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 themselves as artists.
0:11:20.2 CS: Yeah, it's really interesting how you connect that thread through history. I really see this modern-day struggle with people searching for healthy outlets for everything that they've gone through in life. And I feel like an art practice or just being creative in general and taking that time, can be a safe container for people to process what they have experienced and what they're thinking about and their hopes and their dreams for the future.
0:11:53.6 CV: We don't have to be artists in order to access the gift of art. There are those of us who feel called to the vocation of being artists, there are those of us who are called to the vocation of being doctors or lawyers or engineers. The way artworks on us enables improvement and facility in whatever activity human beings participate in. Art enables our brains to function in a holistic manner, it literally improves the way we see the world, it improves the way we process our emotions. We use our analytic brain and our emotional brain. It's a synthetic form of thinking, which is both physical, emotional, and mental. It allows us to communicate to others. The practice of art has been negated or despised or seen as irrelevant to the everyday person. Everything I just described; mindfulness, empathy, creativity, being able to explain, having your brain exercise and including drawing, making-up actually grows the white matter in our brain, and the white matter in our brain is the part of our brain that connects the grey matter together.
0:13:16.9 CV: Drawing literally allows that to grow, so it's not hard to understand that if the act of drawing if a 12-week art class has such obvious physical benefits to us and emotional benefits, it must be part of who we are. So I suggest that we may not be artists. We might look at that and go, "I'm gonna touch that with a 10-foot pole because I was made fun of throughout my school life, of not being able to draw more than a stick figure." We need to move the understanding of the gifts of art out of the vocation of art and allow those gifts of art to be accessed in a way similar to how walking is accessed, even though you might really... Can't relate to sport. But, just as the world really respects athletes and what they do, even though they are not athletes, there needs to be a renewal of the respective artists and what they bring to the world and what they bring to society, even if other people are not artists. I think digging deep and rethinking how we perceive that gap.
0:14:36.3 CS: Yeah, I'm really interested in my own practice of how to build that bridge or fill that gap. The work that I do is really inspired by this moment that I had where I realized that just looking at beautiful things in nature actually changes our brain chemistry, so we get that hit of dopamine, serotonin that people are looking for in all sorts of ways. We actually get that just from observing flowers, and I think that translates into the art world too, where it's like, we don't always have to be the one making things. The act of supporting our artists, buying a painting that inspires us and looking at that painting, and it actually evoking positive emotions. And I think that has to do with also how we value art. It's kind of a priceless thing to cheer someone up on a regular basis.
0:15:34.4 CV: It's interesting that you say supporting our artists. And there's a connection that I made recently in how our world is waking up in a new way to the reality of racism and the influence of white supremacy. And white supremacy didn't just express itself through Nazism, it's been expressing itself ever since the weight of civilization moved to the North from the Mediterranean. It was at that time, it was just after the Reformation and after the Renaissance, that the great waves of colonization were visitors upon the world and the destructive nature of it, destroying cultures of First Nations in North America and Australia, and the demonization of traditional religion in Asia. It happened at the same time as the cultural destruction in Europe of sacred imagery and pushing artists out of their sacred tradition, being able to speak into their sacred tradition. And it happened at the same time as a push of merchant-influenced cultures, but it's all connected with our relationship to art. And the reality is that a culture that is open to artists and open to artistic expression is already a culture that is open to difference, that is respectful of other cultures, that is curious about other ways of being.
0:17:17.0 CV: It seems to me that one of the important antidotes, as we re-think our colonial heritage, is to restore to our culture a respect for the arts. The same people who were looting Mayan temples and smashing idols, what they called idols in other countries, were the same people who were smashing the faces of saints and Mary's, and Jesus's in Europe, and it was a narrow capitalistic, literalist point of view, world-view, that took over the world. Colonization emerged out of that setting. So it seems to me really, again, artists and art have a really important role to play in the healing of our world today. We need to be restored back into being a relevant part of everyday culture. And a culture that opens itself up to art, even if you're not an artist yourself, is already a culture that's saying, "Yes, we are curious. We want to see new things, to see our old things reinterpreted or fresh looking.
0:18:40.0 CV: We want to look at the world from a different point of view". That is going to affect the way that we approach other cultures, other people. We're going to see difference as a positive just as artists see difference as a positive. We're going to be curious about something that is strange instead of resistant to something that's strange, and we're also going to be able to learn how to integrate all this diversity. I mean, people laugh. They're called multiculturalism tapestry, but it's kind of accurate because that's what we do as artists. We take what is desperate and we find relationship with it, and in that finding relationship, we've created something new, we've created a work of art. And our brains are literally trained to think that way in other situations when we practice art. It's like our art trains our brains for diversity and acceptance and empathy.
0:19:45.9 CS: There's such an opportunity with art to let it be the connection point that it is within our global community, and to learn to appreciate each other more through it.
0:19:58.2 CV: Because art doesn't just take care of ourselves, it keeps us connected and open to the world around us, so that we are... Our experience is integrated and that we are still in community. We might be in a studio alone, but when I sit with my sketchbook and draw a tree or draw some plants, I'm actually developing a relationship with the natural world through that art, and it does ground you and it does make you feel calmer and less stressed and more empathetic. Art's an interesting tool for us to develop a good relationship with ourselves, but it also keeps us open to the other in a way that other methods of self-care don't necessarily do. Another reason why art is important to our healing for ourselves and our society is that it takes what is painful and, as you said, it allows us to look at it from an objective space and work with it, and it gives us a little bit of distance and while we've got that bit of a distance, we're processing our pain bit by bit by bit by bit, because the whole reason pain stays within us, traumatic pain stays within us is that it's too big for our body to process in a small amount of time.
0:21:30.4 CV: And so what art gives us is a chance to process it bit by bit, and then the art itself has transformed that pain into, hopefully, something beautiful, and if not beautiful, something that can be a document that might be of witness to somebody else in their own pain. One of the most valuable things for me about art is that it heals us as well as it heals our connection to others and the world around us.
0:22:00.0 CS: Wow, you've given me a lot to think about here. Thank you so much, Cornelia, for taking the time to sit down with me today and share your insights and all of your research and the threads that you've connected between modern-day and colonization. I really appreciate it. I hope that your creative journey continues to inspire you.
0:22:21.4 CV: Well, thank you so much, Chantal, for this opportunity. I'm really grateful to be able to speak out loud what has been on my mind a lot, and it's been a lifelong quest, and we're living in a time where it's obvious now that art is really important to us, and we're living at a time where science has shown us. And so it was really lovely to be able to talk about it with someone who also recognizes the value and wants to help our world and also to bring healing to ourselves. Thank you so much.
0:23:00.1 S1: This program was produced with the support of TELUS.