A Conversation With Claudy Jongstra About Her Holistic View On Art And Life
Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra is most widely known for her tapestries and large-scale architectural installations created with the ancient technique of felting. Her work is founded on strong ethical values, an advocacy for biodiversity and the preservation of a natural and cultural heritage, and she has built a healthy, self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle for herself and her studio community.
Through her artistic practice and life, she works towards creating a harmony between humans and nature. Her studio can be viewed as a mini laboratory that presents us with an optimistic vision for respectful co-creation aligned with human and environmental well-being. In the following interview, she gives us insights into the philosophy that guides and empowers her work and way of life.
Interview by Joyphie Yu, all images courtesy of Claudy Jongstra.
How did you start your work and how has it developed over the years?
I initially started with fashion design but it was difficult for me to work in the structure of the industry. There was so much pressure, production and waste. Eventually, there was a moment when I saw woollen material in an exhibition. It strongly resonated with me, I really love the quality of wool. But back then I didn't know anything about wool. There was just a need in my life to steer away from the feeling of hollowness.
I started working with this material, which has existed for so long in European culture, and it was very natural for me to work with it. At the beginning, I worked with natural tones and explored the potential of the material. After a few years, I began to integrate colours. It was a big step for me since the only colours I knew were synthetic-based and using them didn’t seem adequate to my natural materials. Finally, I decided to use natural dyes which were like a treasure box opening up for me.
Why didn't you try to integrate wool into your fashion designs?
At the beginning I did. I produced a collection. But I couldn't really express myself through fashion. I am painting with fibres. It is interesting for me to see my work in a building and experience how the visitors have different dialogues with it. I feel more comfortable working with big-scale tapestry than with fashion.
You tapestry and textile are made of felted wool, raw silk and plant fibres. What is your relationship with these materials and why did felting become the major media of telling the stories of your work?
I wrote a book three years ago about materials and their relationships with culture. Materials are related to specific cultures and wool is very related to the Northern European culture. One can easily relate the agricultural image of Europe to flocks of sheep and other cattle. And linen can be related to Egypt and silk to China. It seems natural for me to be drawn to wool as my main material. The purity of the process, the application of water and friction to the felting of genuine woollen material, has intrigued me for a long time.
Your studio is committed to working with high-quality wool. What lead you to keep your own flock of Europe’s oldest breed, the Drenthe Heath sheep?
When I started my artistic practice, I bought wool from suppliers and I wanted to know where it came from. But as it’s sometimes difficult to find out the origin, I decided to buy my own sheep. Back then, this self-sufficiency was difficult to maintain due to the fact that I was living in the city. But then I found farmers who would keep the sheep. I feel very connected to see the sheep evolving throughout the year until it’s time to shave the wool. The seasonal cycle is wonderful. We decided to keep Drenthe Heath sheep as they are the oldest European breed. They aren’t genetically manipulated and are very strong. Today, we keep a few hundred sheep and I have found an organisation that looks after them.
You have your own botanical garden and your own dye studio using exclusively vegetable dyes. Could you explain the process from plants to colour?
As a start, you have to make an annual plan of what you want to grow depending on what colours you want to extract. You have to harvest the fresh plantsin time and you have to have a suitable place to dry them. Dry plants don't last for long where there is moisture. You have to digest from what you have learnt from each year, and doing research is also equally important. We have found a lot of recipes for natural dyeing from old books. All in all, there are various ways to learn about the growing and caring of plants, from sources on the internet to books, to experiences from other people and your own experimentation.
Could you tell me about bio-dynamics and how you integrate that into your work?
Bio-dynamics is a very intelligent system. You have to study how to nurture the soil and treat it with a lot of respect and modesty. It’s not about pressure, not about control. If you recognise and understand the influence of the planets and work with them, eventually, the soil becomes more fertile. When you harvest crops, it is about connecting yourself to the elements. When water is harmonised, it has an ability to connect the fibre more strongly with a colour. In a sense, it is more efficient. Nature is incredible.
Is there a spiritual element to your work?
It’s about awareness. For instance, if you have a tree and cut it, you must be aware of the right timing. The wounds of a tree can be open and vulnerable. But if you cut it at the right moment in a month, you see a very natural and harmonised branch ending. For example, if you look at the year rings of an oak tree, they have two rhythms. It is related to Mars. It takes two years for Mars to circle around the sun. Today, we are not aware of these processes anymore, it's all about efficiency and economy. The holistic part of nature is stunning and I respect the way that the world and nature is made.
Many of your commissions are dedicated to hospitals, embassies, universities, gardens, and other public places. How do your works influence the emotions of your audience?
My works increase the audience’s well-being. In institutions such as hospitals, our works bring consolation. To think about how the inside climate of a building can be increased to be more humanistic is an important message to governments and architects. The visual and also the acoustic element have to be considered. The natural materials we use add extra value to the well-being of humans.
Your work has been compared to the works of Mexican Muralism, which is deeply manifested in the concept of communal production. Could you tell me more about how your own studio and farm operates as a social practice?
We started by experimenting. We connected with local farmers and ceramics companies. By bringing in interns and graduates from all over the world, I started creating my own community. Everybody brings their own unique qualities. We also do collaborations with schools and share our vision and philosophy. Education in agriculture is very important. Last year, we ran a workshop in a rural area where there are not many facilities and opportunities for children. We think it is our mission to be engaged in these kinds of communities. It’s an organic process through which the studio and the project ‘Farm of the World’ are developing.
What is your project ‘Farm of the World’?
‘Farm of the World’ is a cultural initiative that invites artists and designers to work together on solutions to create a sustainable relationship between the city and the countryside. The project has evolved with the development of ‘The Kreake’, a small farm located in Húns, Friesland that operates on a seasonal basis with biodynamic agriculture and food production at its center. The ‘Farm of the World’ initiative is a nonprofit organisation and its mission is to create a better, more sustainable and peaceful world through art, food, farming and education. It’s not about being a farmer or a chef or an artist but about expressing your inner-self and opening your heart. You can express it through any medium and this is why we are providing different ways of expression for the audience in our projects.
What inspired you to initiate your ‘Farm of the World’?
Today, we are mostly living in cities but we have to rethink the quality of our lives. A lot is about making profits these days and the question is whether we are able to pay attention to different, more life-enhancing qualities. In 2016, we participated in the Chelsea Flower Show and were awarded a Silver-Gilt medal for our Akzo Nobel dyer’s garden that is a project by ‘Farm of the World’. By making this radical garden, we talked to people about new perspectives on biodiversity. I think we are now reaching a lot of people and they start to bring awareness to their own communities.
I would like to mention the award-winning chef and co-owner of the restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Dan Barber. He grows his own vegetables at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture and advocates a revolutionary new way of farming and eating. There are pioneers who set up great new models that help us to look at the quality of our lives from different angles.
How do you educate people to step back and see the wisdom of nature?
By showing it to them. We can’t shelter and mentor people. But what we can do is to show the large scale pieces of the works we create. It is important to show these works in different places and especially in fast-developing countries like China. This is not about me being a great artist but about showing a new visual language and philosophy that people are not used to. People will be touched on a certain level just through the works we show and they will start asking questions. We just show. We don’t preach anything. The inner motivation of the audience is very important.
Thank you for the interview, Claudy Jongstra!