To see the black and white figures of Fred Le Chevalier is to see something delicate, pleasant and deeply poetic. Their presence is juxtaposed with the frenzied life around them. Existing in their own place from a seemingly different time - they offer a look at a world completely at odds with the one they're in.
I didn't ask Fred about his name (The Knight). It was a conscious decision that paid off after our conversation, and afternoon walking and talking around Paris, came to a close.
We met near the Centre Georges Pompidou, located near the Seine in an area that is very typically Parisian, bustling, busy - energetic. It's not quite on the tourist bank, and it's certainly nothing like the more quaint and leafy Paris only 15-minute south over the river. Because of this, it is the Paris you come to expect from the photographs that informed your ideas of the alluring city.
After a 5-minute walk, we found ourselves in a more quiet spot on a one-way street. The cafe/bar was small and the table was even smaller. My first question was the root of the tree - everything else came from that - his history, his life, ideas and with that, his future. When and why did you get interested in art? I asked. He smiled back at me - a question he had heard before, but one that cannot be avoided.
The answer was simple. It started with his parents and books. Growing up in a family that enjoyed reading, he always had books around. Although being an avid reader - his imagination was equally captured by the woodcarved illustrations that accompanied his favourite childhood tales. While the books left his mind entirely open to imagine the story - the artwork gave it a direction. Both of them together, the story and the images, fabricated a vivd foundation that would influence his work all through his life.
There was another formative influence on his approach - punk music. From classics to carnage, he began working closely with labels, bands and brands in the punk scene. Communicating by mail, they swapped ideas and, as with punk in the rest of the world, created the scene in their image.
Money was at once a restriction and an enabler. The lack of it meant that work was mainly monochromatic and done in a scrappy sort of naive style. It also freed him, and everyone else involved, to do whatever they wanted. With more limited tools it becomes ever more important to master your use of them.
Punk wasn't just about the music and the art, but the spirit. People collaborated, they worked together to overcome problems and to understand - it was an environment that provoked growth by pulling people up with you, rather than competing against them to keep them down. Even when the punk scene began to wind down, the ethos lived on through many incarnations in many different medias. For Fred, it informed his whole outlook on life.
Years later he had reached a point where his life wasn't going good - it happens. He found himself to be in a demanding job, physically and emotionally. He needed a way to escape the life that he had chosen, yet that had come to trap him. It was time for Fred to unsettle his routine life, but he had no idea how. Soul-searching brought back childhood memories of drawing and how much joy it gave him. He recently saw a tattoo artists sketches - they were simple, like the ones he used to do as a child and that formed the covers of so many record sleeves. It suddenly struck him as obvious - he picked up a pen.
His charming characters are now synonymous with street-art in Paris. The odd androgynous monochromatic figures are pasted all over the city's beautiful, yet less well-known streets. But where did they come from?
Fred had taken up drawing as a way of not thinking, so he painted what he most wanted to see - something nice. His characters often face each other, as if they're in love. If it's not that, then they certainly care about each other. Paris, as with most major cities, has two sides and that means people often have mixed feelings about it. Fred is no different. He loves his life in the city - loves the freedom he has to see concerts and to move around anonymous and inspired. On the flip side, it's a tough and gritty city. His characters are personifications of these thoughts - they exist in their own sphere, yet they react to the hard-edge of their urban landscape.
Without an education in art, Fred was learning as he was going and continues to do so. Although not explicitly, his pieces speak a profound message. I asked him how he went from the highly political punk scene to creating work devoid of such messages. I had gotten it wrong though - by just existing, without putting more negativity into the world, he was saying that art has the power to change and to heal as it had done to him. Bombarded by images and stories of conflict, he's putting the emphasis on love. It's his way of answering those people and it doesn't get much more punk than that.
Something that contributes to the simple power of his work is that he has chosen to live his life as befitting of his creations as possible. He tries to embrace love and growth at every opportunity. If you can learn, then you can improve. His life choices he says are consciously made so as not to "corrupt" his work.
Despite being a confident guy, Fred isn't ostentatious with his art. He wants it to speak for itself. For him, it changed his life - something that he still can't seem to believe. The surreal and odd characters of his that dot the walls of Paris give off a contagious feeling of love, to either give it out, or appreciate that which you have. Their emotions come from him, they are figments of his imagination. That people feel anything at all is enough for him.
He avoids offering me any more stories behind his characters. The most joy he gets from his work is hearing people say that they can relate to them personally. That's the strength of creating work that's of such a poetic nature - it makes people want to write their own poems, to weave their own life stories into his pieces. Without knowing it, his little black and white people are a uniting force in France's capital.
It made sense at the end then, that he had chosen the name Le Chevalier (The Knight). His role as an artist is something like a buffer - a layer of protection between two worlds. He wields a pen as a sword and his images become shields. They are noble, wise and part of a lifelong journey to serve an idea.
Punk isn't dead.
"I just want to live life just want to be free,
Is it to much to ask for a world of peace,
So we try to create a alternative,
We look to punk as a way to live,
We try to care and help one another,
You are my sister and you are my brother,
But it seems to me that somethings gone wrong,
Cos all too often the togetherness is gone,
They keep us down when they keep us apart,
If they can do that then they've won from the start."
- Oi Polloi, Reach Out For The Light
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