Favorite Makers: Chantal Calato

by Debbie Baer July 20, 2015

Chantal at work. Even her slop sink is artful!Above: Chantal at work. Even her slop sink is artful!

Meet Chantal Calato, our latest Favorite Maker! I met Chantal in grad school, where despite the chaos and fatigue of late night rehearsals, coursework, and teaching, she managed to maintain an inspiring and varied art practice rooted in experimentation, curiosity and love of her work. Her practice has survived living (and working!) in a 175 square foot apartment, living across the ocean from one of her closest collaborators, and working a full time job. Chantal inspires me with her commitment, her vision of possibility and her honest approach to the ups and downs of the creative process. Chantal Calato makes her artwork a priority.

We kicked off the conversation talking about “The Mini C’s,” a collaboration between Chantal and our friend Chelsea Warren. Let’s have Chantal explain it…
The project came together in June of 2010. I was moving from Chicago–where we both lived–to London. Chelsea and I had this “oh-my-gosh” instinctual urge that we had to do something artistic together before I left. People fall out of touch and we all know how that goes, if we didn't do it then it was never going to happen. So we were just like, “What about building puppets of ourselves and going around Chicago and taking photographs of them? Why not!?” We learned brand new techniques we never tried before like baking clay, twisting wire for stop motion animation puppets, sewing miniature clothes. Trying to find buttons that were in the right scale! It was insane. So what was supposed to be a one day project turned into a one week project. Keep in mind I had 2 weeks before I was literally putting everything I owned in my car and driving away. [This time crunch] very much helped, restrictions in general help artists focus and make a choice. It's so easy to procrastinate. So anyways, we spent about a week building the Mini C’s. We did a little bit of research but we dove in so quickly that we had very little time to try. We were like, “We're trying this method, we hope it works!” So we did it. [Once we built and dressed the Mini C’s] we photographed ourselves with them in wacky, wacky scenarios. And we were like, "This is fantastic! We love this! How do we share it with the world?"
Mini C, dressed for a foggy, wet adventure. Mini C, dressed for a foggy, wet adventure.

We were up really late at night, there was time ticking off the clock before I was leaving and we were like, “Oh yeah! What about a blog?” Neither of us had done a blog before, we didn't know what that meant really, but all of a sudden we wanted to post these on the blog. But we realized you can't just post this and nothing else so we thought, well this is so much fun, we’re so excited about this new collaboration, and we’re desperate to continue even though we are going to be long distance–let’s make the blog a way for us to communicate as artists both with each other and the world.

I love the Mini C’s and followed their long-distance adventures with delight. What makes this collaboration so successful?

Chelsea and I both went to Northwestern University [for grad school] and University of Buffalo for undergrad, but never really worked together while we were in school. When we were out of school we continued being friends. What I love about her is she has such an energy and passion. It doesn't matter what she's doing, she's just energetic and pours 150% of her energy into everything she does. And for me as an artist I love to find people who have that energy and who can excite, inspire, and sort of throw me off guard every once in a while. And I think she does that for me. It's so hard to find good collaborators. It’s a never-ending and difficult task that we as artists and makers need to do if we want to push ourselves. But I think it's partially intuitive, you just know when it's the right thing. We did some collaborations prior to the Mini C's that were very exciting, very demanding and very much of a train wreck at the same time. But those collaborations were a test bed of what our collaboration could become.

Train wreck! The best kind of learning experience. What did you learn from the train wreck?

For the particular project we were working on we did not have defined roles. We both like to do lots of things. But just because you can be good at lots of things doesn't mean it's going to work out well if you try to do all of them at the same time. It was a huge learning curve for the both of us and we probably had lots of heated discussions about it at different points. But we worked through that, distilled it down and said, “Let's try to put all that aside and see what happens.”

Speaking of putting things aside, how do balance your day job [as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Design at University of Buffalo] with your art-making?

It's always difficult no matter what your scenario is. As an artist the balance always seems to be a challenge. [My job is] very demanding for 9 months out of the year, although very rewarding. It takes a different part of my brain to do that job than being an artist does. And that's the key for me–not to use the same part of my brain for my day job that I do for my art. Any time I've been in an artistic field I use to try to make money, I can't go home and make art. It's too overwhelming. And then in terms of time, I really need to focus on the thing I'm doing. Whether it’s for my day job or the art I'm making, I really need to set aside the time, be really strategic and say, “This is the time I'm going to work on my art.” Even if it means I only do it once every two weeks, I get better, more focused time than if I try to squeeze in an hour everyday.

I do this thing where right before I’m done working for the day I'll leave a few ideas half done so I know when I sit back down there's a quick way back in. Do you leave yourself tails to keep the ideas connected? Or are you able to really just sit down and start fresh every time?

Sometimes I have things completely envisioned in my head before I sit down and I just know what it needs to be. But it's rare that it just gets made exactly that way because usually I'm testing out new processes, which then change. Or the materials available might change the product, which is actually exciting for me.  Sometimes the idea just comes so easily and it barely has to be thought about, it just rises to the surface. Other times it's brutal, you're racking your brain, you're throwing shit around your studio, you've got mounds of everything and sometimes you never come up with something you're excited about sharing with the world. The hard thing is, you need to keep sharing regardless.

I call those my shitty first drafts. Do you keep those?

I do keep a lot of process work.

That's a way nicer way to put it. Process work is so much better than shitty first draft.

No, it totally is a shitty first draft. Sometimes the process work is the most exciting part. I try to keep that energy because even if the first sketch you do is disastrous there's usually something about the energy of it that really needs to be kept. But it's hard. Sometimes if I'm starting a new project it might take me 3 or 4 days before I feel like I've entered it, before my brain is like, okay, I'm here. And that's where having the day job is difficult, because then you're like, “Oh, I just got into this and now I need to go work for 4 days.” 

You’ve spoken a few times now about bringing your work into the world, sharing it with the world, how do you do that? How do you share your work and get people interested?

Well, it's always different. I wish I could say I'm more consistent about it, and I can say that's the business end that I need to work on more. But since I moved back to Niagara Falls it's allowed me to try some new things. Moving is a way for me to start fresh in terms of who people thought I was and make it align with who I know I am. [In a new place] I can become whoever I want. I hate the feeling of being put in a box, especially if you know it's not the box most perfectly suited for yourself. And I’ve been getting more involved in the different artistic events that have been happening here in Buffalo. One of them is City of Night, a collection of large scale installations in massive grain silos in an old industrial area of Buffalo. I did one of the installations and 15,000 people came through to see the work. That was really exciting because of course not everybody is going to appreciate it but there are going to be some people that do. That was a huge way for me to get my name out there in this new place and it's led to some new artistic connections for me here.

Is there a goal to monetize it these connections? Obviously they’re great for you, they're great for the work, but is there a move to make some money?
Yes, ultimately I would love to have the art make the  money for me instead of these day jobs. And actually at this very second I'm setting myself up to potentially do that.  My uncle gave me these old Boy scout bags. They were hanging on a my wall in my studio and I didn't know what to do them. I looked at the pockets and I thought, ”If I open these two seams, move the pockets, and add a strap I can make an apron.” So I did! I slop all over my clothes [but] it took me like 30 years of being an artist to figure out, oh maybe I should wear an apron when I work! So I made one out of necessity and started selling them at shop called Ro on one of the main artistic drags here in Buffalo. Everything they sell there is very much in my visual world. And they invite artists to come in every month and put up a collection of their work, like a little gallery. It's actually great because [this deadline] forces me to put together some work I've been putting off for a little while. It's going to be a mixed media series called "Missed." It depicts the disturbing yet beautiful visual connection the smoke from the factories in Niagara Falls have with the mist from the falls. The series will be available as of September 11. 
In process: "Missed," the series to be displayed at Ro this September.

So these are ways of monetizing in a sense, but I'd never make artwork because I know it will easily sell. It has to come from the deepest part of me otherwise I just can't do it. That's just the bottom line.

That's one of the differences between art and design, I think. When I design something for the company I have to love it but I also have to take a step back and determine if it's going to sell. It's not like, “Oh no, I have to get rid of that thing I love so much.” It's more like, “Well, I see the value in giving this thing up and changing it.”

Yes! I've been thinking about that exact thing a lot lately–the difference between art and design. Not a lot of people actually know the difference and I don't even know if I actually thought about it too much until more recently. But it's become more clear to me. I love design because there's something so calculated about it.

You seem to surround yourself with inspiring people. Who is your Favorite Maker?

My favorite maker is Joe Calato, my 94 year old grandfather. He was a drummer and a cabinet maker at a young age. All drumsticks back then were made out of wood. He was a jazz drummer and didn't like their sound or quality. So he started a drumstick factory because he needed to change the sound of the drumstick. If you've ever seen drumsticks with a nylon tip he invented those and started an entire international business around them. He lives down the street from me. I get to visit him all the time and see his old wood shop. Even though he doesn't make much anymore he tells me stories about what he made in that shop. I feel like it's in my blood, like I have no choice. And along those lines, a couple years ago I visited Florence–I'm part Italian and my grandfather is my Italian part. And when I was there it was like I was at home. I would walk around and see a little street and a little storefront, like 8' wide. The storefront would go way back and I’d peek inside and there would be a lightbulb, and you'd see a person whittling away making a little chair, or building a purse, or making a thing and everything was hand made right there. You could see the people doing it. And I just love love love that. I just know I want everything I do to always be rooted in that. One day I want my studio to be something like that, that could be accessed publicly. It goes back to sharing the process.

Absolutely. So many makers and artists share their process these days. I think it trains us as their audience to appreciate the end result more–it’s a great way to articulate the value of what you’re making.

That's a great way of putting it, to show people the value.

So you need a GoPro camera to wear while you make your stuff so you can show people all the work that goes into it!

(Narrator’s voice:)...And it took me 40 hours to make this!

No one would know all the work that went into it otherwise!

It's true. When we lived in London we lived in a 175 sq ft apartment. And the days I was making art in it literally every inch of the place was covered. My bed, every single inch of the floor, my stove top, in the cupboards, on the cupboards, on the radiator, hanging on the walls, and then you're like, “Oh shit, what do I do when I have to make dinner, or go to bed!”

And then your better half comes home and they're like, “What the f, we've got to live in here!” It’s wonderful though, because it demonstrates how urgently you need to make your art, nothing, not even this tiny apartment, is going to stop you.
It's fun too. Keeps life interesting. Find more of Chantal's work at her website and at The Mini C's blog. And if you're in the Buffalo area, don't forget to see her show at Ro opening on September 11, 2015. Look out for my interview with Chantal's collaborator, Chelsea Warren coming soon! We built The Willary to serve women like Chantal, women who Make Things Happen. Be the first to find out about our September launch and join our (infrequent) mailing list here. And please share with your Favorite Makers!

Debbie Baer
Debbie Baer


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