John Van Der Kolk

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If you’re a Coffs Coast local, you have almost certainly come across some of John Van Der Kolk’s work. A talented sculptor, John’s work is featured at the Jetty, and his sculpture of David Helfgott stands proud at Bellingen Council Chambers.


What first engaged your interest in the artistic world?

Both my parents were art conservators in Sydney, and I spent many after school hours in the back rooms of commercial galleries. I recall being particularly fascinated with some Norman Lindsay nudes that came in for repair; however, I suspect that being a 14-year-old boy may have influenced that interest.

The home I grew up in always seemed filled with family projects, with my mum painting and drawing, dad making furniture, my sister making clothes and painting murals, and my brother would be at a dozen unfinished things at once. The things that surround you when growing up just seem normal.

Tell us about your initial training in industrial design.

After leaving school, I completed a fairly uninspiring electrical apprenticeship. Then for a number of years after that, it was all about travelling and surfing. My girlfriend and I (now my wife) travelled through Europe, Africa and the Middle East, returning home to build up funds for the next trip.

On returning from a surfing trip to Africa, I picked up a casual job in a plastics engineering company that made prototypes for everything from aircraft and marine components to movie props. The product development section consisted of two elderly German master pattern makers. I was instantly bitten. I had never realised there was a trade so all encompassing, one that required a familiarity with so many different materials and a knowledge of how to manipulate them.

I needed to do this, so I took every opportunity to volunteer them my spare time. My obvious interest and constant pestering eventually paid off, and I was offered an apprenticeship.

How did you first begin sculpting?

My wife, Sue and I decided to settle in Coffs Harbour in 1990. I set up a small studio workshop and contract built patterns for a couple of companies I had worked with in Sydney. Much of this work involved high tolerance and detailed work in plastics. As a break from this type of work, my spare time was spent exploring more free form sculpture and more natural mediums such as wood and stone. It was a revelation not having to work within all those constraints, not needing to work from plans or being limited to specific materials, and more and more workshop time was spent making sculpture.

To justify the time and materials spent sculpting and to declutter my workshop, I needed to sell what I had made. At the time, selling sculpture meant only one thing. It would buy me the block of time required to make more sculpture. I started exhibiting with the MNC woodworkers and at the CHASE exhibitions in Coffs Harbour.

In 1995 I was offered a display space in an empty shop in the city centre mall. Two weeks after setting up this show, a gallery owner on holiday from Sydney saw the work and bought everything and asked for the first option on anything else I made. This relationship lasted for 12 years, until his gallery changed hands.

Who and what have been some of your major artistic influences?

My first major influence would have to be David Rae, the father of a friend. He was a brilliant figurative sculptor and worked as a model maker in the Australian Museum. I recall at about 15-years-old sneaking into his studio and being absolutely blown away. It was an ‘Aladdin’s cave’ of tools, materials and unfinished models and sculptures from floor to ceiling.

At the time, I was too in awe of him to impose myself. It wasn’t until years later that I spent time with him and told him that he was probably responsible for my career choice. He taught me that hard work and constant learning was as important in making art as any other pursuit and most importantly, that making mistakes was mandatory. Every piece has them; the more experienced you become, the better you get at recognising them.

As for being influenced by any particular artists or artworks, I couldn’t even begin – there are just too many and too much.

What are some of the major challenges that you face as an artist?

As with the vast majority of artists, I would have to say simply making a living from your art. I was lucky in the early years of having my trade to fall back on. To prepare for a solo show can often require many months of work while not bringing in an income, and there is never a guarantee that work will sell.

Deadlines for exhibitions always seem to be looming. Then there’s the time spent submitting proposals for public artworks or inclusion into exhibitions. At the same time, the challenges you place on yourself to experiment and evolve your work (come to think of it … it all sounds a bit daunting when I think about it). Nevertheless, you do it because you love it … cannot stop!

What keeps you motivated?

It really doesn’t take much. I look around my studio and see works in progress and unfinished experiments, shelves covered in found objects collected over the years for no good reason, old tools that fit comfortably in my hands and after all these years seem almost to know what is required of them, small mounds of sawdust collecting in hard to reach corners being used as a resource by mud wasps. Surrounded by all this tangible evidence, I’m constantly reminded how much I like doing this.

What have you been working on recently?

This year has been an unusual departure from my normal work routine. In August last year I was involved in a particularly nasty car accident on the Pacific Highway. While convalescing from a bunch of broken body parts, I won a contract for the largest public sculpture I had ever done (5 metres high and 3 tonnes of concrete and steel). It was too good an opportunity to turn down; so for the first time, I supervised its construction and installation.

My 19-year daughter, having just returned from a gap year overseas, was employed to construct the full size model and patterns that were to be supplied to the metal fabricators. She proved to be amazingly capable and competent through the whole process – even though she had no prior experience. The sculpture was installed in Port Maquarie two weeks ago.

What are some of the awards you have received?

Most artists have a love/hate relationship with awards and prizes. We all know that juried exhibitions are subjective and different judges will choose different pieces. It’s like saying, “That person plays cricket better than the other person plays golf”. Having said that, artists enter these shows for a couple of reasons. One: they can provide some much needed funds; and two: having your work chosen by a well respected judge seems to vindicate all your efforts.

Two achievements that I’m quite proud of are being invited to the Florence Biennalle in 2007 and winning the Lorenzo de Medici medal for sculpture, and in 2009 having a work included in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Wornik Collection.

Favourite quote or words to live by?

“No thrills for the cautious.”

Thanks John.


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