Artist Cornelia van Voorst shares how developing an art practice in her fifties helped her explore the benefits of art, in a world shaken up by the intergenerational trauma of war and colonialism.
Cornelia van Voorst is a visual artist and theopoetic practitioner based in Victoria, BC, Canada, on the traditional lands of the Lekwungen peoples. Her recent work explores the limitations of narratives that emphasize triumph. Stories about success through victory have become inadequate in the face of a world shut down by pandemic. However, those who experience disability, war, illness, prejudice, oppression, poverty, have different stories to tell- of endurance, persistence and compassion in the face of both personal and collective adversity. Images of roses are altered through the application of distress processes and many layers of ink to become a form of remembrance for stories of resilience and resistance. Living with a complex form of PTSD influences van Voorst’s engagement with intergenerational grief. In all of her
work, allusive, lyrical images hover between literal and metaphorical depiction and negotiate the space between lived experience and dominant narrative. Her work is an empathetic integration of the personal with the history that resonates within our contemporary context. Portfolio Instagram
Transcription Resilient Creatives Podcast EP1 S1
0:00:00.1 Speaker 1: This program was produced with the support of STORYHIVE, creativity connected by TELUS. For more information, please visit storyhive.com.
0:00:11.0 Chantal Solomon: Art has been, ever since human beings have started drawing, a way to process our experience and integrate our inner lives with our collective and experiential and active lives.
0:00:31.2 Cornelia van Voorst: Welcome to Resilient Creatives, a podcast that explores the role of creativity in our society. My name is Chantal Solomon. I am a mixed-race artist and community herbalist. Through my practice, I explore remediating the connection between people and the natural world. This season, I'm talking with artists about their creative practice and the hurdles and triumphs along their journey.
0:00:55.9 CV: My name is Cornelia van Voorst. I'm a visual artist with a studio practice in Victoria, BC, Canada, on the traditional lands of the Lekwungen peoples, the Songhees and Esquimalt nations. I was born in Holland. My family immigrated to Australia, and then I immigrated to Canada. I'm somewhat estranged from my heritage, but a lot of my artwork comes out of seeking out the roots of my background. And also to understand why it was important to be an artist, because all my life, I've been told that it's nought. All my life, I've been told I could do better things, more important things, more helpful things. And also, the roots of the complex form of post-traumatic stress disorder I live with, and so that influences my engagement with inter-generational grief. And my work hovers between a literal and metaphorical depiction of images. And I negotiate the space between lived experience and dominant narrative, which springs from my understanding of World War II, which I needed to understand in order to understand my own personal journey with pain and grief. I was able to learn techniques to be able to practice my art, even in the context of working with quite emotionally laden subject matter.
0:02:29.6 CS: You mentioned always wanting to be an artist, did you come to your practice later in life?
0:02:35.4 CV: I did. I'm 60. My art practice emerged around 2015, 2016. I was able to do the advanced drawing class with Wendy Welch, two semesters of it. Through it, I was able to negotiate the subject matter of German history, looking at the impact of bombing on civilians, particularly the impact on mothers and children. And that subject matter was important to me because I am a woman who has worked with children and supporting mothers and families all my life, also a person who's dealing with children. And I imagined what it would be like to be in a war zone, having to worry about children surviving, feeding children, comforting them while being bombed overhead.
0:03:31.8 CS: How has it been for you to approach this subject in a public forum? Would you say it's helped you process your own thoughts and feelings?
0:03:41.2 CV: Yes, it did. It was strange though because I thought I was approaching a subject that was one step away from my personal life, but it ended up being a metaphor exactly for my personal life. I was a child in a house that was dominated by surviving my father's flashbacks and wartime memories, and also the effect of war on my mother. And when I looked at my work around aerial bombing, I looked at it, and I thought, "Here, I was going into this unrepresented story of children and mothers having being attacked." But the way I put it is I went into this rubble, I went into the rubble and found the little children in this story.
0:05:38.9 CV: There was one moment when I was minding my exhibition, I was looking at a series of drawings I called Little Saints, which I had intended to be studies for statues, the statues that we might see on cathedrals or war memorials. My intention with them is, what if we had children that we had in our society? Instead of the great men and the generals and the men with bayonets standing guard over Victoria, what if we had children would we think about war differently? And I was looking at another piece called The Grotto, and I suddenly realized in my pursuits of seeking to understand this story and find this hidden story and bring these children forth and bring these mothers forth, I had metaphorically described my own journey as an adult, going back into my war-torn childhood that was impacted by World War II, even though we were literally not in war. The effect of domestic violence on children is the same as war is on soldiers. My own journey in recovery from this complex PTSD was me going back to find the child that was buried in the rubble. And I realized my exhibition was exactly that. And somehow that finding my way to become an artist was another step in recovering from the inter-generational damage of war.
0:06:19.4 CS: It's so interesting how artists have this opportunity to explore metaphor and these more abstract parts of ourselves in all of these layers of our experience, and sometimes it's intentional and sometimes it's not.
0:06:37.8 CV: Art has been for, ever since human beings have started drawing, a way to process our experience and integrate our inner lives with our collective and experiential and active lives. And why I feel like the connection with church and art is important is that it was church, it was religion, that first alienated art from people's everyday lives. And that one of the big moments of that was, if not the biggest moment of that, was The Reformation, and why that was very, very important is that at the time of The Reformation, the printing press was invented. And so at the same time as Protestant... Not all Protestant Reformers, but Protestant Reformers who were seeking power, like Henry VIII, for instance, went and destroyed monasteries and their artwork and forbade contemplatives from making art. And we had some extremists people like John Calvin and Zwingli, encourage the destruction of sacred statues and paintings and objects all over Europe. Within this Christian culture, which was everybody's culture at the time, there was a suspicion and a negation of the visual arts to speak for our collective spiritual soulful and emotional lives.
0:08:14.7 CV: Thankfully, artists never gave up speaking about those things, but they would do so in covert ways, making pictures of flowers, but they're really talking about life and death, or symbolically bringing in spiritual or soulful lessons through metaphor. But eventually, what happened was that art stopped speaking for the everyday person, and it became this rarefied strange thing, particularly in Modernism, when again, religious conservatism condemned the modernism of the early 20th century as being demonic or being non-Christian or destroying culture. The irony of it is, is that artists never stopped talking about the spirit, they never stopped talking about the soul, they never stopped processing the human experience through their art, but what did stop was the everyday person being able to process their everyday experience through the arts. The arts no longer witnessed to them in their life experience, and they were left without a way to integrate, work things out in their own lives.
0:09:34.1 CV: And so here we are today, at the very end of that transition, I believe, in a post World War world, in a world that has been influenced by consumerism and the entertainment industry, and the entertainment industry has been feeding people imagery and swallowing up their lived experience within drama or cop shows or whatever, and reality TV. We're at the end of this 50 or 60 years stretch of people's visual, emotional lives being dominated by this capitalistic desire for making money out of their need to process the world through creativity and art. The place art used to have in the lives of people was taken over with TV and internet and screen. At the same time, our world is crying out for empathy, for complexity, for creativity, for mindfulness, for discussion, an end to polarization, all of these things that the world is crying out for is exactly what artists practice and have never stopped practicing. It seems to me that artists today, more than ever, are needed, and what we have practiced for hundreds of years while everybody else was falling away from those practices, I see the relevance and the need for art to be able to share its gifts with those who may not identify t