Charleston Profile: Paper Works
A local sculptor discovers her muse in handmade sheets of fiber
In a drafty converted paint and body shop on Remount Road, Jocelyn Châteauvert works in her papermaking studio.
There, translucent sculptural forms in various stages of textural life grow in clusters: some are light fixtures illuminated with finality, others wait to discover shape. Like their creator, these figures are at once mysterious and intriguing, curious and beautiful.
Crafted of beaten flax and abaca plant fibers, her unique works explore the potential of paper in three-dimensional compositions that challenge our notions of the material’s innate strength. Châteauvert’s wild light fixtures, wall pieces, and large-scale installations involve only the archival paper she creates—pinched, pleated, twisted, scrunched, folded, unfolded, and otherwise manipulated into highly tactile, multilayered, self-supporting designs. “It’s nice to have the essence of something,” says the artist.
Châteauvert approaches her creations with humor and humility, noting that she isn’t the sole contributor to her finished products. Air-drying gives each piece a rich topography: “The sheets take information from the air itself and turn out better than you thought because of their organic quality,” she says. When questioned about her inspiration, Châteauvert jokes, “I don’t know where it comes from. I’m just glad it keeps showing up.” Then, after a moment’s consideration, she asserts that her ideas stem from her cumulative experience. “Each piece has taken my whole life.” And the past 48 years have much to offer.
The stories of Châteauvert’s childhood in Des Moines, Iowa, are good fodder for fantasy writers, especially when she recounts the year her family spent housing the creatures that would stalk, slither, and swim into the Blank Park Zoo. “My stepfather’s family gave money to the city for a zoo, and he had permits to collect animals and quarantine them at our house. There was an ocelot in the backyard, an otter in the tub, a bat in a dresser drawer, and a crow in the bathroom,” she says before launching into antics from the time the brown bears went missing and the day she brought Cleo, a 12-foot boa constrictor, to kindergarten show-and-tell.
Such a household left quite an impression on the five-year-old, as did the bevy of classes Châteauvert attended as a child. “Mom had me take every kind of lesson. I started at age four at the Des Moines Art Center. And I took tap, ballet, and other forms of dance at Tanglefoot Cottage.” Then came synchronized swimming, chess, acting, diving, and other obscure but interesting hobbies. “She didn’t have that advantage,” Châteauvert says of her longest and biggest supporter, “so she made sure I did.”
Visiting her father exposed Châteauvert to the different, though no less influential, lifestyle of the country club set. When he remarried in 1969 to an art teacher whose family owned a 500-acre horse camp in Madison County, Iowa, Châteauvert spent much of her free time cantering through the area’s covered bridges. At the camp, her stepmother also organized craft projects, exposing the girl to a broad base of skills. “We had a great art room at his house,” she says, “but for a long time, I didn’t know that I was going to be an artist.”
Her career path into the art world began with a metalworking class in high school. “I was intrigued,” she recalls. Her education continued at the University of Iowa, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in design and her Master of Fine Arts in jewelry and metalworking under distinguished jewelry and arts professor Chunghi Choo and internationally renowned papermaking guru Timothy Barrett. “While most students come to papermaking from drawing, printing, and the book arts, Jocelyn came instead from jewelry and metalsmithing, where paper isn’t part of the normal palette of materials,” says Barrett. “She quickly realized, though, that paper in the hands of a practiced artisan can be anything from a gossamer tissue to a rawhide-like slab. She discovered the possibilities were limitless and potentially magical.” Following graduate school, the fledgling artist spent a year as an adjunct teacher at Middlesex Polytechnic of London, where she was exposed to “fabulously avant-garde jewelers.”
In between her return to Iowa and subsequent move to San Francisco, Châteauvert launched her own jewelry line, Private Spaces, which married paper and sterling silver in an opposites-attract relationship. “I liked the balance of fire in metalworking and water in papermaking,” says the artist. “It was a challenge—how do you seamlessly integrate something known to be strong with a seemingly fragile material? It took a while to combine the two into something with a sale value, but I was stubborn as hell.”
The collection was well-received at juried trade shows throughout the country, including the American Craft Council Fair, Smithsonian Craft Show, and Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show. And Châteauvert began to gain attention on a national scale, accepting awards from NICHE magazine and the Washington Craft Expo, among myriad other recognitions. Her popularity among retailers and galleries, including Charleston’s Nina Liu and Friends, skyrocketed. “She’s very daring and innovative,” says Liu.
The artist’s first New York show, held at the Aaron Faber Gallery in 1996, marked a milestone in Châteauvert’s booming career, and a shift in the style of her work. “The pieces for that show were more about paper and scale—much more sculptural,” she says, explaining that years of intricate jewelry work had started causing her hands to fall asleep. “I wanted to work with something bigger. I think that’s a natural transition for an artist.”
And as the size of her work slowly expanded, so did her horizons. In 1999, she and then-husband, furniture maker David Puls, moved into a house on Sullivan’s Island. In addition to exhibits at Liu’s gallery, Châteauvert’s southern migration was fueled by an annual meeting, Revival, which had brought nationally recognized craft artists to the Upstate to make products from recycled materials since 1994.
The year 2000 marked both endings and beginnings for the artist. Revival held its final get-together, closing thereafter from lack of funding. She gave birth to her son, Elvin. And she attended her last trade show, presenting her burgeoning collection of lighting. “I wanted to bring light to the paper,” she says. “It’s one thing to be light in weight, like jewelry. It’s another thing to be literally filled with light.” The transition led to the sculptural forms and wall screens that currently make up Châteauvert’s body of work, and the light element resonated with a newfound audience. “My pieces keep ending up in spiritual places,” she says. “I think it’s the humbleness and mysteriousness of the paper and the relation to the spiritual light.”
In addition to a commissioned installation at Circular Congregational Church, Mark Sloan of The Halsey Institute selected Châteauvert’s Lily Clouds to float above the chapel in the Medical University of South Carolina’s new Ashley River Tower. MUSC spokeswoman Kathleen Ellis says that the hospital so wanted to include her work that it altered the chapel design to accommodate the art.
Of her commissioned installation at the Worship Center at East Cooper Baptist Church, Cameron Wilson says, “Each time I look at it, I see something different.” As a vice president and principal of local architecture firm LS3P Associates Ltd., Wilson has collaborated with the artist on several oversize works for corporate projects. “Her sculptural pieces add a wonderful human element to a space, creating a strong symbiotic relationship between the organic and the machine-made environment,” he says.
As another testament to her talents, last year Châteauvert received an invitation to participate in a five-month show at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in D.C. Her former teacher Chunghi Choo made a surprise visit to the opening. “It was a great joy to see Jocelyn’s new work,” she says. “Her innovation, aesthetic sensibility, and hard work have contributed to a truly outstanding career.” And her mother gave her “the nicest gift,” remembers Châteauvert. “She said, ‘You’ve done it. Kicking and screaming, you’ve gotten there on your own.’” The biggest nod to her work came at the exhibit’s end, though, when the museum purchased two of her pieces for its permanent collection, one of which is on view through September. “Scratch was the second largest acquisition in handmade paper that the Renwick has ever made,” says curator Jane Milosch.
“I always wanted to do this on a national scale,” Châteauvert says. But her talents have taken her even farther around the globe. This past December, her pieces appeared in a paper jewelry exhibit at PapierWespe in Vienna. And mid-May will find her work at the Russian State Pedagogical University. After 20 years in the craft, Châteauvert has achieved a reputation, locally, nationally, and internationally, as a brilliant artist.