Photo: Patricia Schichle

Experiencing Clare Celeste’s immersive paper installations is like stepping into an enchanted kingdom — a liminal space where nature’s magic leaves one spellbound. In her art works, the Berlin-based American collage artist uses thousands of hand-cut images of plants and animals to raise awareness about our present ecological and biodiversity crises.

“I find nature endlessly inspiring,” says Celeste, whose love for nature developed when she encountered the dazzling beauty of the Amazon rainforests as an expat child in Brazil. Saddened that swathes of Amazonian forests are slowly disappearing, Celeste, who uses naturalist imagery from circa 1900 for her collage and installations, says, “I have become aware that many species in my artwork have already vanished or are vanishing. This adds a layer of ecological urgency to what I do.

“To address this aspect of my practice, I have an ongoing collaboration and creative dialogue with scientist Louisa Durkin of the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre. As an artist drawing inspiration from the natural world, it has become impossible for me to ignore the current ecological crisis,” she says.

How her fascination with art and nature began

Clare Celeste in The Garden, an installation that hosts online events with women climate leaders.
Clare Celeste in The Garden, an installation that hosts online events with women climate leaders. Photo: Clare Celeste

Born in Thailand to an American diplomat father and textile artist mother, Celeste has lived in seven countries and 10 different cities, and sees her life as a sort of collage made up of visual impressions — especially impressions of nature — that she remembers from different parts of the world.

“I have been assimilating to different cultures and environments my entire life, having lived in Brazil, the US, Italy, Honduras, Argentina, and Germany. Collage allows me to pull together naturalist imagery from across the globe and create a cohesive visual story. Much like my memories and how they form my sense of self,” she says.

Her attraction to installation and assemblage art began in Brazil when she was 5 and already collecting and rearranging objects in her parents’ home to create “art projects”. “My parents had been travelling the world for nearly 10 years at that point, so there were some amazing objects to pull from!” she recalls.

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Scrapbooking sparked her a passion for collage

Collage art on canvas The Forest Dark.
Collage art on canvas The Forest Dark. Photo: Mar Martin

As for her passion for collage, this was born when her father gifted her a leather-bound scrapbook when she was 12 and they were living in Florence. “I loved this scrapbook and added to it religiously for the next six years. I still have it in my studio,” she shares.

Since her childhood, Celeste has been drawn to collage, a language that allows for rich layers of narratives. “I thought of it as intimate visual storytelling. As a huge fan of Joseph Cornell’s work, my early collages were very much influenced by his assemblages and collages.”

She has set down roots and bloomed as an artist in Berlin, where she lives with her husband and son. “I have been in Germany for eight years now, and it’s the longest I have ever stayed anywhere. Allowing myself to create a permanent home has been important in helping me to flourish as an artist,” she says.

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Realising her dream to become a collage artist at 37

From the art installation Intimate Immensity.
From the installation Intimate Immensity. Photo: Trever Good

In 2017, while working on her Ecologies series — a collection of small- scale, layered glass collage sculptures — she remembered a dream she had when she was 18. “In this dream, I found a tiger that had been forgotten. It had been in a cage for 20 years until I finally set it free. It came to me in a flash that the tiger is my creative voice and that I needed to be an artist. I was 37 that year, which was about the age I had looked in that dream.”

This epiphany served as the impetus for Celeste to quit her day job as a public policy professional and become a full- time artist. “When I hit a dry spell and work is scarce, I still remember that dream and the tiger. It reminds me to keep going,” she says.

Related: Art in the time of Covid-19

Transforming paper collage into 3D artwork

Immersive art installation The Mushroom Hunters.
Immersive installation The Mushroom Hunters. Photo: Kolja Raschke

Celeste has always kept elaborate scrapbooks filled with collages and montages, but until 2012, she treated them as a space to collect ideas and for private creative practice rather than an art form. “I did more painting before and used collage as a way to plan my paintings. Once, when working on a drawing from a very intricate collage, I realised I liked creating the collage more than painting it. After that, I have never looked back and have been doing collage ever since.”

I have become aware that many species in my artwork have already vanished or are vanishing. This adds a layer of ecological urgency to what I do.

Her work has grown organically since then. While she has always loved immersive installations, it took her several years to find a way to translate her collage into 3D work. “The idea was there long before I had the tools to make it happen; there was a lot of trial and error. My first installation, Intimate Immensity, was a first step towards immersive work. Since that installation, my work has become more immersive and more consistent. With each series, my creative voice becomes clearer. That is a very fulfilling feeling,” she says.

Read more: Dr Neo Mei Lin: Saving the environment the right way

Art inspires others to save nature

Commission piece for Riem Arcaden.
Commission piece for Riem Arcaden. Photo: Clare Celeste

Like so many things in nature, Celeste’s immersive installations such as Biodiversity, The Garden, and The Healing Garden, are site-specific and temporary, so you’ll have to follow her closely on Instagram (@clarecelesteart) to find out where her next project will be on display.

“Everyone has a responsibility to leave the world a better place than they found it, and in any way they can,” says Celeste, who sees the artists of the world as “storytellers that allow us to imagine a new way of being”.

“In a time of planetary crisis, this is so crucial. Imagination is needed now more than anything. I want my artwork to remind the viewer that they are part of nature, not separate from it. I hope this will move people to act to protect the planet,” she says.

Read more: New online platform by Dr Jane Goodall is preserving the incredible biodiversity of wildlife in Asia through photography

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