Lise McKean talks with French artist Sophie Rideaud at her studio and gallery in Les Sables d’Olonne

Translation by Laurent Houphoue and Lise McKean

Photos by Lise McKean

Lise: Let’s start with talking about how you became an artist and came to have a studio and gallery here on the Atlantic coast in Les Sables d’Olonne.

Sophie: It was triggered by a painting. I was awestruck by a painting when I was sixteen. At first, I didn’t quite understand it. It zoomed in on a banal urban scene. But you could feel some sort of tension. It transcribed this feeling into the painting. I found this fabulous and it stuck in my mind.

That pushed me to see more exhibitions—to ask more questions about paintings, to understand why each work goes in one direction rather than another, and to understand how it was all in some part of my mind. The impetus came again when I was pregnant and reading a lot of books. One of them shocked me. It was about how the oceans are dying. I had an impulse to depict this on furniture. At the beginning I didn’t have any materials to paint with. My husband was working at Peugeot and had huge quantities of car paint. I used them to mix my own paints and started painting furniture at my house. Then friends saw it asked me to paint for them. Later I had my first clients—and this gave me confidence as an artist.

Lise: How long have you been painting?

Sophie: About twenty years. In the beginning, I was just doing furniture. After about ten years, I totally mastered furniture. I went to clients and painted according to my inspiration. The problem is that furniture already has a form, a shape, a history. Creatively, I became a bit stuck. I started painting on canvas in 2012. A canvas is like a blank page where you have to express something.

Lise: Your paintings have a technicolor yet gauzy, dreamlike quality. Do you paint from dreams? From imagination?

Sophie: I like people, humanity. At first, I painted them. For example, I did painting showing all sorts of people together—Arab, Asian, American, and French. It suggests a public place, a bar or cafe, where we might be drinking and having a conversation. Being convivial. I like to express things that warms my heart.

Music is also integral to my painting. It’s a language. I can hardly dissociate one from the other. That’s why I put the shape of a guitar in some of my works. I have so many guitars to choose from. In this one, I use part of a guitar. My daughter plays the cello and her teachers tells her to feel the instrument and her body as one shape. The musician should be one with the instrument. That’s how I came up with the idea to use the shape of the instrument for the body of a girl. My paintings often start with what I hear and see. Many have to do with what I feel. I like to express the feelings of problems and of questions I ask myself.

Lise: Do you play guitar or sing?

Sophie: I used to play a lot of piano. I entered many piano competitions. I could have studied at the conservatory in Paris to become a professional pianist. My parents were disappointed that I turned it down. I didn’t want to be a professional pianist. I wanted to the piano to be something that I had the desire to play, not something I had to practice every day with rigor and discipline. This experience is why music is important to my painting.

Lise: I’ve met many musicians who made the same decision. They found conservatories and competitions too limiting. They wanted more freedom as artists.

Sophie: That’s what turned me away from piano. It was constant practice. I was nominated for an international competition when I was eight years old. The piece of music has stuck with me, but I don’t play as well now as I did then.

Lise: What’s it like having  your studio and gallery right here in the center of town and so close to the ocean? How did you find it?

Sophie: Guy Barrier made my gallery and studio possible. It’s huge for me to have this space. It’s spacious and filled with light. I have to feel good to paint. I’m at peace with the noise of the street, the cries of the seagulls. The ambiance and environs are lively. Before having this, I went to art fairs. I would fill my car with paintings and furniture and go from place to place. I met Guy four years ago at an art fair. He has a passion for musicians and artists. Thanks to him, I’ve been here for four years. I could not have this without someone like him. I have a husband, three children, a good life. But I needed a space to work. And now I have it.

Lise: Do you listen to music when you paint?

Sophie: No.

Lise: You’re surrounded by the symphony of seagulls and the street.

Sophie: Yes, and music is already in me. I know what’s true, what’s false. I learned it. I bathe in it. I like to listen conversations. I find it amusing to hear what people are saying. Sometimes they’re arguing or child is crying. If a painting gets too agitated, I pause and then come back to it. Painting isn’t instinctive. You have to think. When I start a painting, it doesn’t come right away. It drags on. I know what I’m going towards. First, I have an idea, but it could take months. It can take a long time to express the leading thought, the emotion. There are no rules. A painting can look a little disconcerting, but fifteen minutes later it’s done.

Lise: Your paintings have the spaciousness I feel when looking at the ocean stretch to the horizon. Did you grow up near the ocean?

Sophie: Yes, and no. I grew up in Angers which isn’t very close to the ocean. Let me explain something about myself. From birth until I was sixteen, I could not see well. I was in a total blur. I can see you now because I’m wearing contact lenses. That’s why I developed a good sense of hearing. That’s why I’m now able to paint. That’s why at sixteen, it was the details that struck me when I saw that painting. I could barely see before that. The school where I went to study Braille was in Angers. It also taught a lot of music, a lot of music. Music was as important as mathematics, French, and grammar. I grew up with people who couldn’t see or couldn’t see well. That was my childhood.

At sixteen, it was like someone opened my eyes. I could see expressions on people’s faces. Before that people could stick out their tongue, smile, or wink and I couldn’t see them. It took away a crucial element of communication. But I developed very good hearing. I could recognize people by their tone of voice. Yesterday, I recognized a man I knew as a child because I knew his voice. When you speak, I can hear how you’re feeling, what you’re like. Some tones are high, some low, some a little angry or sad.  In my paintings, there’s a look, an expression.

When I was a child things were black and white. Now color has significance. All this isn’t easy to talk about. I get goosebumps. Not seeing well as a child limited me and took a lot from me. I asked myself, since I’m someone who only sees a little, what can I do with my life other than teaching or tuning the piano? I don’t know why, but I said that my life would not be that. My future would be different.

I still have my friends who don’t see. I decided my paintings would have texture and relief like Braille so anyone who can’t see would be able to touch and feel them. This way I could bring the world of faces and their expressions to people who can’t see.

Lise: Texture is literally tactile in your paintings. You use it so your paintings can be read the same way that someone uses their hands to read Braille or a face. Did you paint faces from the beginning?

Sophie: For a long time, I regretted not having been able to see faces. I missed out on a lot because I couldn’t see the exchanges that happen with a look, a gesture, a glance. This loss gave me the desire to paint faces.

Lise: Is it the details and subtleties of facial expression and gestures that especially interest you now?

Sophie: Yes. When we look, we often don’t really look at each other. Sometimes, I think people feel I’m looking at them or pretending that I’m not looking.

Lise: Are you self-taught in painting?

Sophie: Yes.

Lise: How did you go about it?

Sophie: I like to look at Van Gogh’s works. And Picasso, too.  Cubism came later in his life and showed him a way of making extraordinary paintings. There’s a procedure, process that I find it admirable. He starts with the abstract. You have to begin with the most difficult part, the drawing. First, try to compose things. After that you can go on. Then you throw color here and there. The same thing with furniture. I know how to do it. After that at the artistic level, I know how to move forward. Now I’ve started putting relief in my paintings. There’s difficulty of drawing, then I add relief to try to advance my work. Working in a large format is the same—you have to try. I tell myself everything is possible.

Lise: Why not keep moving? That’s what artists do. I would love to live so close to the ocean. Do you like to swim?

Sophie: I adore swimming in the ocean. I came here because of the blue of the ocean. I’m in love with it. When I was a little girl and couldn’t see, often I would bump into things, I would fall and scrape my knees. It was painful. Here I feel good. There are no obstacles in the ocean. For someone who doesn’t see much, the ocean is freedom. I go in, I swim. I hear the sounds. It feels so good. There’s no thought, “I’m going to hurt myself.”  I love being near the ocean. Each day I look and see how it is. Is at rough? Calm?

Lise. The water, light, and wind nourish all our senses.

Sophie: The luminosity here is especially superb. I admire details I hadn’t seen in my childhood—the raindrop that creates ripples on the water. I didn’t discover that until I was sixteen. Suddenly I saw small things like the pebbles that make asphalt. When I couldn’t see details, I didn’t know to look for them. There was no line or frame.

Lise: Can you talk a little more about how your sense of touch comes into your work?

Sophie: I’m hypersensitive—touch, smell, sound. I can sense you, how you feel, and how I feel with you. This interview would have been difficult if I didn’t feel well with you. I can sense people because I grew up that way. I think that art makes me feel good. I found my way. It appeases me. It’s beyond sincerity. I throw everything aside and go paint. It gives me peace.

Lise: Have you become more independent after your sight has improved?

Sophie: I received my driver’s license only much later because I grew up telling myself my eyes aren’t useful. Since driving is visual, I thought it’s not for me. Since I couldn’t see well, I didn’t know how to look. For example, I was driving but I couldn’t go forward because I didn’t look past the curve of the hood. Then couldn’t see ahead to the end the road to where it curved. I couldn’t anticipate people coming in front of me. I would step on the brake at the last minute or miss the curve in the road.

Lise: Is your perception of depth affected?

Sophie: It’s difficult for me to understand distance spatially. To catch something thrown to me, I need to make sense of the distance, height, and time it takes to react. I can’t do it. It’s really embarrassing. But things like that don’t bother me when I paint.

Lise: Is everything on the same plane when you’re painting?

Sophie: Not necessarily. I made a large painting of a street scene in perspective. There’s a terrace with people in the foreground and a boat in the midground and background. It’s a big scene and we’re stuck, like in a vice. It’s from a complicated and somber period in my life. It’s somber because there’s no color. In life there are moments when one’s not well. There are problems that need to be solved. Take for example, understanding movement. If I play a game of volleyball, I can’t see where the players are so I don’t know how to position myself. Then the ball comes at me and it’s coming fast. I should move toward it, but I hesitate. My instinct is to move away, to avoid it.

Lise: How does your response to movement affect your paintings? Can you see and judge depth?

Sophie: I can, but more because I can see its representation in photographs and other images better than I see it in three dimensions. I don’t see like most others do because I didn’t develop certain visual capacities from birth through childhood. This gives me my own way of looking at the world. And it comes out in my paintings because I like to paint according to what I see.

Lise: Everyone has an individual way of looking and seeing. Your experience makes your way particularly distinctive for people whose sight developed more conventionally.

Sophie: I mentioned before that I have hypersensitivity. Sometimes too much so with emotions, especially aggressiveness. If people talk to me aggressively, I respond aggressively. As a child when I fell and hurt myself, or when people picked on me, I instinctively learned to defend myself. I have a combative spirit. It’s in me.

Lise: Was this also an expression of frustration?

Sophie: I never told myself I’ll be miserable all my life. I hate that idea. For some people, it’s the end of the world when their fingertip hurts. I developed a belief in what I could do with what I have. I always believed that one day I could see. My ultimate goal was to be able to drive. It was totally surrealistic—like painting for someone who could barely see. One time I noticed a banal detail: a truck driver tightening the rope of the tarpaulin covering his truck. It was like stretching a canvas to create tension on the surface. Then I noticed how it makes lines. For you this is totally banal, but it had profound significance for me. Now, I imagine the tension on the canvas. I like painting because I can feel the movement.

Lise: Movement as in this work of the girl who’s playing the cello with closed eyes?

Sophie: She’s in her music. She’s playing for herself. She feels good. In fact, it’s a piece of a guitar that I changed it a cello.

Lise: In addition to music, the ocean, and the revelations brought by your improved vision, what other experiences enter into your work?

Sophie: I went for a month to Burkina Faso when I was twenty-two. A lot of people in my paintings, with veils, with necklaces are from then. In Africa, your eyes are open, and your heart too. In Burkina Faso, people might not have a penny but they welcome you with a huge heart and open arms. Africa bowled me over. At the same time I was young and afraid to die there. But in fact, we walk side by side with death.

Lise: The first time I went to India I was twenty-two.

Sophie: Did it also shock you? Were you afraid to die there? I saw carcasses of dead animals.

Lise: I felt all my senses come to life in India. I wasn’t worried about dying.

Sophie: Weren’t you uneasy?

Lise: Yes and no. I was a woman traveling alone, but I was young and not much scared me. Everything was new and intriguing.

Sophie: It’s a little bit of naiveté and insouciance to be alone in a foreign country without fear.

Lise: Did the changes in vision alter your sensitivity to sound?

Sophie: Now that I’m seeing better, I’m using less and less of my ability to hear. That ability can put you in awkward positions. I could hear people whispering things I wasn’t meant to hear. People would come to see me and ask how I’m doing. Then I could hear them whisper something about me to someone else. At art fairs I could hear people in the booth next to me talking about their intimate lives, criticizing others, whispering about me.

Lise: Would you say that hearing and sensing what’s unnoticed by others gives you a kind of psychic ability?

Sophie: I can detect nuances of emotion in people’s tone of voice. Sometimes I try to make use of it, sometimes not. I’ve learned to think about it and how to deal with it. What we see and hear can be misleading. One shouldn’t always give meaning or significance to it. You have to think about it and reflect on it rather than just react. One day, I heard a woman telling her friend the year of her birth and she was surprised when I told her that we’re the same age. Another time I overheard someone say she was pregnant, and I said, “Congratulations!”

Lise: Your sensitivity puts you in unusual situations.

Sophie: It’s a kind of personal wealth. Hypersensitivity creates a lot of inner feelings. Especially the sensitivity to touch. Most of the time I feel good in my skin. Children, husband, family life are sometimes chaotic. When I cannot find an explanation for a situation, I try to make an image of a solution. It’s good is to be able to put everything into an image, to exteriorize and express emotions. This gives me the desire to paint.

Lise McKean

Lise McKean is a writer, editor, and anthropologist based in Chicago.