Pierre at Work

Le Petit Coq: Pierre-Henri Guerard—Outsider Artist

Pierre at Work

Pierre-Henri’s extremely original, whimsical outsider art will be carried, exhibited, and sold by Peoria Emporium 25 East 20th Street  (212-777-3140) starting with a convivial, wine and cheese opening November 29 from 4 to 8 p.m. at which the artist will be present, and continuing through the holidays. *

Pierre-Henri Guerard is an authentic Outsider Artist, a self-taught sculptor and painter. His creatures, characters, and scenarios are wonderfully fresh and appealing. The high spirited sculpture, or assemblage, is ingenious in its use of salvaged materials and unique in perception. Captivating warmth and humor often elicits laughter. The artist has a knack for capturing essences and for satirizing attitudes. Pierre-Henri’s painting embodies deep connections to nature, (opaque) light, and spirit. Its use of patterns and planes in combination with evocative naïve figures offers charm without sacrificing substance.

Pierre-Henri grew up on a picturesque gentleman’s farm in Normandy, France. The venerable family business, Guerard Pyrotechnics (since 1820) created some of the most famous fireworks exhibitions in Europe, including those for the celebrated Josephine Baker. Farming was a “hobby.” Still, there were chores. Pierre-Henri and his sisters would feed, water and clean up after the animals. They gathered fresh eggs, sheared sheep, and were present at new births. There were horses, cows, sheep, chickens, roosters, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, a donkey, a cat, and dogs.

The menagerie also included two idiosyncratic parrots (family tradition) an Amazon named Lili who acted as an ersatz house rooster, crowing in the early hours, and a Gray named Coco who joined hide-and-seek games by repeating the children’s cries of: “Pierenry, Pierenry, Piereny.” When he was five-years-old, at his request, Pierre- Henri’s aunt in Africa sent him a Green Monkey named Boubou. The parrots were rarely in their cages. The monkey ran loose. In this fairy tale-like environment, Pierre-Henri developed the special relationship with animals so important to his work. He was nicknamed “le petit coq,” the little rooster, for his pride and protective temper.

When he was about seventeen, he started “puttering”—working with clay. Art was at first, a pastime, then became the means to an end. Gently directed by his family towards business school, Pierre-Henri paid his own way by making and selling clay figures of people. During his subsequent military service, he was allowed to “fire” his pieces in the camp oven in exchange for a large sculpted head of the cook. Figurines with marine hats sold quickly.

Pierre-Henri went to work for the family business. He did a little experimental painting on paper, but mostly sculpted, showing in local galleries. One day, a friend introduced him to the work of Florence Marie, with which he “fell in love. Her paintings were very bright, colorful, fantastique…a little like the art of Niki de Saint Phalle.” When Marie saw the work of Pierre-Henri, admiration became mutual. The two artists exchanged pieces and became friends. The young man went to her house and saw her paint. Marie visited Pierre-Henri and watched him work. The result was that Florence Marie started to make sculpture and Pierre Henri started to paint. Each in their own way. Even then, there was a little sand texture in Pierre-Henri’s then yellow and green landscapes.

After ten years at the company, he grew restless. “I sold my house. I wanted to move, like the little rooster who wants to know what’s outside the city.”* Having visited his aunt in Morocco at length several times, that part of the world was not unfamiliar.  He loved Africa. “It was an emergent country with French heritage. Morocco was “nowhere and somewhere …where culture would involve a real effort to get into.” Pierre-Henri was drawn to the possibility of creating art full time (life would be cheap) and to the country’s indigenous primitive style. He would, he thought, feel free.

With a fresh tattoo of The Little Prince “…the most beautiful story in the world… because all the animals get along…and there’s the flower…he was my lucky charm,” Pierre-Henri moved to Morocco. He was thirty.

Settling in a small village, he began to paint “terra” landscapes with rocks and small houses and “mare terra’ with the ocean. Colors changed to “the reds of life, blues and greens.  Essaouria (his village) is a dream… small streets, no cars in the medina… outdoor markets, music everywhere, smiling people-very poor but so nice in their heart.” Pierre-Henri opened a gallery called L’Orange Bleue,  “orange full of vitamins, and blue, the color of the Moroccan sky…very different from the gray French sky.”

Perhaps influenced by the desert, he started to experiment with sand, glue and paints in an effort to add texture to his work. Heat made the canvas unstable. Glue alone wouldn’t hold the sand or fix it. A combination of glue, an elastic additive, and sand now became an undercoat. First he applied the texture, then “polished” it with simple, crumpled paper, a sponge, or sometimes wax. Then he painted, using acrylics. And polished and painted and polished and painted-perhaps ten times. “Sometimes it’s very rude and sometimes sweet,” meaning rough or smooth. To add depth, he used/uses either shoe polish for shine or oil crayons. When the piece is complete a thin coat of varnish is applied, thin so that it might not change the colors, and a little brush is used to test that everything is fixed.

Pierre-Henri’s sculpture also evolved. Instead of the clay, he started to work with recycled goods, salvage, found objects. These became the inspiration and skeletons for interpretations of the animals he saw all around him. Donkeys, camels, monkeys, parrots, and snakes manifested themselves, joining his childhood friends, the farm animals. “The snake is always seen as a vicious creature. In my world, he’s nice and gets along with other animals.” Pierre-Henri’s animals always get along. Cats and dogs are friends and birds, especially, have loving relationships with all sorts of four legged beasts. The birds symbolize freedom.

“It was a small village. There were lots of children. Monsieur Pierre! Monsieur Pierre! they called, Cadeaux, cadeaux! (gifts, gifts!)” His face lights up in the telling. Children would bring Pierre-Henri what was, in essence, refuse, so that they might watch him turn the objects into creatures. A perfect recipe for reciprocal joy.

In Normandy, Madame France Guerard grew ill. Pierre-Henri knew the time had come. He sold his home and gallery, and went back to France. “My mother had heart troubles…She knew she would pass away at an early age. If one day you feel sad, she said, look at a flower in detail and the beauty of nature…” The children grew up helping to create and maintain Madame’s beautiful gardens. Besides the prevalence of animals in his work, Pierre-Henri’s landscapes inevitably include flowers—in tribute. His mother is represented in his paintings.

He opened L’Orange Bleu Mogador, a combination gallery and shop in Le Havre, selling the work of other artists and decorative things from Morocco as well as his own work.  Once again, the fairytale kicked in. Sophie Raubiet, whom Pierre-Henri had known since they were twelve, “wandered in to the gallery.” The two had dated in their early twenties but lost track of one another. Sophie lived in New York. Pierre-Henri was commuting between Morocco and France. They reconnected.

Three years later, Pierre-Henri’s mother died. He felt the need to to leave France, spent a year in Barcelona, then returned to beloved Morocco. The friends corresponded. More years passed before Sophie visited. A flame was reignited. Pierre-Henri visited and then moved to New York. “Your work will grow here,” Sophie told him. In February 2010, after a Valentine’s Day proposal, they were married in New York City. Sophie wore an enormous papier mache ring with “stars like fireworks,” the “flower of love which grows and grows,” the Empire State Building, and “seas and fishes” rising from its circumference. In Pierre-Henri’s painting of their wedding day, Sophie is represented by The Statue of Liberty. “She is the one who gave me the freedom to persevere with my artwork.”

January and February 2011, under the good graces of Alain Mikli Eyewear who has moved into the space, Pierre-Henri was allowed to work on Madison Avenue between 78th and 79th Street. He created his sculptures kneeling on the floor, surrounded by paintings and by materials that became bodies, hair, eyes, feet, vehicles and pillars …large plastic orange juice containers, light bulbs, wood and wire scraps, a woman’s platform shoe…filling the shelves and windows with cows and cats, dogs, birds, and human characters inspired by France, Africa and New York.

Passers-by were drawn to the exuberant art and finally to Pierre-Henri who welcomes his admirers, answering questions about the process, sharing enchanting stories he’s made up about each piece. Many became collectors. It’s impossible not to respond with an enormous grin to this imaginative and uniquely humorous work.

*Pierre-Henri Guerard has designed a storybook of paintings called Le Petit Coq about a young rooster who wants to see the world. “It’s me. The rooster has a little bird as his best friend. The little bird says the best way to discover the world is to fly. He teaches the rooster to fly.” And has adventures.

Visit the website for Pierre-Henri Guerard

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