An artist’s journey: The path to giving back

Danish artist Christel Ibsen’s love of sharing her talent for art motivated her to host a two-day seminar at the National Gallery last month on the artistic subject matter that she holds most dear – seascapes. The Journal sat down with the artist to learn about the fascinating path that led her to create some of Cayman’s most memorable and moving paintings.  

Christel Ibsen’s journey to becoming an accomplished artist has been anything but straightforward, but always surprising and intriguing. To begin her story, the native of Denmark looks back at her student days in the United States. 

When she was studying Greek at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1960s, Ibsen says, she was keen to remain in the States once her studies were completed. 

“I loved the United States, especially New York and didn’t want to leave,” she says. “By chance, at the Harvard-Yale football game I met a woman who gave me her card, saying that if I wanted to stay, to give her a call.” The woman turned was Eileen Ford, of the Ford Modeling Agency. 

Ibsen says she was initially against the idea of modeling as she had convinced herself to be a “serious Greek scholar,” but with an opportunity to obtain an American green card, she made eventually contact with Ford and became the face of Pepsi Generation’s European campaign.  

Fresh from her modeling success, Ibsen turned to photography, creating her own production company based in Paris. Outrévisions provided fashion commentary for the likes of People Magazine, Harpers Bazaar and Marie Claire. She created videos of fashion shows all over the world for such icons as Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld and Yves-Saint-Laurent.  

She also moved into the special events field, producing an event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Christian Dior, and culminating in working with the White House to organize a conference in Paris for international CEOs hosted by presidents Ronald Reagan and Francois Mitterrand.  

In 1996 Ibsen was honored at the White House by President Reagan with an award for her “exemplary leadership in development of International Private Sectors Initiatives.” 

After all the accolades, Ibsen’s life took a dramatic turn. 

“A year later I went deaf,” she says. 


Discovering art  

With the disability, Ibsen was unable to continue working and had to sell her company. She moved to New York with her husband and threw herself into decorating their home in Manhattan.  

“I really wanted to create a Roman villa theme in our apartment, but I had never painted before, so I joined an art class in fresco painting at the National Academy in New York City,” she recalls. “That year I participated in the annual students’ award exhibition. I had stumbled onto something I found genuinely exciting and rewarding.”  

Ibsen says she was particularly intrigued by the detail that decorative arts require.  

“For the next couple of years, I then learned complicated design techniques such as lacquer, casein, rhodochrosite and chinoiserie, marbling and gold at the Isabel O’Neil [Studio Workshop], an institute for the decorative arts in the Venetian style,” she says. “It took a while to learn these techniques, and in particular how to create the minute details and to achieve the sharpness required.” 

She spent the next few years successfully creating murals and furniture and “having lots of fun.” 

Ibsen then decided to paint her portrait, so she joined a portrait painting class at the National Academy in New York to learn this technique, honing her creativity in a more advanced direction. This new string to her bow helped her gain a wider skill set which she put to good use, eventually enjoying success with a variety of shows and exhibitions, such as at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman Gallery and the Kennedy Gallery in the Cayman Islands. 

Thanks to bilateral cochlear implants, Ibsen says she is now able to hear again and therefore communicate once more through sound. 


Giving back  

In 2012 Ibsen was asked to prepare the artwork for Cayman HospiceCare’s annual Christmas brochure. Inspired by the ability to combine her art with worthy causes, she decided while in New York last year to exhibit for a number of charities, including Operation Smile, which benefits children born with a cleft palate. Another show was devoted to Global Action, a UN-affiliate, which helps stop aggression against women worldwide.  

The ability to give back through art has become extremely important to Ibsen. 

“I’m so grateful for art,” she says. “It really saved my life. My deafness suddenly prevented me from properly communicating. “Painting has helped me become inclusive again. And it is therefore such a pleasure for me to use my art as a means to help others.” 

Ibsen spends her time between her homes in New York, Cayman and France. In its own way, each location helps her to create the artwork for which she has now become well known in the Cayman Islands: stunningly realistic seascapes, often with young children in the foreground. 

“When I have painted someone’s child, it is so rewarding to see how grateful and happy the parents are when I finally deliver the finished canvas,” she says.  

In New York, Ibsen says she starts her painting process by analyzing the hundreds of photos she has taken in recent months. She then chooses the storyline and motifs for her upcoming five or six shows that year. In Normandy, France, she takes the process a step further by creating the base for the paintings, drawing the motifs and adding the first layers of acrylic paint to her canvases. 

“In my French studio I have two huge, northern-facing rooms with enormous windows. This creates a light that is highly conducive to painting,” she says. 

But it is in Cayman where she finishes her paintings, the turquoise hues of the ocean creating the perfect backdrop for her creations. 

“The colors here are stunning and simply unique,” she says. “I may have begun my paintings elsewhere but I have to come to Cayman to complete them and do justice to the beauty of these islands.” 

Widening the knowledge base  

In her National Gallery seminar, for which Ibsen volunteers her time, students learn a variety skills, which Ibsen has amassed over the years. 

“I had offered to hold a seminar at the National Gallery for some time, and I’m so thankful that it has finally happened. I held the seminar in conjunction with my friend Judy Mir, who I also taught to paint. We covered aspects such as how to draw a motif on to the canvas, how to create the basic painting from acrylics, how to build and layer the painting using oils and glazes and, most important, how to know when the artwork is done,” Ibsen explains. “I taught the students that seascapes are comprised of three main components: the sea, the sand and the sky, and how each one reflects off of the other.” 

At the end of the class, she and Mir evaluated each student’s painting and shared some ideas for how they could move forward with their work. 

Ibsen says that the actual creative process is only part of the learning curve and that students also learned how to set up their workspace properly and even how to clean and maintain their brushes and spatulas. 

“Painting is a lot like cooking; prep work is extremely important,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I just wanted everyone to have fun creating as a group and be able to reach their own potential in the process.” 


Christel Ibsen, model in the 1960s