Interview with Jan Woodward for the Novelhovel Press, summer 2021
Q. Artist Norman Bluhm described the fusing or hybridisation of works between poet and artist as a “conversation” between disciplines. In what other ways would you describe the relationship between poetry and art and how has this affected your own art, if at all?
A. In his book “The awakening Artist” (1), gallery owner and artist Patrick Howe, explores the human madness and spiritual awakening in art and introduces his concept of “The One Art Movement”: “It is out of the source of all life that all Art and Art Movements have emerged…From this perspective all artists are united within the One Life that has created all human experience. This is the thread that unites them all. The One Art Movement included all art and every artist throughout the ages, including those of the present day, who have contributed their creativity consciously or unconsciously to the expression of the One Life” (p 36)
I can only support this concept wholeheartedly. As all young children sing, dance, draw and paint, making art apparently is high-wired into our brains.
I (re)discovered the whole spectrum of The Arts around the age of 13. Music contained a whole world I hadn’t been aware of. Between the lines of a poem stirred a vista I could have only dreamt of. So, I bought a cheap guitar and I learned to play “The house of the rising sun” and began writing my first songs and lines of poetry. I played in a couple of bands and finished a volume of poetry under the title “Aan de vooravond” (2)
Little did I know that this was all preparation to eventually becoming a visual artist. Around my 32nd birthday I received from a friend, an amateur artist, as a gift some brushes and some paint. “You just try a bit of painting”, he said, “it will do you good”. And so it did. It felt like coming home at last. Within nine months I had a small gallery show in Amsterdam and sold six of my paintings. I was ready to follow my passion. My voyage into painting had begun.
Strangely enough the process of creation didn’t feel much different from making a poem or composing a song. Whilst the expression differs, the drive of creating comes from the same eternal source. Poets get inspired by paintings. Choreographers and dancers would be non-existent without music. Composers get inspired by literature.
Most painters, including myself, have music on while at work in the studio. Nature as the great inspirer and the same pastoral longing that characterizes my poetry (and that of poets I admire) can be related to my visual work. I guess my background in photography helped in achieving a sense of composition, music in finding harmony and poetry in aiming for the lyrical aspect in painting.
Q. In Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Why I am not a Painter’ he attempts to show the cross-over in the process of creating visual or written word works. How, when he thinks of the colour orange, it ends up not featuring in his poem at all, like the artist who starts with a painting of sardines and ends with just letters as it was “too much”. Words start as image, image morphs into words. What do you think the sharing of the understanding and knowledge of the process of creating poetry or art can offer us?
A. Making Art compels us to explore ‘meaning’ in the broadest sense of the word and I believe that such explorations are directly linked to a healthy growth in consciousness, empathy and wisdom. The creating of a painting is deeply personal and highly universal at the same time. To a certain extent it is what defines me. It is a way to get a grip on life that, at its core, seems to me as elusive as an abstract painting.
To me, making art is trying to rediscover something that is missing, something in life that I feel is, or should be there but that remains, most of the time, just out of reach. Making art is like bringing a vision, laying dormant in the soul, to the light of day. In this way, all artists are mystics.
“The dreamers are the saviours of the world. As the visible world is sustained by the invisible, so men, through all their trials and sins and sordid vocations, are nourished by the beautiful visions of their solitary dreamers. Humanity cannot forget its dreamers; it cannot let their ideals fade and die; it lives in them; it knows them as the realities which it shall one day see and know. Composer, sculptor, painter, poet, prophet, sage, these are the makers of the afterworld, the architects of heaven. The world is beautiful because they have lived; without them, labouring humanity would perish.”
– James Allen (3)
Q. The New York School offered us Abstract Expressionism and Lyrical Abstraction and there has been much debate around the term and execution of Lyrical Abstraction. In 1947 the French artist Georges Mathieu (1921-2012) tried to explain the difference between Lyrical Abstraction and Abstract Expressionism: a) Primacy of speed and execution: speed prevails to avoid consciousness of the artist. b)No pre-existing shapes: the painter must not rely on any reference at all. c) No premeditated moves from the artist: painting is not a cognitive process. d) Ecstatic state of mind of the artist: isolation and concentration of the artist helps release. Do you agree with any of these or how would you describe the difference between the two?
A. In broad lines I agree with Georges Mathieu although speed is not of the essence. However, I work in short, intense bursts of activity, after which I might contemplate the results for sometimes up to an hour or even longer, trying to figure out how to move on. This is not a cognitive process. I never make sketches. I don’t sit around waiting for brilliant ideas. Everything happens in the process of painting. But just this thoughtless watching and waiting is as much a part of the process as the painting action itself. Solitude is necessary to experience deep concentration and stillness and always suddenly, out of nowhere, a solution how to go on arises.
I don’t see much difference between Abstract Expressionism and Lyrical Abstraction. They are just categories made up by art critics. Rothko can as easily be categorized as an Abstract Expressionist as well as a Lyrical Abstractionist. The same goes for de Kooning and the action painting of Pollock. I merely choose the term lyrical abstraction for my own work because of its connotation with poetry, music and beauty.
Q. How has music and poetry impacted on your art? How important are the titles of your work in bringing words alongside the visual?
A. “For real musicians there is a spiritual component to what they do thats got nothing to do with worldly success. Their music is much more of an inner journey. Any other success is just frosting on the cake. There is the idea you can go on American idol and suddenly become a star, but if you bypass that spiritual work your success will be wafer thin.”
– Sting speaking in the documentary “Twenty Feet from Stardom” (4)
As music is the most abstract of all arts and music was my first love, it is quite logical that abstract painting has always attracted me most. Some have compared my paintings to musical symphonies in colour. Ambient music in particular is mostly what I listen to when at work.
The genre is said to evoke an “atmospheric”, “visual” or “unobtrusive” quality. It was presaged by Erik Satie’s furniture music but was prominently named and popularized by the British musician Brian Eno in 1978. His album “The plateaux of mirror” (5) in collaboration with Harold Budd always inspires to transcend me into a serene and concentrated state of mind that is very helpful when painting.
Titles are important. In the 1990’s I visited The museum of Art in The Hague and came across de Kooning’s painting “Rosy fingered dawn at Louse Point”. It blew me away. And when I read the title of the painting the work completely opened up to me and deepened the lyrical depth that I already suspected was there. The title lifted a very good painting to a great one. The flat surface of the painting suddenly transformed into a 3-dimension- al landscape, creating the sensation of being in a place I’d never visited before.
In 2014 the last one of the three dogs that accompanied me for years died at the age of 15.
It was as if an era had ended. I couldn’t paint for some time.
To find solace I read again the simple, beautiful poem “Dode hond” (Dead dog) by one of my favourite Dutch poets Rutger Kopland:
I let the dog die – there she lay
and I thought: where is she going now, where will she stay.
To understand death.
The body is sometimes seen as a nest the temporary dwelling of an invisible bird – an envoy of eternity.
I don’t see it that way. And yet when the dog died what was it that I knew she was dying
as if her body was being vacated by something.
I can’t see it another way, this dead dog
is still alive and asking for me, the memory is that strong, stronger than I.
But what loved me is gone, I dig a hole lay what is left in it and fill it up.
The dog is nowhere, every day. (6)
In that last, simple line all the sorrow I felt is captured. When I did start painting again, I was accompanied by a new sense of loss. After I finished the new canvas, I had the strange sensation there had to be something of the deceased dogs in that painting. (…the memory is that strong, stronger than I.)
Searching for a title, I remembered an evening, years before, while out walking the dogs in an unknown stretch of forest, where we found a special place with a pond and great pine trees and wind and silence and rabbits and deer, a dog’s paradise…
If I could go back in time I would like to be there, just one more time, during that blessed summer evening in the forest with all three of them by my side.
So there it manifested, my quite poetic title:
“To walk with you by the pond in the twilight just one more time.”
Q. Could you tell us a little about your views on abstraction versus form and the internal force in the conception of your work.
A. Total abstraction doesn’t exist. You can’t go beyond Mondrian. An empty canvas is not a painting. There’s always some kind of form although not or hardly traceable to visual reality. Abstract painting is not about ideas. It is about visions, dreams, misty archetypes, intuitive sensations, sorrow, joy and other poetic soul stuff we all share but most of the time can’t express for the lack of words. All art materializes from a source which drives the same force that makes trees grow, makes painters paint, poets write poems, whales swim, roses bloom, planets turn and galaxies swirl. So as an artist you are not so much a maker but rather an instrument driven by something far greater than yourself. Talent might be the ability to connect with this source and convert and express it in your own, unique way in whatever form of Art.
“Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purpose through him. As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is “man” in a higher sense— he is “collective man”— one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic forms of mankind.”
– Carl Jung (7)
The way I make art is not something you can learn like, say, a computer program. It’s much more intuitive, and it can be confronting, even very frustrating at times. Time and time again I have to find my own personal translation from soul to vision to matter and make it universal. Not that there is much of Me involved in the creative process, come to think of it. Material Me has to be present to handle the paint and the brushes. But the conscious, thinking Me, Ego Me, better keeps a low profile when the painting is in the making. I always have cherished the idea of being like an open window through which the great spirit of creation comes flying in and does it’s work.
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
– Albert Einstein
- Patrick Howe, “The awakening artist” / Madness and Spiritual Awakening in Art John Hunt Publishing; Illustrated edition (16-08-2013) / ISBN-1780996454
- Eelco Maan, “Aan de vooravond” / Gedichten / Free Musketeers (27-04-2010) ISBN-9789048412051 / Translation: “On the Eve” / America Star Books (February 13, 2015) ISBN 978-1681221588
- James Allen, “As a man thinketh” / 1903 / Chartwell Books Inc.,U.S. (26-10-2015) ISBN-978-0785833512
- Sting (Gordon Sumner) speaking in the documentary “Twenty feet from stardom” at 1:11:00 2013 / American documentary film directed by Morgan Neville / produced by Gil Friesen
- Ambient 2: “The Plateaux of Mirror”, Brian Eno, Harold Budd, 1980
- Rutger Kopland, “Dode hond”, Verzamelde Gedichten / Uitgever: Uitgeverij G.A. van Oorschot,
Amsterdam, 2007 / Translation: J. Brockway and W. Groenewegen / Waxwing, Dublin, 2005
- Carl Jung, “Psychology and literature”, Modern man in search of a soul (page 169) Routledge, 2014 / ISBN 9781135549480