To learn, first make a really good mess.

I’m visited by Tjibbe Hooghiemstra, a fabulous Dutch artist I have known for many years but seen seldom. We met at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig in county Monaghan, Ireland, in 1991, when I was in residence and he was visiting. Since then our imaginative paths have crossed frequently (a mutual fascination with Antarctica and ships in frozen seas is one such overlap), although we have not been physically in the same space.

Conversations with Tjibbe are wide-ranging and exhilarating, covering everything from magical happenings on hillsides in rural Ireland, dark matter and auditory hallucinations, collaborations with 2012 Pulitzer Prize-finalist poet, essayist, novelist and critic Forrest Gander,  and everything, it seems, in between. His engagement and delight in ideas and conversation is infectious, firing up my jaded brain, still tired from making three projects back to back.

We talk about this blog and the importance of giving access to process. ‘It’s seldom done,’ Tjibbe says, and we discuss the impossibility of truly writing about process whilst in the vortex of making something new. When making work, especially to a deadline, I’m usually so close to the material I can’t get distance or perspective, so can only give an impressionistic representation rather than a forensic one. He encourages me to reflect on the different processes I’ve been through this year, making three contrasting projects which utilised my skills in different ways. ‘Maybe you should write a book?’ he suggests, and we laugh, knowing I prefer to focus on making work rather than a book about the process of making work…

‘To really learn, you have to make a mess,’ he says, referring to advice he gives to student artists at a most specific moment in their development and training. Through our discussion, I interpret this as him encouraging young in career artists to experiment, to go beyond the known, to deliberately make ‘bad’ work so they will learn more of process, of creativity, of transforming the base into something more valuable, or rare. ‘When you have made a mess, you will understand more, and may be onto something good,’ he says.

I think about my own experiences and how the most difficult, painfully complicated and apparently insurmountable obstacles, impossible messes, yielded the best learning experiences: The plot of the screenplay which refused to come together until I took all the components apart and, strand by strand, hour after hour, worked through all possible storylines until I eventually found the detail which worked; the play which was so saggy and uncooked in the middle I hated it with what felt like every fibre in my body – until I forced myself to re-examine and reinvent the characters, inhabit each moment of the dynamic I was trying to create, imagining how each character would respond in each of those moments – then making that raw, condensed. This taught me about the necessary economy in the dramatic moment – how to make something taut, tense, alive, full of pace. I’m not sure the lessons would have been absorbed so completely without the despair and determination of trying to bring order to a bloody great mess. I smile at Tjibbe. I think he’s onto something, here…

Information on Tjibbe Hooghiemstra:

Tjibbe Hooghiemstra is a Dutch artist who has built up many connections in Ireland, including a stint as artist in residence at Annaghmakerrig, and the Cill Rialaig Project in County Kerry.

He regularly teaches at the University of Ulster and the National College of Art and Design. His work is a considered philosophical engagement with the landscape. The landscape is not taken as established; it is looked at, scrutinized, and re-worked. The quality of the Irish environment, the water, the light and the rain, are all dealt with, recorded and layered into his work. This is an artist for whom materials are important. Paper is not just a support, it is an integral part of his artworks. His use of collage is also crucial, and as the viewer can see, it represents a delicate balance between losing and finding the image in each of the drawings and paintings.

Tjibbe Hooghiemstra works in Ireland and the Netherlands.
His works are included in the collections of:  Stededlijk Museum, Amsterdam, Teylers Museum, Harlem Tate Gallery, London, National Collection of Contemporary Drawing, Limerick, Model Arts and Niland Gallery, Sligo Limerick City Gallery of Art, Limerick.

“What the work conveys is a quiet, attentive sensibility and the layering of time. For example, he views landscape not in a conventional pictorial way but as a fragmentary composite of the marks made by the many generations who have lived on it. His work is almost obtuse in its wilful obliqueness, but it gains on each repeated viewing and many of the drawings are quiet beautiful” – Aidan Dunne

He is represented by: – Fenderesky Gallery, Belfast
- Freight and Volume, New York
- Galerie Espace, Amsterdam
- Gallerie Der Spiegel, Cologne
- Hillsboro Fine Art, Dublin
- Vangard Gallery, Cork
- Yanagisawa Gallery, Tokyo.

Artist’s statement:

Materials are important to Hooghiemstra. Paper is not just a support, it is an integral constituent of the artworks and through the engagement with collage, the altering and additions to the surface, the work is constructed. The quality of the marks, dry, scratched or on a water saturated surface are vital to convey the essential sense of place. A delicate balance between loosing and finding the image is sought. Hooghiemstra does not make studies or sketches; everything is a non-mediated item, completely of itself. The evocative fragments are forged into a meaningful whole.

“What the work conveys is a quiet, attentive sensibility and the layering of time. For example, he views landscape not in a conventional pictorial way but as a fragmentary composite of the marks made by the many generations who have lived on it. His work is almost obtuse in its wilful obliqueness, but it gains on each repeated viewing and many of the drawings are quiet beautiful” – Aidan Dunne

2 responses to “To learn, first make a really good mess.

  1. I’m going to read this each time I’m approaching first draft stage. I’ve usually found that metaphors for first drafts tend towards the ‘carving from stone’ sort of image: i.e. the first draft is about creating the iceberg / marble block / wood block (etc) inside which the beautifully-formed play you want to write sits. Having read the above, these images now seems rather rigid, almost as if the visual and textural sense of a ‘block’ is rather dry and unimaginative and unhelpful. A block isn’t messy: it’s uniform, straight, stout. Mess makes me think of a tangle, a spaghetti junction of wrong turns and u-turns and dead-ends and overlaps – it feels like more of a release as a creative image. Thanks for sharing it.

    • I began to respond to this and lost the material in some technical glitch. Hey ho… Will try again.
      Thank you so much for such an engaged and detailed response. The more I write, the more I believe in form and structure, and the more I believe to make something fresh and unpredictable, I need to begin in messy, unpredictable, chaotic places.
      Part of my process is to go somewhere I’ve never been before, get lost, wander around enchanted making little discoveries, and then to grow increasingly frustrated as I don’t know where I am, nor where I’m going. It’s then I bring out a compass, add shape, direction, form, order, context… A kind of mapping it out amongst the unknown HERE BE DRAGONS…
      It’s easy to keep writing the same play, especially if that initial play has had some success. Personally, I try and keep reinventing. Being messy and non-prescriptive towards the start of a process helps.
      I’ve never taken to the often presented iceberg/marble block/sculpting metaphor, as I interpret that as being pretty prescriptive – ie, it suggests there is only ONE ‘true’, or ‘authentic’ play/work of art within the block – the supposed ‘definitive’ expression we’re chipping away at – and I know from experience, there are countless other pieces I could make nestled within any one idea or exploration. I make plays by making decisions in the process of the making, informed by what I discover in the process, and tempered by the times in which I inhabit. It’s malleable, mercurial, living, organic. It’s the opposite of cold, hard, breakable marble.
      Thank you for prompting me to externalise that!

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