Pat Cleveland was born into a world where the boundary between art and life simply didn’t exist. The daughter of a jazz saxophonist father and an artist mother, the celebrated African-American painter Lady Bird Cleveland, her childhood in Harlem was spent in the company of creative souls. “I was painted from the day I was born: I guess that’s how I learnt to model – posing for my mother,” the supermodel-turned-artist tells AnOther over the phone from her home in rural New Jersey. “My mom would paint at the kitchen table and she would leave her watercolour water next to my glass of Kool-Aid. Sometimes I drank the paint water by mistake and she’d say, ‘Now it’s in your blood!’” she recalls with a giggle.
Cleveland herself had dreams of becoming a fashion designer and attended New York’s High School of Art and Design. “But then my career took me in another direction,” she explains, referring to the day when, aged 16, she was spotted by Vogue’s assistant fashion editor Carrie Donovan on a subway platform. Donovan was struck by Cleveland’s innate style and unique beauty, and invited her on a tour of the Vogue offices, resulting in a short feature on the young aspirant as an up-and-coming designer.
The article and its protagonist caught the attention of Ebony magazine, who cast Cleveland in their forthcoming fashion fair, a travelling runway show featuring African-American models. Thereafter, she decided to put her design dreams on hold and try her hand at a modelling, remaining resilient in the face of prejudice (she was famously told by her agent at Ford Models, “there is no work for coloured girls”) and rising through the ranks to become one of the most sought-after faces of the 1970s.
She became a firm favourite of countless designers, from Karl Lagerfeld to Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent, enlivening runways with her boundless energy, all the while gracing the covers of the world’s biggest fashion magazines and serving as a muse to Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí and fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez, among others. All throughout her fashion career, however, she continued to paint in private, and would “keep little sketchpads and drawing books” to doodle in while on the road. Now in her 60s, she has finally decided to focus on her art full time, exhibiting her arresting, kinetic colour studies in paint and collage for the first time this year.
Londoners have the chance to see two of her vibrant collages on display at Beers gallery’s newly opened group show, 75 Works on Paper, whereby 56 international artists, including figurative painter Andrew Salgado, Australian painter Dane Lovett and German visual artist Sandro Kopp, were invited to create new works on A4 paper. Cleveland rose to the occasion with the same boundless enthusiasm that she brought to the catwalk, producing two playful “metamorphoses” of herself. Here, to mark the opening of the show, we sit down with the effervescent creative to hear more about her practice, being drawn by Dalí and her iconic Antonio Lopez bubble bath shoot.
On rediscovering her own artistic talent...
“I started painting again in April of this year, and we had a one-man show here in America. Then I jumped at this opportunity at Beers, to just play with colours and come back to myself. My pieces for the show are kind of funny – a metamorphosis of myself as a clown and then as part of a nature still life. I created painted pieces of paper with beautiful colours to collage, and photographed some of them to use, and then I cut out a story like a little child. It took me back to my designing days cutting out dresses. I create very instinctively and really live in the canvas, and see what comes out. When I’m working, I don’t criticise myself even if I tear the paper or spill paint; it all means something. My art is the place where I can go, where I can be without fear in an increasingly tumultuous world, and do what I want to do. I believe that artists have to give you a way to get to your higher self.”
On a life spent surrounded by interesting people...
“My godmother was Madame Metcalf – Henrietta Metcalf, whose husband was Willard Metcalf, a very important painter. She was the lover of one of Alice B. Toklas’ girlfriends – there’s a book written about her. She was my thread through time to the 20s and 30s – she told me about them and it felt like I was there with her. I almost feel a sense of nostalgia for the time she spent in Paris with Gertrude Stein, Monet and Manet... like I know who they were through her. I think of her wearing her lavender perfume and her rubies, sitting at the old 1900s baby grand piano, surrounded by all her portraits of herself by her husband.
“Then later on, I loved making my own memories – knowing Andy and all the fashion illustrators like Antonio Lopez. People are in your life and you don’t think of them as anything else other than your buddies or people you hang out with – but they all had this energy that infected them, these lives filled with stories.”
On the iconic Antonio Lopez Polaroid shoot, taken in the bath...
“It was one of those things when you’re at home, playing around and you say, ‘Let’s go take pictures!’ I guess Antonio was inspired by water, and seeing faces surrounded by bubbles, so I just jumped in the bath with my little G-string on and bubbled my face out of the water, and he took the Polaroids. It was just very playful.”
On her favourite moment as a muse...
“Perhaps being drawn by Salvador Dalí. He would twirl his moustache and say, ‘Come in the other room, I want to do a drawing of you.’ And I thought, ‘Aha, he is an artist because he wants to see me in the nude.’ [Laughs.] Artists need models; they need to see the human body, which is the most beautiful thing.”
On what she learnt from the famous artists she met...
“They just work all the time. There’s not a minute when they’re not drawing on napkins or looking at you – thinking about the tone of colour in your skin. Now I find myself scribbling all the time and looking at people – at the tones in their hair – it just opens your eyes to the fact that inspiration is all around you.”
75 Works on Paper is at Beers gallery, London until December 23, 2017.