The Art of the Bittersweet: Camille Holvoet

It’s a sunny afternoon, and Camille Holvoet and I are sitting on the steps of Creativity Explored, an art studio and gallery in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood that promotes work by artists with developmental disabilities. We are talking about her memories of her childhood when she suddenly changes topics.

“What’s a cure?” she asks.
“It means to make someone better,” I say.
“What’s the opposite of a cure?” she counters.
“To make someone sick,” I say. She pauses and looks at me aslant through thick brown plastic-framed glasses, the sun reflecting off her grey-flecked hair.
“Then I want the biggest cure for making things not broken,” she says.

Camille Holvoet working at Creativity Explored

Camille Holvoet working at Creativity Explored

Camille, 62, is endlessly curious about words. She can spend hours trading questions and definitions with the studio’s staff, and she often incorporates terms of her own invention, such as “youngry” (whose definition, she says, is young at heart and hungry) into her art. When she’s not learning new definitions, she sometimes asks visitors to cross their eyes or lift their elbows so she can kiss them.

“She’s very seductive. We all love her, even though she is very demanding,” says Gilles Combet, an art instructor at Creativity Explored who has worked with Camille for ten of her fourteen years there. “She’s voracious. She’d like to have everything.”

That appetite, a hunger that ranges from words to attention, then swings back to the physical, even carnal, is expressed clearly in her work. Many of her drawings and paintings depict luscious cakes and chocolates; others show deeply nostalgic family scenes. “There’s a need for something she’s not getting,” Gilles says.

Oil pastel on paper,22.25 x 15 inches

Lemon Lime Banana Frosting on Top, Oil pastel on paper, 22.25″ x 15 “, 2014.

The Creativity Explored staff lavishes affection on Camille, and she drinks it in, then asks for more. The dynamic has earned her the loving nickname “the Picky Perfect Goddess.” I encounter the Goddess for a moment at the end of our conversation, when she asks me to lift my elbow so she can kiss it. It’s a chaste peck, serviceable and without emotion. Like Camille’s art, and the conversation that precedes it, it is a seemingly mundane action that has been nudged subtly into the realm of the unusual—and gives a glimpse behind the curtain of the ordered world into a place both more primal and more poetic

Camille’s tendency to speak in symbols further enhances her Picky-Perfect Goddess persona: often the things she says have a second layer of meaning or weight. “Making art is the hardest part of art,” she’ll say; or a little later, “I wish I could have some medicine to follow the rules. That’s what I need. An unbreakable merry-go-round.”

Untitled, 2014

Untitled, Pen and watercolor on paper, 13″ x 10.5″, 2014.

For now, the eye crossing, elbow kissing, and word definitions provide that medicine for her, a much-needed comfort, and their peculiarity brings her companions into the realm she occupies beyond the conventional. Her art—she turns repeatedly to merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, and comfort food, rendered in pastel, paint, or mixed media— does the same, imbuing ordinary images of indulgence with a tinge of otherworldly longing.

The root of that impulse for self-soothing seems to lie in Camille’s past. Growing up in San Francisco, Camille’s behavioral issues aggravated, and were aggravated by, problems at home. Her family sent her to a hospital and eventually stopped visiting (“They abandoned her,” Gilles says flatly)— but not before two older sisters taught her how to draw. She was bounced around group homes for the rest of her childhood.

“A lot of her work has to do with her memories and fantasies,” Gilles says. She returns repeatedly to images of her family, herself as a baby, a hospital room, the rides at a carnival, her father’s taxi. Camille’s art appears to help her express, and gradually diminish, the lingering ache of her past.

Creativity Explored has been instrumental in the success of that art. Camille began exhibiting not long after she joined the studio. Her work was featured at the Detroit Museum of Art in 2010 and at San Francisco’s Jack Fischer Gallery in 2011. She has shown work internationally at Selfridge’s department store in London and at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, Ireland. Two solo exhibitions in San Francisco have brought her a strong local following: first at 18 Reasons in 2012, then at Creativity Explored in 2014. The second show was called A Particularly Picky Perfect Goddess.

Camille’s art also has a following in the design community and has been licensed to a variety of organizations. The most significant of these include the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the artisanal candy-maker Recchuitti Confections, which in 2011 put her images on a limited series of gourmet chocolates.

There is a certain irony here. Despite the mouthwatering superficial appeal of her work, on a deeper level it prompts the viewer toward disturbing questions about the very appetites it evokes, and the web of complex worries and desires that surround our society’s relationship with food, family, and sex. In some pieces, that contrast is made explicit, with written memories of nightmares and frustrations providing the backdrop for the bright colors of her signature cakes.

Oil pastel on paper, 22 x 15 inches

Green and Pink Cake, Oil pastel on paper, 22″ x 15″, 2014.

“She has a hard time not getting what she wants,” Gilles says. “She always wants cake and ice cream. Special food, stuff she had as a kid.”

He speculates that for her food represents an easy way to slake other deeper longings. “Can I get a new brain?” she sometimes asks Gilles. A particularly affecting untitled 2014 piece shows two prescription bottles for “Anti-wanting liquid” and “anti-screaming medicine.” The piece hints at those other, quieter parts of Camille’s personality. She’s not just demanding and hungry, Gilles says. She wants to get better, to be better. He goes so far as to call her “extremely generous.” The Picky Perfect Goddess, then, does not just demand obeisance. It’s give and take that she craves.

On the steps of Creativity Explored, Camille admits to me, “I used to have tantrums. Some kind of mental emotional crisis. I broke a lot of merry-go-rounds and a lot of old Ferris wheels. What would you call that? Is that a sin or a shame?” A pause; then she asks to kiss my elbow.

Decades after her hospitalization, Camille has cultivated a strong community at Creativity Explored: people who care for and about her, who have helped her develop her distinctive style, and who are committed to helping her heal the wounds from her early life. “It’s more of a home than anything else,” Gilles says.

ink and watercolor on paper, 22.25" x 15"

Camille Holding My Dollhouse, Ink and Watercolor on Paper, 22.25″ x 15″, 2013.

He notes that she is especially close to an instructor named Judith. “They’re very tender together, very intimate,” he says. He doesn’t mention that he, too, feels deep affection for Camille, but he doesn’t need to. It shows in their easy companionship in the studio and the way they tease each other as they work.

After our conversation on the steps, Camille starts a new piece to add to her cake series. She sits down to sketch; after a few moments, the geometric shapes on the paper resolve into the ripples and folds of a multi-tiered cake. She likes to talk as she draws—about her favorite kind of cake, about what she ate for lunch, or about her solo show last year. Gilles interrupts her.

“Yakety yak yak,” he says, mock-sternly. “Get back to work!” She laughs and starts to fill the empty white space of the cake with bright pinks and oranges: another appetite satiated.