A visit to Colette Gsell’s atelier is an enriching experience. With nature her main subject, the silk painter’s expressive artwork graces the walls of her home in the Central Pacific beach town of Jacó.
“I want to adorn the house with my silks,” the Swiss native says. “At home, you have to feel comfortable. You want to look at something beautiful – something that makes you happy.”
At once abstract and representational, Gsell’s paintings convey ease, elegance and tenderness. Lively colors, gentle contours and the transparent texture of the silk imbue her creations with a floating, dreamlike character.
Mesmerized by the vibrant colors of Costa Rica’s natural wonders, Gsell receives most of her inspiration from the beauty and diversity of the flora and fauna of her adopted country, as evidenced in the titles of her works, such as “Naturaleza” (Nature) and “Mariposa Azul” (Blue Butterfly). Fearless and self-confident, she also deals with deep emotions and the human figure.
Unconditional love between mother and child is among her favorite themes, as is the blue bird, which, Gsell says, symbolizes love in the French culture.
“On the canvas, I like to express love and joy, not trouble,” she says. “With one exception: the suppression of women. Their silence is my problematic theme.”
Silk painting is a millennia-old art form tracing back to ancient China, Gsell explains. It consists of creating art on fabric with silk as the canvas. After transferring a sketch to the prewashed and stretched silk, Gsell uses an array of watercolor techniques to apply the liquid dyes. The artist’s job is to control the movement of pigment within boundaries on the silk. Gutta, a thick substance derived from the Malaysian palaquium tree, is used as a linear barrier for this purpose, giving artists a novel way to draw and paint on the fabric. To set and to intensify the colors, the silk has to be ironed, making the painting permanent and durable.
A silk painter’s dream, Gsell’s studio is fully equipped with worktable, ironing board, sink and storage room for brushes, dyes, gutta, fabric and a collection of frames to stretch the silk. Because most silk-painting supplies are not available here, Gsell acquires them from European suppliers.
Silk painting as practiced by Gsell is a sophisticated technique that requires exact planning, diligence and a calm hand.
“It’s hard to correct,” she says. “When it’s not the flower I want, I discard the piece.”
In her quest to find an adequate medium to express her creativity, Gsell has worked with different materials. In Switzerland, she discovered doll making for her children, friends and neighbors. A 1994 solo exhibit in Lausanne featured Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book characters as marionettes, all created by her. Later, she took a drawing course, experimented with chalks, colored pencils and finger paint, but remained dissatisfied.
Being introduced to the secrets of silk painting delivered the artistic break-through.
“I was excited by the purity and intensity of color and immediately fell in love with the silk, its elegance and tenderness,” she recalls.
In 1996, Gsell and her family found their retirement haven in Jacó, where the artist immerses herself in her work. Her silks have been frequently displayed in Costa Rica for the past 10 years, including exhibits in San José’s Alliance Française in 2001 and the National Gallery in 2004.
Ever productive, Gsell always has numerous ideas for paintings in mind and speaks enthusiastically about her work.
“It’s such a delight to accomplish a new creation, to say something,” she says.