John Van der Kolk is a sculptor who creates intriguing and unusal original works. Focus sat down for a cup of tea at his amazing studio in Woolgoolga to find out more about what it takes to follow the path of an artistic life.
What is your connection to the Coffs Coast?
My girlfriend (now wife) Sue and I backpacked overseas a fair bit when we were young; when time came to settle down, it was always going to be in Australia somewhere. So we travelled Australia looking for a place to live, and decided Coffs Harbour was it. We’ve been here nearly 30 years now and never once regretted that decision.
Could you briefly describe how you became involved in visual arts?
The things that surround you when growing up establish your benchmark for “normal”. I grew up in a home where everyone was always involved in hobbies and projects of some sort, music, drawing and making things.
A big early influence was my brother and sister (9 and 11 years older than me).
My brother, ever practical, could make just about anything from scratch – telescopes, scuba gear, explosives – he always had three or four projects on the boil.
My sister was the more emotional one, expressing herself in murals and music.
I recall both of them deriving such pleasure from making things. The result never seemed as important as the journey or simply the process of just creating.
Can you briefly describe your current project?
At the moment I’m preparing for a large collaborative sculpture project in Kathmandu in a few weeks’ time.
This particular project involves getting 25 sculptors from 20 different countries to work on a single piece over a four week period (which is then gifted to the city).
Sounds like a catastrophe waiting to happen, doesn’t it? But I’ve been involved in similar projects in China and Turkey over the last two years, and they have been amazing fun, chaotic and inspirational experiences.
Where did the inspiration for this work originate?
As you can imagine, the inspiration for a project like this is an odd fluid process. It’s great big fun experiencing creativity as an extreme sport.
So, how it works is that most of the participants are introduced to each other on social media a few weeks prior to the project.
Initial introductions are made and a few tentative ideas and sketches are presented, and some diplomatic opinions are offered.
After about a week or two, it generally turns into a free for all, with a constant flow of scribbles, sketches and ideas. Robust and scathing critiques are volunteered and delicate egos stomped on.
So by the time we are actually meet on site, we have reached absolutely no consensus on what to make.
We have, however, a much better understanding of our various styles, and different approaches to sculpture. We have learned how to navigate around each other’s cultures without causing an international incident and most importantly, we have become hard and fast friends.
Art, it seems, does not cause war.
(Welcome to my tribe.)
As an artist, how would you describe your style and approach to a subject?
A tough question for me. I have always loved experimenting with different materials, so subject matter and style often depend on the medium and how it can be manipulated.
Sculpture generally doesn’t allow for much spontaneity; it needs consideration and planning. My background in industrial design has been a great advantage in understanding this.
The difficulty is never quite knowing when the design hat is off and the art hat is on.
What artists have do you admire and draw influence from?
There are too many to mention. Some artists can still be an influence by their sheer technical skills, even though I don’t connect with their work, and some outsider artists, unencumbered by art training of any sort, can be a total delight.
I mostly admire artists that I associate and work with … The dedicated few who have committed themselves to their practice despite the difficulties.
You also work as a teacher; can you tell us a bit about that?
Most of my teaching involves short courses and workshops in process and technique. Wood carving, casting, mould making and the use of various tools and materials etc.
I teach occasionally at TAFE for Visual Arts and Furniture Design at Coffs Harbour Campus and some local weekend workshops. Teaching also allows me a bit of travel, and this year I have two workshops in New Zealand and Hawaii.
If you could live anywhere in the world to experience a specific period of art, which would you choose and why?
I exhibited at the Florence Biennale in 2007 and came to realise that the great art produced during the Renaissance was due to a culture of patronage.
I’d like to experience any period or part of the world where making art is considered a legitimate career choice; you know – like a plumber or stock trader or a DJ.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering taking up art either as a profession or a hobby?
Advice for taking up art as a hobby? Sure. Have fun, practice, experiment, make mistakes, practice, be curious and play … Did I mention practice!
And for those considering art as a profession … All of the above, plus practice.
Art is just another language, like music or German. If you wish to express yourself, then be proficient in the vocabulary (the craft).