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Partners in performance art

Artist Vincent Fonf, 50, from Brittany, tells Jessica Smith about his odd day job - painting musicians live onstage

How did you start doing this?
I have always had a musician’s approach to painting. I had some training as a percussionist, so I see my brushes firstly as drumsticks. Then they start to dance, and then they paint. The way I use my brushes shows the musician that I am playing with him.
I love painting musicians and dancers. I have been travelling around doing it since the 1990s, but when I met Seza [partner Seza Querrien, 36], we started doing it more and more.
Then we decided to do a ‘reportage artistique’: painting and sculpting musicians all over the world.

How did you meet?
I was her teacher at the Conservatoire Gabriel-Fauré les Mureaux, near Paris. I was teaching visual arts to adults. We met in 2005.

Where have you travelled?
We have travelled around 12 European countries, and Montréal. Then we went around the world. We did it in several phases over six years. We have met literally thousands of musicians! However, then we got a bit tired of travelling so we came back to our home near Rennes, Bretagne.

How do you find the concerts you paint?
We have many different ways. We have a huge network, and we also meet a lot of people at festivals.
Otherwise, for example when we went to Ireland we only had one date, so we just went to concerts and asked them if we could work there.
Sometimes, if we see musicians go by with instruments, we will just ask them where they are playing.

Does the audience make you nervous?
No, when I paint alone I feel empty! I find that that having an audience is supportive. I am like a musician who needs to interact with other musicians; they can play on their own, but it is not the same.
I can sometimes get very stressed, but I just have to let it go. Results are not the most important thing, it is how you paint that is important.

What special techniques do you use to paint onstage?
I start by tapping on the canvas with my brushes: I am entering into the music and getting into a state of concentration.
I don’t necessarily know the musicians or their music, so the first piece they play is a kind of communion for me.
Next, I will take a light colour and sketch out the movement of the musicians and the composition of the painting. I never know what I am going to do beforehand.
Then I work on bringing out the spirit of the group. I try to work on the entire painting at once: since the concert could stop at any moment, I try to make sure that I can finish the painting at any time.

Do you ever find that paintings don’t work out?
Yes, sometimes, but I never throw anything away or paint over it in white. I cut up the ones that don’t work out and make scrapbooks with them.

Do you make a good living doing this?
Yes, we have always managed to live and travel. We sell about half of what we make: some of it we sell at concerts, and some at our gallery on a farm in Iffendic, in Bretagne.

What are the advantages of your job?
I’m not sure who else would get the opportunity to see so many concerts!
For example, a concert venue manager might see a lot but they would always be in the same place, whereas a tour manager would always see the same musicians. For five or six years, we saw three or four different groups playing in different locations every week!

And the drawbacks?
When we were travelling we would be asked to participate in longer projects, but we couldn’t because we were always moving on.
We made a lot of acquaintances, but it started to feel a bit superficial.
Sometimes you need to get to know people. It also got a bit competitive: we were always trying to do more and more.

What are your plans for the future?
We want to find more of a balance between short and long-term projects, therefore we have decided to travel in a different way.
We are still planning on going further away, for example we are going to Seville, but we are also going to travel closer to home: to keep the spirit of travelling, but limit the kilometres.
It is the spirit of what we do that is important.
We are like little mice: our job is to go into a place, forget ourselves, and take advantage of what is going on!

Live sculpting

Seza Querrien, 36, travels with Vincent making live sculptures of musicians during concerts: “I started doing these sculptures when I met Vincent and I would go with him to the performances where he painted. 

“First I did drawings, but then I decided to do sculptures because it was more fun.
“So I sought out materials which could be used for sculpting in a live setting without needing to be glued, heated or welded.
“That was how I discovered aluminium and copper thread, cloth and lace.
“When I make a live sculpture, the first thing I do is choose a musician or dancer I really like, unless the concert is long in which case I may choose a few.
“I make the aluminimum structure of a dancer or musician, and then the sculpture evolves as I add the layers.
“I love playing with different materials.
“After the concert, I take pictures of the sculptures in different contexts: I use them to tell a stories through the photos.
“I take a lot of liberties in my representation, so sometimes people do not think the sculpture looks exactly like the person – but they will say I have captured their spirit.
“In the future, I’ll be working on a project with a storyteller, Carole Lepan.
“While she tells stories about various women, I will animate them using marionettes.”

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