Brigitte Clavette’s work in metal is an example of the lineage and persistence of the craft tradition. She has taught and mentored many students over the years, me included. Her career was recently recognized by the Canada Council for the Arts as the 2022 recipient of the Saidye Bronfman award.
Austin Daigle: You’ve been teaching metal smithing here (NBCCD), but you started in printmaking?
Brigitte Clavette: When I went to NSCAD, I just joined fine arts. I didn’t know what I wanted exactly so I took some painting and printmaking. It was through printmaking that I ended up in jewelry, to tell you the truth. I was more interested in the copper plate. We used to do big copper plates in those days. I’m an okay printer, I did etching and lithography. I wanted to cut a hole in the plate to see what that looked like, and somebody said to “head down to jewelry.” When you don’t know how to cut a hole in a piece of copper you need to go find out, so I went to jewelry and the whole world changed. It was like, “Look at all the tools,” I felt like I fit there, so I started with one course and ended my degree in jewelry making, and I took all my art histories.
AD: What drew you into going to NSCAD to begin with?
BC: I was from Edmundston, I always wanted to be an artist and I knew from a young age that I could do stuff. We had a couple of people in our high school and community that were driving forces for young artists and musicians and whomever, so it was, “Have you heard of NSCAD? NSCAD is the place to go.” I could have gone to Québec, or Moncton, but in the 70’s it was the place to go, and it was hard to get into as well. I’m surprised I got in on my first application. It was a conceptual school, it was wild. It was attached to New York and Europe, and a lot of things that were happening at the time. I started in January ’77, and I had done a year in Edmundston at the University of Moncton so I ended up graduating in the spring of ’80 in jewelry, it was a great time to be in university and it was a great time to be living in Halifax because it had not been developed like now.
AD: Who were your mentors?
BC: I’ve had a number, but the most important for me has been Lois Betteridge. She just passed away two years ago, we’re going to a life celebration in Guelph in the month of May. I met her when she walked into the jewelry studio at NSCAD to give us a workshop, it must have been ’78 or ’79, by that time I was only making jewelry. She came to teach us to raise a piece of copper from a 6″ disc and I thought, “What the hell is that?” It’s painful, it was wild, but she had something about her and her caliber of craftsmanship, she was trained in the United States and in Europe, like from the Danish school of high polish. As soon as I got a job here (NBCCD) I started to invite her for workshops, and we became close friends. She was my mentor, friend, and colleague. She included me in a lot of exhibitions, she gave me a lot of teaching material to work with. I’ve always felt that there’s a strong lineage in craft and that I’m very much aware of that, and it’s important to pass that and know where it came from.
AD: Your work with metal involves a lot of techniques. What’s your process for working on a piece?
BC: I have different ways of working. Sometimes I arrive at something by sketch or design and I just go and build it, sometimes I come at it by feel and intuition too. I started exploring with the materials. What’s been happening over the past few years, I cast loose parts, found objects, rotten food, and bird legs and whatever. I build an inventory of that. I hammer, but my hands are getting sore, so I hammer little bowls, and I create compositions with them. I like to put them on drawings because it’s like they’re leaving traces. So when I have all my elements my composition happens, the casting, the raising, the drawing, and then the compositions come.
AD: How long have you been teaching?
BC: Since January 1985, so 37 years. I’ve been lucky that I’ve made a career here, I love that I’ve been able to stay here in New Brunswick and be part of an institution this long. I went to NSCAD, I taught there for one year, I’ve taught summer schools and other schools in the North. I’m so happy to be here, I’m part time now for a little while still.
AD: You were recently the recipient of the Saidye Bronfman Award?
BC: Yes, which is one of the Governor Generals awards for visual arts and media. $25000, which is probably going to happen in the fall. Everyone’s starting to get back on board. With that comes an exhibition at the National Gallery which is really great, it’s crucial for the recipients.
When you apply for a grant or get nominated for an award it really puts into perspective your life. My nominators, Ann Manuel and Maegan Black, they looked at all my stuff and Ann had read everything written about me, and she was able to synthesize that into a thousand words.