French-American artist Valérie Chaussonnet uses welding and painting to celebrate the spirit of sisterhood.
By Claire Misfeldt, Photos by TJ Hilton
Take a stroll through Austin Community College’s Riverside campus. You may see a woman dumpster diving for pieces of discarded metal and steel. While some may find this strange, other students recognize her as the “Dumpster Queen.”
As an art and welding student, Valérie Chaussonnet uses the discarded materials she digs up in her work.
Chaussonnet is a professional artist with more than 30 years of experience. She has been featured in over 45 group exhibitions since 2017. Her first solo exhibition was in 2020 with the Midland Arts Council. Her art is inspired by her work as a museum anthropologist, with a specialty in Siberian and American Arctic women’s art and shamanism.
This process of transforming trash into art is part of how she approaches art in general, regardless of what medium she’s working with. “Art making is a spiritual practice where you practice not being attached to your preconceived notions,” says Chaussonnet.
Her Art History
Chaussonnet’s art journey spans the globe, starting in Paris, France, where she was born. Her family fostered an appreciation for art in her from a young age. Yet she did not truly begin her career until after earning her doctorate. While working at the Smithsonian on her Crossroads exhibition, Chaussonnet also took night classes at the Corcoran Art School. Her earliest pieces were masks based on her experience with Inuit artists she met while completing her doctorate.
In 1997, Chaussonnet moved to Austin with her first son and gave birth to her second the following year. She took a short break from art during her first few years as a mother but picked painting back up in 2002. With the desire to learn more technical and welding skills, she enrolled at Austin Community College (ACC) soon after. “There are excellent art classes that can be taken at the community college,” Chaussonnet beams. “[ACC] is affordable and fabulous all around.”
Continuing in the spirit of education, since 2013, Chaussonnet has been teaching French and art through her school La Petite Provence Austin while working as a professional artist. In that span of time, her works have been featured in exhibitions all across Texas. For example, she is currently featured in the State of Sculptor exhibit in San Angelo.
The Spirit of Sisterhood
A common theme throughout Chaussonnet’s work is the idea of the “ancestral goddess” and the bond between women. Even during her time working at the Smithsonian, she focused her research on art from Inuit women and showcased work from indigenous contemporary artists in the exhibition. “I consider myself a feminist and the spirit of sisterhood is central to me,” says Chaussonnet. “I feel a lot of [the]community of art [is]made by women.”
She incorporates different aspects of womanhood into much of her work, like in her steel sculptures Three Guardian Spirit Sisters and Goddess of Girlhood to Womanhood. The continued use of discarded and recycled material embodies the idea of women creating something new from found items. “We’re given some tools, we’re taking the tools if they’re not given willingly [and]we also have the flexibility in creating something different,” says Chaussonnet.
Chaussonnet’s work in steel has remained relatively consistent with her use of discarded and recycled material. She constructed her first welded piece, First Masks, at the Corcoran Art School in D.C. nearly 30 years ago. She took inspiration from African, Northwest Coast Indian and Italian Renaissance art to construct this piece.
Like her work as the Dumpster Queen of ACC, Chaussonnet keeps her tradition of welding recycled material while also experimenting with her medium. “Those pieces have embodied things that have been constant in the past 30 years of me making art,” adds Chaussonnet. “Some people come to my house and they say, ‘It’s amazing how consistent your work has been even though it looks different.’”
Continuing to Celebrate
Art for Chaussonnet is a celebration in the purest form. Not only does she view her own art as a celebration of herself and the histories that inspire it, but she also holds this view for her friends’ art. In her own private collection, Chaussonnet collects art from people she knows as a symbol of their friendship. “Every piece is a celebration,” she says. “Every piece is a way of working through and of cherishing a moment that happened and it gets embodied in the piece.”
Valérie Chaussonnet reveres the beauty that comes out of trying something new in her art. Her advice for anyone who desires to become an artist is to not be afraid or think you can’t create something beautiful. “Art making is a dance with the medium,” she says. “So there are limitations, but limitations are not necessarily bad. Limitations are just an opportunity to try something in a different way.”