This season, bestselling author and artist Camilla Webster returns to the Florida Keys with her solo exhibit “Keys Kintsugi.” Presented by Russell Post and The Directed Art Modern, Webster’s latest body of work was inspired by her century-old family ties and transformative experience here in the Keys. The exhibit runs through Dec. 30 at Ocean Sotheby’s Roberto Russell Gallery, located at 81888 Overseas Highway in Islamorada. Now, Webster discusses spotting Andy Warhol as a child, her mother’s best advice and her life-changing experiences on the Intracoastal.
Kevin Assam: How would you explain Kintsugi pottery to someone who felt they had a perfect life?
Camilla Webster: Even a perfect life has cracks. May they be golden ones filled with wisdom. Kintsugi pottery invites us to reconsider the value of objects and experiences that are broken and mended. By mending the porcelain with gold, a new, more beautiful piece has been created. Rich life experiences are like the gold in Kintsugi pottery. A rich life full of ups, downs, renewal and rebirth is priceless.
KA: As a child, were you more of a breaker or a fixer of things?
CW: I am at times wild at heart, but I am also a fixer. I have always healed people, relationships, animals and environments. Since I was a little girl, I could feel an energy and I knew I could transform it with creativity, talk, touch or sharing. My art speaks to that and studio visitors almost always say unprompted that they feel love, healing, or a sense of grace visiting with the paintings.
KA: Is love and healing always warm or serene?
CW: No. Big love, big shifts in our human experience, like healing and development will crack a soul right open. Expect tears. Expect uncertainty. But love and healing should ultimately deliver us to a state of peace and serenity — at least for a time. It’s something I explore in my paintings.
KA: How involved in the arts were you growing up? What did you do prior to painting?
CW: I have painted all my life. I took my first art class at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, barely older than a toddler. Andy Warhol was our neighbor and I used to watch him on his way to the grocery store. My mother was a photo editor at TIME and Life. I was surrounded by artists and authors of all disciplines. I learned to see what she saw working with Gordon Parks and other greats, but with a brush. As an only child, I was often in the midst of it. A NYC childhood was filled with museum and gallery visits. You could say I was embedded in the arts since birth. It was exploding all around me in a deeply creative and innovative period in New York. The talents of that period are now the global icons today. I am also a best-selling author, journalist and producer. My time covering politics, Wall Street, the War in Iraq and interviewing world leaders and innovators like Richard Branson and Christine Lagarde have all fed the paintings.
I was very focused on Hemingway’s work and his life since I was a young kid. My father used to read me his work as bedtime stories. And so, I chased a life of adventure, curiosity, passion and, in my own way, I followed his footsteps for years. I loved visiting his home in Key West. Covering international stories for decades I have seen the dark soul of mankind and witnessed it working to the highest good. I have experienced the awe of nature and the environment from Islamorada to Africa to England and Ecuador. A lot of good emotional and visual fodder for a lifetime of paintings.
KA: Did your mother’s connections accelerate your earliest professional opportunities within media and art?
CW: After college, it was required that I start my career on my own two feet. I worked the overnight shift for three years at CBS News in my twenties. I think that says it all. Sadly, my mother died before ever knowing I would become a museum collected artist or even an exhibited and collected fine artist. It would have made her very happy. She used to reclaim drawings I threw away as a child. I always remember that. She would say, “Leave it and go back to it the next day.” I practice that advice by often starting two or three paintings at once so I can leave one and not destroy it, while moving onto the next. No connection could match the value of that advice. As an artist, you have to train yourself to believe in yourself every day. It is a solo expedition during the creative phase. She gave me that. She took me to see hundreds of exhibits, concerts and experiences. She taught me if the work is really good, the opportunities will come. I saw her work ethic and tenacity and I carry her with me.
KA: How did the preparation that goes into your artwork translate into covering some of your more profound stories?
CW: I always tried to find something universal we connect to as human beings. Why else would we care? As a journalist, I consider what point, quote and information at the open of a story grabs our attention as human beings. As a painter I consider what point, color and brush stroke in a canvas makes us immediately stop to consider what we are seeing, and feeling. Two different languages invite us to sit up, pay attention, learn something, and charge us emotionally through connection using different mediums. I look for and try to create the feeling of connection the same way great directors create films that touch audiences universally. That’s the holy grail. That seems like it would be no small feat in an abstract painting and yet it’s totally possible.
KA: You revisit subject matter encountered in the field in your TEDx Talk “Art in Front of You.” That was almost five years ago. Has there been much progress with specific reference to your “Why Wasn’t Jesus a Woman” piece?
CW: I changed the name of the painting to “War Soul” because it spoke more closely to the image of the woman in the painting. In 2017, I explored the experiences, perceptions and power of women in a series called Flower Power. It debuted over Art Basel Miami at The Edition Hotel. Each portrait includes a flower, a power and a woman. Tanya Brillembourg at Ideobox in Miami exhibited The Power of Envy and The Power of Forgiveness in an exhibit called “The Power of Her.” They also have poems. “War Soul” is currently on exhibit in the Brazilian Court’s gallery in Palm Beach. I continue to explore womanhood in my work.
KA: How would you come to explore the Florida Keys over the years beyond Hemingway?
CW: I have been visiting here since I was a baby. It is a place of holidays and fishing with family. Nearly four years ago, I was at the gym with a trainer named Seychelle Hattingh (now Seychelle Webster), who is now a world-class athlete. In tears, I said I hated it inside there. Seychelle had a solution. It turned out, Seychelle held the world record in paddle boarding. She took me on the adventure of a lifetime. Being around people of excellence drives you to be the best in your own practice. I am forever grateful Seychelle’s path crossed paths with mine. We spent the next few months meeting three times a week in Key Largo and Islamorada. There, I intimately took in the extreme raw beauty of the place. Seychelle and I paddle boarded the Intracoastal. She took me to see the grandmother of the mangroves buried deep in one of the mangrove islands, hovered over manatees, stingrays and baby sharks. We paddled across landing spots for Cuban refugees. The evidence of their arrival — a mess of makeshift rope, wood, masts and metal. Birds would rise in a surprise rush from the leaves. Tropical fish of all kinds would greet the board. The big flat skies and clouds — as big as mountains — made their way into my paintings. We would paddle and talk and I would paint. I was becoming a part of the landscape itself. And that’s what needed to happen to capture it.
KA: What made the timing right for your return to the Florida Keys with “Keys Kintsugi: Healing, Memory and Rebirth?” Who are you collaborating with to present this exhibition?
CW: I wanted to collaborate with partners who had an equal passion for the Florida Keys and my work. There is a huge appreciation for art and a wonderful community of artists in Islamorada. I knew it would be a perfect fit when Russell Post invited me to exhibit at Roberto Russell Galleries. The gallery space and the expert team located at Ocean Sotheby’s Islamorada are excellent partners. I asked Valeray Francisco at The Directed Art Modern to curate the show. He demonstrated a passion for the contemporary exploration of wildlife and innovation in art installations that engage community and collectors while representing my work in Aspen and Jackson Hole this summer. I also deeply appreciate the support and expertise of my fellow board members of The Clark Hulings Fund, whose mission it is to see artists thrive. They have walked this journey with me in planning, studio visits and audience participation throughout this year.
KA: What do you think about the recent push to remove board members and distance benefactors in the art world who are financially or professionally tied to activities deemed detrimental to diversity among artists?
CW: To live and create in a time where art institutions are looking at their associations with a fresh lens is important. It is their responsibility to the public to strive to be conscious, informed, current, pragmatic, and then make the best decisions possible.
KA: The Florida Keys is one of the areas across the country most susceptible to rising sea levels. Does that feature in your work?
CW: In paintings like Card Sound, Kintsugi Turquoise, Kintsugi Cool Blue, and Peacock Dusk there is clearly a sensitivity — an expression of something strong and precious at the same time. A feeling that this precious view is in this form for a temporary time. Even without rising sea levels, the hurricane season has always given a certain impermanence to any view of the Florida Keys. Adding gold into these landscapes was my way of saying look at how precious these places are. Just as patrons during the Renaissance would invite artists to add gold into the holy people and places of their work, I am doing that in a contemporary way to say look at this heavenly place — feel the spiritual nature of this work that arises from such wild beauty — protect her, this is priceless. It’s ever changing, just like our lives. But protect her.
KA: What will you wake up and see in your studio tomorrow?
CW: A lot of drying paint brushes at the ready, and a giant abstract inspired by the flora and fauna of Florida I’m starting for a spring 2020 exhibit. ¦