World Artists and their Story, 26 - Thea Verstraten
White, gray and black torsos. Tight heads which remind you of the heads of the Easter Islanders, all with a cap or other headgear. And wooden fingers, hands and torsos in which the body lines are sometimes accented with roasted black outlines.
Thea Verstraten carves stone since 1999 and since 2013 in wood. All her sculptures are made by hand. Usually, she cuts in the taille-direct method, the starting point is the shape of the stone. The sculptures are actually always in her head. The materials used are Kilkenny (Irish bluestone), Arduin (Belgian bluestone) and marble.
A sense of strength
In the MLB Gallery in Amsterdam she recently had an exhibition, ‘Dialogue’, along with Carrie Meijer. Their works: abstract graphic on the side of Meijer and sculptures by Verstraten indeed went into conversation. It was also caused by a special arrangement of the exhibition. Meijer and Verstraten had exhibited together twice before, in another art space.
Thea Verstraten just loves stone: “Stone gives a sense of power. If you can realize with chisel and hammer something that you have in your mind, is great. The splitting of the stone is a special experience.” Yet she began relatively late with it. Looking back, she says: “If only I had started with it twenty years before!”
From an early age she drew and painted. But the logical step to go to the Rietveld Academy for example she didn’t make. “I come from a working class family, my father was a carpenter. There was no money to be an artist. There were certain values in the family, to which art did not belong. To get work was more important. And my idea was that you couldn’t live from art, that was only reserved for the extraordinary gifted.”
So she went to a different program: social work. But you can’t deny what’s in your blood, she continued portraying people and model drawing. She also did three-dimensional work. She did it with great dedication. Her sister suggested trying it out with stone. She was familiar with the work of Fritz Wotruba and Leo de Vries, she found that fascinating. She considered it a good suggestion.
She contacted Rob Schreefel, a famous Amsterdam sculptor who worked with granite, and she could apprentice with him. He brought her the technique. When she mastered that, she continued her education with Jan Verburg, the centipede. He painted, modeled and worked with wood. She started to work.
The human figure is her theme. Initially she made abstracted works. Already in the 80s she visited Norway and got to know the inukshuks, stacked stone that serves as a guide. The Norwegians sometimes made true works of art of it, by stacking them in such a way that there arose for example a beast form. It appealed to Thea. “These structures were again coming into my mind and were a source of inspiration. I became looser and started to play more with the material / the stone. I got other ideas for the torsos and figures.”
A large flat pebble she had brought from Norway, she put on top of a stone head. She had performed the idea already earlier, in 2009. She was asked to make a small work for an exhibition in Haarlem Vishal. She racked her mind: what will I return? Then a fantastic idea came up to add a stone to a head that was already finished. So the head had suddenly become a man with a hat. Many heads with hats / caps and stacked sculptures would follow. They were also featured at the exhibition in Amsterdam.
Every Monday she works with twelve other sculptors, ‘choppers’, in a joint workshop. “We make very different work. We also tell what we think of each others work. We’re all honest with each other. It is inspiring. Sometimes you come on a new idea and you start experimenting. It gives energy and appreciation. It has brought me further.” The rest of the week she works in her own studio at home.
A second small torso, of a man, a kind of ‘sixpack’ was later auctioned in the same Vishal. “It was my first male torso. It was sold. I was curious if the buyer was a man or a woman. It turned out to be Helene van Dongen, a known Haarlem artist. It was for me a boost that it was purchased by Helene since this was my first year of exhibiting (2009).”
In 2012/13 she started with wood. “I just started. The first work was a mantorso of yew. It was an abstract form. It radiated a certain ‘security’. Some time later I got a piece of rough wood. That was at the joint workshop. I cut the edges off, but if I would cut further, not so much would remain. But a part had to go off. Should I burn it with the great soldering iron? That left a pattern behind that looked liked drawing, and that was absolutely not my intention. Maybe it was a good idea to work with a burner, which leaves much less traces?”
She bought a burner and indeed, with the burner she could put fine black lines that indicated contours without leaving too many ugly black spots. “I follow the existing lines of the wood and accentuate it extra on this way. Ultimately, it adds something to the work.” We browse through the photobook. We see a wooden ‘Man on a bone’ made this year from maple wood. “Actually a stackwork as well.”
Finally, what’s her philosophy? “I started to chop because I wanted to realize the images in my head. Jan Verburg and Rob Schreefel both have encouraged me to exhibit. That was never my approach. The exhibit gives me esteem from others and thus energy. It makes me happy to create images / sculptures.”