Finding my way: Interview with Natalie d’Arbeloff
Natalie d’Arbeloff was born in Paris of French and Russian parents and raised in France, South America, Europe and the USA, settling in London in the mid-1960s. She is a painter, printmaker, book-artist, cartoonist and writer, and has also taught and lectured in England and the USA - a true polymath! Her work has been widely exhibited and is in public collections internationally including the British Library, the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and many other institutions.
Alongside painting and printmaking, Natalie has written three art teaching books and created many limited edition and one-of-a-kind artists books. A retrospective exhibition of her artist’s bookworks was held at the Museum of the Book in The Hague in 1992. At a Laydeez Do Comics event in 2019 she was awarded the Rosalind B. Penfold Award for a graphic novel-in-progress by an artist over 50.
We were excited to get a chance to catch up with Natalie and find out a little more about her life and work.
Interview: Matilda Barratt in conversation with Natalie d'Arbeloff.
Whilst I suspect it is hard to summarise, could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your practice?
From childhood onwards I never doubted that being an artist was the role assigned to me by life. I don’t know where this certainty came from, apart from a feeling of excitement and discovery generated by the activity of making art. No one in my family, or outside it, pushed me in that direction but neither was I discouraged from it. I began seriously studying art aged about sixteen and over the years acquired a solid foundation in drawing, painting, printmaking and three-dimensional media, exploring many forms of visual expression.
I’m interested to know a little more about your process; when starting on something new, do you typically know what message you are trying to convey and what the end result will be?
If the work is commissioned the ‘message’ is my response to the assignment. A portrait, for instance, is my interpretation of that person’s character. But do I know the end result of any art work I undertake, commissioned or otherwise? Never! If I knew in advance how a work will turn out I would have no interest in making art. For me, the excitement and purpose of creative work is to be surprised and amazed by the result, if it succeeds. Before starting on a project I must choose a medium, or combination of media, which will suit an idea I want to explore: should it be a painting? Construction? Print? Comic strip? Book? And so on. The process of choosing the form of a given content is like an explorer setting out on a solo adventure and building a boat or other vehicle to travel there. Sometimes the ‘message’ only emerges during the journey.
Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration seems to be always present, it seems to find me rather than vice-versa. Autobiographical material is fertile ground but I’m also attracted to the impersonal, intangible world of philosophical ideas and fascinated by the cosmos, both known and unknown.
'Angel Disguised as PaperDoll Explaining the Artist's Work', Natalie d'Arbeloff 2018, mixed media boxwork. 51x41x9cm
Of everything that you’ve ever created, is there a particular piece or project that has really stuck with you, or that you could point to as having been especially influential to your work and life?
I find it impossible to choose one artwork because different periods of time and different experiences all contribute to the development of one’s vision.. It’s more that life influences the work, rather than the other way around. It would take too much space to show all examples of my work that might answer this question so I’ve chosen just five which I feel say something about my way of seeing and responding to what life offers me: 'Angel Disguised as Paperdoll Explaining the Artist's Work', 'Undressing him' from Bedroom Suite, 'Creators in their Ruined Temple', 'My Life Unfolds', and 'Sonata for Apples and Chairs'.
Do you feel that you have ever landed on a particular ’style’, or is it constantly changing and evolving?
“Landed” is the right word! My approach to making art is like landing at a new airport every time, carrying baggage of previous experience but ready to start from scratch. Although it may seem that I don’t stay faithful to any one style or art-language, there is continuity in my search for authenticity. At my age I could be looking back at the results of a steady evolution but the opposite is true: I feel I’m only at the beginning of finding ‘my way’.
'Undressing him' from Bedroom Suite, Natalie d'Arbeloff 1985, etching / aquatint. 35x28cm.
You have lived all over the world... Where would you say feels most like home?
I’ve only lived in a few countries, by no means all over the world! The longest time I’ve spent anywhere is in London and I do feel at home here but Paraguay also felt like home when I was there as a child and later as an adult. I suppose any country or environment becomes home if you stay long enough. Language is important - if you never learn the language of the place where you live then you’re always the foreigner, the outsider.
Do you think your multilingual and peripatetic background has influenced your creative practice?
Yes, definitely. It gave me a sense of freedom, a feeling that it’s possible to work creatively in more than one way and that security is not necessarily more conducive to developing a creative identity than insecurity. I like to leave a door always open to the possibility of change.
'Creators in their Ruined Temple', Natalie d'Arbeloff, wood, acrylic, found objects. 32x36x12cm.
Could you tell us about your fictional alter-ego Augustine?
Augustine, the cartoon version of myself, started paper life in 1984. I gave her this name because my birthday is in August, my mother’s middle name was Augustine, a street next to where I lived at the time was called St.Augustine’s Road and I liked the idea that my Augustine’s ‘confessions’ were very different from the famous Saint Augustine’s. From 1984 to 1988 I drew, published and distributed a series of ten mini-comics titled Small Packages: the AugustineAdventures. You can see one of them, Augustine and Inertia, on this page of my website.
The originals (now out of print) were black & white photocopies but I hope to resurrect the series in full-colour. Other Augustine strips were published in Resurgence magazine and other publications. Blaugustine is the blog I started in 2003 and it was there that I first posted The God Interviews, a series of comic strips in which Augustine gets the all-time scoop interviewing the Deity. It was later published as a book, still available from me if you’re interested.
What do you do when you’re not making and creating?
Cleaning the flat, shopping for food, stopping at cafés locally (now that it’s possible (?) to do this again.) Getting on with ordinary daily life, ordinary tasks. Once in a while going to an exhibition or other event, meeting friends for a meal occasionally. Spending useful and useless time online. Writing, reading, thinking, posting some thoughts online.
Detail from 'My Life Unfolds', Natalie d'Arbeloff 2012, one-of-a-kind accordian book, mixed media monoprint. Closed book: 33x11.7cm. Fully opened: approx. 2 metres long.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
I have no idea how to answer this. It’s the sort of thing that people say or write after someone they admire has died. I hope I’ll still be around long enough to achieve something that might be a “great accomplishment”.
Your digital autobiography is such a brilliant read. What brought you to share your life story in such a way?
I started posting those installments online a few years ago, then added more whenever I had time - but I didn’t follow a plan and many parts are missing, such as early school days in New York, then art school etc. I’ve only got as far as arriving in London in the 1960s so I must bring it all up to date and fill in the blanks. There is never enough time to do everything. I’ve written and painted my autobiography in many different versions and kept diaries since I was nine years old. So self-revelation is nothing new to me, it’s a habit or maybe even an addiction.
'Sonata for Apples and Chairs', Natalie d'Arbeloff 2007, oil on canvas. 80x81cm.
Finally, what’s next for you? What exciting plans, projects or ideas do you have in the pipeline?
The graphic novel-in-progress (Double Entendre) for which I won an award in 2019 is in very slow progress. It’s a complex work demanding a great deal of time and effort but I’m hoping to become more disciplined in my manner of tackling it. Painted, spoken, Richard Price’s little magazine, recently published a tongue-in-cheek article, which I wrote about here.
Apart from that project, I have several new paintings in progress.
Thank you, Natalie!