What is art?
Well, do you have all day? And several bottles of wine? I bet we still wouldn’t come to a consensus. How do you define something so personal, so illusory? I’ve been to galleries where the exhibits have not only left me cold, but actually perplexed. How is this considered art, I’ve thought to myself? And yet there are people fawning over the work. Gushing over it! By the same token I have stepped in front of a painting and been totally mesmerised, unable to look away. Unable to walk away. Lost in another world, another time. Transfixed.
Leo Tolstoy defined art thus:
“Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward the well-being of individuals and of humanity.”
And that’s about as good a definition as I’ve ever heard. I wonder how many bottles of wine he had to drink to come up with that one!
Now let’s get into some deep and meaningful stuff. Is Chryss Stathopoulos an artist? What is an artist? Someone who creates art, right? So, by definition, yes, I am an artist. But honestly, to call myself that feels like a lie. I create art, sure. I write regularly. I paint once in a while. I take photos when something catches my eye. But in my own opinion, that doesn’t make me an artist. A true artist is following a calling. Maybe I have a calling, but I sure as hell don’t follow it. I’m too married to my salary (right now) to give up being an air traffic controller (shackled by what I like to call the “golden handcuffs”). If I was a true artist I would say to hell with the money, to hell with the travel, to hell with the lifestyle and I would sit down and do everything I could to make a living from my “art”. But I don’t. So when I meet people who have done just that, I look at them with great awe and admiration.
One such person is the subject of this month’s ejo. Karien Mulder is a visual artist and designer in Dubai. I know her because our husbands work together. There are a lot of things about Karien that intrigue and inspire me. And most of them have to do with how different we are.
For instance, I didn’t grow up in a war zone. I spent my formative years in the leafy, Melbourne seaside suburb of Elwood, where the most exciting thing that ever happened to me was winning a spelling competition. Karien, on the other hand, grew up in Rundu, a town on the border of Namibia and Angola, during the South African Border War. Her parents were both in the military and her father was sometimes absent for months at a time. I imagine that as a young child she saw and experienced some pretty awful things. And as children do, she would escape the real world by playing. Her favourite memory of that time is spending hours chasing “sand lions”. She would patiently trick them out of the ground using a blade of grass to tickle the side of the sand funnel until they popped up. Only to put them back again. Another pastime she loved was drawing (particularly faces), something her mother taught her to do and something that would become a lifelong passion.
After they moved to South Africa (once the war was over), Karien’s mother allowed her to use the spare room of their house as a studio – and in a way it was this act of encouragement and support that really gave Karien a chance to flourish and grow and figure out that being an artist was what she really wanted to do. School was never a highlight for her, but the high school she transferred to in South Africa did have a fantastic art department – and so a confluence of opportunity presented itself to her. Art as a life choice. She took hold of it and still hasn’t let go.
Having a mentor, I believe, is an important part of walking the artist’s path, and Karien has had a few along the way. People that she’s learned from, people who have guided her and inspired her. From the high school teacher with the shaved head and flowing skirts who taught her that actually creating work is more important than talking about it, to her best friend from whom she learned that every decision an artist makes should be towards creating better work. Karien’s most influential mentor though is the man who taught film at The Open Window School for Visual Communications, Pluto Panoussis. He opened her eyes to a whole other, moving, world, a world that she has confidently inhabited since.
But Karien had made a commitment to being an artist long before taking Pluto’s film class. At the tender age of 21 she packed up her car and drove to the South African coastal town of Langebaan with her cousin. She left because her father had just died. She left because she wasn’t enjoying the graphic design course she was three quarters of the way through. She left because it was the right move to make. It was a major step for her and I can’t imagine that she did it with no fear whatsoever. But she did it anyway. And while she was there, not only did she take part in some art exhibitions and work on her painting, developing her technique and skill. It was in Langebaan that Karien met the other love of her life, her husband Nic.
Nic and Karien are one of the most in love couples I’ve ever met. Their relationship is a beautiful thing and I admire them all the more for knowing just how different air traffic controllers are from artists (trust me, I really know). But they make it work – just like any relationship, you get what you put in. And to that effect Karien made a striking comment about it. When I asked her if there was a time when she knew she was going to be an artist she said, “Art is a soul commitment. Being an artist takes way more than being married. You commit to art more than you commit to another person”.
So while Karien keeps her art close to her, closer even than her husband, I keep mine as a mistress. Not even that. More like a booty call. Something I paw at when the urge takes me. Which is not what being an artist is about (though like all relationships, some nurturing and attention could improve things). Karien and I do share a creative spirit. But I have squirrelled mine away, encasing it in a beautiful crystal box to protect it, only imagining what it must be like to create art as a life venture. Karien, on the other hand, has taken her spirit, exposed it to the world, turned it over and thrown it up in the air (and probably up against a few walls too). She made the difficult choice to be an artist. She didn’t just dream about it.
I remember once taking part in a life drawing class. At the end of the session the instructor walked around checking everyone’s work. When she came to mine she stepped back and tilted her head. “Whose is this?” she asked and my heart skipped a beat. I put my hand up and she nodded. “This is really, really good,” she said. What I did with that compliment was allow it to fluff up my ego a little bit and then I stored it away in that nice little glass box where I could look at it from time to time, and admire it. That’s the difference between me and Karien. And that is why she is extraordinary.
You can check out Karien’s work at her WEBSITE.
You can also read an interview she recently did with Gulf Photo Plus HERE.
And here are a few of my favourite of Karien’s works. I hope to one day start a collection.
Inspired by a fictional ghost story
Model & Make-up: Yowyn Du Plooy
Styling, Compositing and Photography: Karien Mulder
Wardrobe: Corsets SA http://www.corsetsa.co.za
Assistant: Louise Malan
You can check out the project here:
Inspired by tattoos, headpieces and vintage tattoo design.
Illustration and Model: Karien Mulder
Inspired by making a drawing every day for 50 days.
Part of a work in progress.
Model: Yowyn Du Plooy
A personal visual diary made as part of a project while at The Open Window School. The idea was to develop your own personal illustration style through the medium of your choice. Karien chose to work with random objects and explore concepts of South African folk art.
You can view the project here:
“A vector self-portrait based on a portrait I saw of Frida Kahlo some time ago. I am (like most) a massive fan of her work and I particularly like the placement of her portraits – it sometimes reminds me of a mug shot.
Mug shots also interest me, and I have made a series these self-portraits in different environments. I like the idea of a universal self and how the decorative space is the voice of the personality. In this way the individual ironically disappears.”
“I made a couple of headpieces and I wanted to take some photos and didn’t have an available model.”
You can check out the project here: