Blaise Cayol on weaving in international influences
Words and Photographs Sam Walton
For basket weaver Blaise Cayol, it’s all about building connections – whether they be between the South West of France and New Mexico, or our ancestors and contemporary audiences… and it all comes down to willow. ‘This material changed my life,’ he says…
Working my way through the tree-lined winding lanes of the idyllic Provençal countryside, the roads a little damp from a fresh downpour, I eventually reach the small town of Tavel – home to basket weaver Blaise Cayol and his family. In my mind I’ve had a picture of Blaise residing and working in a rural idyll: as I drive through the town I’m suddenly struck by the thought – what if that’s not the case? It could just as easily be a townhouse – not exactly the photogenic setting I’d imagined. I miss the small turning to his street as I ponder these thoughts… after a quick U-turn on the quiet road out of town, I’m back on track – and it soon becomes abundantly clear where Cayol works. I’m transported to New Mexico, the rich red adobe walls, the mature cacti and agave, the antlers on the gate post – all clear indications of his travels through, experience of and love for the desert states of America.
As I walk into the yard, it’s obvious that this is a space of both creativity and productivity. Logs stacked to my right; cubes of ebonized wood in piles; an anvil from his homemade forge; a couple more outbuildings containing neatly grouped varieties of willow – albeit looking a little sparse currently due to the demands of a number of ongoing projects – and the fast-approaching deadline for shipping his baskets to Santa Fe.
I find Cayol working from a cabin to the left of the garden, sitting on a low stool in the centre of the room, as he commences on a new basket. The cabin has all the charm I’d hoped for. Baskets cover the ceiling; willow is stacked up next to a grandfather clock; more baskets sit on an old piano across the room; collections of objects are everywhere – either foraged from local walks or collected on his travels to America.
Clearly sensing I’m enjoying the rich tapestry of objects woven together in front of me, he casually mentions, ‘I built this little house’. He’s referring to the work cabin, which he built 10 years ago, and which doubles as a guest house; his family home of 25 years is just down the road in the village, where his parents also still live.
It’s surprising to see just how much the southern States of America have inspired Cayol’s surroundings – he is a familiar face at IFAM, having appeared there six times as an artist, but he was introduced to Santa Fe – and New Mexico in general – as a child by his parents. ‘My father is a painter, my mother is a French teacher, and they were impassioned by Native American culture, so from a young age I’ve been visiting the south-west,’ he says. Several paintings by his father, Pierre Cayol, adorn the walls of
the studio and home, including a striking set of monochrome gravure prints.
Cayol explains that, while he is inspired by his travels and the architecture of New Mexico, the adobe style also has provenance in this region of southern France. The area along the Rhône river has been home to many basket weavers – and some of the local towns are renowned for these unique skills which almost disappeared after the Second World War. The Cayol family have been in Tavel for several centuries, but he points out that his path to basket weaving wasn’t preordained, since there was no history of the craft within the family.
Cayol studied graphic design in Avignon, learning all the skills of ‘paste-up’, but it wasn’t long before the Apple Macintosh arrived in the studio and those techniques were no longer required. ‘It was great,’ he remembers, ‘but my problem was I didn’t have any contact with the material.’ It was this that would ultimately lead Cayol’s career away from the design studio and on a new path. ‘I wanted to get close to the earth, I didn’t know exactly what, but making something with as few tools as possible – just a knife. To make something simple, for daily use, something ordinary, ultimately to be humble.’
His core material is willow. ‘Little by little you understand you need to change your life,’ says Cayol. ‘And this material changed my life.’ He combines willow from nurseries with foraged varieties from the Alps, which thrive in high altitudes. The willow harvest will take place over the winter months and it is then left to dry for around six months. The canes are then soaked for a week in the paddling pool at the back of the yard. This soaking process returns the willow to a supple and workable state, much like when it was green from harvest. Cayol will work with up to 20 different varieties. It’s the use of these different types that brings life to Cayol’s baskets: the pop of colour, the texture of the green willow, used in various combinations with foraged antlers.
‘I still like to make very traditional baskets, to pick up fruits, olives, cherries or strawberries,’ he says, ‘but I do it my own way.’ Cayol’s work is varied and provides many challenges – in the past, he explored a more sculptural approach to his work. ‘I’m passionate about primitive art, the carving of human figures in caves or on rocks,’ he says. ‘We have these primitive arts everywhere on earth. I’ve made many sculptures like that, angular human figures.’
The challenges continue to arrive. A local school that has found a philanthropic American supporter recently requested a basket for each of its pupils – more than 120 in total. That project continues to grow, and more commissions are underway, including a giant, five-meter-wide model of a bee house – so the students can enter it themselves and learn about the life of bees.
Talking of American supporters, Cayol has built strong ties with many of the people he has met in Santa Fe – despite his early reservations. ‘In 2011 I first visited the market,’ he recalls. ‘My first thoughts were that it was too busy, the booths too small – I would never show my work like this. But many weeks passed…’ Suffice to say, as is often the case, Santa Fe, IFAM and the people who frequent it won him over, and he has returned every year since. ‘The customers in Santa Fe have always supported my work,’ he enthuses. ‘I keep in touch with them and produce special commissions.’ Indeed several of his IFAM collectors-turned-friends appear elsewhere in these pages.
A once dying art kept alive by the infectious passion of one man: Cayol’s basketry work links us to ancient cultures while remaining relevant to contemporary audiences. And they’re still beating a path to his door, even if a few of us miss the turning…