In the Studio with Clio Sze To

In the studio with Clio Sze To, whose works focuses on the strong and heavy presence of reality through models and textures, veiled with dreamlike and mysterious sensations. We met with Clio to tell us more about growing up in the Paris suburbs, their greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I have always felt more like an apprentice. As I grew up surrounded by art and artists, I was always aware of how long the way is. 

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I grew up in a Paris suburb with my parents and my sister. My father is a painter and his studio was in our flat and I was used to seeing him work. I kept from him the seeking of the pleasure of working alone in the calm studio, a perfect state of being, and also his vision of art. My mother worked in a lawyer’s office as a secretary. She  taught me patience and precision in work through sewing and mosaic, and not to be afraid of restarting everything if needed. All of our neighbours were artists, and I spent a lot of time in the studio of my first art teacher, the sculptor Valérie Delarue, learning sculpture and enamels, and just talking to her. I started around the age of 5 and continued until teenage years. I was free to choose what I wanted to do, and Valerie helped me to realise these projects by teaching me the techniques when I needed them. Sometimes I had very ambitious projects and she always supported me to achieve them. I learned to spend several weeks on a sculpture, to accept that it sometimes explodes in the kiln, and I also experienced many times the magical discovery of my glazed objects. To me there was no better feeling than this achievement, so it instantly became a passion for creation in general. One day Valérie told me about the National school of Decorative Arts of Paris, thinking that I would be happy there, and it became my project for the years to come. After high school, and a year in a preparatory class for art schools called Atelier Clouet, I went to  the Ensad and choosed there the sector « printed image » because to me, it was the one in which I could work the most freely. It was five wonderful years of exciting projects and friendship. Since graduating, I have been working alone at home, alongside my partner who does the same job.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work? 

My first passion as a child was clay. I then learned drawing a little later, sometimes in a more academic way. My high school years were not the most creative ones, but mostly occupied with studies, friends and video games. During my art studies I improved my hand and discovered many things, and I started to search for the basis of my own visual language. During the last years of school, I developed a series of drawings mixing paint and graphite, illustrating a feeling of frustration and absurdity in front of the concrete and mysterious aspect of the material. Like a difficulty in attaching myself to reality. I was used to drawing surrealistic subjects from imagination, and I decided to try different ways and started to draw and paint from life. Then I tried to mix all these postures to develop a language to show a world between dream, memories, and reality. 

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? 

Art is our last attempt to capture and share the world, like a form of understanding the world when it escapes from words. What emanates from my work is more about impressions and sensations than a clear message. The feeling of being alive in this world is so complex and obvious at the same time that the task of telling it is infinite. That’s what I try to capture slowly. These impressions and feelings can be different from one work to another, just as our state changes from one day to the next. However, when we manage to share through art, both the viewer and the artist feel stronger their belonging to humanity, and that is a surprisingly vertiginous and peaceful feeling. 

My aesthetic is the result of many layers of transparency. Whatever medium I use, I tend to work in this way to get some depth in my textures. These superimpositions render the pencil lines illegible, and give rise to various textures. In this way I try to infuse my work with the charm of patina and time.

Who & what are your greatest influences?  

My biggest influences in art are probably the first works of art I met and loved. We used to visit the artists Sam Szafran and Raymond Mason and I always admired their work. I was also very influenced by the books of my childhood, especially by Ionesco’s Tales N°3 and N°4, illustrated respectively by Philippe Corentin’s watercolours and Nicole Claveloux’s graphic and surrealist style. Furthermore, I admire and learn from many artists I love such as Canaletto, Léonard De Vinci, Johannes Vermeer, Alberto Giacometti, André Derain, Odilon Redon, Balthus, Avigdor Arikha, Antonio López , and many others. Of course it all stems from what my father passed on to me in art.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

I was probably influenced by hours of playing video games, particularly one in which I created characters and built their homes and lives. I paid attention to the graphics, it was textures drawn and plastered onto the volumes. I liked the very smooth modelling of the characters in computer generated images and it inspired me for my graphite pen drawings. I found the way these computer techniques rebuild an appearance of our world by playing with volumes and textures was raising interesting questions about the limits of our perceptions. 

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

What I want people to take from my work is probably what I put in my practice, a place to let mind flot, dream, and just look.  When someone loves a piece of art, I think it means something in the piece makes an echo with something in himself, maybe a feeling, a question, a memory, but I never know what, and as a watcher, we most of the time don’t know either.

I don’t have the audience consciously in mind when I work because if I am working, it means I succeeded to think to nothing.

What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice?

The first decisive change in my life that had an impact on my work was to return to live in the neighbourhood of my childhood. There, I put aside my imaginary subjects for a while, to work from nature by drawing first my neighbourhood, then some views of my flat and objects. The second decisive moment could be the visit to the Pierre Bonnard exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in 2015. At the time, I was doing some rather dark charcoal landscapes of my neighbourhood, and I was so touched by the beauty of P.Bonnard’s colours that I came back to the studio, fixed the charcoal and continued the series in colour with dry pastel. From then on, I discovered the pleasure of working with colour, through pastels, oil paint and watercolours. On the surface I felt like I was abandoning what I had done before, but I always ended up coming back to it later, and I found that going back and forth between different mediums and ways of working gave me confidence and made me progress. Today I oscillate between these worlds according to my inspiration and I experiment by mixing them.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

It’s something I’m trying to understand and master. For now, what helps me is to be alone in the studio, surrounded by my work in progress and all my materials. I put on music or podcasts to cut out the thoughts of the day, and I always have drinks and snacks on hand 

Something in the future you hope to explore?

For technical reasons I have move away from clay sculpture, and I have always missed it since. These last years, I have done some bas relief and sculptures in plaster or different kinds of clay. In the future I would like to develop this side in which I have a lot of fun, and link it to the rest of my work.