Gwylène Gallimard: the art of cultural exchange in Charleston, SC
Had airline tickets to Colombia been less expensive than those to North Carolina, artist and restaurateur Gwylène Gallimard may never have expatriated from her native France to settle in the American South. A friend from the École des Beaux-arts in Nancy, where Gallimard was a professor of art, invited her to come to Asheville, North Carolina, in the mid-seventies. The plan was to spend a couple of months in the idyllic setting while working together on a collaborative art project. She stayed a year, from 1975 to 1976, and in 1983 found herself drawn to make the permanent move across the Atlanta Ocean. Nestled in the Southeast, Gallimard had found a welcoming community of artists in Asheville. One year later, she was drawn further south, to Charleston, South Carolina, not only by the hospitality it offered to international artists but by the intriguing and comforting encounter between American and European cultures that seemed to be playing out everywhere in its architectural character and in its vibrant energy.
Gwylène Gallimard was born in Paris, in the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-Des-Près, within close proximity to the Maison d’Éditions Gallimard, France’s largest and most prestigious publishing house. Even today, Gallimard feels compelled to clarify her lack of familial relation to the renowned publisher. Carrying the Gallimard name has led, over the years, to a number of incidents of mistaken identity. “My mother met Albert Camus, who had come to the house to present his manuscripts. Since she was a professor of French, she read them before bringing them to the book store and publishing house of the Éditions Gallimard, which were two blocks further.” Camus had deposited his manuscripts at the wrong “Maison Gallimard,” she explains.
Gwylène Gallimard knew very early on that she wanted to be an artist. As a child, she spent much of her time sketching and painting landscapes. The notion of living as an artist came to her much later, though, as the idea of sustaining herself solely through art was highly discouraged by her family. To appease her family with a more “practical” as well as lucrative career choice, Gallimard studied to become a brain surgeon: “My other idea was to become a brain surgeon, it was my dream… in order to understand what occurs in the brain, but I did not have this memory capable of remembering all of the scientific tables, from chemistry, from the natural sciences, and all of that.” Though she would change paths, it was the same desire that led her to pursue a career in art: to understand human knowledge.
It was Gallimard’s search for human knowledge and consciousness that led her to embrace the concept of “community-based art” and in turn brought her to North America. Following her encounter with Jean-Marie Mauclet, an artist and, at the time, professor of sculpture in Nancy, her own practice quickly evolved from two-dimensional depictions to three-dimensional forms. While a professor of art at the École des Beaux-arts in Nancy from 1977-1980, Gallimard obtained a grant from the Cultural Affairs Ministry of Canada to produce a collaborative, multilingual project at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, from 1980 to 1982. Once there, Gallimard pursued a Master of Fine Arts in multimedia. Her art further evolved to encompass the fourth dimension as she began to incorporate the elements of sound and movement into her work via recordings and videos. Her media range from small canvases to films to ready-made objects to five miles of rope. The media she selects today depends on a number of factors, including the subject of the work, the place of the art installation, the circumstances of its creation, as well as the collaborative nature of the project. Gallimard works not to create an individual piece of art, but to facilitate through the media available for artistic expression a portal of entry into dialogue for the public.
More than a practice in aesthetics and personal self-expression, Gallimard’s vision encompasses a deeply philosophical and socially-aware engagement with society and community. Her most recent collaborative project, The Future is on the Table, illustrates her approach. The exhibition has been in the works for four years and was initiated by Gallimard and her partner Jean-Marie Mauclet. Fifty-eight three-legged stools were cut from a single sheet of marine plywood that had been painted with a map of the world. The stools were than mailed to artists and communities around the world, from India to England to South Africa to Nigeria to France to the United States. The objective of the project is to highlight social justice issues related to water and shelter. This month the pieces of the puzzle-like project will be reassembled as the various artists come together in Charleston for a series of expositions, lectures, residencies, and dialogues.
Yet an artist also needs to seek out funds. Gallimard and Mauclet devised a way to do so via the creation of a restaurant embodying the encounter between two cultures, French and American: “It’s Fast and French.” Today Gallimard and Mauclet co-own two such restaurants, offering an ingenious spin on the popular concept of the “fusion” restaurant. The idea is also to provide a venue conducive to the “rhythm of discussion” so typical to the French café, which is ensured through the design of the restaurant in European fashion: tables and chairs are placed within close proximity of one another, permitting encounters and conversations which may not occur otherwise. Gallimard and Mauclet chose Charleston, SC, because the charm of the small streets, the warmth of the European-like city center, and the walkability of the southern city appealed to them and seemed to correspond perfectly to the opening of a restaurant which would fuse together elements of both their native France and their newly adopted Southeastern region.