On Tuesday, February 27, Claire Lesteven-Williams was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in a ceremony held at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York. Ambassador François Delattre, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations, bestowed the insignia upon Lesteven-Williams for her exceptional career as an artist and a photographer, and for her service to the New York francophone community.
It is a privilege for me to welcome you all tonight on this very special occasion as we gather here to confer the Legion of Honor on Claire Lesteven, an acclaimed artist, a dear friend of the Francophone community in New York, and devoted ally of French and American artists.
I would like to warmly welcome Claire’s family and friends who have joined us this evening to show their admiration. And I would like to extend a very warm welcome to her husband, artist Alun Williams.
Before proceeding with the ceremony, I would like to say a few words about the award that I am about to bestow (l’Ordre national de la Legion d’honneur). Napoleon Bonaparte created the Legion of Honor in 1802 to recognize extraordinary accomplishments and outstanding services rendered to France. Considered France’s premier Order, it is made up of three ranks — chevalier, officer, and commander — and two high offices (“dignités”).
It is hard to know where to begin when it comes to someone who demonstrates such talent, dedication and generosity in the many roles she occupies between two continents and various fields.
Claire, you spend your time moving between the spheres of photography, non-profit work, and artistic development, and geographically between New York and France.
Tonight, we are here to honor you for each one of the parts you play in your multifaceted career. We are here to recognize you for the way you embody curiosity, empathy, and a dedication to humanity in every area of your life.
Claire, you are first and foremost an artist.
However, your training as an artist has informed much more than your skill as a craftsman, it has taught you a sense of rigor that informs all of your work, both artistic and otherwise. From your tremendous work at Carrefour Pastoral de la Francophonie, to Triangle France residency program to the numerous experimental art exhibitions that you facilitated through the years at the Parker’s Box Gallery in Brooklyn, you lead from within, working behind the scenes to make sure that everything runs smoothly for all involved.
Claire, you are the rare artist who is at once capable of simultaneously commenting on the world and fully engaging with it.
Born in Paris, you were perhaps destined to become an artist who would focus heavily on capturing urban milieus. You spent your childhood living among Paris’s urban sprawl and Brittany’s inspiring landscapes. In 1987, you graduated from the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Nantes, with a Diplôme National Supérieur d’Expression Plastique. Your first exhibitions were in Nantes, and you held a residency at the Musée de l’Imprimerie in Nantes in 1990. In 1993, you ventured to the south of France to Marseille, where you were invited for a residency by the Association Astérides. You made Marseille your home, and it continues to be an important place for you. To this day, you share your time between New York and this bustling city in Provence.
Marseille was crucial to your own artistic development, and it was also the place where you first started actively contributing to the artistic development of others. Indeed, it was in Marseille where you co-founded Triangle France in 1994 with your husband, Alun Williams, and Bernard Plasse. From the very start, you infused this organization with a vision of promoting dialogue and the exchange of ideas between contemporary visual artists internationally and supporting artists and their development in France.
At the heart of Triangle France is its residency program, which as of today has hosted over 200 artists in residence, and over 20 of whom have been American. The association’s former residents include Simon Starling (1997), Virginie Barré (1998), Jim Lambie (1998), Pierre Malphettes (1998), Bruno Peinado (1998), Damien Maziere (2002) and Lili Reynaud Dewar (2006), Clark Walter (2008), Christian Newby (2010), just to name a few. Triangle France has also contributed significantly to Marseille’s development as a cultural center, as you have brought in internationally recognized artists to produce work and exhibit it in Marseille. You and Alun continue to serve on the Board of Directors of this invaluable arts association today.
You first came to the United States for a long stay in 1999 as a visiting artist at the International Center of Photography here in New York. You are known for your groundbreaking photography practice in which you take the most primitive form of camera – the camera obscura or pinhole camera, and turned it into a sophisticated tool for making art. The quality of your work was immediately recognized and you were rapidly invited to undertake an artist’s residency at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens. This was the site where you first transformed a donated New York wood water tank into a huge, cylindrical, multi-aperture camera obscura!
I have heard a wonderful story of cross-cultural understanding that stems from your experience during this residency which I thought apt to share on this occasion:
At the Socrates Sculpture Park, you were assigned a volunteer assistant by the name of Ross. A self-described “Texan redneck” and an aviation engineer by profession, Ross worked with you to design and build a platform for your camera-obscura. At first, Ross was skeptical of you: a French-speaking artist from Europe. But, thanks to you, gradually he realized that—in his words—there was “a world beyond America”. Today Ross has created a company based in France, he has married a francophone Swiss artist, and is working hard to learn the language well enough to become a European citizen!
Claire, this story is no surprise. Your generosity of spirit and your dedication to your work inspires those around you. Again and again, in big and small ways, you bring people together, between countries and across various fields.
While you have always pursued your gift for photography, it was in 2007 that you began dedicating much of your time to Carrefour Pastoral de la Francophonie, a non-profit serving Francophone immigrants in New York. This organization is dedicated to strengthening ties between Francophones in Greater New York and to helping francophone immigrants in need. It has a spiritual, but also social, educational, cultural, and linguistic role, promoting Francophone culture in America and promoting dialogue among Americans, Francophones in the New York region and the international Francophone community. From the start, you connected deeply with this mission. Incidentally, it was your filming of a French-speaking choir in New York which led you gradually to this deep commitment to New York Francophones.
Serving as coordinator of Carrefour Pastoral for more than a decade, as well as a board member, a position which you continue to hold to this day, you provide tremendous service to the New York Francophone community, mostly of African and Haitian origin, bringing precious help, be it donations of clothes, food, help in finding employment or organizing community activities.
I might add that for years, you put aside your career as an artist, pouring your heart and soul into this organization. You fought to create a gathering place for people to meet over coffee after church service or during the annual Thanksgiving feast—first at Saint Vincent de Paul and then at the Church of Notre Dame, restoring and repainting its meeting room yourself.
In your generosity, you have always kept in mind how difficult it can be to come to a foreign country with few connections or resources, and you have worked to provide those connections and resources to predominantly Haitian and African immigrants. You have spent countless hours distributing food and clothing, providing assistance with paperwork and jobs, and organizing community events.
Despite the fact that you moved to a different continent, you have maintained your ties with Marseille, Brittany and Nantes, and you truly embody the ideal French and American artistic exchange. In Brittany, you continue to work with Minoterie21 in Peillac (Morbihan) which you founded in 2010, an initiative that invites selected French and international artists to design cabins which then exist dually as works of art and as retreats for reflection. And of course, for over 20 years, you have worked tirelessly to promote artistic exchange in France and internationally through Triangle France, and you have served as a critical resource for endeavoring artists.
You have maintained a strong presence in both the United States and France as an artist, as your work has been continuously exhibited in galleries and museums in both countries for thirty years. You also look to collaborate with American artists, such as when you participated in an exhibition with American artist Simon Lee at Smack Mellon Studios in 2001.
And even with all your artistic achievements, you have dedicated a great amount of time to non-profit work. For over ten years, you have tangibly enhanced the Francophone community in the United States through your work at Carrefour Pastoral de la Francophonie, and have done so with graceful generosity and genuine concern.
Indeed, you are immersed visually, artistically, spiritually and emotionally in humanity, both as an artist and as a human being, which for you are one and the same thing.
On behalf of the President of France, and in recognition of your exemplary commitment to the artistic exchange between France and the United States and your dedication to the international French-speaking community in the United States, it is a great privilege for me to bestow upon you the insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
Claire Lesteven-Williams, au nom du Président de la République, et en vertu des pouvoirs qui nous sont conférés, nous vous faisons Chevalier de l’Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur.
Image credit: Flandrine Raab