Eileen Chevalier was born in a small army town in Louisiana and moved to Raleigh when she was in elementary school. "I don't think we actually had art class in Louisiana," she says. "But I always did things on my own. I designed a boarding school and I drew all the plans for it when I was eight or nine. And I used to do tons of art on my own."
Chevalier discovered her passion for screen-printing in the fall of 1999, when she took her first course at N.C. State's School of Art and Design. That same year, she did a project where she printed on her classmates--the seed that later grew into Symbodigy, Chevalier's response to a society obsessed with logos, symbols and labeling.
At Symbodigy's opening exhibit at DesignBox Gallery, visitors spent hours having Chevalier's unique symbols screenprinted on various parts of their bodies. "The idea was to have symbols that we ourselves assign meaning to, instead of using something that someone else created," she says.
The Symbodigy team consists of six members including Chevalier. Angelica Garcia, a member of DesignBox Gallery and the curator for the show, studied with Chevalier at N.C. State; Cheryl Gottschall, one of the photographers and also a member of DesignBox, displayed her work at the opening--a series of sophisticated, black and white portraits of Symbodigy members and sponsors adorned with logos and symbols; video sequences were filmed by Dave Zahn and Scot Dunlap; while photographer Raymond Goodman captured not only the process of screenprinting but also the guests posing with their chosen designs. (A slide show of Goodman's color photos will be shown at the Sept. 3 closing reception.)
"It's very hard for me--although it's easier now that I've done this project--to think of myself as an artist," says Chevalier. "I always consider myself a designer. If you look at the show it's definitely designwork, I think, rather than artistic. The process is much more design-oriented than artistic expression, because it's more of a mathematical process: how to put things together, how to arrange space, and to me, that's not necessarily artistic, that's design."
In a recent conversation, Eileen talked to the Independent about making art, our society of symbols and artistic inspiration.
The Independent: What aspect of Symbodigy is the biggest reflection on or extension of your personality?
Eileen Chevalier: I guess that'd have to be the medium of screenprinting. Many people wanted to know: "Why screenprinting? Why don't you use another medium?" But I love screenprinting and I love the fact that you don't really know how it's going to turn out. I like being surprised in the end, which is exactly what happened in the project.
The most interesting thing I find in artwork, designwork, and in the process of actual creation is the ability to manipulate--in a moment--and to make decisions and try them. [To] see if you like them and move on, and create quickly enough that you get to manipulate further. I like having that instant gratification.
Why use bodies as a canvas?
Bodies are much more interesting because they're not flat. How you put [designs] on the body changes with the shape, so your pattern disappears. This is really clear in some of the pictures that Raymond took--it moves so much because skin moves and the size of something changes and how it distorts is amazing É which is something you could never do with canvas or fabric or any stable material.
What was the meaning behind letting people name and re-name the symbols you designed?
If anything, just to realize the power we have. Deciding what something means and showing it to people is powerful. I wanted them to be able to brand themselves with whatever they intended to say.
You say we as a society are conditioned to label ourselves based on symbols and logos.
We're consumers in how we label ourselves, so I wanted to create symbols that had no connotation and had no context. Even if you choose a symbol that's already there, whoever is looking at it will see something different. So you're not necessarily even giving a clear message when you use a symbol that's already there, because different groups have assigned meaning to it in different areas, different time periods or different parts of the country.
So what does that say about us as a society?
I think it says that we are very concerned with our identity, which is good. It's good to want to develop your identity and to want people to know who you are and what you're about. But at the same time, it's kind of like going to a grocery store and deciding, Oh I like American cheese or I like Swiss cheese or I like whatever. So, if you only have three kinds of cheeses to choose from then you're really limiting yourself on what type of person you are. Whereas if you go to some specialty cheese shop and there's every kind of cheese you can imagine, then you just pick É and it makes you more unique and more special.
It's almost like we buy our identities.
We do, and in that way we think that we have to become something that's already created ... [instead of using] something that['s] ... not in what other people already have as their collection of identities.
I see you are really fascinated by unexpected outcomes.
I am very fascinated by unexpected outcomes, and that's probably one reason why I wanted it to be interactive, because doing artwork by myself [is] not really that fun for me. I think partially because I was a teacher and I was able to interact with students and create things with them.
What fascinated you most about watching people at the show? Did you notice anything?
The idea was that people would name symbols and then put those symbols on themselves based on the meaning of the symbols, which didn't happen so much. I think it was more based on whether they thought it was a cool-looking symbol, not whether or not they got to assign meaning to it and took on that meaning. So the whole assigning-meaning thing kind of got lost because we are as a society conditioned to try to understand artwork ... instead of [asking,] "What does this mean to me?"
From where do you draw your inspiration?
First is the ability to imagine, the second, my illusions of my universal abilities that I can do anything! The third thing is that I really love design and that that's a true passion. The fourth is that I have a deep desire to create and manipulate what I see, and the fifth thing is experience. That comes after all of the other things because when I create something successfully, then I know I can do it again.
Could you tell me about the members of Symbodigy and what inspired you to work with them?
Angelica and I were both students at the School of Design. We were sitting around drinking wine and she was talking about the project that I did in school where I screenprinted on people, and she decided that that would be a fun project for her to curate. She inspired me to delve into my creativity. Cheryl Gottschall was our photographer. She's also a member of DesignBox Gallery, so her job was to document some of my designs on people's bodies. Scot Dunlap was our Web design guru and video master. He and Dave shared the video responsibilities. Scot did the bulk of the editing of the video for the opening, and Dave and I took stills from the video to make postcards and all the photos that you see on the Web site. I saw Raymond's work after I had talked to him about photographing for the show. So I knew he was interested in that, and I wanted someone who could move around a space and find things that were interesting in the moment.
"Symbodigy" is a great play on words and a perfect description of the project. Who came up with it and how?
There was one day we had a meeting when everyone came up with ideas. The word "symbodigy" was not one that we had come up with, but I think we used the word "symbology." Symbodigy seemed to make a lot of sense, because "sym" is together, "body" (obviously), and "logy" is written expression or study. And it definitely relates to the word "symbology."
Catch the closing reception at DesignBox Gallery on Friday, Sept. 3 at 7 p.m., where Chevalier hopes to teach guests how to screenprint. 315 S. Bloodworth St., Raleigh. 834-3552. www.symbodigy.com.