Mels Dees & Mariëlle van den Bergh

Messages from the art world

Petrified terror

On the way to and from our 2023 residency in Finland, we drove through Poland and the Baltic countries. Almost everywhere the tension of the neighbouring war could be felt. The roads to Ukraine were rutted by heavy traffic of trucks and armoured vehicles, and sometimes we ran into military convoys. Often we were within just a few hundred kilometres from the Russian border – as was the location of our residency, Posio.

The tense feeling of a war going on nearby intensified the shock we felt on our return journey, at the discovery of a museum that was both fascinating and incredibly morbid: The Corner House in Riga, Latvia.
We found it more or less by accident, and at first we were not allowed to enter.  It was June 14, the day the Latvians and other Baltic countries commemorate the thousands of citizens deported to Siberia by the Soviet occupiers almost 80 years ago. There was a television crew in and around the building, making a memorial program.
In the afternoon, some visitors, including us, were allowed in and given a tour.

The Corner House in Riga, Latvia

The Corner House is a Jugendstil edifice, built to house shops, offices and apartments – like many of the elegant monuments you can find in the pretty center of Riga. But during the Russian Occupation (1940-’41 and from 1944 to 1991) the pretty building served as the headquarters of the KGB. Between 1941 and 1944 it was used by different Nazi groups.

After the restoration of Latvia’s independence in 1991, the Corner House was turned into a Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The extraordinary thing is that nothing in the building was changed since the moment the KGB left – or at least very little. And the tour, directed by a former prisoner, told us a grim story about years of oppression, torture and executions.

We had joined the tour innocently, my curiosity being more or less focused on the historical and artistical value of the building. From the year we had participated in the 2016 Kohila Art Symposium in Estonia, I had become intrigued by the – impressive, but rather arrogant – Prussian architecture that dominated the Baltic before the revolutions of the early 1900’s. The monumental Estonian music school in which we were housed in 2016, had been Arvo Pärt’s alma mater.

From the outside, the Corner House fits its classification as art nouveau monument. Inside, however, it looks like a meticulously built model of hell.
Every room, every piece of furniture has been used to humiliate and degrade human beings. Every surface, every object is broken, soiled, smudged by the overpopulation of terrorized prisoners.
It is clear that the only function of the doors in the building was to keep them locked in – they are dented by decades of successive bolts and latches. Unavoidable repairs were made using only the cheapest materials and scrap iron. Everything is dirty, cracked and literally worn to the bone.


Even the graffiti was obliterated to prevent communication between the inmates. I did not know how to react to this hateful, terror-stricken environment. The tour leader related the history of the place, recounting anecdotes from his own experience. He made desperate jokes. He tried to involve the group of tourists by locking them up in a cell for a few minutes.
But they had to do without me, I know what it is like to be locked up. I had to look at the others through the one-way mirror in the adjoining room.
I felt terrified and completely alienated and the only thing I could do was take more and more photographs.

But I am not interested at all in becoming the author of pictures of hell. I always feel that I am not a photographer – Yes, of course, as an artist I use images. But mostly, I use images to get them out of my way, out of my mind.

[Images – I find them everywhere: on the internet, in my camera, in books and papers and yes: on the street, I don’t care.
Once, I accidentally found a strip of negatives taken in Surinam, lying on the street in front of my studio. Within hours they were converted into central elements of the installation on South-America I was working on.]

When I review the pictures I took in The Corner House, the surface of the floors, walls and ceilings seem to me fundamental. They are like the scans of volcanic fields I pictured in Iceland, using a drone, like the memories of country paths in Afghanistan, worn-down walls in India.
Pictures that turn out incredibly detailed and hugely interesting, even threatening, but so remote and unearthly that it is impossible to establish a relation with them.

To show that world, we have to change the nature of the image itself: no longer to represent a hole in  the wall, a window to look out of  – but to construct a cage, a diving bell, a uniform.

What else can you do with these pictures? Images encircling cruelty, betrayal, boredom, guilt, poverty and indifference. Images of walls with the impact of execution bullits.
And perhaps the most depressing picture of all: the photograph of the postbox installed at the entrance of the KGB office, in a place where nobody could be observed.
An anonymous brown box, with a narrow slit to insert letters informing on your fellow men, neighbours, family…

Our connections with Iceland – a short resumé

Mels Dees, Januari 2023

2017: Travelling through the Iceland winter landscape (between  Seyðisfjörður and Egilsstaðir)

In 2017, the year we started this site (, Iceland had been on both our minds for years.
Mariëlle had Icelandic friends and acquaintances from her time at the Jan van Eyck Academy (NL), I had been attracted to the country as a spectacular habitat, had followed Sigurður Guðmundsson’swork from the early 70’s and had met Icelanders at EKWC. And we both had a residency at CEAC, Chinese European Art Centre in China, founded by Ineke Guðmundsson.
So it felt quite logical to apply for a residency at SÍM, an organisation that manages artists’ residencies in downtown Reykjavik, in Korpúlfsstaðir (just north of Reykjavik) and – surprisingly – in Berlin.
We got a place at Korpúlfsstaðir in 2017, at the end of the winter, and decided to go by car and ferry from Denmark (Hirtshals), via the Faroe Islands. It does take some time (about two days and nights), but it is great fun and it certainly makes you aware that you are far, far away from almost everywhere else. Our son Quirijn joined us on the boat trip, but had to fly back (to his music school in Holland) soon after our arrival in Reykjavik.

2017: Q and M on the fairly deserted winter ferry to Iceland, passing the spectacular Faroe Islands

2017: Find our Seyðisfjörður cottage in this picture (it’s the second from the right)

2017: Korpúlfsstaðir at night and our studios there

2017: Mariëlle and Svanborg Matthíasdóttir & Pálína Guðmundsdóttir, Joris Rademaker  and Mels

The 2017 residency was a great success, with Mariëlle painting some impressive landscapes on paper and me experimenting with drone photography and bookbinding using local DIY materials. But – perhaps  most of all – we enjoyed the company of our Icelandic colleagues. They were not only helpful, but also extraordinarily talented. We were amazed to see that they sometimes had to work one or two jobs (Iceland is a very expensive place) and were still able to make exquisite work.
So, when we were back in the Netherlands, we started to think about organising an exhibition by our Icelandic friends in Holland. We had good connections with the people at KEG – an artist-run venue in Schijndel, just north of Eindhoven, with a beautiful ‘white room’ exhibition space and very open-minded curators.

2018: Pictures from the exhibition Frá Íslandi at KEG, Schijndel

2018: Invitation and DVD print

Thanks to the people at KEG (Jan!), the exhibition Frá Íslandi (2018) boasted an impressive catalogue with DVD, beside featuring well-known Icelandic artists like Sigurður Guðmundsson, Georg Guðni Hauksson, Thorvaldur Thornsteinsson and Magnús Pálsson.  At the opening, people came not only from Iceland, but also from Barcelona and Brussels. At times it seemed like an international Jan van Eyck and AKI reunion. Even some local papers took note of the event.

In the meantime, we still had not really seen Iceland. That is: when we were there, everything had been hidden by snow. The landscape was there, with lots of aurora borealis, but most of it was mostly covered with ‘white paint’.
Also, the weather (horrendous storms, literally blowing the tarmac off the road) made it pretty hard to wander around and see places.

For more about our 2017 residency click on the item (in small red lettering) at the end of this series of blogs. Scroll down to the bottom and select “IJSLAND -SIM”.

2017: Aurora in Korpúlfsstaðir

2022: Iceland Revisited – the Artak Residency

Travelling around, staying at Grundarfjördur and a show in Reykjavik

Mels Dees, Januari 2023

2023: Iceland – the incredibly scenic landscape

So yes, we wanted to go back. This time we also wanted to look for the wild places and stay away from Reykjavik and Akureyri a bit. And in May 2022, we discovered that a month’s residency (August) on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula on the West Coast had unexpectedly become available on In 2017 we had already visited the area. So we applied for all we were worth and we got in.
The plan was to drive slowly through Germany and Denmark, visit old and new friends, views and museums, take the ferry from Hirtshals to Iceland and continue in the same leisurely way to the ARTAK Residency at Grundarfjörður.

The Clay Keramikmuseum

And that’s what we did – even after Mariëlle went down with a mild bout of Covid just before we left.
On the road, we found sunny beaches, old towns and new museums. We visited an old Icelandic friend (Iris Friðriksdóttir) in Sønderborg (Denmark), who was teaching there at an incredibly advanced and well-equipped public art school. We also stopped by the International Ceramic Research Centre Guldagergaard, an artists’ residency in Skælskor, where we had worked several times and where we met again with a Turkish ceramist friend, Gizem Altundal, while she was connecting to the European way of creating art and ceramics.
We visited the Clay Keramikmuseum in Middelfart, Denmark and of course one of our favorites: the AROS art museum  in Århus. All in all, this was turning into such an interesting trip, that I decided to make my photographic and written diary into the source of my ARTAK project.

Two pages from the diary

Similarly, just before we went to Iceland, Mariëlle had read about the fact that Dutch farmers had to pay to have the wool from their sheep destroyed. Nobody wants it anymore – people in the West prefer cheap synthetic textile products made in low-wage countries. Mariëlle was shocked, of course. Not only because she was trained as a textile artist, but because a valuable raw material is senselessly wasted. So she dumped her plan to paint the Icelandic landscape, and decided to focus on wool, using Icelandic wool in natural colours and dyed with natural products, like lichen, berries, leaves, bark and roots.

In Iceland, wool still is a valued product

Still, our goal remained Iceland itself. For any artist interested in the interaction between Man and Nature, Iceland can be a laboratory, a school, a playground or a home. For us, it was all of that.

There is no way around the country’s  impressive natural beauty and the imposing conditions of its weather, mountains and seascapes. However, if you restrict yourself to recording those, you risk ending with visual platitudes and semi-touristic imagery. The solution is not to jump to conclusions and keep your eyes open.

Mels + Ferry @ Seyðisfjörður

Travelling by boat from Europe, you arrive at Seyðisfjörður on the east coast. In wintertime, it is a rather forbidding place (see above) – but now we travelled effortlessly to the south, where we visited the Red Snowball show in Djúpivogur and  saw Sigurður Guðmundsson’s wonderful work  Eggin í GleðivÍk, the Eggs at Merry Bay, a row of huge sea fowl eggs in polished stone, fringeing the harbour.

Sigurður Guðmundsson’s eggs along the Djúpivogur harbour

After that we spent a few days visiting some of the famous sites of Iceland, like the Dettifoss falls, Mývatn lake and the geological formations around it. We were surprised how crowded they were – over the past few years, tourists have truly discovered Iceland and it was obvious that there were a lot of fugitives from overheated countries in the South of Europe.

Dettifoss falls (mark the size of the viewers)

Mariëlle, Mývatn Geothermal Area

One of the enormous (pseudo) craters around Lake Mývatn

After that we turned north towards Akureyri, where we met with Arna Valsdóttir, Steini Thorsson, Pálína Guðmundsdóttir and Joris Rademaker. And again we were lucky, because the lovely Akureyri Art Museum’s studio for visiting artists was momentarily unused and we could stay there for a few days – pure luxury. I fished a bit in the harbour, and we visited Steini Thorsson’s ‘Einkasafnið’, his hermitage in the nearby mountains. We had been told about it before in Holland and we were impressed by its rigorous simplicity and honesty. See it on his Facebook page (

Steini in his retreat

From Akureyri we took the northern route to Arnarstapi, on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It is an old fishing village. Svanborg Matthíasdóttir’s family bought a cottage there, which they have been restoring for years, if not decades. We were invited to stay in the house, which was in a pleasant state of disarray. Mariëlle and Svanborg spent some days painting and drawing and we explored the mountains and the wild Snæfellsnes coast.

Svanborg and Mariëlle doing some plein-air painting

On the first of August we drove to Grundarfjördur and found the ARTAK apartment, close to the harbour. Neither the town, nor the building was very romantic – a fishing port in our time is an industrial site like another, smelling of gasoline rather than fish. Actually, it is hard even to see fish in Grundarfjördur: the catch is cleaned, processed, packed and frozen on board of the ship, and from the harbour it is whisked away to other destinations in giant trucks. But the scenery around it was something else, including a few impressive Fosses (waterfalls) and Kirkjufell, a quaint, famous mountain.

Liston in his studio in Grundarfjördur harbour

As you may expect in out-of-the-way places like Grundarfjördur, you meet unexpected characters there. One of them was Liston, a sympathetic, bearded fellow-artist who creates an extensive array of sculptures in wood, volcanic rock and other materials. He has his studio/gallery in one of the huge buildings in the harbour area. He was very sympathetic and helpful, and his works were quite expressive of Snaefellsnes and Iceland.

Helen and Mykola with a present made by compatriota Olga in the Netherlands

And then, surprisingly, there were a couple of Ukrainian artists in the village! Helen Shepytska and Mykola Kravets from @dyvyna décor events had been introduced by Thora Karlsdóttir, the initiator of the ARTAK residency. Thora had met them in Turkey, just after the invasion of Ukraine. She helped them to get to Iceland, and to get support from the municipality of the village. They were quite used to live and work abroad, as they specialized in creating environments and decors for events and celebrations. We invited them for dinner, and were impressed by their resourcefulness and tough artistic attitude.

The ARTAK studio in Grundarfjördur

We worked at the comfortable studio in Grundarfjördur for about two weeks, Mariëlle experimenting with different kinds and colours of wool, some of which she bought from a sheep owner and knitter in Stykkishólmur, a fishing town further down the coast. She has 9 sheep, and the wool was packed in small bags with the producer’s name on it. We got a lively report on their characteristics and temperament as well. Mariëlle used the wool to felt over the rough shapes of volcanic stones, sometimes in the middle of the wild nature around us. I worked on the book I had planned – Progress was to be the (ironic) title. Sometimes I started from a short text I wrote, at other times I used pictures I had taken as a starting point.

Another spread from Progress

After that, we drove to Keflavik Airport, south of Reykjavik – a car is almost a must in Iceland: the Ukrainians often slept in it to avoid expensive hotels. At the airport we picked up our son Quirijn, who accompanied us on residencies since he was a baby. He came on a short holiday from his art school in Belgium and to check out if Iceland would be a good place to work and exhibit.
 In Reykjavik we also visited Pixel Prentþjónusta, the printer of the Progress booklet. While we were in the capital, we stayed at SIM’s guesthouse, a perfect place for artists and curators to stay; it is apart from the Reykjavik and Korpúlfsstaðir studios, in a historical building in the centre of Reykjavik.

Reykjavik: Thora Karlsdóttir, M&Q @ Harpa (also see the 2017 blog)

During his stay at Grundarfjördur, Quirijn had made a video of Mariëlle felting by the side of a brook – which of course was very cold, so she brought her own hot water for the felting. I took pictures with my drone. The film “Felting on the Rocks” will be on show, together with the actual textile work in summer 2023 during the 7th RIGA International Textile and Fibre Triennial, Latvia.

Mariëlle felting ( a still from  Felting on the Rocks)

At the end of our residency, we had an exhibition at ARTAK 105 gallery, a small but sympathetic venue close to the Reykjavik Academy. We were to be present during the opening hours for a few days –  no problem, because a lot of friends stopped by, as did quite a few passers-by. Modern visual art seems to be a lot closer to the general public in Iceland than it is in most other Western countries. Or is it that they are less jaded and more curious?

Exhibition at ARTAK 105, Reyjavik


Mariëlle van den Bergh / Mels Dees – September 2022

Making Art as a Consolation and a Therapy

Almost immediately after the Russian attack on Ukraine, we started offering Art Workshops to Ukrainian refugees that were housed in our city and neighbourhood. To avoid organisational problems and bickering about subsidies, we just started, unpaid, in the reception hall of a Refugee Centre in Eindhoven, using junk and recycled raw materials. From time to time we slipped in some paint, paper and other stuff from our studios.
Over the past four or five months, the workshops have become a great success, and they still attract a growing number of participants, even from other (refugee) locations in Holland.

Doing this kind of workshops is not really new to us. We organised similar events before, from Amsterdam to Saint Petersburg (see below)  and Tasmania – in schools as well as on the streets.
What we do? In many cases we just offer materials – like scraps of building foam, bits of tree bark or textile – and we fire the participants’ enthusiasm by giving unexpected instructions. Like ‘construct a bike for an alien’ or ‘do a fish on six legs’. On other occasions, the emphasis may be centred on artistic, technical or composition issues.

What helped, is that we have both been working  in education, and that both of us maintain an artist’s practice involving widely divergent materials and techniques. We share a passion for ceramics, Marielle combining it with paper and textiles (but she’s a pretty good welder too) and Mels’ work includes wood sculpture, graphic art and (digital) photography.
At our studios (Ateliers Patagonia) we have several ceramic kilns and lots of tools and machines at our disposal. They just make things easier.

After Russia attacked Ukraine, we just wanted to help in one way or another. But around us there already were people collecting clothes, blankets, sanitary napkins and other necessities of life. Even housing and furniture were put at the refugees’ disposal. Then we started to wonder what their life looked like. Just imagine: there you are, in a foreign country, with nothing but a small suitcase, a mobile phone and maybe a dog or a cat on a line. It’s hard to make yourself understood, and the phone can only transmit the fighting, suffering and destruction at home.

We imagined that the women (most Ukrainian men were not allowed to leave the country) would need to do something. Using your hands might help to focus their thoughts on something positive, especially if you do it together with fellow refugees or your children. But we were not thinking of simple handicrafts as an exercise: the result should be something meaningful, and if possible useful.

Already at the first workshop, the participants surprised us with their determination and energy. With only  the barest of instructions, they  all went to work immediately. The Ukrainians’ mentality made us think of what is said of Dutch harbour workers: “Stop talking, just get the job done”.  The first workshop was an introduction as well as a kind of test: we made paper lamp shades in Mariëlle’s (rather complicated) Chinese-paper-and-pulp-cane technique. The ‘girls’ did very well and now the hanging lamps are a feature of the communal sitting room.

The next time we tried felting: an attractive technique using the simplest of materials: (coloured) wool, water and soap. The group made a nice tapestry with animals, but they seemed to long for a bigger challenge. The following workshop we worked with clay, to create ceramic vases which could (hopefully) be sold on the King’s Day Market a week later. The shapes were modelled using existing vases and other forms, but first they had to be bisque fired at our studio.
We invited the participants to come to our place to do a glazing workshop. Of course they were also given a tour of the five artist’s studios at Ateliers Patagonia. The results of the glazing firing were quite good, and some pieces were actually sold on the King’s Market.

By now, the workshop location shifted from time to time. At the Van Abbehuis, where Ateliers Patagonia had a group exhibition, we organised ‘Ecofun’. It was a session in the gallery’s sunny garden, with the aim to create artworks from trash and residual materials. A whole series of very special pieces were made, which featured in a short exhibition at the gallery.

A far more ambitious project was the Racing Car. Mariëlle and I got hold of a few huge sheets of corrugated cardboard. As the name of Max Verstappen was virtually unknown among the Ukrainians, Mariëlle used a tiny Dinky Toy model to make clear what the assignment was going to be: a ‘lifesize’ racing monster. With a lot of discussions and communal effort the group (including a growing number of children) managed to create a very credible racing car, painted in Ukrainian blue and gold. The machine was called the Stefania, after the winning Ukrainian song of the European Song Festival and we hung it in a central spot of the reception hall. Later the workshop’s name as well became the Art Group Stefania.

The Insect Hotel was another workshop children could take an active part in. None of the participants had ever heard about it, but it seemed like a good idea in the urban high-tech environment of Eindhoven. A small ‘cupboard’ with various materials, in which wild bees, bumblebees and other endangered insects can lay their eggs and propagate. The ideal materials for insect hotels are things like scrap wood and natural materials you can find in the wood. In the beginning we thought of trying to sell them, but at the end of the workshop most of the participating ladies liked them so much that that they wanted to install them around the refugee centre – or even, at some unknown point in the future – at home, in Ukraine.

Wild Animals. This carnivalesque theme was based on a workshop we once did in Amsterdam: the participants paint each others’ faces to mimic ‘wild animals’ and put on animal costumes. Then they are photographed in front of a large backdrop depicting a jungle landscape. Using an inkjet transfer the picture is ironed onto a T-shirt, which may further be decorated with textile markers. Great fun!

Drypoint is a printmaking method that involves scratching an image into an (acrylic) plate with a pointed tool and then print it on paper in the way etchings are printed. It is a great introduction to graphic techniques. You can also use shaped or deformed plates to emphasize the image. It is impossible to print large editions – the acrylic is too soft for that and it wears down after a few prints. But everybody will be enthralled by the magic of printing. In our studios we could use a good etching press, rag paper and printing inks.

One of the last workshops before summer was developed on the basis of an attic find: an number of small display boxes. The participants – mostly children, this time – had to act as a curator and create a small exhibition, using various natural objects and materials, like stones, animal skulls, shells and a shark egg. They also had to tell the accompanying story, of course. Using our mobile phones, it was translated from Ukrainian to English or Dutch.

As we were planning a stay at Artak Residency in Iceland during August and September 2022, we wondered if and how to proceed with the workshops. The future of the war was impossible to predict, but by now the workshops seemed to be an indispensable part of the Ukrainians’ and our life. We hardly could ask another artist to take over, considering the amount of time and effort it took us – we could not even think of anyone. So we decided to hand over the workshops to ‘the girls’ themselves. They were competent, energetic and enthusiastic enough, we thought.

And they had already contributed ideas and found materials to the workshop themselves, such as a discarded pile of large flooring tiles. These were used summarily by the participants to create glaze paintings, which were fired in the kilns at Ateliers Patagonia.
We decided to make a number of boxes containing widely different materials, with (or without) clues or suggestions what to do with them – about one ‘bomb’ full of materials and ideas for each week we would be away. Hoping that, on our return, we could continue the course.
Also, by the end of July, Mariëlle had contracted Covid-19, interrupting the weekly workshops. Fortunately she had no fever or serious symptoms, and after about two weeks she tested negative again. But she regained her usual energy level only slowly, so it was a good thing we could travel at leisure to the Danish port of Hirtshals, where we took  the ferry to Iceland.

A report on our Iceland residency will follow…



Mels Dees, March 2022

Stipendium CODA Keramiek Triënnale 2021

If you go on a residency as an artist, it’s usually because you hope to encounter a new source of inspiration. A boost to your artistic development. You may look for specialised technical knowledge or expect to meet old friends or new, exciting people and traditions. At least something to kick you ahead artistically and to provide fresh air.
And in order to get into your residency, you write a project plan. You have to. A plan in which you try to align your personal development with the particular artistic climate you expect at your chosen destination.
Not only to convince your host, but also to establish the imagined destination in your private web of judgements and expectations.

Entrance ICS

But, quite often, then it happens. At the moment you get off the plane or out of the car, you realise that you are in for something entirely different. You were wrong all the time. This is not the place you expected or imagined and you certainly won’t be able to do here whatever you’d planned to do.
This happened to me time and again. At first, I used to panic. The idea of having spent a lot of time and money to work abroad, to get your original plans to be accepted by  people you did not know and whose language you sometimes did not even speak – it all might be wasted if you would abandon your plans and, and then… What the hell am I going to do here?

Hundreds of spent cones from my predecessors

By now I have learned that a new environment, new people, new smells and new art will invariably prompt curiosity, new ideas, and new plans. Arriving at a residency in Xiamen, China (2014), I was completely disoriented by the unexpected steam, clutter and happy noise around me. In order to avoid the heat and the crowds, I decided to get up very early in the morning, at sunrise. I would then catch a random bus at the station in front of our flat (I could not read the destination anyway) and ride it until I started to doubt if I could ever find my way back. Then I would walk home, which usually took a few hours. On the way I took pictures of anything that caught my eye, if possible I would talk to people and find out what was going on. This resulted in fascinating stories and a photographic cross-section of the Xiamen community, which made up a significant part of our final exhibition there.

One of the wood kils at ICS

But Kecskemet would be different, I thought. The ICS is a venerable (50 years!) institution that survived political changes in Hungary and stayed true to its initial goal: ceramics.  And that is why we chose to go there. Wood-firing ceramics has become virtually impossible in Holland – understandably, because of the environmental issues (smoke, microdust and pollution in an already overcrowded country). But Mariëlle and I fell in love with the process years ago: it’s one of the rare social events in an otherwise solitary profession and the results are often surprising – another word for unpredictable.
So I wrote down solid plans long before we went – even to my own sceptic ears they sounded pretty convincing:

I want to create a series of ceramic works that encompasses the interests and obsessions of (almost, but not quite, not yet) a lifetime’s work in various media, using:

  • The abstract measures, forms and volumes we use to interpret the natural world around us and shape our predictions and responses – from platonic bodies to the architecture of proteins;

  • The tactile imprints and shapes of man’s hands and other body parts, that are so important to our contact with and handling of the material world;

  • The tools we use, which are empowering and elevating us – as well as thoroughly threatening our existence and the life of our fellow creatures.

Combining these themes in ceramics will, I hope, keep the concept from becoming too formal. It might help to use imperfect, natural clay bodies, and encourage the coincidences inherent to wood-firing.

In hindsight, this is all more than a bit overambitious and pedantic. It might be pretty close to what I want to do in life, but it is not a workable programme for a two-month residency in a provincial town in Hungary. As usual, I only realised that as soon as we arrived.

Kecskemét somehow reminded me of the places I grew up in during the ’50s

… with some remarkable sculpture, though

Social life

I tried out several solutions, such as taking walks around town and writing about exhibitions we saw on our way to Hungary (see below). Other escape plans included talking, drawing, cooking meals… And then I decided I had better start by pinching the available clay. I started by creating abstract forms – the regular polyhedra – they are both straight from nature and the seeds of human thought. I had done some of them in clay before, but this time I wanted them to be much larger and more perfect – less obviously man-made. Making plaster moulds, as I did in the past, would be too messy and unwieldy for the studio in Kecskemet. But then, in a corner of the storeroom, I found some old pieces of plasterboard.

I managed to develop a technique to cut the necessary polygons precisely and connect them into spatial constructions. The board’s paper cover helped to build crisp shapes and the plaster absorbed the water from the clay, just as it does in massive plaster moulds. The result had just the right amount of irregularity to keep it from being completely dead and abstract. After doing some platonic bodies, I decided to build some old favourites, such as the rhombic dodecahedron and the polyhedron shown on Dürer’s etching Melencolia. Finally I used the remaining pieces of plasterboard to construct a random irregular form. It turned out so complicated and ‘unceramic’ that the oldest, most accomplished ceramic artist at the Kecskemet centre predicted that it could not be fired in one piece. Luckily it did…

Fresh tripe – smelly but incredibly beautiful

Another source of inspiration was found on the daily open market in town. Apart from fresh mushrooms, peppers and other vegetables, there was a stall selling beef tripe: the skin of cow stomachs. The flexible tissue had an intricate regular pattern – both very regular and naturally flowing. Its smell was a bit less appealing, but I took one to the studio. The tripe was too soft and damp to use as a direct mould, so I cast a plaster mould from it. One problem was that the tripe contained so much water that the plaster refused to dry, and another was that all (female) artists working in the studios near my experiment complained about the smell. I had to move the entire installation to our own courtyard and finish the work there.

The mould

We fired the final results (after bisqueing and glazing) – the first batch in one of the wood kilns at the centre and a second batch in a soda kiln. As usual they were almost 24-hour events, hard work with friends bringing food and drink. The first firing was relatively quick and successful and produced some excellent stuff, but the soda kiln gave us quite a few problems. As part of the kiln flue had collapsed and obstructed the air flow, we could not get the temperature up after the soda injection, and part of the ceramics were reduced so heavily that the surface turned into a matte black. I decided to refire them at home, and see if I could rescue the glazes.

Firing the wood kiln

Almost every object I made in Kecskemet was to be combined with other materials.  Other pieces were meant to be part of one or more extensive installations. Some of these have taken shape over the past months, others will follow…

Cosmogony 3, 2022, Wood, ceramics, lens, FAC construction system, 110 x 100 x25 cm


Marielle van den Bergh, March 2022

/ Instagram: mariellevandenbergh

Last year, 2020, we did a ceramic residency at Guldagergaard in Denmark, where we fired some wood kilns. I focused on mountains and icebergs, built from porcelain. At home in the Netherlands, I pursued the mountain theme further, which eventually resulted in a maquette based on a painting in the Chinese Shen Shui style of a mountain. The painting had been very ‘flat’, with the mountains as a backdrop, lined up one after the other and not very spatial. I needed to make a 3-dimensional mountain to be able to build the paper mountain I planned to make. The porcelain model was converted in a huge hanging paper mountain: “Cliff Hanger”, which was on show for half a year in the Paper Art Biennial 2021 in the CODA Museum in Apeldoorn.
Ans van Berkum wrote about this show in the Art Magazine “Beelden” #4, 2021

In Kecskemét, in Hungary, I started out by researching frozen animals that had been released by the melting permafrost in Siberia. Time has always fascinated me for as long as I can remember. Now that the acute climate change is heating up the permanently frozen tundra, strange animals are woken from millenniums of sleep. Recently two lion cubs were found in rock caves, close together. They were called “Sparta” and “Boris”. The girl and boy looked like siblings, but it turned out that one was 44.000 and the other 28.000 years old.  Yet they looked like they both would wake up soon together and start their daily foraging.

Susan Hall

Building with paper clay and using wet clay to express rough surfaces were directions I wanted to explore further. I threw out all existing work plans, since this was the place and time to research paper porcelain. I wanted a limited theme, that I could vary over and over again, while learning how to improve myself. So I started to make busts, figurative sculpture, by building the base, continuously using the heat gun to dry what I had done and search for anatomically correct forms and the right expression, one that would reveal the character.
I focused on figures from the Korean costume dramas I was watching at night on Netflix. In a film you will see a character from different angles and their expression carries the story, so I could use that. The disadvantage is that you have to memorize what you have seen. Building from paper porcelain was quite difficult. As a material, porcelain is quite unforgiving. I liked to use soaking wet porcelain for finishing parts such as hair or garments, but often the top layer would not attach well enough to a drier base or parts that were too wet would cause the base to collapse. Often, that resulted in big cracks or collapsing heads because of the amount of moisture in the porcelain.

When I succeeded in building the busts – and if they emerged undamaged from the biscuit kiln – the next problem was the glaze. Glazing a mountain or iceberg is something else than glazing a human portrait. There is no way you can find the answer in books or by looking for examples in other people’s work. There is only one solution: you have to do it yourself and be ready to sacrifice each work you managed to keep standing, in order to create the intended facial composition and the right expression. Glazing can destroy them in a moment: open the kiln and disappointment is your share. You have to learn it this way – do the whole thing over again and try another way of glazing. Sometimes you will be lucky and the kiln, especially a wood kiln, will help you with extra effects and unexpected presents like ash deposits and fire marks.

We fired the Fred Olsen wood kiln and the Soda wood kiln. Firing a wood kiln is a complicated procedure and takes many hours. There are not many places in Europe where you can do wood firings. Guldagergaard in Denmark and the ICS in Hungary are two of them. Both centres were founded many years ago by devoted ceramic artists. Both places can be proud of the accomplished, famous artists like Nina Hole and Priscilla Mouritzen in Denmark: Instagram: @priscillamouritzen and Mária Geszler-Garzuly (HU):

Loading the soda kiln
Loading the soda kiln
Starting the fire
Firing at night

The best piece I made during this residency was ’the Viking’. It had an internal construction since the head was quite heavy and needed support. The glaze was a white shino, but overglazed while spraying, which caused contraction of the surface in beaded upper parts and a strange orange glow in the retreated, lower parts.
I donated this piece, the Viking, to the Collection of the International Ceramics Studio in Kecskemét.

In 2022 I will continue making paper porcelain busts, but I will focus on certain groups of people. I am thinking of socially or politically important persons or just friends, artists, children, fools, road workers, retired sun worshipers, or whatever takes my fancy.

2021 International Ceramics Studio in Kecskemét, Hungary

Mariëlle van den Bergh, 15-12-2021


One of the rare places in Europe where you can still find wood-fired kilns is in Kecskemét, Hungary, at the International Ceramics Studio. It was founded nearly 40 years ago by artists, as an artists’ initiative –
Artists, ceramists and students can apply for projects, courses and practice. For more information ask acting director Márton Strohner or Steve Mattison
The place is a picturesque labyrinth of buildings, kiln yards, studios, flower beds and open spaces, invaded by ceramic sculptures.

Courtyard with sculptures
Kiln yard with woodkilns
Kiln yard with part of Japanese kiln

Apart from project groups, students and semi-resident ceramists, there are individual artists, doing a residency in their own studio. Mels and I spent seven weeks there, in the autumn of 2021. Our goal was to make new ceramic work which we could wood-fire on the spot. During this period we met a ceramics student from a Turkish Art School, Gizem Altundal, who did her internship as a BA student.

During the second week I was lucky to enroll in a course given by the accomplished ceramist Susan Halls from the UK, who is well-known for her animal sculptures and books on the theme.
The focus of the course was the horse – in ceramics, of course. Susan taught us several ways to build a horse: slap building, cutting and joining elements and using paper clay.

Copper oxyde raku horse

The course was concluded with a raku firing, with Klari and Jacob as kiln masters. They handled the sizzling hot ceramic pieces and smothered them in saw dust in a spectacular performance.

Susan and Jacob at raku firing

Never a dull moment at ICS – immediately afterwards there was a Masterclass, given by one of the founders of ICS: Maria Gezsler-Garzuly. She is a very well-known ceramist, specialist in porcelain, who developed her own technique of silk screening on the surface of the clay. She is well travelled and nearly all ceramic centres in the world have her work in their collections. She did residencies in international ceramic museums and centres the world over. Next year she will teach a course in Keramiekmuseum de Tiendschuur in Tegelen, the Netherlands.
Maria’s students came from all over Europe and we had several nationalities in our kitchen, celebrating the good life of working as an artist and enjoying each other’s company with a glass of wine.

Maria is judging our work
Students work at Maria’s course
Maria’s work

One week later an international symposium was on. It lasted about four weeks and many electric and gas kilns were fired as well as some wood kilns. For the Symposium both well-known ceramists and newly-graduated students were invited. During the next weeks Mels and I were lucky we could attend the lectures these artists gave about their own work and experiences, broadening our knowledge extensively.
The artists of the International Ceramics Symposium 2021 at ICS:
Kitty Antal (HU), Virág Dályay (HU), György Fusz (HU), Mária Geszler-Garzuly (HU), Vladimir Groh (CZ) & Yasuyo Nishida (JP), Szilvia Haber (HU), Susan Halls (UK), Janina Myronova (PL), Márta Nagy (HU).

The symposium resulted in an exhibition in the museum at the ICS. A large part of the works that were made during the frantic symposium weeks were selected for the ICS collection. This is estimated to be the one of the most extensive collection of ceramic works in the world and consists of artworks made by well-known international artists like Sergei Usopov, Akio Takamori and many others.
We discovered a true hidden diamond when we saw two works from the collection which had been brought back from an exhibition. They were by Hungarian artist György Kungl. We admired the wit and humour in his subtle and clever pieces, combining ironic annotations with fine-tuned spheric scenery. He specializes in perspective views and balances brilliantly between two- and three-dimensional worlds.
He was invited (because we asked for it) to give a lecture during the symposium so we got to know him and his work better. A lot of earlier work is about James Dean; to György a symbol of the, at the time, unattainable western world. Dean got himself and his girlfriend killed in a car accident. György was inspired and made works with Dean’s house and the crashed car.

Work by Gyorgy Kungl

The Symposium had a nice mix of emerging ceramic artists and well-known and experienced ceramists.
Kitty Antal is a young Hungarian artist, who made it her goal to contribute to a better and more sustainable world. She recycles other people’s materials: clay and glazes. She shapes her own art in which nature survives even the harshest environments. Instagram: @kittyantal
Kitty is very critical about the use of resources and the abandoning of waste. She questions for instance the fact that left-over clay from the production of tableware in ceramic factories is thrown away. One of her heroes of sustainability in ceramics is the Hungarian-Swedish artist  Eszter Imre. We met Eszter at Guldagergaard in Denmark in 2015 during a residency and it was she who pointed out ICS to us.

Kitty Antal

Virág Dályay just graduated from Art School and won a prize which meant she was allowed to participate in the symposium, along with two of her teachers. Although her works have a rather dark source, they emerge as well balanced compositions. Her starting point is a rectangular brick sized clay form, from which she eats away the material and shapes it into clay bubbles. In the museum exhibition these sculptures cast interesting shadows.


We had met Janina Myronova before, in Denmark at Guldagergaard, where she was finishing a pretty impressive outdoor ceramic sculpture. She is well travelled, has been to many ceramic centres in the world, including the European Ceramic Work Centre in Oisterwijk (NL) and goes from one ceramic symposium to the next nowadays. Sometimes she even attends two symposia at the same time, producing big sized, hand-built and painted sculptures. The work is always figurative and very often it is autobiographical. Janina adopts details from the environment she works in. In Hungary she created a large girl and smaller boy, bearing grapes and peppers. Janina works in her own style and has created her own world, filled with figures and animals that are interacting with each other. All kinds of stories are played out and depending on what is happing in Janina’s personal life, her work will tell us the details. She is a real international ambassador for art and for unity, bringing the best of everybody out and emphasizing the similarities in humanity.

Janina in the studio
Janina in the gallery

Szilvia Haber is a Hungarian designer, artist and art teacher. She has done indoor commissions in buildings, of which her geometrical floor tiles in a church, inspired by the sea, were very impressive. In the symposium she worked on sculptural geometrical forms.

Szilvia Haber

With enormous pleasure we worked together with British Susan Halls for nearly our entire residency period – and we became good friends. A couple of times Mels and I were saved from starvation by Susan’s lovely meals, sometimes served next to the wood kiln, which demanded a constant supply of wood. Susan has a lifelong attraction to domestic animals, as she explained it in her lecture – although ceramics were not her love at first sight. But her Art Teacher had a keen eye and predicted that ceramics and Susan would be a special alliance and encouraged her to visit a pottery workshop, where she sold her soul right away to art, pottery and ceramics. Her early animal works in Art School were already amazing as were her drawings. She won a contest in the USA and in het presentation was a funny picture with a frog-soup bowl, sitting on the passenger seat of a taxi, secured by seatbelts. Susan is not afraid of big ceramic sculptures and developed her own techniques to built voluminous bodies, standing on 4 legs. She also wrote books about it. Susan also is a specialist in the raku technique.
Books: Ceramics for beginners: Animals & Figures
Pinch Pottery , Functional, Modern Handbuilding.

Susan in studio
Susan’s pig
Susan’s cat

Márta Nagy is a Hungarian artist with a special relation to the Netherlands, our home country. Her gallery is Terra in Delft and she has done a big outdoor commission, tiling the surface of a bicycle tunnel in Delft (“Garden”, Hamtunnel). Most impressive is The Hive, in 2010. She tiled intriguing the insides of a warp-shaped building in the Knowledge Centre in Pécs.
But foremost Márta works in smaller ceramic works, sometimes combined with textiles. Márta expresses her feelings and musings through her art. You could read her whole life by looking at her art. Scale is an essential element: her own garden can be sized back to 20 x 20 cm. and the drama of life is staged inside the walls. Titles are often clarifying. As Louise Bourgeois once wrote on her art installation during a Venice Biennial: “Art is the guarantee of sanity”. An artist as Márta Nagy, like myself actually, processes life through making art.
Nowadays Márta experiments with glaze and colour on ceramic surfaces. She is as much a painter as she is a sculptor and the skin, the surface is always important.

Márta in the studio
Marta’s table

Vladimir Groh & Yasuyo Nishida are
They are a Czech-Japanese couple, working exclusively in functional porcelain, using slip casting and hand decoration. Their products are amazing works, on the edge of what is technically possible and immediately recognisable. Colours bleed through the surface, the skin is sometimes like touching silk, the surface is rich on highly aesthetic details. They fire up to 1360 degrees in reduction, sometimes several times, and apply luster in oxidation at 800 degrees.
If you come across their work, which is quite possible since they travel widely, you will fall in love with the vessels, cups and bowls. In the Netherlands they exhibit at Ceramic Galerie Terra  (Delft), Galerie Del Campo (Wijster),  Kempro (Sterksel).

Yasuyo in studio
Groh en Yasuyo’s work

The artist György Fusz is a titan of Hungarian art. His first love was stone and even though most of his art is in clay, one still can feel this hard, earthbound heritage. Scale doesn’t matter to him. His vast works are made in a clay quarry, where he mixes the natural and manmade imprints with streaks of wool. His very subtle clay touches betray the hand of a giant. His master piece probably was a solo show, Nest M21, Gallery Pécs, Zsolnay Quarter, where he virtually made up the balance of his life. In a score of museum spaces ceramic figures, portrait busts, wooden bridges over clay rivers, labor equipment and a temple of wool, running down the surface like water. What touched me most in his work was the series called “Survivor”. Art down to the basics, raw emotion, pared down to the bone and powerful like a slap in the face.

Gyorgy in studio
Opening exhibition of symposium work

Back again, after almost a year ….

Although we have been very busy during the last year, nothing much has appeared in these pages. But we are changing that…

To cut a long story short: both of us (Mariëlle van den Bergh and Mels Dees) had quite a few exhibitions, with ceramics, paper works and the PATAMAP 2021 (an graphic edition of etchings, linoprints, photo and Toyoba prints at the occasion of 40 years Patagonia Studios). More about that you will find further below.

But now, October 2021, we also are on tour again. We decided to go on a residency using a prize Mels won at the Third Ceramic Triennial at CODA Museum, Apeldoorn (a beautiful exhibition nobody ever saw, since it was closed for the whole two months it lasted). The residency we chose was the ICS in Kecskemét, Hungary – first, because they are equipped with a few wood fire kilns, and second, because it was recommended by a colleague we respect a lot, Esther Imre.

After the busy Corona year we decided to do some serious slow travelling to get there. So we stopped over in Kassel, Ingolstadt and Vienna. We saw some artist friends and a lot of exhibitions on the way. Some of the last were quite extraordinary, which prompted Mels to try and make some sense of them in a text.

Strange Exhibitions: Kassel

Mels Dees, 10 October 2021

Even in Documenta years, Kassel is a quiet place. Of course the streets are crowded, but the visiting public is usually made up of introverted, contemplative people – curious, but strangely pensive. After a drink or two, I imagine they will fall asleep in their hotel rooms, dreaming of whatever art lovers dream of.

I remember that, when I first visited the Documenta some 40 years ago, I spent the night in my car. Even if a hotel room had been available, I would not have been able to pay for it. In the middle of the night a traffic cop knocked on my car window. I woke up and immediately started to apologize, explaining that I had come from abroad and there was not a single…

“No, no,” he said, “I just wanted to check you hadn’t died.”

So yes, Kassel might very well be the ideal town to house a museum dedicated to the way we treat our deceased: the Museum für Sepulkralkultur, built on top of the hill where all the exhibition venues are. It overlooks the beautiful, spacious park in the valley. The museum  is mainly about historical attitudes towards death – in Europe, Central Europe to be precise. There are hardly any non-European artifacts on show. Imagine how many Documentas could be filled with the answers to the fact that we die from cultures all over the world.

However, the existing collection offers quite a few surprises as well. For the first time in my life, I saw death pictured – not as the iconic lifeless skeleton, but as a process. A beautiful wooden sculpture at the museum shows a dancing corpse with rotting muscles falling from the bones and skin hanging in flaps over the exuberant carcass.

Later, when I looked it up, it turned out that these transi corps sculptures, as they are called, were quite en vogue in Western Europe during the Renaissance. They depicted a deceased person during the transition between life and death and some of them went as far as showing the dead body being eaten by worms. One’s belief in (any) god must be pretty fierce if it survives art like that.

But on the whole, our Western tradition tends to present a more palatable image of death – while trying to make it into a business model as well. We are provided with images as an anchor for our memories, places to go, things to do, rituals to follow and stories to believe.

That used to work, and probably still does, for most people.

Among more recent artworks at the museum, I find Der Findling, by Timm Ulrichs, the most touching. The title means both ‘The Boulder’ and ‘The Foundling’. The picture is the record of  an action performed in 1978, 1980 and 1982, during which Ulrichs stayed inside the stone sarcophagus for up to 10 hours. Ulrichs was a typical ‘action artist’ of 70s, preoccupied with death, film and politics – he had the words The End tattooed on his right eyelid.

But I like this work so much I will insert it into the book I make about my installation Sheltering at the Grenzkunstroute in Aachen, Germany.

The Museum für Sepulkralkultur provides a surprisingly sensitive and level-headed insight into the way we dealt and deal with death in the West.

I can’t think of any other institution that would handle the theme of suicide (in a special temporary exhibition, Suizid) as deftly and carefully as they did.

Weird shows II: Vienna

Vienna’s Museum Quarter is a dense concentration of cultural remains from its Belle Époque: paintings, drawings, architecture and photographs from  a time when the subconscious, surrealism, sex and other seriously modern phenomena were being discovered. Impressive, but also rather predictable: Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, Loos and their carefully canonised works have suffered a bit from overexposure. At least, they are not as unsettling and surprising as they must have been more than a century ago.

But Erwin Wurm’s Vienna exhibition escapes all of this. Its setting is premodern, even pre-19th century, and his work is decidedly post-post-modern. The clash between his works and the museal setting is surprisingly violent, as well as exhilarating and thoroughly satisfying.

It’s fitting that you have to take the Vienna U-Bahn and an endless streetcar ride into the mountains surrounding Vienna to get to the venue: Geymüllerschlössel. An old, renovated and re-renovated mansion sitting in a park with statues left behind after centuries of wars, fires and sheer neglect. Of course, to suit the contemporary public, its name has been simplified into MAK, Museum für Angewandte Kunst – which does not help at all.

But once inside, your attention is drawn by exquisite ceramic stoves – enormous wood-fired heaters that hide their efficiency behind 18th century ornaments, by swirling stairs and hand-painted wallpapers with exotic landscapes. Most of the paintings and objects are dominated by a thoroughly rationalist view of time and space. Otherwise unremarkable views of villages and waterfalls have been made up to date by inserting working clocks in the image.

The museum is almost bursting with clocks and delightful mechanical contraptions. Many of the clocks proudly display their inner workings, including intricate mechanisms indicating the moon’s phases, planet locations etcetera, making it pretty hard to discover what time it is. Other clocks are used to power automated miniature landscapes with waterfalls and playing nymphets. Remarkably, many of them still work.

In short, the museum – as an environment – is a rationalist’s dream of regularity and predictability. Even the surprises are fully mechanised. One of the masterpieces is a filing cabinet made by a  master cabinet maker, who managed to hide scores of trick doors, secret drawers and hidden spaces in the dresser. There’s a 15-minute video showing how some of them work.

And then, within this rather meticulously bourgeois décor, there is Erwin Wurm’s ceramic work. Tactile, fleshy, almost uncivilized  and blunt. The contrast with the delicate environment could hardly be more complete. Small wonder that the museum’s administrator, doubling as a guide and ticket seller, was more than a bit surly when I asked him what he thought about Wurm’s work.

The pieces look as if they are thrown together in a fairly haphazard way, with casts of body parts – ears, fingers, lips – attached in improbable places. Many seem to be off-balance, with asymmetrical holes and protuberances.

Most works are covered in a thick, pasty ceramic glaze, off-white, blueish or pink. It provides the sculptures with an unhealthy sheen, like the skin of fat people. In other places the shining globs remind you of intestines or bubbling lava.

Erwin Wurm always has had a subversive, sardonic touch, but in this exhibition his anger and fear sometimes seems to outdo his sense of humour. For some people it may be too much, but this work will remain stored  in my mind, at least in the subconscious department – in the company of such Austrian luminaries as Ernst Fuchs, Rainer and Nitsch.

New Messages from the Art World in Natthagen and Guldagergaard

As a result of the Corona Crisis during the spring of 2020, we saw our stay at SPAR (St Petersburg Art Residency) morphed into a Virtual Residency (see for our contributions). That also resulted in an Online Exhibition. If you want to see it – “Transpositions III: Mind The Gap” can still be found in the SPAR archive. Just scroll left on the main page of their site. Recordings of their public program events are available as well:

However, we were not content to sit still behind our screens. Despite the travel restrictions we managed to secure not one, but two residencies in the North of Europe: a very short try-out stay at Natthagen in Norway ( and a regular five-week residency at Guldagergaard in Skaelskor, Denmark (

Art and mushrooms in the North

Mels Dees, 27 – 10 – 2020

Travelling towards the Norway ferry at Hirtshals, we had a few days to spare. And as one of our favorite museums, the ARoS Museum of Modern Art (with its spectacular roof promenade by Olafur Eliason) was in the middle of a Covid hotspot, we decided to look elsewhere.

It was not easy to find, but the Skovsnogen Art Space turned out to be an unusual place, rather unkempt and without any of the usual suspects like Rodin or Giacometti – or Kirkeby, for that matter. There is no guide, no fixed entrance. You can determine your own entrance fee and there is no Gift Shop to pass when you want to get out. The Skovsnogen Art Space looks like a relic from the 70s or 80s, and that is probably exactly what it is.

Not amazingly original, but very well done: it takes a lot of effort to make an elaborate joke like this – and succeed. Kids love it, anyway

In some places the Skovsnogen Art Space looked like an artist’s workshop or a weird holiday camp, in others like a dump. Yet it was quite an adventure to walk through – impossible to predict what you were going to encounter next. Which is exactly what makes you want to go on.

Obviously, different artists had worked in this small valley, and they still were at it – there was a cement mill standing around.

Not all sculptures in the ‘workshop’ were perfect or even finished, but the atmosphere was one of medieval dedication. Here and there, there were  rather droll and amateurish pieces, but the unpretentious surroundings made them more interesting and sometimes their patina or decay lent them a certain dignity. I know from experience it’s not easy to react to and compete with nature if you work from your studio. So creating sculpture in situ seems like a good idea. At least it saves you the shock of seeing your piece’s size cut back to outdoors dimensions.

Huge cement blobs, made by simply filling bladder-like bags, acquire a sinister, life-like quality, while the tree gnome looks like it’s straight out of Lord of the Rings

Of course many artworks were well thought-out and executed. A good example was Walden, (too) obviously inspired by Henry David’s Thoreau’s famous book about a year’s stay in a wooden hut on Walden Pond. His account is also “a personal declaration of independence, a social experiment, a voyage of spiritual discovery, a satire, and—to some degree—a manual for self-reliance” (Eiderson). The 3D-version of Thoreau’s hut was precise and charming, but lacked the original’s  layered meanings and romantic ideas – still, it provided an exquisite sense of deja-vu.

A kind of 3D-illustration to Thoreau’s masterpiece, but you soon start wondering what it is supposed to add

Quite a few works were so dilapidated that it was quite an effort to reconstruct how they had looked or what they were meant to mean. Strange enough, that did not reduce the pleasure of exploring: it goes to prove how much art-viewing is nowadays approaching archaeology or simply puzzle-solving. At what state of decay does an artwork stop functioning, i.e. when does it cease to be a work of art? (Leaving aside the question what insects and other animals, or aliens descending to earth in an aeon or two,  will think of our art…)

You may lose your track in Skovsnogen Sculpture Park, but one thing is certain – you won’t be bored

A counterpoint to all this anarchistic turmoil is the cheerful construction by the professional  playground designers Monstrum. It’s a sensible sculpture for kids and grownups, beautiful, cleverly made and well-kept. Very Danish, if you ask me. Good, clean fun – nothing that can hurt or offend anyone, physically or psychologically. Then again: it does not move you deeply either. Very Danish, indeed.

Monstrum: lovely to see, crawl through and play hide-and-seek. Not much more, but often that’s quite enough

Then there are two artworks that do not really fit in. Rather harsh-looking concrete structures, one looking like a brutalist communist factory, the other like innocent street furniture. That first impression is deceptive, however.
The ‘factory’ turns out to have no other product than safety and warmth (in a shelter with a simple woodstove) and peace and quiet (in a kind of meditation room).
And what looks like a small group of purely functional steps turns out to be remarkably ambiguous: yes, it is a means to get higher up on the slope – but once you are there, it morphs into an Olympic podium, with the number one place slightly higher than the second best (to the right) who stands again higher than the third place to the left. An  icon of competition, you could say.

Two quite serious sculptures in the middle of a riot of crazy, cheerful and funny works

As you must have noticed, I inserted some portraits – mushroom portraits – between the high and low art we encountered in Skovsnogen. In the first place just because we found them there. And mushrooms interest me, especially if they taste good. Also because they are among the most beautiful natural structures you are allowed to see and photograph without paying for it. You must be a trained mycologist to be able to name them accurately, but it’s not hard at all to enjoy them. So I show them here, most of them unnamed.
The same goes for the titles of artworks I included, as well as the names of their creators. Because of the scarce and incomplete information, but most of all because I felt I did not need them to enjoy the works, I just did not bother. Sorry for that, but it is also (meant as) a compliment.

Norway residency 2020

Mariëlle van den Bergh, 3-10-2020

In the third week of September 2020 Mels and I arrived at Natthagen, in Julussdalen, about 150 kilometers north of Oslo.
It was the inaugural residency at Natthagen, an artist’s iniative set up by two Norwegian artists: Trond Einar Solberg Indsetviken and Robert I. Khoury, who is from Lebanon. We knew about the residency through our mutual friend Kitty, who tipped us and since we were scheduled to do a ceramic residency at Guldagergaard in Skealskor, Denmark in October, we thought we might as well make  a detour to Norway first. Mind you: this all happened during Corona times and we had to travel with letters that invited us to do artistic work at both locations. The Danish authority at the Color Lines Ferry read it all and said that we had to go 10 days in quarantine at Natthagen. No problem, as it is in a remote area with only 6 houses, in the middle of a fairy-tale wood, in full autumn colours by then.

View of the river at Natthagen

I admired the guys, who  had had the guts to start this residency, inviting foreign artists, while half of Europe was facing the Second Corona Wave and borders were almost closing again, regulations were tightening, and even the usual crowd on the ferry (staff and truck drivers) were a bit out of their normal behaviour, looking puzzled over their obligatory face masks.
Natthagen means in Norwegian “Night Garden” and indeed there is a small patch on the vast estate, where in the remote past the lady of the house tended a garden with flowers that bloomed and gave off a bit of light at night.

Drone picture of the estate

The estate is on a vast patch of land, containing woods, pastures, and buildings. The main building used to be a school, which was literally incapsulated into a new modern and comfortable building: the living quarters of Robert and Trond E and where visitors are received, and symposia and workshops are organised as well.  We stayed in a kind of cosy wooden cabin, a Hans and Gretel house, which is called Gamalstu. We were told that in old times up to 11 people used to live there. It is, as most of the Natthagen buildings, a protected site, so no changes can be made unless there is specific permission to do so. That is also the reason why there is no water and no bathroom in the Gamalstu. We had to walk fifty meters to the main house, where we had a bathroom for ourselves. Water was taken in a bucket and since we camp in tents now and then, for us it all added to the plesure of the “outdoors” life. At night we burnt wood logs in the sturdy stove. For Norwegian artists this might be quite normal and it is for us as well, since we heat our studios with wood stoves, but it might be a bit awkward for many other artists. These houses are wooden houses in the middle of a vast forest. Rule number one is to be safe with fire. So burning a romantic candle might be a bad idea and leaving things unattended on the electric stove as well.

Gamalstu from the air

Profiting from a couple of sunny days at the start of our residency, Trond E and Robert took us on a tour through the woods and it was enchanting! The beauty and spaciousness were breathtaking. The deciduous trees were turning into their autumn colours and various lichen were spread in a thick carpet. We picked mushrooms to use them for dyeing woollen yarns. Mels of course had other plans with the mushrooms: he preferred the edible types.

Robert and Mels and Karl Johann (eekhoorntjesbrood)

Trond Einar Solberg Indsetviken is an advanced water colour artist, with many solo shows in Norway and international exhibitions. Colour is his greatest talent and he conceives all fibres as textiles. He works on all kinds of paper, but very often on rag paper and this is of course made from textile fibres. All his life he had studied the behaviour of pigments, colours and water. When, years ago, he came across plants and mushrooms which could stain fibres and produced colours with a good light stability, he wanted to know everything about it. Right now he is one of the experts in this field and knows many local and foreign mushrooms, plants and lichens

Non-edible mushroom (velvet roll-rim) but good for dying
Mushroom dyeing book
Cooking dying mushrooms
Trond dying the yarn
Mushroom-dyed yarn and cotton

Robert I. Khoury is the head of the Natthagen museum, which is another building on the estate and which in normal times, would be open to the public during the Summer months. Next to the museum is the Art Gallery.
In a sense, Trond E is a local boy, born not far from the place they live now. Part of the museum is dedicated to photos and memorabilia from his family.

Museum wall
Art work by Trond
Cat doll

But Robert and Trond E as curators have collected much more. The museum boasts a distinctive collection of textile machines and tools, often dating back quite some time. They collect Scandinavian textiles and try to reconstruct how some of these were made and used. Some techniques date back to Viking times; Trond E makes his own wooden tools to perform an old type of crochet and sells them in the Natthagen shop. Both artists are highly skilled textile artists.
Trond Einar Solberg Indsetviken wrote a book on twin knitting: “En fargeglad tvebandstrikker og hans venner” ISBN 978-82-998149-2-8.

Trond at the loom

Robert I. Khoury specializes in bobbin lace. In Glomdals museum in Elverum, he spent much  time studying antique pieces and Christian baptism hats, reconstructing the patterns for historical research and making museum copies, since the silk originals from the 17th century are gone. In 2016, Robert was awarded a Norwegian State scholarship to study lace, with which he financed a trip to Slovenia and Italy, both centres of advanced bobbin lace production in the past.

Robert making lace
Baby jacket in lace

Right now Robert and Trond E are working at building a collection of lace pieces for the Natthagen Museum. Old bobbins and old pillows, as well as old patterns. They have a collection accumulated by a Norwegian girl, who went to study in Saint Petersburg when the Russian revolution broke out. She bought lace with all the money she had, hid it inside her coat and smuggled it to Norway. As soon as she returned to Norway, the lace started to become industrially produced, and the value of these hand-made pieces went down. She kept all the pieces for herself. Robert got the pieces when the woman died and the family inherited the lace, didn’t know what to do with it and donated it to the Natthagen Museum.

Band weaving

Both curators are collecting textiles from other countries as well. They studied the old band weaving techniques in Syria and made reconstructions of band weaving from Scandinavia. Wooden band weaving cards were found in the Queens ship which is exhibited  in Oslo, in the Viking Ship Museum,. So this way of making strong ribbons dates back a long time, but nowadays hardly anyone knows how to do it. Trond E and Robert want to preserve this knowledge and hand it to future generations. So one day Trond E taught me the old technique of band weaving too. I managed to make a long ribbon in a traditional Norwegian pattern and colours during the residency.

Band weaving Mariëlle in the gallery show

Since Robert was born in Lebanon, they have connections there as well and there are plans to initiate another artists-in-residence, this time in Lebanon. It will be one of the very, very few residencies in the Middle East and since the Natthagen residency is linked to the Lebanese one, these two residencies might prove to become quite important and a successful terrain for artistic cross-fertilization. Another building at Natthagen is the Old Barn. Mels worked here with plaster in preparation for his residency at International Ceramic Research Centre Guldagergaard in Denmark. He chose interesting tools and other objects that were lying around the barn and made plaster moulds from them. In Denmark he will press clay in them and use the ceramic versions in installations later this year. This location is quite primitive, without water, heating or electricity. There is a long work bench now, but practically not much more. However, there are plans to convert it into a studio with a huge glass wall overlooking the surrounding fields and woods, with electricity and therefore light and heating. As soon as  Natthagen has secured the necessary funding, the renovation will start. There are further plans for a Textile Studio upstairs. Natthagen has looms, spinning wheels, carding equipment. But this too will depend on grants enabling Natthagen to build this second studio, which could become a very important textile residency in Europe in the future.

Studio where Mels worked
One of the moulds at the final presentation

Trond E showed us some of his water colour works. One series in particular caught my eye and, being myself a textile artist, I suggested to try to felt one or two of these works. Trond had done some felting, mostly beads with the village children in Lebanon, but he was in for new experiments. So next day we started with a crate of beautifully coloured wool, bubble wrap, olive soap and a table next to the fire. We worked outdoors on the veranda of the main house, since felting is a wet business.
In felting, layers of wool fibres are stacked on top of each other and the last layer, the top layer, has the image or colours you want to show. We looked closely to the water colour to guide us in trying to capture it’s atmosphere. I had done some felting before, but never on this level and never so precise.
We were quite satisfied with the result and some days later we did a second watercolour in this way, differing some procedures and including pebbles as well.

Wool arranged with watercolour in the background

The last felted work was an idea of Trond E: stand outside on the veranda and try to capture the view in felt. The last working day we did just that and I was very impressed by the colouring Trond E did by using his hand carder tools. This was like he was using water colour pigments and created the shades he wanted. He applied them expertly as well in the composition in wool.
All four artists had an end presentation in the white Art Gallery, that is also situated in the Barn. Because of Corona we could unfortunately have the show only virtually.

End presentation
To a dead bumblebee

We like to thank Trond Einar Solberg Indsetviken and Robert I Khoury for the wonderful residency at Natthagen and I am grateful for all the old textile techniques I learned and hope to be able to master and use them in my work in the future. This residency is in one of the most beautiful areas in Norway and we were lucky to be the first artists in the Natthagen residency.

September 2020: what went on before

Mels Dees: Graphic art – or not

After making etchings and etched paper reliefs for several decades, I stopped doing it, rather abruptly, about 25 years ago. The main reason was my health – at that time, solvent-free  etching chemicals were hard to get and their results were far below par.  Also, public interest in traditional graphic art had been dwindling for years.

CODA Museum, 2006

In fact, it was just in time, as around 1995 the first affordable computers able to handle visual data appeared on the market. Affordable to me and other artists, that is. I jumped upon the new technology and began to manipulate photographic material and make computer-aided and 3d-designs. Within a few years this, together with spatial and outdoor installations, constituted a major part of my artistic output.

Artificial Memories13

Although pictures I have taken myself are often the source material for my work, I hardly consider myself to be a photographer – in fact, I do not care where the images come from. Sometimes I use found footage, even negatives found in the garbage or in the street. Sometimes there are details I laboriously collected on the internet: not so much objets trouvés as objets cherchés.
I want the elements to combine into a convincing statement, in the way a fiction writer takes fragments of the world around him to create a story. These elements may also include texts, drawings and even musical scores. The final work is created on the computer screen, but I want it to exist off-line as well.

Kyoto Mouse Teaching, van Abbe Museum Library, 2016

To create a physical print, you need a large format printer of which you have full control: the printing speed , print format, ink types etc. No commercial printing office will allow you to fiddle with its machine, so for years I used the large format printer/plotter at Grafisch Atelier Hilversum, the Netherlands. After it died a peaceful death a few years ago, I got hold of a similar machine and managed to transport the beast to my studio on the first floor, where it has been doing the good work ever since.

This year, the five artists working at the studio complex of  Ateliers Patagonia decided to publish a graphic art edition, a folder containing prints by Mariëlle van den Bergh, Mels Dees, Paul Legeland, Guus Smeulders and Rogier Walrecht.  They range from delicate Toyobo prints to etchings and lino prints.

Beachcombing, 2020

My contribution to PATAMAP 2020, Beachcombing, is a photocollage that more or less had its origin in the Covid-19 pandemic. Because of the rising number of infections in our home area, my partner Mariëlle and I decided to stay on the ‘Quarantine Island’ of Terschelling for six weeks longer than originally planned. Using a drone, I photographed the background material for my print.

As a result of my lingering distrust in depictions of reality, I always have had the urge to fold 2-dimensional images into 3d reliefs and objects. In that way I created shells and other natural shapes out of technical drawings and geometrical photographs – and the other way around. In apocalyptic phantasies that were aroused by the pandemic, I saw how these shapes were washed ashore on the island.

Detail Beachcombing, 2020

To me, it is unimportant if photography is included in the graphic arts or not. It is one of the few techniques which is suitable to take itself as a subject. Including a photographic picture (of a picture, of a picture etc) in a photograph seems natural. In that way I could turn Beachcombing into a melancholy reflection on my own art, and that is what I was aiming for.

August at Ateliers Patagonia: Etching the Terschelling Landscape

Mariëlle van den Bergh, 19 September 2020

In previous blogs you could see us being in lock-down, caused by the COVID-19 on the island of Terschelling in the North of the Netherlands. We cycled around and later I made black ink paintings on Chinese rice-paper from the characteristic dune landscape.
At home in Eindhoven, we worked on our graphic print for the planned graphic album PATAMAP, which will be presented in November, during the Open Studio Days of Ateliers Patagonia. There are five artists and each one works in a different graphic technique. Mine will be an etching on zinc, using the sugar water technique.

Sugarwater rendering of Terschelling Landscape
Sugarwater painting covered with etching ground

You start with making the first lines of the painting, using a solution of sugar water and soap. When this is dry, you cover the plate with etching ground. When this dried as well, you can open the sugar water lines by washing them away in warm water.

Etching bath with plate
Inking the etching plate

Now you can etch relief by immersing the plate for a while in the acid bath. From that moment on, you rework the etching plate by covering parts, filling parts with aquatint (resin dust  melted on the plate), scratching parts with sharp tools (dry point), opening up covered parts and so on.

Etching plate pus three prints
Five small Terschelling etchings

I worked with 6 small and 6 big etching plates. I tried all kinds of different techniques and eventually choose the etching plate that could withstand the making of many prints. If you print an edition, you have to choose a plate with substantial relief, because in the process of inking, wiping and printing the plate it will wear down and it has to last the entire edition. You always have to make some more prints, since each print is handwork and you have to learn to judge what nuances you prefer and what is a decent print in the eyes of an expert. I was helped a lot by two graphic experts: Paul Legeland and Mels Dees, both fellow artists at Ateliers Patagonia.

Small etching of Terschelling landscape
Test print large etching