Conversations with an Artist: Nico van Dongen
Nico earned his master’s of fine art in photography at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague. He has been a educator for over 20 years as well as a practicing designer and photographer. Four years after presenting his “Tulipa Erotica” series at Poet and/the Bench, we are excited to feature his new photographic work, "Concerning Trees." This latest exhibition is the result of a six-week photographic exploration of trees and vistas in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Each final photograph is the result of hours of production work combining multiple exposures and layering as one image–with evocative results.
Describe the moment you realized art fed your soul.
I’ve always been attracted to the act of creation–whether I am designing, cooking, making music or teaching a class. I see art in everything that surrounds me. Art doesn’t just feed one’s soul. Art is a relationship that is temperamental and demands a response that is pure. Art is always one step ahead, the process is always critical and challenging.
When I am making art and in the flow of creation, I am reminded every time, that I am merely the humble custodian of my craft. Art rewards me–only when I surrender to the moment–by filling my soul with joy.
What themes do you pursue in your art?
Themes come and go over time. The main theme has always been to work in an environment where I have a sense of control over my subject. Working in a studio environment is as close to how a painter builds an image. You can step back, reflect and work towards the desired outcome. You can take time to see what your subject is telling you. For many years, I focused on botanicals. My latest exploration began by photographing trees as sketches, a perspective from multiple angles gently layered over one another to both reveal and obscure.
Tell us about what influenced your direction for Tulipa Erotica.
After reading in Sir Isaac Newton’s biography that he had an epiphany when the apple fell, I began pondering, “Why is an apple an apple?” Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle taught me that asking “Why?” first provides a sense of purpose. I wanted to explore the question, “Why are things that grow and reproduce the way they are?” That led naturally to the question, “Why is a flower a flower?” Suddenly, I felt that I had a whole new world to explore.
How has your work developed over time?
I remain humbled by how much there is to learn about art. To work with living plant matter is infinite. As I explore my subject, I want to try different photographic approaches and techniques. I started researching photographers who have done similar work so that I could learn from their experience, such as Karl Blossfeldt, Edward Weston and Robert Mapplethorpe.
My latest work at Poet and/the Bench is "Concerning Trees". It was born about of spending time during Covid in Golden Gate Park. Trees are the largest living organic form near my home and the park has been my backyard for 20 plus years and provides the ultimate San Francisco outdoor experience.
What’s the most indispensable item in your studio?
During the winter months, the low southern sun creates magical light. I work with this unique natural light to illuminate my subjects in the tulip and veggie series.
Do you collect anything?
Guitars and gray hairs…
What’s the most inspiring thing you’ve seen, read, watched or listened to recently?
The work of Karl Blossfeldt (1865–1932): “The plant never lapses into mere arid functionalism; it fashions and shapes according to logic and suitability, and with its primeval force compels everything to attain the highest artistic form.”
Blossfeldt was an instructor of sculpture, who for 35 years devoted himself to photographing only flowers, buds and seeds. Through this focus, he educated his students about design elements in nature.
What advice would you give to your younger self about your artistic journey?
Create art every day.
Curves / Galore (detail), 2015
Misty / Red Hot Tulip (detail), 2015
The Tulipa Erotica photography series examined the sensual side of tulips–one of the most cultivated flowers in the world.
Jeffrey sees layers in forests, trees, feels they have energy, souls. "There's a conversation. They're not inanimate objects. They're alive," he says. "The layers allow us to touch what we like about nature. That's why I would want one in my house. Looking at it gives me the ability to have that energy in my own home because I can't have a big tree there.”
"Concerning Trees" are hauntingly beautiful, ethereal photographs that celebrate trees, and a way of seeing that powerfully brings each of us to a place of magic.
Come see the selected photographs from this series in person at Poet and/the Bench or view the collection online here.
Until next time,
Bonnie & Jeffrey