Dominique Labauvie is a sculptor and Erika Greenberg-Schneider is a Master Printer. Bleu Acier, houses their studio and gallery, exhibiting works by emerging and established American and European artists. Sitting in the kitchen they built themselves, they talk about the difference between being an artist in France versus America, where to find good French food in Tampa Bay and give advice for aspiring art collectors. Photographed at Bleu Acier, which is also their home, in Tampa Heights.
What made you move from Paris to Tampa? Dominique: It’s her fault. Erika: It was a combination of events. First, France was going through some huge political and social changes. Secondly, my father was getting older and he wanted us closer to him. Lastly, I got a job offer at USF/Graphicstudio, it was crucial that one of us had a salary.
Dominique, how is it different pursuing a career as an artist in France vs. America? In France we have a lot of good artists but they work for the government. It’s difficult to export art. French artists have the difficulty of centralization. As a young artist, you are helped with grants, to show in galleries, they make books and catalogs for you; until you are about 40, when you mature. Then you are on your own and have to decide. Most artists are professors and they stay in France. You begin to tour like the Tour de France, making a circuit of exhibitions in the same cities because it’s a small country. Quickly you are known in France and it begins to be boring. So I decided with Erika, at 50 years old, to emigrate. It was a challenge to begin again, something from nothing. But in Tampa you are immediately allowed in. I just got here with my suitcases and I won a competition. Suddenly I was in front of other artists. Here you feel you have a chance. You are not immediately lost. The artist is a necessary part of American society.
What does Tampa have that Paris doesn’t? Dominique: Space. Erika: An fauna and flora that is quite particular. Skies that are beautiful. Lightening fields that are so graphic you want to die. My relationship to Florida is environmental, not intellectual. Dominique: There’s a lot of culture here. If you were in France in a city the size of Tampa they have nothing going on. It’s a myth to think they have more culture than here! They know nothing of modern art or music or even classical art or music. They have no good furniture.
Erika, why Tampa Heights? Between both of our machines we’re twelve tons heavy, so we needed a big space. I looked from Ruskin to Pasco. Our daughter Ester had music lessons in this neighborhood. I kept driving by this building and loved it. Forging metal makes a lot of noise so it’s good we don’t have neighbors.
Tell us what is unique about living in Tampa Heights. Dominique: I came from a family that said it’s important to build your house on a hill. If there’s a flood you stay dry. We’re in the Heights – the highest part of Tampa! During hurricanes our friends from Davis Islands and Harbour Island come here to hide out. We’re shelter for our collectors!
What inspires you? Dominique: Nature. Florida is not really made for humans. It’s made for animals, insects and alligators. Erika: If we leave for a week in rainy season we come back and everything is overgrown. It’s very powerful. Dominique: Here everything is perishable. No rocks, mountains. It’s not like Europe, established on a foundation. It’s not a pessimistic view.
Dominique, describe the perfect night out. Listening to classical music and eating sushi. Right now Yoko’s is our favorite. We love it when our musical friends invite us to concerts. USF has an excellent series. They bring in musicians from all over the world. They create rare moments. The level of music at USF is very high.
Erika, describe the perfect Sunday morning. Being able to sleep in a little bit because we’re up early the rest of the week. Have a big wonderful brunch with our daughter. Take a bike ride along the Hillsborough River. Some reading. Llooking at political stuff in the French newspaper. Being able to worry about nothing else but what we feel like doing!
Dominique, what’s your favorite thing to cook? I’m Alsatian so I have a lot of good recipes in my memory. With good hands you can cook good food.
Where can you find good, French food in Tampa Bay?
- Here in our kitchen!
- Café de Paris Bakery in Indian Rocks Beach. It’s a bakery and a simple, little restaurant with crepes, sandwiches, omelettes. Their lemon tart is to die for! It’s definitely worth driving out there!
- Chef Gui is fabulous private chef.
- GateuOChocolat – Chef Emmanuel Roux used to own The Garden & Redwoods in St. Pete. Now he sells flourless cakes. I always have one in the freezer. In case friends stop by I always want something French to serve them.
- L’Eden in Tampa – Chef Gerard makes Dominique a certain kind of sandwich that is reminiscent of sitting on the Seine – country ham, camembert and butter.
- Publix French Camembert is actually very good.
What about other restaurants? Arco Iris and La Teresita for Cuban food. Rick’s on the River has the best burger in Tampa. You can go there with your boat and they have Elvis impersonators. The Gold Ring, down the street, has great Soul food and Cuban food. Their Cuban sandwich is the best in town. We go to the Taco Bus a lot. Bella’s for salads and they’ll make a real Pasta Carbonara for Dominique that’s not on the menu. I like that.
Do you have a motto? Erika: Culture is a way of life. I like American culture even when it’s boring. Dominique: I like the word “unexpected”. I like unexpected events.
What is your favorite object in your studio? Dominique: Erika! Erika: I’m not an object! Dominique: You’re the object of my desire. Erika: Some women have diamonds. My diamonds are the steel bracelets Dominique makes for me. Dominique: For me the house is the bed and the table. The table is the public aspect of our life where we gather with friends. The bed is our private life.
Dominique, describe your process. In the studio most of what I’m doing is destroying to rebuild it. With sculpture you invent a form that comes from nowhere. Suddenly your body, your memory, your instinct to survive creates a form. To give value to the unexpected moments. You submit to the construction and destruction.
Erika, what was it like starting your gallery in Tampa? I was really unhappy in Tampa in the beginning. I opened Blue Acier in 2003 and didn’t sell a work to anyone in Tampa until 2009. It took six years. Then it took two more years to get anyone from South Tampa to come to this part of town. If we had to make my living from this in Florida, we couldn’t. Ninety percent of our business is from out of state.
How did you meet and fall in love? Dominique: I was working in a state-run studio outside of Paris in an old monastery. One day Erika came in searching for a place to print. Erika: I’d just had a show in a museum and was looking for a job. The guy who did the show told me to call Dominique. Dominique: Erika was an immigrant. She was coming from another continent and was interested in French culture. I was entering into a factory of artists. At that moment, I had something to share with someone. At the beginning of your career as an artist you have nothing to share, you only take. Like a Vampire. Then we built something together. We were two lovers in Paris with a huge circle of friends. There was a real sense of community. Erika: That’s why we opened to the public here, to keep that sense of community going.
Dominique, how would you describe Erika? Exigent. Intentional. Sincere. Strategic. As a person who, since a quarter of a century, doesn’t change. She continues with the same energy, the same inventiveness. I see her patience for art, humanity, her generosity. She doesn’t compromise. She expects the best of me, the best I can do. I see her as a real American that comes from a Hungarian Polish family of old Europe. She has in her genetics that strongness of the old Europe.
Erika, how would you describe Dominique? Someone who really knows where they are going and what they are doing. He’s one the most intelligent people I’ve ever met in my life. In art, life, philosophy, literature and politics. You can hold a discussion with him on anything. He’s a visual and intellectual poet. He’s a very loyal person – to himself and to others.
What advice do you have for aspiring art collectors? A collector is never alone. He needs the eye of others to compare, to buy and sell. To constitute a collection, it’s a slow maturation of pure perception. Visiting galleries, museums, art fairs to acquire taste, vision and decide what you like and don’t like. It’s like a love affair. How to be sure? Most people have nothing on their walls for that reason. For people who are able to constitute a collection, each work of art represents a moment in life. It’s a mirror of moments of themselves in the world.
Name three things that you would miss if you left Tampa. Erika: The environment. The sky. We love to watch the storms. I love the empty space. Not everything has to be full, historic. If you walk streets of Paris it’s hard to find an open space. In NY wherever you are standing you are always seeing people, cement. Here I automatically see the sky, color and trees. Dominique: We’ve met very nice people here. We discovered people who are doctors, lawyers. They buy sculptures and prints to help us live here. In France it’s different – they are not so open like the people here.