Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra is as well known for her commitment to sustainability as she is for her signature artworks and installations made from wool felt. Her work is instantly recognisable: large in scale, rich in texture and vibrant in colour.
Not only is all of the wool for her projects sourced sustainably from her own herd of sheep but she also produces her own natural dyes from her carefully curated botanical garden
Her latest exhibition at the Galerie Fontana in Amsterdam is titled “Connecting with Claudy – A Tribute to the Bloomsbury Group inspired by the radical thinking and multidisciplinary work of the 20th-century artist collective that left London to live, work and garden in the English countryside.
When working on a project in London with Willer Gallery several years ago, Claudy Jongstra came to know the Bloomsbury Group, the artists living at Charleston Farmhouse and the Omega Workshop they initiated. Immediately, she was struck by their radical thinking about art, culture, literature, economics, politics, friendships and sexuality.
Jongstra also became impressed by the way their movement blurred the boundaries in many areas including the arts. Here she discusses her art, activism and how sustainable working feeds her creativity. Her work will be offered for sale in the London Showroom, presented by Willer Gallery. By Sotheby’s.
You have established a self-sufficient studio. Does that mean you were able to continue working during the last year of lockdown?
We have a self-sufficient studio and completely sustainable no-waste working processes, so on the creative side technically we could continue working, yes. But the lockdown year proved very difficult for the architects, galleries and art collectors we work with.
There was virtually no demand for international large commissions and those in the process were all halted or postponed. As you know, the art fairs, presentations at galleries and any interaction with the world of art collecting came to a complete standstill.
Of course, so did any travelling work-wise so our international staff of art students from all around the world could no longer come and work in the studio.
What we did is downsize and concentrate on research and experiment, working in a slightly smaller team. For me personally, it offered time and space to work on my autonomous works of art, to try out new ideas and to build on a body of works that thankfully now is presented in a large exhibition in Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden and my gallery in Amsterdam, Galerie Fontana. And now with the first regulations and scares around coronavirus easing down, the commission part of my art practice in collaboration with architects has picked up again.
You began by studying fashion. Why did you decide to move away from that path? What drew you to the art of felt making and how did you learn about it?
Several things happened nearly simultaneously. Although I worked on some very interesting projects such as the costumes for the first Star Wars movie and collaborations with famous fashion designers, my experience of the fashion-related creative industry was also one of the limitations, deadlines, much too short cycles and very little or no sense of the need of sustainability, which worried me most even 20 years ago.
Then I encountered a large woollen felted tent, a yurt, in a museum presentation and was profoundly moved by the energy and quality of this comforting, versatile, purely natural material. I decided to lock myself in my studio in Amsterdam to take time to work out what I could create with raw wool and this felting technique.
The freedom I felt experimenting all alone, focusing on the material and this basic technique released a kaleidoscope of ideas to develop further. It helped a lot that my first pieces were immediately appreciated by museum curators and avant-garde architects. I had found my language, that was for sure.
Is wool a difficult medium to work with?
As with any material you choose to work with it takes time to get to know it well. Along the way, I picked up more and more knowledge about wool and felting and the other natural fibres I work with like silk and linen. The main source though for building up knowledge and dexterity is the work itself, letting your hands do the felting hours on end and somehow your mind stores the memory of the movement in all its versatility, a repetitive mindful lesson par excellence you can say.
Before I start felting there are all kinds of processes involved to prepare the woollen fibres, like carefully picking it clean and washing the raw wool, carding it to obtain smooth wads of silken soft fibres. Also, in the studio the carded wool is spun into a thread and that is used for embroidery or weaving, a chapter in itself at the centre of my attention right now.
When did you first become interested in the ethics of making art and in biodiversity as a subject? Why and how did you establish your flock of sheep?
My whole life I have been upset by injustice, albeit social injustice or injustice towards mother nature as well as bad treatment of animals and wildlife, and have felt the urge to put things right wherever and whenever I was in the position to do that.
So, there was no doubt for me that when I started my career as an artist I only wanted to work in a sustainable way. Little did I know that along the way I would have the chance to not only make positive choices towards preserving nature but I would even have the possibility to contribute to necessary biodiversity in many ways.
So that’s why I chose to create my art pieces with wool from the Drenthe Heath Sheep, an ancient breed that had grazed for centuries along a wide area of the heathlands in Northern Europe. By doing so this breed was the natural maintainer of the wild stretches of heath, pruning it in their natural way and dispersing seeds and pollen at the same time on their path. When I discovered this indigenous Dutch breed, at first for the wild luscious quality of its raw wool, I immediately realized that giving their wonderful fleece a new purpose would help save this sheep breed from extinction.
To start with I tried to have my own herd in a nature reserve in Utrecht. When my art practice grew and my demand for the fleeces increased at the time of moving the studio to Friesland, I chose to maintain herds at a distance by leaving the herding over to a shepherd working with a large flock in the northern provinces of the Netherlands.
Why and how did you establish a botanical garden and how are you able to create such high-quality dyes without using synthetic ingredients? And how do they compare?
One stems from the other in this case. Because I was unhappy with the results I achieved with synthetic dyes I started searching for alternatives and was amazed by what I stumbled upon.
Dyes from pigment plants proved to be an infinite treasure trove and after some years of experimenting provided me with a kaleidoscopic paintbox.
To be able to study them and cultivate the different old plant crops I had to establish a botanical garden. Nearly two decades ago I won a prestigious award also consisting of a very useful amount of money. This was invested completely in the botanical garden of flowering plants, pigment species and herbs as well. It was the beginning of a journey of discovery unearthing not only old plant species used for dying but also an array of medieval recipes with virtually no limits. After my partner Claudia Busson and I had acquired a smallholding nearby we could scale up our produce and research on the biodynamic farm we established there.
I became involved in an international collaboration between universities, a restoring laboratory and the Rijksmuseum called Artechne. Thanks to the circumstances on the farm, the fertile clay, the ashes from our wood-fired bread oven, a glasshouse in the cold climate in the north of Europe and our crops of the past years, the array of colours I can benefit from has developed tremendously including bringing back the mysterious Burgundian Black from the 16th century.
The natural dyes from pigment plants have enriched my palette and when applied in the right way based on old recipes and techniques the colours have a huge scope of hues from very subtle to intense and vibrant. I even manage to create new colours by continuing to try out new combinations of ingredients.
In comparison, my choice for these completely natural and sustainable colours has worked out very well – actually beyond expectation. Besides feeling happy about this way of dying, especially because of its beneficial effect on biodiversity, I also feel that the purity and vibrancy of the colours in my textile works of art are what distinguishes my oeuvre. And more and more people are reacting positively to the completely sustainable provenance of the materials and colours, at the same time it is the embodiment of my heartfelt activism, so it feels good in many ways.
What have you learned since creating this sustainable way to produce your art?
The importance of sustainable and traceable production chains and establishing more similar workshops situations. The urgency to initiate local maker production systems and the need to store and transfer all kinds of knowledge – including haptic – preferably in inter-generational and inclusive settings.
What role did art and nature play in your upbringing?
Art wasn’t an integral part of my upbringing or part of my family heritage. My mother did make beautiful clothes and other decorative and useful textiles for our home, so there certainly is a connection there. Also, my initial education was not art-oriented, but I felt a strong urge to go in this direction from a young age. I had to make an enormous effort to be allowed to go on to follow an art education.
Nature on the other hand was around us in the countryside in Limburg where we lived and I cherished it from a young age, always having had an interest in farming life. A strong element in my family life was delicious local food and cooking together and having family get-togethers around our table. More and more I realise that the surrounding monasteries in the southern province of Limburg constituted a focus on a spiritual and sound way of living and working together, producing your own food and collaborating in all kinds of artisanal creative and manufacturing techniques in a close-knit community.
How do you view the current conversation about climate change? What gives you hope?
Younger generations give me hope because they are very open to the urgency to act to save our planet. Also, they are returning to a new way – actually an ancient way – of working together in autarky and developing renewed connections both with nature and with each other in the countryside and the city. Independency has become a new sign of strength, providing essential needs on a small scale and looking after each other and surrounding nature. Especially the situation during the global lockdowns because of the coronavirus has strengthened this awareness.
Where do you find your inspiration?
In nature. It’s a never-ending saga that astonishes and surprises me time and time again. More knowledge about nature brings new discoveries. Also, I’m fascinated by anthropological infrastructures, a time honoured and so rich in wisdom. Often when you come across certain phenomena from the history of humankind you are struck by how ingenious our forefathers and mothers were and how worthy their life and work was even for our times.
Why do you often choose to work on a very large scale, and what experience do you hope viewers will have?
Large scale art installations I create are often connected to the function, the history or the geographical surroundings. There is a lot to tell about the impact these large works in natural fibres have on the senses and well-being of those who work and live in its proximity.
Obviously, a substantial size in a fitting architectural setting adds to this impact, can enhance the narrative and inhabits the space like a comforting entity.
Large spaces ask for impactful gestures and invite the people coming by to pay attention and connect to these art pieces.
How has your work and your approach to art changed since you first started out as an artist? Do you consider your work to have a message and if so, what would that be?
In the earlier years, I felt a deep connection with the material and technique, focusing on all the possibilities and wanting to delve deeper and deeper in the research and exploring new frontiers of my capability to create. Having worked a lot in collaboration with architects for large scale projects for some time I lost my creative focus.
Just like at the beginning of my career as an artist I had to return to the essence of my work in which both the artist and the activist would feel nourished and happy.
Fortunately, along the way, new valuable aspects became apparent to me like the natural landscape preservation that the grazing sheep offered. Also, the great urgency for biodiversity and the revaluation of wool as a worthy material. My urge to transfer knowledge had to be fulfilled as well, at the same time making sure our studio was working inclusively and providing purpose and connection to the local community.
While getting these aspects right I became reinvigorated and felt free and independent again and the flow of creativity followed vigorously.
Your works are often installed in public spaces – how important is it that art is accessible to all?
It is very important to have the opportunity to be in contact with art, especially when it doesn’t occur by itself in someone’s own social environment. People need to be surprised, questioned, moved, touched. I’m happy to contribute to this by having the privilege to create for public spaces.
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
Many collaborations have been highlights for me, like with the architects of the Obama Center, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, creating an impressive art installation for the Barnes Foundation and top fashion designers like John Galliano. Also, certain awards for sustainability like the ‘Duurzaam Lintje’. I’m especially proud of building a sustainable and holistic working community and the many wonderful intergenerational cooperation with art students from all around the world.
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