Cecelia Webber uses tiny images of human bodies to create her masterpieces. Her collage art is a telling commentary on the intricacies of human body and mind. She captures self-portraits, transmits them on a digital canvas and through careful arrangement of their bends and folds develop them into a piece of art.
What was your inspiration for venturing into the world of art? How did your formal education in art and science helped in your exploration of human emotions and beyond through art?
I have been doing art ever since I was very little − it runs in my family, and my grandmother was a painter. I have also always been very curious about the world, and growing up I was fascinated by science and philosophy. When I went to University I started out studying philosophy, and then I moved on to psychology and finally neuroscience, approaching each as a genre of philosophy of mind. Neuroscience is a very young science, and has only really existed since the 80s, and so a lot of the things you study in text books are incorrect and will change in a few years, and then the changes will change a few years after that. You really have to be sceptical to cope with a line of study like that, but a lot of people take it verbatim without questioning what they read. Initially neuroscience made me feel sort of dead inside, like everything we felt and were could be explained in a reductionist, rigid way. I used to have arguments with a fellow student who had decided after studying DNA that the only real goal in life was to pass on as much genetic material as possible, and that he should rationally make a point of donating to sperm banks as this was the most efficient means of achieving that biological goal; neuroscience, in isolation, can make you think that life is silly and meaningless. However, if taken for what it is, the study of neuroscience can inform your understanding of the complexity of the world and human existence. You have to remember at all times that we don’t know everything, and in fact we know terrifyingly little, and also that exploring unknowns is one of the great joys of being human. There is endless possibility there. I have come to believe that the reductionist trope that we are all just walking chemical reactions, predetermined ahead of time, is too simple. There is endless potential in the complexity of the broader system. I often think that meaning is an emergent property of consciousness, and can’t be discredited by awareness of the forces that generate consciousness. It often strikes me that each of us are tiny pieces of the universe waking up and seeing itself, like billions of tiny eyes opening up and then winking out in waves.
As for your question though, I am not sure I could really say how science and art have influenced each other in my life, but I could say that science is one way of approaching and describing the world, and art is one way of expressing how you feel about the world as you experience it.
How do you feel about the increasing vulnerability and dissatisfaction with one’s own body or image of it among today’s young generation?
Everyone has a body, and it is the medium through which we experience existence. Given this fact, it pains me to think that so many people feel shame and disgust when thinking about their bodies. Strange and unhealthy expectations have been set for people in our era concerning how bodies should look, most of them through advertisements designed to sell products. These products promise to reduce ‘imperfections’, but these alleged imperfections are just details of our bodies that are normal and should not be vilified. Capitalism pushes these insecurities on us blindly because it is profitable, not because it is healthy or good. I want to provide a normal and healthy context for nudity in my artwork so that it will be interpreted as part of a beautiful working whole. I want people to see a vision of nudity that is not exploitative or guilt-inducing, and instead provokes wonder, vulnerability, and simultaneously, potential.
How did you conceive of utilising human body as a canvas of artistic expression and planned for its execution? Does it require a fair bit of direction and guidance on your part to the models who assist you to have them organised for the desired pattern?
I first got the idea accidentally when I was taking a photo of my back for a different purpose. I realized it looked like a petal and made a rudimentary flower from it. Then I got really excited about the possibilities I saw and spent hours honing in on how to make more and more realistic depictions of things in nature. The artwork takes a ton of planning and direction, and it’s very time-consuming. I find it easier to photograph myself for this reason because I can go on for hours, whereas I feel the pressure of time with models.
‘Nudity’ as a subject has the capability of polarising views. For the purpose of creative expression you have utilised artistic nudity. What has been your experience or interpretation of the topic as an artist?
Nudity is a reality of life. Everyone is naked under their clothes. I once went out at night onto the roof of my house in a thunder and lightning storm, completely naked in torrential rain. I stepped out of the window and rushed to the edge of the roof looking out at the blackness of the woods and sky, and I threw my arms up into the air and thought to myself, ‘This is mine!’ I was thinking about the world. But the force of the elements and the rush of the water suddenly struck me and I was suddenly freezing and vulnerable. I remember the glow of headlights moving on the road below, unaware of my existence. I rushed back into my room feeling changed. In those moments there were no thoughts about the shape of my thighs, or worries about if I was attractive enough, or what people thought about any of it. I was experiencing the rush of life, something about what it means to be human, and my body was the vehicle for that experience. That is the way art should be.
Contrary to your human body art the illustrations of yours are almost always monochromatic and bordering on abstraction. Is this is a conscious choice?
I experiment with all different kinds of mediums. Which one I work with depends on how I am feeling and the nature of the emotion I’m trying to convey. There are times when the only medium I can choose is dancing, or walking in a certain way down a street. I try to live life as art, because that is how it feels to me. When I’m using black and white paint the process is meditative. In the absence of colour meaning and emotion have to be communicated symbolically, which forces my hand to be more literal in the things I am painting. The paintings I make in this style are like visual diaries of my impressions, in which I try to take hold of a mood and fully experience it through the meditative process of painting. In most cases I don’t know what I will do before I do it, and it’s almost like dreaming when I’m fully immersed.
Tell us of your experience from the exhibition that took place in Natural History Museum, Verona, Italy considering Italy’s rich heritage in art.
I was very excited and nervous about the exhibition before it happened, but I was reassured by the incredible kindness and hospitality of Maria Fiorenza Coppari and Giovanni Cerutti who had worked with me and my manager Jared Scheib to create the exhibit. I had spent months working on the pieces that would be shown there for the first time. The evening of the exhibition was one of the best nights of my life. To see so many people there, looking and thinking about my work! I was so surprised because I hadn’t known what to expect, or if many people would be there, and there were so many people in the museum that night. I had this strong realization of how deeply the people of Verona love art. There were people of all ages, old and young, all talking and pointing and smiling. I was so happy I didn’t know what to do. In the days after the opening night, I went back to watch new people seeing the artwork for the first time. They didn’t know who I was, and I just wandered around watching their faces. I was deeply affected by my experience in Verona. I would love to do more exhibitions in Italy, and I am also very excited about the exhibition of my work at the Palazzo Calò in Bari!
If you are requested to reflect on the past year what would be the defining moment, learnings and/or experiences?
The past year has been a difficult one for my family, and the thing I have taken away from it is that it is worthwhile to always continue trying. Days and months can be dark, but there will always be something there, maybe a fat round bird perched on a low branch, or the sky is suddenly bright orange at 3 am, or the person you love pulls you closer. Sometimes people think of artists and assume that they are living successful lives with personal studios full of paints and canvases and cameras and lenses and lighting equipment. It’s not true in my case, and the inspiration I have is often the result of a struggle. When I first started the body artwork I didn’t have enough money for food and was living on oatmeal, potatoes, and oranges that were miraculously so cheap I bought 40 for under two dollars one week! Nothing had tasted so good, as those oranges did. The wonder of art is that you can start out with nothing to work with but pain and from that single element something else emerges, some nuanced emotion flows from the joy of creation.
For Cecelia, there is no better place in the world than being in the home surrounded by her family. Sometimes she steals time out to go through the pages of The Brother’s Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, or Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder that she always enjoyed reading. She loves listening to The Super Furry Animals but she is not much fond of watching full-length movies. The animated story of Hedgehog in the Fog by Yuri Norstein serves her active imagination the best.
Find more of her work at her website.