Entering the small, cluttered studio of Princeton Arts Council’s artist in residence, Thibaud Thiercelin, one immediately encounters art that is accessible, yet clearly beyond explanation. Pictures bright and dark, titled and untitled, images instantly recognizable and others bordering on the abstract, all demand attention.
Thiercelin, a native of France, has been the Arts Council’s artist in residence since January, 2004. His new exhibit, "Valentin C’est Moi," (Valentin It’s Me) features approximately 65 of his oil-based works on display at the Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs on the Princeton University campus. The show is on view through Friday, September 9. An artist’s reception takes place on September 9, 5 to 9 p.m.
Unlike the focus of two earlier series in which Theircelin communicated his experience of travel in India in 1999 ("Suites Indiennes"), and expressed his reaction to the events of September 11, 2001 ("11 Septembre et Autres Jours"), in this new exhibit, his first son serves as his muse. The body of work is both personal and universal in its reaction and adaptation to the birth of the first child.
Thiercelin lives in Princeton with his wife, Lisa Salamandra, an artist and self-proclaimed Jersey girl, who was born and raised in Hamilton, and their two sons, Valentin, 5, and Elias, 3. Salamandra, a graduate of Steinert High School, received a BFA from the Baltimore College of Art in 1989. After living in San Francisco for five years, she moved to Paris, where several months later, she met Thiercelin in a group studio where they both painted. They were married in 1998.
The family hurriedly left their home in the Allier region of France, just three weeks after Valentin, then three years old, was diagnosed with autism. According to the Princeton-based, non-profit Eden Institute, autism is a lifelong, non-progressive developmental disability that severely impairs the way sensory input is assimilated. It causes problems in social behavior, communication, and learning, and typically presents itself during the first three years of life. As the third most common developmental disability in the United States, autism is four times more common in boys than girls.
"Valentin C’est Moi" traces Theircelin’s experience with the birth of his son, his first three years of life, and his diagnosis of autism. Anyone with children, a familiarity with autism, or simply an interest in or a passion for art, should experience first-hand this artist’s contemplation, joy, despair, and anger at the realities of life.
Both Thiercelin and Salamandra were horrified upon learning that autism is considered, and treated as, a psychoanalytical disorder in France – the opposite of the neurobiological diagnosis that has been widely accepted in the United States for the past 30 years. In France, autistic children typically end up being institutionalized.
The couple consulted the top specialist in Paris, who, upon learning that Salamandra was an American, told them they were very lucky and that they should "run." Through calls to family, professionals, and Internet searches, Salamandra quickly surmised that the United States was the best place in the world to educate and treat a child with autism – and that Princeton was ground zero, in no small part due to the Eden Institute.
The Eden Institute provides a family-oriented, multifaceted, and community-based alternative to institutionalization of individuals with autism, based on the premise that the majority of individuals with autism require services throughout their lifetime. Fifteen percent of all proceeds from the sale of artwork from Thiercelin’s exhibit will go to Eden.
Today, Valentin attends the Joseph F. Capello School in Hamilton and, according to his parents, has made tremendous progress. "Most children with autism are visual learners," says Salamandra, "and Valentin has a big imagination. What we’ve learned, by attending seminars and every course we could, including those that were meant for the professionals, is that as a parent of an autistic child, you become the expert and chief instructor."
Valentin also meets weekly with a private therapist at Eden, Michelle Brooks. Ann Holmes, Eden’s director of outreach services, was the first professional Salamandra spoke with while the family was still in France. After they arrived in Princeton, Valentin was privately evaluated there, and Holmes is still involved in monitoring Valentin’s progress.
The stress of learning about and coming to accept Valentin’s diagnosis, the rage and fear, joy and hope that the family encounters, are ever-present in the paintings in Thiercelin’s new exhibit. In the painting, "Tomorrow," the figure of a man is looking down at a hopscotch-like pattern of various colored shapes and images arrayed at his feet. In "Maman a La Guerre" (Mommy at War), a dark, energetic, and complicated piece, images of figures, buildings, and trees swirl around a woman who is out of control. In "L’Enlevement" (The Kidnapping), two children stand beneath a star while underneath, a male lies in the crucified position held down by the tracks of toy train. And in "Elias, Mon Frere" (Elias My Brother), a child stands on the shore with hands extended, while another floats in a boat made of bricks. "It’s hard to shake hands when you’re encased in a brick enclosure," says Thiercelin.
The artist says he starts working frantically with no preconceived idea of what is he about to create, painting more than one work at a time, and working on every piece simultaneously. He may work on a particular painting for two months, starting off by putting initial images down on the canvas and then sitting back and contemplating whether or not the images will stand the test of time. He spends numerous hours being still and listening to what the work is trying to say. He then transforms the images by repeatedly adding layer upon layer until he is satisfied with the image. "The images impose themselves," says Thiercelin, "but everything is thought about, reflected upon, and decided upon." In the show are many smaller paintings that, while completely finished, served as the catalyst for the larger, more complicated works.
In a press statement, the show’s curator, Kate Somers, describes the artist’s work for the exhibit: "As Theircelin painted his way through his understanding of his son’s disability, passages of both ecstasy and despair are expressed, occasionally sharing the same canvas. While there are paintings that 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. Certain colors and shapes repeat themselves: floating figures, airplanes (often with bombs), flags, spokes of a wheel, ladders, hands, fish, castle towers, and a child’s face with big eyes and a cowboy hat."
A self-taught artist, Thiercelin, a middle child with two siblings, has exhibited in Europe and the U. S., including participation in the 14th Grand Prix de Peinture de la Ville de St. Gregoire (St. Gregoire, France), the Salon de Mai (Paris), Les Visages de Notre Humanite at Grand Halle de la Villette (Paris), Galerie Allaire-Aigret (Paris), Salon de Montrouge (France), and at Ellarslie Trenton City Museum and the WPA Gallery in Princeton. His father was in accounting, his mother a homemaker; both are now retired.
While he doesn’t feel compelled to title all his works, Thiercelin admits he sometimes names them "as a concession to society to help people enter into the art. Although my paintings are complex to explain, I hope that people will sit down and look at them and be active in the looking."
The Theircelin family plans to return to France in December. In preparing to go home, Salamandra admits she does not know what the future holds. "We were so happy living in France. We made the decision to come here very quickly, and we moved in with my parents, who welcomed us with open arms. Valentin has had the gift of two years here, and because he’s made such great strides, the professionals now tell us they think we’ll be able to go back to France. Although Valentin will need support and services, perhaps for the rest of his life, the reality is he’s verbal, he’s bilingual, and I can teach his teachers how best to work with him. Will we have to move again? I don’t think so."
Thibaud Thiercelin: "Valentin C’est Moi," through Friday, September 9, Bernstein Gallery, Robertson Hall, lower level, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, intersection of Washington Road and Prospect Avenue, Princeton University. Artist reception, September 9, 5 to 9 p.m. Gallery hours Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 973-975-9984 or 609-987-0099 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.