress so he can go to a regular school and be shadowed by a support person.”

“America redirected the boat,” says Mr. Thiercelin metaphorically. Previously, Valentin’s ship had been headed “in the Titanic direction.”

In France, says Ms. Salamandra, autism is still treated psychoanalytically, not as an educational difference, and so it will still be an uphill battle.

“DSM-IV” is a painting Mr. Thiercelin made based on Valentin’s classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “It is the brain in drawers,” he says, pointing to the stepped stacks of drawers with a spirally brain billowing above.

One of the things Valentin loves to do is line things up in a row. “It’s so beautiful, it inspired me to paint ‘Alignments,'” says Mr. Thiercelin. While he prefers not to explain his work, and doesn’t personally need to title them, he offers the titles as “windows into the work for the viewers.”

“While there are paintings which contain only one dominant image, much of the work is a patchwork of visual vignettes that hang together successfully often not because of a cohesive subject matter but because of an intuitive sense of color, form and overall compositional balance,” writes Ms. Somers. “Certain colors and shapes repeat themselves in many canvases… floating figures, airplanes often with bombs, flags, spokes of a wheel, ladders, hands, lozenge eyes, fish, castle towers and a child’s face with big eyes and a cowboy hat… as in a dream… life is constantly in flux, and these paintings refuse to settle down.”

Reality is constantly shifting for this artist, says Ms. Somers. “A moment of pastoral peace or domestic bliss shifts quickly into an exploding building or a place dropping bombs.”

In “Asil” (French for house of crazy people), a little boy is playing hide-and-seek with a large flying skeletal animal. “A long time ago, they put people like Valentin in (asylums),” he says with help from Ms. Salamandra, noting playfully that her first name, Lisa, is “asil” spelled backward. “Now these people can go back into society. These people learn differently, so let’s teach them differently. There’s no prescription, no treatment; it’s up to the parents to choose the schools.

“When you have a child who is different, it leads you to ask, ‘What is normalcy?'” he continues. “As an artist, I feel different. To be a painter in our society is strange, too.”


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One Response to Go Figure

  1. Pingback: ‘Valentin, C’est Moi’: The Art of Play | The Artful Blogger

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