In July 2019, we had our first official artist-in-residence, the Belgian painter, Nils Verkaeren. I had first seen Verkaeren’s work via a recent book, and was excited to have him working here; the actual experience was even better than I could have anticipated. Not only is Verkaeren a remarkable painter, but his energy for life and work is energizing.
Verkaeren was interviewed by another resident, Joseph Puglisi; below are both the video, and the transcript of the more extensive interview.
Nils Verkaeren Interview – Artesumapaz
Inerviewer: Joseph Puglisi
Joseph: Here we go. Ok. Cool. [Hand clap.] So my friend, is this your last day?
Nils: Yes, I leave tomorrow.
Joseph: Wow. It went by fast.
Nils: Yeah, it went fast.
Joseph: You did some good work here, man. Alright –
could you just tell me your name, where you’re from, and your job at home?
Nils: My job, oh yeah, I’m um … I’m Nils Verkaeren. I’m from Belgium. Most of all, I’m a – actually no, the only thing I am is a painter, an artist. I do make money another way. I’m an art professor at the academy, the Royal Academy in Antwerp. What do I do in life? Not much.
Joseph: (Laughs) So the big thing that I’m curious about is – obviously, the work that I’ve seen of yours has been primarily to do with the physical space that you’re in. So the question, I guess, just this idea of geography and art and bringing those things together. If you could just talk about that.
Nils: Yeah. Well, I do play with that idea of geography, but I’m more playing with the idea of time. So I think, more than my paintings as a representation of geographical place, they are a representation of the time that I spent in the landscape. So it’s less about this place that I’m painting, because all those places that you see here, they don’t exist. They’re like honest lies. They’re a manipulation of truth. It’s like how I want you guys to look at reality. Or it’s like how I want to show that I spent this time in this place. But not one specific place, but a space that exists of dreams, and also exists geographically.
Joseph: So how has Artesumapaz expanded that, or how has it brought something new to your creations?
Nils: What I liked about being here, and what I mostly like about these residencies, it’s like a kind of deadline. So you come here, and this is the ninth day that I’m here – so you have like nine or ten days, and you have to really focus on a subject, and you want to leave with something. So you say, ok, I’ve got this time available for myself. Here in this incredible place, this studio. How can I make the most out of it? What can I leave behind? What can I show to the world? What can I show to the people? Like ok you’ve got this energy, and this time, and how can I make a story out of it? And I paint my stories. Other ones maybe write it, or other ones do it with music, but you find your way.
Joseph: So … Can you talk about some of the images that you’ve created here. Cause there’s kind of uh… I’ve noticed there’s sort of two styles happening. On the one side we have these grand landscapes, like the one behind you, and on the other side, you’re looking at the microcosm.
Nils: Well, I like this idea of looking at something like the difference between micro and macro, like to look at it from a distance or to really go into it. And most of my art, it starts with just playing with brushes. You start moving the paint around, as you see here, like everything lying around on this table. This could be the same as a painting. So you just start moving your brushes. And you start moving this paint around; until it gets a signification. It gets a meaning. It becomes a world or a reality. And sometimes you go further in it, and you zoom further in it, and you go closer. And sometimes you’re more from a distance. But in a way, it’s all the same. If you keep on working on that one, you can get all the details out, and you’re again there. So it’s like trying to find this balance, like how do I look to reality. I maybe want to give you guys an insight on how I look at things.
Joseph: Mmmm… So you’re looking at things up close and far away, and the idea of movement is really essential, I feel like, with your style. Even with the painting behind you, which is really a large canvas, when we get in close, I start to see these individual brush strokes. Even the way the paint drips, it seems like you’re trying to capture movement in these large scale structures. Like rocks, and mountains, and ridges.
Nils: Because it always starts from a movement. Like in my sketchbook also, it starts from just that movement of brushes, and to keep on striking on that wet paint, and to keep on repeating that action, and from that repeating of the action, suddenly you start seeing things, and then you walk again into the landscape, and suddenly you say, Ahh, that looks like my painting. I can use that. And suddenly you start to add details, and then you go to the terrace, and then you see a pot of plants, and you think, mmm.. that plant can go there in my painting. So you deconstruct all this world around you, and you reconstruct it on your canvas.
Joseph: Hmmm… So you just started talking about your sketchbook, can you talk about the difference between your large scale paintings and the work that you do in your sketchbook? Is there a difference or is it just a different form?
Nils: There always is a difference if you work larger or bigger.
Emm… Larger or smaller. There always is a difference. If you work smaller, it’s more intimate. And especially in a book. A book is very intimate. You can close it whenever you want, and nobody sees it immediately, so you feel more free to experiment. So I think, the smaller the size is, sometimes the more intimate you get. It’s like um, being alone in your bedroom and masturbating. It’s a bit of masturbation, but in a book. So I wank off on that book. And I move those brushes around like I would move – ah shit – no (laughing) – you’re not gonna put that up –
Joseph: (laughing) I think I know what you mean.
Nils: But it’s a very intimate thing to work in a book. And also, because it’s – there’s something about paper. Working on paper – you have less respect for it. Because it’s a more loose material. And therefore you are more free to experiment on it. You don’t feel like it has to be a result, and because you don’t expect a result, the results are often better.
Joseph: Hmmm… that’s a very interesting thing. So –
obviously there’s a wealth of natural scenery here at Artesumapaz. What are some of the forms that really seem special or magical in this particular place.
Nils: Well, I use a lot of yellow here. And I think I use a lot of yellow because there is a lot of yellow here. It’s very bright here. Like last time I went painting, I was in this dark forest, and I really felt enclosed like in a green cage, and here you have this openness in the landscape. And it’s also because light is very free to travel here. Because you have this wide open scenery and these wide views, light just falls over it. So what’s very particular here, I think, especially in the magical hour, this light shines through those leaves, and it shines through the grass, and it kind of puts a blanket of light on top of everything. And I think that’s extremely beautiful here. There’s something magical about the light here at Artesumapaz.
Joseph: So this is basically the last question that I thought I’d ask. What were you really trying to do here at Artesumapaz for the last two weeks? You’ve talked about goals, and you’ve talked about the beautiful isolation that you get in a place like this, but what specifically did you really want to do while you were here at Artesumapaz?
Nils: That’s a good question. I think – I don’t know – I don’t think I especially tried to do something here. I just tried to be who I am. I just tried to paint. And I tried to discover myself as a painting. And I tried to discover what this place does with my paintings. Like as I told, I think I tried to capture the light that was very specific here. And then I also tried to see how far I could push it. How far can I go to reality, and how far can I go to still not make it reality. And to try to find that thin balance between representation and abstraction. Suggesting things. Not to show it the way it is, but the way that I feel it. Or the way that I see it.
Joseph: Mmmm… I really like what you said about the place wanting to be put into a painting, and yourself being put into a painting. Did you feel like –
Nils: I think you always represent yourself in a painting. It’s also, the funny thing is, maybe the difference between those – the difference between the micro and the macro, it’s also, like the difference between a group of people, and to show them as a group, or to show individuals of a group. So in that painting I show a group, like a mass of people in a concert. There’s too much going on to show the individuals. And then suddenly you zoom in, and you see, in that landscape there are also individuals. All of a sudden those plants, they become like characters. Like characters out of a Baroque painting. And one folds over the other and gets lightened out more. And one gets a little bit more attention, and one’s more in the back. And it’s a bit like the last Supper, you see all those people connected. And when you zoom out, they just become a suggestion or a shape, and I think I like that difference.
Joseph: Mmmm… Cool. So was it worth it? Are you glad you came here?
Nils: It was definitely worth going here. And I like to be the guinea pig. I like to be the first one to be able to use this divine studio, and I like the energy also of the people around. It was a bit funny because I really just arrived here, and I said ok, I’m here with one clear goal, I’m gonna paint. And I just started. And every day I went from down to up, like climbing a bit that hill and going into the studio and secluding. But I also liked going back to all the people to have this social interaction, and to be. I like driving on that energy of other people also. People that are thinking. People that want to be creative. It seemed like, I don’t know, I think it’s a beautiful thing to be all together, and to just create.
Credits: Joseph Puglisi (photo, video, and interview), Nils Verkaeren (the artist), and Sol Esperanza Roja (transcription)