The Voice-Tribune Art Director Britany Baker embarks on an artistic European adventure
By Britany Baker
“If you could go to any one city in the world, where would you go?” my soon-to-be husband asked. I quickly flipped through one of my art history books and informed him: “Amsterdam.” The Netherlands turned out to be a great place to honeymoon. We were in our own little bubble together with the outside world full of calm, healthy, movie-set-beautiful inhabitants whizzing by on their bicycles and speaking their incomprehensible languages. It was just us and some of the best paintings humans had ever made. I never expected that 15 years later I’d be back, only this time I was there to intentionally make connections with other people in the art world.
In January of this year, my talented artist friend Sabra Crockett stood in my studio and told me about the Great Meadows grant she received to attend Salon, a decorative painting conference in Leeuwarden in the Spring. “It’s made up of some of the best painters in the world – painters from London and Versailles, painters who work for the Vatican, painters trained by the masters, this guy,” she said, pointing to my copy of “The Art of Faux” by Pierre Finkelstein, widely accepted as the sourcebook for learning decorative painting. Well, now I had to go with her.
We flew together to Amsterdam, where we stayed for a couple of days recovering from jetlag and touring museums. We then took a train to Leeuwarden, the 2018 European cultural capital, where we stayed in a charming Airbnb run by a very young, helpful host named Wilke. His apartment had a ladder in the center that led out to a little roof patio from which you could see a great deal of this charming city.
Salon is a non-profit organization that got its start in 1992 when a group of professional decorative painters in Brussels decided to establish a global structure for keeping the traditions of decorative painting alive and well. Once a year, for 23 years, a growing number of artists, teachers, craftspeople, professional painters and art preservationists convene to share their incredible wealth of knowledge with one another and with the general public.
Each year the conference is held in a different country, returning to the U.S. approximately every third year. It consists of opening and closing celebrations, demonstrations, lectures and an exhibition of new work made for that year’s theme.
It also features each of the participating artists working over the course of four days on pieces specifically designed to demonstrate some aspect of their experience as painters. Imagine having access to the best in your craft, in the world, all in one room, doing what they do right there in front of you. You can walk right up and watch them – masters at work – and see what tools they use, how they hold them, the brand of paint and the cup for their medium. You can ask them anything you want. They are there because they believe that sharing what they know not only makes them better at what they do, but because when they’re gone, someone needs to know how to patch the marble on the columns at the Vatican or the ancient processes for egg tempera.
I remember when I first started learning scenic art – the application of decorative painting for the purpose of theater or film – I felt as if I’d finally landed on my home planet and found my people. I definitely felt that again with this group. Humble, welcoming and supportive, these artists make you feel like you belong. As Dru Blair, one of the participating members put it, “If I can do this, anyone can.” I’m pretty sure that’s not true – he’s amazing – but that spirit is pervasive.
This was Sabra’s third year in attendance at Salon and her second year participating. In order to join this group, you need to be invited by a member and pass the application process and it’s recommended that one first attends as a guest before attempting to join in. I was there in Leeuwarden as Sabra’s guest but was welcomed by the group as if I had always been part of their community.
In contrast to Salon, TRAC2018 or The Representational Art Conference, was much headier. It was a gathering of more than just artists and educators; there were also philosophers, psychologists, cognitive scientists, critics, museum and gallery professionals and art historians. There were lectures and panel discussions pertaining to myriad aspects of representational art. Perhaps the most interesting of the speakers was the infamous Odd Nerdrum, the eccentric Norwegian self-proclaimed “kitsch” painter and renowned teacher with a cult-like following. He wore his typical Renaissance-style artist tunic, as did his wife and son, who joined him as a sort of entourage.
In his lecture on the evils of Kant and the philosophical “invention” of modern art, he equated the modern-day contemporary art establishment with Nazis – I kid you not. At one point during the panel discussion on establishing worldwide standards for art education, one of the panelists asked for Odd’s opinion, and we all turned around to find him in the back row flossing his teeth. I should point out that Nerdrum’s paintings are ethereal in a way that seems from another time and his lecture was both thought-provoking and a conversation starter, to say the least.
The Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is recognized as having such effective signage, including its use of color, placement and pictograms, that it’s referred to as “The Schiphol Standard.” I found that signage all over the Netherlands was clear and easily understandable regardless of your native language, particularly with respect to transportation. The train stations there felt low-stress, in part due to the ease with which you could buy a ticket and find your train. There is a shift in materials and color in the roadways indicating where pedestrians should be versus bicyclists. They use what’s known as a “Dutch junction,” which provides a safer way for bicyclists to turn across motorized traffic. The Dutch have the safest bicyclists in the world, and yet the use of bike helmets is almost non-existent. Traveling in the Netherlands, you get the sense that the Dutch are more civilized, maybe even more evolved.
Then, of course, there are the canals. Less of a means of daily transportation and more of a means of sightseeing, the canals in Amsterdam add not only charm to this Venice of the north, but they make the trees and buildings sparkle with the twinkling of reflected uplighting. The Salon group took a tour via the canals in Leeuwarden and got a leisurely history lesson from one of the many retired citizens who now volunteer as ambassadors for the city.
Access to Artwork
Along with the conferences and socializing with the artists, Sabra and I also visited a number of museums including the Fries Museum and its exhibit of Leeuwarden native, M.C. Escher; the Rijksmuseum, home to Dutch masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, van Gogh, etc.; the contemporary museums Stedelijk and Groninger; and Amsterdam’s permanent Body Worlds exhibit, “The Happiness Project,” which contains anatomical specimens of real human bodies judiciously deconstructed using the Austrian method of plastination.
For painters, visiting art in person is a must. Of course, you can see a lot of this art in a book or online, but you can’t see how thick Rembrandt’s highlight was until you’re standing in front of the painting.
The Art of Dutch Eating
Given that they’re known for things like patatje oorlog, a Dutch favorite made of French fries (chips) with mayonnaise, onions, peanut sauce and curried ketchup, I was a little surprised that most of the food I was served in the Netherlands was quite healthy. The salads were interesting without being sweet. The wheat bread was some of the best I’ve had anywhere. Apparently, asparagus was in season while we were there – it seemed to always be on the menu – and not just the green, big-as-my-finger kind either. They have a white variety that’s larger and milder than the green and is considered a delicacy. At the closing Salon dinner, we had a dish of raw herring that was grayish in color and strange looking (one of the artists said it looked like “chicken brains”) but was excellent in flavor and texture. We were served a lot of meat dishes during the formal Salon dinners, but they were accompanied by fresh vegetables, fantastic Dutch cheeses and, of course, plenty of wine.
The food in the Netherlands was delightful, but it was almost secondary to the socializing we did during our meals, including dinner with one of the founders of Salon, Jan Berghuis. We dined in a converted prison, where we talked about art, music and how adorable the Netherlands is.
The variety of restaurants, especially in Amsterdam, was at least as extensive as anywhere I’ve been in the U.S. On our last night in the Netherlands, we met up with some friends of Cynthia Norton, an artist here in Louisville who performs under the name “Ninny.” Tom Ritchford, an electronic musician and computer programmer/software engineer originally from London; his wife, contemporary painter Rachel Eckstein Ritchford; and their friend, Jon Giles, a video artist visiting them from New York City, had dinner with us at an Indonesian restaurant just a few blocks from our home base in the city center. Indonesia was a Dutch colony for almost 150 years and they still have a large presence in the Netherlands today. A Google search for Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam turns up 77 results. We ate at one called Aneka Rasa, where we ordered the Vegetarian Rice Table consisting of 14 dishes each better than the next.
After dinner, we walked to a bar called Café t Genootschap der Geneugten or “The Fellowship of Pleasure Café” and ordered a Hopus, a Belgian beer known for the sediment, that our hosts ritualistically poured into shot glasses and drank separately. We also ordered a flight of flavored jenevers, a Dutch gin dating back as far as the 16th century. When served with beer, the combination is called a “kopstoot” or “headbutt.” Served in tulip glasses, these colorful liquors were not my cup of tea except for the liquorice one, which luckily, no one else cared for. In general, however, liquorice is very popular in the Netherlands with the Dutch consuming more liquorice per capita than anywhere else in the world, according to stuffdutchpeoplelike.com. Their version of the candy, called “drop,” is generally saltier than ours and can be bought almost anywhere.
That last night, as Sabra and I walked home, I realized I had just made somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 new friends. I was struck once again by the sense of community I felt with the artists I had met from all over the world and the feeling of belonging, not just with a global arts community but in the Netherlands in general. The weather was perfect from the time we arrived in Leeuwarden until our last morning in Amsterdam. Several locals pointed out to us that it’s usually much colder and rainier than it was during our time there and that our trip appeared to be charmed. I admit I felt a bit as though I was being wooed and could imagine myself living out my days in the most charming country I’ve ever been to. As the Dutch would say when they find something they love, “It koe minder.” VT
The Grant That Got Me There
As their website states, “Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation launched in 2016 by contemporary art collector and philanthropist Al Shands. Named for the home that Al and his late wife Mary created, the mission of Great Meadows Foundation is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.”
Sabra and I both took this trip with the help of Great Meadows’ artist professional development grants, which seek to “develop artists’ awareness of and participation in the national and international art world in order to strengthen the level of discourse and practice among artists in the state.”