Camille Mercier, aka Talking Shell, is a jewelry designer and illustrator. Her exceptionally delicate work is largely inspired by the biology of wild and aquatic worlds. In this interview, which I am extremely proud to present to you, she expresses herself for the first time on the meaning of her work and takes us on a journey through the world of plankton with a communicative joy.
Can you introduce yourself, what is your background ?
I’m Camille, I’m 27 years old and I live in Versailles, France, a beautiful city very close to its conservative cliché ! I studied Applied Arts in Paris for a year (scenography, graphism, drawing…). Soon after, I wanted to learn a craft profession, something very technical that would never leave my hands, which would help me translate drawings into 3D creations. I hesitated between studying stained-glass, lace, corsetry or lingerie, but I had a big crush for the BJOP School, (Haute Ecole de Bijouterie Paris) where I learned french traditional high jewelry technics, CAD, jewelry painting, gemmology for 2 years, and jewelry design for 2 more years. After 4 years studying in the backstages of the french high-jewlery scene, I didn’t feel that my work would make a change at a social or environnemental level. So I choosed to work as a supervisor in a boarding school in Versailles instead, which has a pedagogic aspect that I enjoy. I have a weird rythm and work mostly by night, I make my art every time I have a moment for myself. Sometimes I bring some work at so I can share a little of the process with the students too.
Facemasks, earrings, crowns, necklaces and many others, you have a wonderful and varied work of creation of jewels, with a vocabulary that comes from biology. Can you present it to us ?
In a few words, I would say that my creations are jigsaw puzzles of details with a fragile balance.
I like them to be seen as adornments, prosthesis, masks, but also as purely useless structures, just there to sparkle for a few moments in the eye.
The mask has been my main preoccupation for the last 2 years; it is at the same time a tool of pure identity expression, a fascinating area of the body to explore, (and thus rich in technical challenges).
This taste for the mask is hyper linked to my fascination for digital filters and virtual worlds. I find some of them so beautiful, so magical, that I want to create my own with the means at hand, that is to say my knowledge in jewelry.
I feel very happy when someone asks me if my masks are «real» or not !
My masks etc are very fragile for a reason; I always look for a kind of «extreme» delicacy in the shapes, which I think reminds us of the ephemeral nature of beauty, to provoke a feeling of being confronted to a moving, living maze of details.
They also have an intrinsic relationship with my body and my own biology, which is in a way the basic ingredient of my inspiration. I also draw on the biology of the wild world to translate my senses and concerns into a language that is both visual and intuitive. I work a lot with analogy, which allows me to look for synchronicities between my behavior and the world around me, between the biological capacities of an animal or a plant and the hopes I have for my future self.
How is your creative process organized ?
As my practice is fairly new and constantly evolving, I don’t have an organization as such. However there are recurring elements in each project, there is always a new technical challenge for example.
I started making my own jewelry in early 2018, in response to a need to create objects that feel like me. I was exhausted from hiding.
I was dealing with the aftermath of dissociative disorders and PTSD, so forcing myself to work from my own face and body helped tremendously.
I started by standing in front of my mirror and carefully observing my face as a landscaper or a surgeon would, and little by little, playing with artificial petals or pieces of brass wire I created my first mask called «Terrible butinerie, tous les jardiniers sont morts». (It’s a kind of wordplay, butinerie is a mix between the verb butiner and mutinerie, so it means «Terrible butinerie, all the gardeners are dead».)
Since then I have been working systematically in front of my mirror, very slowly. I have to be very careful to not hurt my face when I use metal or hot glue, I take the time to observe my bone structure. This slowness, working in detail has an extremely calming effect on me, it helps me to stay focused on one thing at a time (I get distracted very easily) and to learn to link self-expression with discipline. While slowing the pace of thought to develop a synthesis of simultaneous dreams through a drawing or an object, I find a place of healing and gratefulness.
The mask has become a tool for self-expression, a revelation of what is hidden, intrinsic, but it is also a kind of protection, of camouflage that helps me feel more honest, uninhibited and a bit proud.
Each mask is linked in one way or another to one of the five senses, or to a specific feeling which I love to translate in my own terms. The «Anemonargh» facemask for example refracts the sensation of water rising to the mouth, of an appetite that is both voracious and very attentive to the most subtle tastes. The underboob necklace underlines the sensation of the chest about to explode during premenstrual syndrome, while the golden mask «Solar winds blowing a moth into pieces» expresses a joy that explodes an old representation of the Self.
Finishing a mask is like finishing a chrysalis, that I can put away with the feeling of having changed into a more honest person, more full of herself. Allowing myself to do what I like is also how I manage to express generosity to myself and others.
I always feel like I’ve been travelling into a far away and timeless land, and I am bringing back memories and gifts to my friends.
The selfie and the sharing on social networks is entirely part of the process of healing, once it’s shared, it’s done, like «I finally said it, even if I feel so, so very clumsy.» With time, at each post on @talking.shell (the alias wasn’t choosen by hazard, it’s inspired from the anime Ghost in the Shell and the amazing cartoon Song of the Sea), this moment feels easier.
And it can just be a nice moment where the 27 year old me winks at the 13 year old Camille, where I give myself all the cutest, brightest and sometimes a little bit provocative stuff I’ve ever dreamed of !
We find in your work a strong interest for the living world, and especially the aquatic world, what are its origins ? And what are the media that allow you to feed this interest (scientific resources, books, websites, documentaries, etc.) ? Does this make you claim an ecological dimension in your work ?
I have a very vivid memory of the first time I went to the beach when I was 2 years old. I remember it as the most irrationnal thing I have ever seen, it felt like a totally new dimension. Exploring, running butt naked on the beach with nothing to do but play is heaven !
While bathing and playing in the sand, you are constantly tickeld by something.
For me, this is where I started to develop a sense of erotism (that I really differenciate from sexuality here), a very natural sense of pleasure.
For the little anecdote, my first dream tinted with erotism involved a cloud and a sea anemona tickling the back of my knee !
I was also very deeply shocked by the shipwreck of the oil tanker Erika on the coasts of Brittany and its consequences on the wildlife.
I explored some injuried areas with my class when I was 6 years old and it was both a great experience of observations in team, but also a source of anger and a feeling of helplessness.
Seing how obsessed I was, my mother bought me a book called «My friend of the seas», with some simple scientific informations about the seas, winds, wildlife on the beach.. This is how it started !
When I discovered the world of plankton during an exhibition at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, I definitely fell in love with the abyss and the teeming unknown that is hidden there, constantly multiplied.
It was the day scientists presented the first photo of a black hole. I prefer to look at what’s going on down there.We know more about the surface of the Moon or Mars than we do about our oceans. I think it says a lot about humans. Of course, no one wants to “reach the bottom”, darkness and depths are still equated with hell. But it’s really a paradise teeming with life and a reservoir of knowledge and revelations !
The Pleurobrachia Pileus plays a major role of inspiration in my work. When I discovered this macroplankton specie, I was simultaneously obsessed with the electricity that runs through the different areas of the human brain, and I was trying to materialize this electrical network in the form of a mask.
I found that the millions of bioluminescent cilia and the oval body of the pleurobrachia resembled my representations of my own neural electricity. It was a funny unexplained feeling of kinship that still obsesses me.
Why the pleurobrachia, why do I have the intimate feeling that this tiny creature is “me” in another form?
It lives in darkness, and despite its gelatinous and entirely translucent body, it evolves gracefully, perfectly adapted to the pressure of the waters.
It has no eyes, but it has millions of tiny luminous eyelashes that vibrate at full speed, and two long arms thinner than hair. It doesn’t need light, it makes its own, and this also serves as a signal, a “language” of sorts. It is a predator the size of a gooseberry.
It often comforts me to know that there are tiny, seemingly vulnerable creatures that live in symbiosis with their environment through wonders of extremely refined behavior.
I learned later that this peculiar specie is the one of the first to develop a neural system ! I was mindblown by the synchronicity between my physical sensation of electricity, this kindred intuition, and the biological history of the Pleurobrachia.
This particular moment got me obsessed with phylogeny, (the study of the links between related species) and I am still looking for synchronicities between strange organisms and ourselves, to finally reveal it in my own way, through jewelry for example.
It is the wildlife that brings me the most comfort, confidence and peace. Emphasizing the connection between a flourishing mentalhealth and a rich, beautiful and respected environment, inspiring curiosity, ultimately empathy for either is I hope a consequence of my approach.
I check in regularly:
Some of my favourite books are written by sailors; The Long Road by Bernard Moitessier, Cette nuit, la mer est noire by Florence Arthaud.
I also enjoy reading Ernst Haeckel, Darwin and Lamarck, especially their thoughts on phylogeny. Claire Nouvian (abysses), Christian Sardet (plankton), François Sarano’s work about sperm whales.
I watch a lot of documentaries; Chasing Corals, Night on Earth – Mission Blue is my favorite, about the life of Dr Sylvia Earle who one of my favorite heroins !
The movie Oceans is a basic, I also go through the BBC Earth (Blue Planet) and National Geographic networks.
I follow a hundred instagram accounts like: @jam_and_germs, @waterbod, @womanscientist, @marine.animals @the_story_of_a_biologist, @noaaoceanexploration, @800down, @fondationtaraoceans.
French speaking friends, I recommend you @hugorichel dissertation “L’Odyssée des Abysses”, which is really great ! I also grew up with the Tv show Thalassa 🙂
I listen a lot to whale songs (humpback whales mainly, dolphins etc).
You also have an important practice of drawing, which can be seen on @magma.seed, your second Instagram account. You express a generous graphism through its details and arborescence, which can be reflected in sweet and powerful organic forms. Can you talk about this work, and how you relate it to your jewelry design activity ?
@talking.shell is the evolution of the @magma.seed Pokemon.
I am glad you mention this, these accounts are stages of my evolution but also two facets of my personality. They might look like opposites somehow (black and white versus colors) but to me they truly go hand-in-hand.
@magma.seed is a raw tiny ball of energy, judgmental as hell, who likes to analyse and dissect everything she scans in an enormous pattern of tiny details.
I always draw the eyes of the characters first, their vision lead the rest of the drawing.
At the end of it I want to have the intense feeling that I synthetized the contrasts, the contradictions in me to the point that I feel like I didn’t do this drawing myself.
So the use of black & white is very important to me, I like that it is so exacting, half warm, half violent.
After around 10 years of drawing in this style, not really moving out of this comfort zone I looked for a way to work in color, which I didn’t feel comfortable with, and this frustration coincided with the discovery of digital filters and my desire to use my knowledge of jewelry.
I needed to develop a cheerful universe around me at that time, and to claim my need for fun, for nuances.
In january 2018 I made the decision to find a way to show this side of my personality that I kept inhibited and shy. I wanted to share another face, at first it felt like wearing masks was something very provocative. My sister told me multiple times «You are finally coming out !».
I buzzed my head (which is still a punk thing in Versailles haha) and created the alias @talking.shell which was an expression of my will to give one of my facets a voice.
She is another part of the puzzle, eager to communicate with other humans and who gets dressed up for the occasion.
She wants to play, to experiment lighteness, sensuality and to share it with her friends, to transmit her interests and passions. She is way less of a perfectionist than @magma.seed and would allow herself lots of mistakes.
The masks are a kind of metamorphosis tools in a quest for identity, they have to be delicate, so they can meet a newborn self, carrying it to another edge.
Delicate is my kindest way of precision, an empathetic side of respect, and patience the calm way of my determination.
The drawing process has changed a lot since I started making my masks, it has become a moment of rest, a kind of refuge after spending a lot of time in holographic colors and rhinestones. There is something tiring about showing my face (even masked) on a social network, especially after looking at it in detail during the whole creation process. I like to hide a little sometimes.
So these two are as different as complementary now, it often makes me think of the myth of Persephone, a goddess of eternal spring, who spends 6 months on earth, 6 months in the underworld. Whether it’s on one side or the other, she cultivates her secret gardens.
How would you define the artistic sphere in which you are involved ? And what are the creators that you think are important to include in it ?
I would say that it is a sphere that defines itself as a breach, an intersection between biomimicry and technomimicry.
It includes an abundance of identity researches, hybrid self-expression tools; between make-up, VR filters, jewelry and clothing.
With this creative dynamism, I feel like social networks like Instagram have become a kind of video game where you can embody as many aspects of yourself as necessary, “choose your fighter” moments, a pantheon of avatars which goes hand in hand with a dynamic of self-seeking.
Dystopias blend into everyday life, anchoring dreams in a continually archaic world.
One of the aspects I feel very close to is a metamorphosis of the notion of craftsmanship, which I feel is gradually giving up its cliché “dirty hands and wooden tools». Iris Van Herpen is a prime example of a hybrid creator with haute couture technics mixed with 3D printed structures and materials.
I cannot talk about the artistic sphere in which I am involved without talking about the artists I’ve been in contact with, and how their influence guided me in my art-therapy process. I love to think that their is no such artistic sphere (at a personal level at least) without friendly and caring interactions. Without those open hearted talks late at night, without sharing doubts or technical difficulties, without support etc, no sphere or «community» would happen.
So one of the best ideas I had during these 3 years was to keep in mind @ines.alpha’s advices all along. Independently of her incredible sense of integrity and discipline in her art, thinking about it is always an intense source of enthousiasm and bravery. Her bold and colorful work feels to me as an invitation to trust myself.
@proxima2000taur has been an incredibly supportive friend and an inspiring artistic presence. He plays a huge role into this sphere, using his face and body almost like land art. He definitely is some of the creators that make me think about an interesection between biomimicry and technomimicry, alongside with @antr0morph for example. They share an interesting way of blending their personal lives with dystopias in order to propel themselves into the future. @nusi_quero and @uaun are milestones in this sphere. As Nusi inspires me to refract an impetuous generosity, Uaun’s work is an invitation to look inward more closely, to explore my blind spots and dig out the roots of my energy. The words entanglement and diffraction/refraction often came back in our discussions and it inspired me to use more photoshop in my creative process in order to multiply the shapes I realised in metal etc.
I am fascinated with artists like @casey_curran, @lokidolor, @james.t.merry of course, but also @hany_b__ and @11v151131_m06, @harriet.blend or @andrewthomashuang, @entangledothers, @adem.elahel…
As for my drawings on @magma.seed, I feel close to Belkis Ayon and the Spirit Codex by Solange Knopf.
You worked with Sarah Mayer on the creation of an Instagram filter from one of your masks, called Pleurobrachia. How did this collaboration go ?
Working with Sarah felt like an evidence and it was so simple ! I sent her two pictures of the mask, a video of a pleurobrachia, a few indications about textures and movements… And she just made it happen and translated it perfectly !
It was a dream come true, when I made the mask I constantly imagined it moving, shiny and a bit glossy.
We are actually thinking about updating the filter for Instagram !
What are your current projects ?
Now that I have been exploring my face, hiding it under strass and petals, I am taking a few steps back to reflect on what happened during these last 3 years. I think that I am done sitting and trying to look pretty behind my masks, it’s time to investigate other parts of my body, to expand the space my work occupies, which implies a lot of new challenges !
I am increasingly interested in creating complete characters, and to give them a context, an environment, a voice.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking for delicacy, sparkles and a form of grace in my work, intimately linked to a questioning of my femininity, and I realize that I stayed in this representation of myself in order to avoid expressing the qualified as «raw» and «violent» sides of my personality.
The thing is this side might be carrying the roots of my creative energy and the craddle of my emotions. I want to give it more space.
I also realized that I was not sharing the trajectories of thought, the reflections that I was making during the making of the masks, that until now I have not shared the “why” of my creations. For each mask, I have dozens of stories to tell and I think I’ll share them via the website I’m working on.
Let’s just say that I feel like I’ve reached a point where I need to allow myself some “maturity” and confidence to move forward into a new stage of my journey, which also includes thinking about how I would like to earn a living, create a positive dynamic in response to environmental issues, and thrive in the creative process.
I am also very eager to be able to exhibit my work, at the moment a few people have been able to see my masks in real life or try them on and I can’t wait to make it happen !
I am actually working on a custom wedding mask and this is a very good challenge. I am considering making a few small facemasks for sale, to celebrate these last 3 years of hesitations and my will to have faith and move on.
A heartfelt thank you to Camille for her answers, for the time and energy she devoted to it.
Interview by Charline Kirch
Featured image credit : Planktonic Sword by Talking Shell
Find on the Expo156 ‘s Instagram account a curation of works and images elaborated with Talking Shell that will make you continue our journey through the deep sea 🦑