Interview with Kees van de Ven

“I felt I was drawing silence all the time, in whatever form”

Thinking of Celleno the first image that comes to mind is the magical fog the
landscape was shrouded in when I first arrived there. Low lying creamy white
clouds in every valley and gorge, swelling like a soft sea, with the frayed edges
of the hills just above them. An inspiring image it is, graphic, black and white,
and calm. It is a timeless reference to Casper David Friedrich’s painting ‘Der
Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer.
Once I settled down at Casa Amenta Maria I was especially struck by the
silence. Not a dead silence but a living one, full of small sounds: the sheep bells
down in the valley, twittering birds, a dog barking, the rustling of the wind, a
tractor in the distance, the occasional voice. Sounds that belong to the place,
sounds that make the silence tangible.
I turned seventy in 2018, the year I was in Celleno. In earlier years I had
changed the course of my life rather drastically. I had stopped working for
Dutch television and had plunged into making iron statues. Over the years I had
developed my own graphic style, which I called ‘writing in iron’. Somewhat
later I decided to leave that behind as well, and I started to draw, just draw. I
changed my workshop on Schouwen-Duiveland for a studio in Middelburg (both
in the province of Zeeland), bought some drawing paper and pencils and got to
work. I had to toil to master the technique and develop my own style on paper.
This was a confronting but intriguing experience. I didn’t draw according to
reality, to the outside world, but in every drawing I tried to get a grip on the
inner world, on the essentials that originated in me. There was one core
phenomenon in every drawing and that was silence. I felt I was drawing silence
all the time, in whatever form.
My stay at Casa Amenta Maria came at a favourable moment. I wanted to
discover why silence was playing such a big part in myself and in my work. And
I was hoping to understand the process that kept going in the very same
direction, hoping to make progress in developing my own style of drawing, my
own imagery.
I had brought piles of literature, folders full of notes I had taken the last few
years, and a head full of ideas to elaborate on. And paper and charcoal, of
course. But once I had settled down nothing happened! I had no idea where to
begin. I read my books but nothing stuck, I wrote but found no direction, and I
drew but there was no breakthrough.

After weeks of toiling and doubting I gave up all my preconceived plans and
surrendered to the spot I had landed up in. I surrendered to the view of a rough
landscape with valleys, slopes and brooks, to living without clocks, without
radio and television and with little use of the internet. I surrendered to the
silence and to the rhythms of nature and light.
From then on, I got better at living with the moment, going for walks in the
landscape we were by now acquainted with, and I started weeding thistles
around the house and collecting wood for the stove. The two of us took our time
to prepare meals and to eat dinner and we listened to Bach cantatas. I also
started keeping a diary of clouds. Every day I drew the clouds I saw and took
notes of the thoughts that came with them. This diary has eventually become a
book about how I experienced silence and time.
‘March 19th 2018 – A silence in which nothing is happening but for a light
slowly receding, a dog calling, an owl laughing, and the melancholy singing of
the wind. A silence in which everything is happening.’
‘April 17th 2018 – My heartbeat is gradually adapting to the rhythm of the
landscape, to the movements of the clouds and the light, to time without time.’
This living in the silence of the Italian countryside became living in a timeless
time when, without limit, one moment is a result of the one before. One in which
a preceding stream takes you to what is to come. I became more and more aware
that what really matters is not the time one has but the time one is, and that all
your experiences are stored inside you. That is the basin from where new ideas
can arise.
Of course I had realised this for some time and had lived and worked according
to this notion, but not this explicitly. In Celleno there was no escaping this idea
and it turned out to be the most valuable gift during my stay as an Artist in
Residence. This realisation has given me the peace of mind, then as well as later
in my studio, to allow things to happen without having fixed ideas beforehand.
This is how new images and techniques can come into being intuitively and in
complete freedom.
Eventually, after many months, this has led to an essential change in my work. I
started an experiment using charcoal and iron rust together. It developed into an
investigation of the limits of material and imagination. Now, in 2020, I am still
investigating this, processing paper with raw iron rust, one layer on top of the
other, occasionally using charcoal, too. This is how images originate: tender,
intense and tingly, in all grades of yellow, orange, red, brown, and black.
Working this way takes a lot of concentration, both introspectively and

meditatively. Some most vulnerable images such as inner freedom, doubt and
silence can now be expressed.
The first inhabitant of Celleno who showed himself in this silence was Egidio, a
neighbour and a shepherd. He appeared with his herd in the meadow beneath our
bedroom window at a quarter past eight on our first morning there. With a single
word and gesture he sent his sheep into the valley. Once across the brook the
dogs took charge until late afternoon. By then, quite naturally, the herd showed
up beside the house again. This was our introduction to the daily routine in and
around Celleno.
We went to the village only to get our daily groceries and found all we needed.
There was a baker’s shop, a butcher, a chemist, a grocer, a small supermarket
and a filling station. It was never busy in the shops. They were small businesses
with but few customers. It must be a worrisome existence for self-employed
shopkeepers in this aging countryside, far from towns and the flow of tourists.
Yet, these tradesmen didn’t seem all that anxious. On the contrary, everyone
was most kind and helpful but, of course, language was a problem. As we can
speak but half a word of Italian, by speaking with our hands and feet and smiling
a lot we managed to understand one another.
San Rocco Bar and Restaurant was an exception. It is situated in the oldest part
of the village, near the castle, and Andrea, the landlord, spoke good English. He
had been to university but trying to find a job being an intellectual is not enough,
apparently. One needs to know influential people and have relatives with power
and money. This is why, after studying, a lot of young people go abroad to make
a living. Andrea, however, decided to stay, took over the business, and turned it
into an enjoyable and thriving bar and restaurant, with his mother in the kitchen
and some of his peers behind the bar. For us San Rocco soon became an
important spot for coffee, a drink, and most of all for questions we couldn’t ask
in our poor Italian.
We spent one hilarious night there. We had booked the special menu for Easter
Saturday and arriving at 8 pm we were the first guests. The television was on
with a sports program. When our starters were served the place became crowded
with people, and in no time there was no more room in the bar. Most were
young lads back from work in towns in the neighbourhood, starting their Easter
weekend in their village. They didn’t come for dinner but for soccer, Juventus vs
Milan. They sympathized loudly, encouraging Milan. But Juve won the match, a
disaster on the field as well as in the bar. Luckily, the atmosphere was good and
we were having a great meal.

Before coming to Italy we had prepared our stay in Celleno by studying the
history and culture of the Etruscans. The first town with an Etruscan history we
visited was Orvieto, built on top of a plateau of tuff, like lots of towns and
villages in this part of Italy. We admired the excavated treasures of the
Etruscans in the archeological museum Palazzo Faina. Opposite this museum is
the Duomo, the world famous cathedral. This is a paragon of the medieval
splendor when Italy was ruled by the Roman Catholic Church and the popes.
Against the nave of the Romanesque church a gothic facade was built. This front
has been so exuberantly dressed with statues and mosaics that one could study it
for days, if not for the rest of one’s life.
I was struck by the four huge frescoes in the church, representing Judgment
Day, a masterpiece by the Tuscan painter Luca Signorelli, assisted by Fra
Angelico. They are both magnificent and atrocious, with Christ pronouncing his
last judgment, after which the chosen ones are led to paradise by angels and the
damned are expelled to hell without pardon. And with the resurrection of the
dead, who literally come crawling out of the earth in which they were buried.
After our visit to Orvieto we went to other places where the wealth of Etruscan
history can be admired. We saw the necropolis of Cerveteri, a so-called town
with roads and squares around huge domed tombs. We also spent some time in
the necropolis of Tarquinia, built completely underground, with beautifully
painted burial vaults, revealing some aspects of the Etruscan middle class. And
Tuscania of course, the eminent Etruscan town. There we saw sarcophagi with
images of women in full regalia. This points at the emancipated status of women
within the ruling class of Etruscan society. So many sarcophagi have been found
around Tuscania, that some were placed on the town walls and against the
facade of the San Pietro Church carelessly. On this facade there is a marble
plaque with the poem ‘Tuscania muta’, ‘Tuscania dumbstruck’, by Luigi
Pasquarelli. It was written after the 1971 earthquake that hit the town, killing
dozens of people. The first line is ‘Nel sole velate’, ‘Under the veiled sun’.
Before we became Artists in Residence we had arranged to show the results of
our stay at an exhibition in Museum Panorama Walcheren in the town of
Vlissingen. This exhibition ‘Silence and Time’ started off in September and
included Hetty’s word sketches on paper and in iron wire, and also my charcoal
drawings and pages from my diary of clouds. And there were photographs of our
work that we had left in Casa Amenta Maria. Most of this art will be on display
during Incontro, where I will also show some new work.
I ended my opening speech at the Vlissingen exhibition saying that the works on
show “could be created in the luxury of life in the silence of the Italian

countryside, a luxury that, well considered, wasn’t an excess but an
indispensable asset to give our wonder and imagination a chance.”
If I should want to show or tell the inhabitants of Celleno something, it would be
this: “The silence of the wide and rough landscape of your world is a riches that
cannot be expressed in money. It is a source of timeless freedom and inspiration,
precious as life itself. It is a place under the clouds that, due to its peace and
simplicity, encourages one to reflection, as I wrote in my diary of clouds.”
‘April 8th 2018 – Clouds descending with you in the time you were, the time you
are, a continuum in which everything is contained: your origin, memory,
happiness, melancholy, desire.’

Translation Hans Kal

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