Robin Joy Riggsbee, an American miniaturist artist, was invited to exhibit at the Musée de la Toile de Jouy, September 4th through 25th, 2017. Her garments and fabrics, printed or handpainted on silk and embroidered with 14K gold, precious and semi-precious stones, vintage glass and vintage trims, were displayed next to pieces designed and manufactured in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Toile de Jouy factory. We asked her to tell us about her experience developing the show, “JOY IN JOUY.”
I am a miniaturist artist and have been told repeatedly that many of my hand drawn patterns resemble “Toile de Jouy” designs. No matter what medium, my love of immense detail, fine line, tiny patterns and characters are the core of my work. It’s a fun coincidence that my middle name is only one letter different from Jouy - my designs could be “Toile de Joy.”
Six years ago, I met Michel Pecou in New York City and told him of my dream to exhibit my work at the Musee de la Toile de Jouy. We stayed in touch and through a series of fortunate events, Michel met the Museum’s curator, Esclarmonde Monteil. In March 2017, he and a friend, Diane Franco, presented my work to the Museum. To my delight, it was accepted! Thus I found myself in France on July 26th, 2017 to prepare for an exhibit scheduled September 4th through 25th, and a two-day interactive event during the “Journées du Patrimoine” (open days during which all French museums are free to the public), September 15th and 16th.
Having never visited the museum, I found it difficult to choose what to bring to France. I have created a huge body of work ranging from couture using my hand painted or printed fabrics to books, paintings, dishes... Most important, how could I carry it all in my luggage (I did not want to ship overseas)? Since I have very purposely sold very few of my original art works, I had to select from 23 years of inventory. Would my selections be relevant to original Toile design? Would we manage to create a cohesive exhibit? How much space would I be given? It was a huge challenge. Worse, personal doubts were creeping in: Would they like my work?
I need not have worried. The moment I stepped into the museum, I realized that something was going on here so much greater than anything I could have imagined! I unpacked my huge suitcase, backpack and roller bag and presented each piece to the Esclarmonde, Diane and Michel. They seemed to love my work, but I still wondered about its relevance in relation to the pastoral scenes and chinoiserie designs most people think of as Toile…. Then we began our tour of the Museum.
As I learned about Toile de Jouy and its creator, Christophe Philippe Oberkampf, history came to life. I was awestruck by the sheer beauty of the pieces on exhibit. The technical difficulty required was staggering. I was overwhelmed by a sense of “déja-vu” and felt like a female
reincarnation of Oberkampf. I was surrounded by tiny little patterns, thousands of designs, some identical in motif to mine. My use of these patterns may be totally different and new, but I share common threads with every piece of fabric.
Oberkampf's love of fine detail requires the viewer to admire up close the intricacy of the designs. Though our work is separated by more than two centuries, I share his quest for perfectionism (and his tiny impeccable handwriting!) as well as the challenges of replicating these designs onto fabrics and other surfaces despite all the advances made in technology. To top it all off, I noted a certain leaf-shaped motif (with Oberkampf’s face at the center) that appears in Museum pamphlets, books, and even on the floor. This design motif is the exact shape of a series of tiny evening bags I had made out of a vintage organza dress, which I showed in the exhibit. Each time I discovered a new example of similarities, the chills ran up and down my spine!
A small miracle had taken place: Everything I had brought to France was relevant to the exhibit. I had instinctively made the right choices. To find that my designs are so completely Toile-like, yet totally new and different, was a huge relief.
Over the coming weeks, we prepared the exhibit using photographs, and on September 4th, Michel, Diane and I began working alongside the Museum staff to set up the show.
Everyone was so kind and helpful. To see my work come to life in this Museum, right next to designs by Oberkampf
and his artist, was intensely emotional. I was humbled yet honored by the privilege of having such a long-time dream become a reality. On my final walk through the Museum, alone, to make sure everything was as it should be, I was in tears. If only I could travel back in time to meet Monsieur Oberkampf, his artists and workers
and watch how they managed to produce such incredible works of art and the brilliant manufacturing process he pioneered!
On the two “Journées du Patrimoine” days, when the Museum was open to the public at no charge, we set up an interactive drawing event. Michel designed large sheets of paper to be printed with two small spaces for people to draw their own miniature designs. They could copy thumbnails of my drawings or create their own designs. I never use an eraser, so no erasers were available. We had ten people drawing alongside me throughout the day. The concentration was so intense you could hear a pin drop - and feel a certain magic in the air.
People tried on my goggles or looked through magnifying glasses. For me, the most touching moment was watching someone, child or adult, pick up the magnifying glass to look at my work, stare intently, suddenly smile as they discovered a detail they had not noticed, and realize that I had brought them joy. Somehow, people's hearts were touched; there was a such deep, heartfelt human connection. As I have said often, if my work can bring such joy to someone, if only for a moment, I will have fulfiled my life's purpose. It was this same joy I felt looking at Oberkampf's work for the very first time. I look forward to the day when every human being will know of this man’s work and the legacy he has created.
Robin Joy Riggsbee wishes to thank the Museum staff, Diane Franco and especially Michel Pecou for all their hard work in making her dream come true. “And a heartfelt thank you to Monsieur Oberkampf for having me there beside him, a privilege beyond my wildest dreams.”