Sonja Landweer at the Greenacres Gallery
A piece of art needs to connect. And how it achieves this state of connectivity has as much to do with the input of the viewer as it has with the existence of an object. We cannot have one – a presence or the resonation of recognition – without the other – a piece of art which is the outcome of a conscious malleability.
Because clay or paint have their own ideas, the artist may not end up where they thought they were going. A shared conscious malleability is needed to segue the relationship between what the artist creates and exhibits and the individual sufficiently moved to acquire it. No artist sleepwalks to the easel or the kiln, and nor should we into an exhibition.
Acquisition or appreciation need not solve the mystery inherent in the transformation of an idea into something that is tangibly physical. From birth, our first instinct is to hold, to be tactile. And so it is with art.
Leaving the delectation of the senses aside for a moment, I have always enjoyed how Sonja Landweer’s work commands the arena of its space. Whether observing or clutching, I enjoy being led by a bronze, by a pot or a vase, by the striking colours and textures, so the relationship between the craft and the maker continues. This is how we connect, how we, to paraphrase Whitman, may contribute a verse.
Dutch-born Landweer is undoubtedly the most critiqued and documented potter in contemporary Ireland. You don’t have to cast your net too far nor too wide to find published reviews of her work and her career as she has been exhibiting since the 1950’s. Landweer has had over thirty solo exhibitions, has participated in twice as many group shows (she was a regular at the annual Art at the Vocational College during the Wexford Festival) and has been analysed and dissected and in the main honoured by some of the best critics and writers in Ireland and in Europe.
Yet the most prescient and discerning awareness of her work has not come from the pen of a critic, but of a friend. In Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney recalls how Landweer as a fledgling artist was deeply marked by the cruelty of what happened to her father – murdered by the Nazis for helping Jews and the underground resistance – and by the beautiful windfall of a memory, emerging after a swim from the waters of the North Sea with the luminescence of plankton all over her body.
The dichotomy of these experiences were related years later by Landweer to Heaney, and were in turn revisited and reimagined by the poet at his desk in the privacy of his own smithy. Perhaps with an unconscious nod to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, he recasts Landweer as ‘a nymph of phosphorous by the Norder Zee.’ Heaney’s ekphrastic poems tend not to end up in anthologies of his work, but the poem inspired by his knowledge of Sonja Landweer, ‘To a Dutch Potter in Ireland’, was the first he recited at his acceptance of the Nobel Literature Prize in 1995.
I reference Heaney specifically because he was a close friend of Landweer and a frequent visitor to Wexford, where he read from his collection, District and Circle, in 2006, in the Talbot Hotel. His unerring eye for the detail that eludes others unearthed an aesthetic and anthroposophical essence to Landweer that has not atrophied one iota in the half century since their first meeting: a fierce conviction about the value and necessity of good and beautiful work. Art critics may have touched upon it, but Heaney articulated it best: ‘she lives at a high spiritual pitch.’
In or about 1960, Landweer had developed her batik technique on ceramics, with decorative motifs inspired by nature and Moorish influences: in contrast to the normal wax resist method where wax is directly applied to the once fired clay, Landweeer would immerse a bisque-fired pot in glaze and apply a wax decoration on some of the first layer of glaze. The process was repeated until it was put through one firing cycle.
Before committing herself to a future in Kilkenny in the mid-1960’s, the young Landweer enjoyed a peripatetic existence, visiting Finland, Lapland, Spain, England, Russia and indeed Ireland, staying in the Burren in 1959. ‘I loved the starkness of my first winter there. I loved it with a passion.’ She established her studio in Thomastown, ‘initially in a rambling Georgian house,’ with her partner, the artist Barrie Cooke, moving later to Jerpoint House. She had chosen Thomastown over Clare for logistical and practical considerations: the need to find a market for her work, proximity to the Kilkenny Design Workshop and access to good clay, which she sourced from within the country and further afield, importing a tonne at a time of her own composition from a factory in Holland.
Though she came to relish the dramatic and ever changing seasonal landscape of her rural existence by the River Barrow, she managed to hold nature, as an endless source of inspiration, at bay. The inspiration for her work came from deep within, the realm of instincts and archetypes: she is celebrated for her instinctive feeling for innate energy in objects, articulated seamlessly as an ensoulment.
Fortuitously, on the July afternoon I visited Landweer at her home and studio in the sylvan amphitheatre of voluptuous nature that is Jerpoint today, the Visual Centre for Contemporary Art in Carlow was hosting a lecture by Dr. Mark Wormald to mark the 40th anniversary of the first fishing trip upstream from Graiguenmanagh of Landweer’s friend, the poet Ted Hughes, and Cooke. As practitioners of their art – painting, poetry, pottery – they were saturated with the confidence that comes from knowing exactly what they wanted. Landweer is, contends Michael Robinson, the greatest artist in earth and fire yet to have worked in Ireland.
The exhibition at Greenacres is invaluable insofar as it makes the connection between the inviolable trinity of artist, subject and observer, the continuity of Landweer’s personal strength and integrity into that which she fires, which is beauty as truth, the edification of the individual within the artist, the unbridled celebration of what it means to think for yourself and to act accordingly, the ‘I am’ which makes the improbable possible in a studio, and finally the practice of art as the antithesis to the despoliation of nihilism. Art as hope.
Landweer is the liberator of the innate pulse held captive by the inanimate; she is the respecter of the holistic consciousness among the myriad forms of the earth which can soften like gossamer to her touch; she is a diving rod of what once was and what might become, the artist as a medium who extends her material beyond its boundary, or the limits we perceive, and becomes part of us.
And unlike other artists, Landweer gets to play with fire, she gets to both bring down the sun and bring up the earth, and this confluence of apparent opposites opens a door to a new way of seeing and a new way of being.
What a wonderful gift.
The catalyst in the metamorphosis from seed to flower.
‘The sun has never seen a shadow.’ (Leonardo da Vinci)