Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Art in the Time of Covid

It's now been a year since the EU closed its borders to much of the outside world. For those of us who rely on tourism to make a living, the impact has been monumental. But of course I don't know anyone anywhere who hasn't been affected by Covid, so much so that I've found myself unable to write much about it at all. And yet, I've marveled at the resilience I've seen, at how people have adjusted both personally and professionally to the losses suffered. Everyone has a Covid story to tell. And when everyone has a story, how do you tell just one? Which one?        

Artist Kamil Vojnar has a gallery in St. Remy where he sells his lushly layered mixed-media photo-based art; he works with his girlfriend Pavlína Šachová, another Czech artist. They've been able to survive this year thanks to a loyal group of regular clients and the ability to sell art online. I've always admired Kamil's work and you'll see some of my favorite pieces below. Sitting in my garden having coffee recently, Kamil told me a bit about what his life has been like this year. He wasn't complaining, just stating facts, and I appreciated his soft-spoken candor. He's like millions of other good people trying to get by, worried about his kids, taking it day by day. And somehow his seemed like a good story to tell. 

The art scene in my village of St. Remy is extremely vibrant, with many art studios, galleries, art fairs, a fine-art museum called 
La Musee Estrine, an arts association called La Cour des Arts, art classes for all ages, a Van Gogh “trail” and more. We have a wonderful shop called Le Savoir-Faire des Alpilles (reopening, hopefully, in late March) where local “creators” of all types sell their work and take turns behind the desk.

And of course we have the Clinique Saint Paul de Mausole (Van Gogh Clinic), where the artist spent a year and painted roughly 150 canvasses including “Starry Night.” It’s a wonderfully serene and historic site, open to the public for visits, with a reproduction of Van Gogh’s actual room and a beautiful cloister. In the shop, you can buy paintings created by past and current clinic residents, your purchase supporting the ongoing art-therapy program.

Surrounded by so much opportunity to enjoy art of all types, it’s easy to take it all a bit for granted. We hurry past galleries on our daily errands and don’t really see them, let alone stop to think about the people who put heart and soul—and maybe life savings—into creating the spaces and all the beautiful work within them. Due to its popularity, commercial rents in St. Remy are “excessively high,” according to one artist friend. Most of the painters, sculptors, photographers and other creatives I talk with tell me, not surprisingly, that it’s a very, very tough time for anyone other than the best-known artists. Winter in Provence, like any other tourist area, can be rough for many businesses to begin with but particularly so for artists, I would think. And then add the specter of the pandemic to the mix--the missing tourists, the missing second-home owners, the cancelled art fairs and exhibits, the people who've lost their jobs, the closed restaurants, the curfews, the lockdowns--and well, you get the picture.

My friend Kamil has a gallery in St. Remy where he sells his dreamy photo montages: mostly large, uniquely layered, mixed-media pieces.  I recently asked him how he was faring and he was candid: “Like everyone, we’re trying to get to the other side of this current headache,” he said. “Covid has made things extremely difficult.” So Kamil has just put a number of pieces on sale, including all the ones you see here.

Born in the former Czechoslovakia in 1962, Kamil studied at the School of Graphic Arts in Prague and began a career as a graphic designer. In 1985 he left the still-Communist country illegally, moved to Vienna and eventually became a US citizen, finishing his studies at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. Graphic design led to illustration and to creating photo-based imagery; during this time he worked mostly for book- and music publishers in New York City. Kamil and his wife had two kids (now 15 and 18, living in LA), and spent years travelling back and forth between New York and France because she had a fashion business in Antibes. 

“At that time I was doing mostly images for book and CD covers,” Kamil remembers. “And as long as there was internet and Fed Ex, I realized I could live anywhere. Visiting St. Remy, I got inspired by the idea of having own little shop on the street, where I could create my art in the back and offer it to passers-by in front. I saw artists here working that way and I realized this could be the missing link, meaning the opportunity to do my own thing, art wise, like I always wanted to do.” Kamil decided “now or never” and opened his St. Remy gallery/atelier, Autres Images, in 2005.

A few years later, he expanded, opening a second studio gallery in the Marais in Paris; he travelled back and forth each week. But a fire set by local teenagers caused an explosion, extensively damaging Kamil’s space and a number of adjacent buildings. “All the dealings with police and insurance took away my drive to continue in Paris,” he says. “It took three years to get the building fixed up again and after subletting it for a few years, I decided to let it go in 2017.”

Kamil and his wife split a few years ago and today he shares his life and works alongside Pavlína, who shows a small number of her own pieces in the gallery. She creates her images (and poetry) under the name Pavi Taire. 

“Pavi’s a very good artist on her own,” Kamil says, “and we share responsibilities, both in the gallery and with our clients and collectors online. Over the years, quite a few of these clients have become very good friends, thanks largely to Pavlína’s personality.”  

Kamil’s work consists of images digitally layered with multiple photographs and painted textures. They’re either archival prints on fine art paper or prints on semitransparent Thai or Japanese paper; they’re then mounted on canvas or wooden boards. They’re varnished with a mixture of oil and wax, with details and colors further enhanced by oil paint.

“In a painting, you can paint anything you want,” he says. “In the photographic medium, it must, on some level, exist first. That tension between what exists and what’s made up is what interests me.”

Generally speaking, Kamil says he wouldn’t see many new clients in the gallery from late November to early April anyway. “And in normal years, it’s ok,” he tells me. “It’s a time to recharge, to start in on new work and to participate in outside exhibitions. In winter, we have clients from the summer season who return to us, via e-mail and internet, and ask us to produce new artwork for them or inquire about pieces they’ve seen in the gallery. We’ve been very lucky in that many clients return over and over: in person in summer, online in the winter.”

But nothing is “like normal” now. A large exhibit of Kamil’s work that opened in Prague in mid-September had to close two weeks later due to Covid … and has been closed ever since. Ongoing travel bans and Brexit have meant that regular and new clients haven’t been able to come to France; there’s been very little walk-in traffic for a long time now. “And my regular customers already bought pieces this year, thanks to our successful email promotion during the first lockdown,” Kamil explains.

Which brings us up to today...and the sale. Kamil’s work is regularly priced from a few hundred to a few thousand euros, and he's now reduced prices on many pieces, some by as much as one third. The images above are a small selection; you can see many more in the gallery and on the website. Kamil’s work can be bought framed or unframed, custom sizes of some works are available, commissions are welcome and Kamil ships worldwide via DHL Express.  For more info: kamilvojnar.com.

Autres Images
17 rue Carnot
13210 St. Remy de Provence
+33 (0)6 33 70 43 62
*Note: You can also find Kamil’s work in galleries in Siena (Italy) and Ghent (Belgium); details are on the website.