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about my path

The path that led me from painting to choosing 'full-time' work (in addition to my work as a teacher and my family) for the biosphere and the planet has been long and winding.

My journey as a painter started in 1985, when I started my studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. In the end I opted for the then much freer Ghent Academy, and in June 1990 I graduated from Karel Dierickx.

My wife Agnes - who is Hungarian and then still lived and studied in Hungary - and I had met two years earlier in Italy.

Agnes graduated from the University of Szeged in Hungary at the same time as I, and was awarded a scholarship to start a doctoral study in Oregon, USA.

In turn, I was accepted into the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon.

We ended up staying there for four years, and Agnes decided to also study visual arts, which eventually led to an MFA in sculpture from the same university.

Those four years were a turning point and the beginning of a new consciousness. Not only was the visual arts department at the university very good, which gave a tremendous boost to my development as a visual artist, our time in Oregon was a profound introduction to wild nature. And by wild I mean Wild:

Oregon is large - about half the size of France - and was even less populated then than it is today, roughly three million souls, more than half of whom lived in Portland.

Most of Oregon is empty, and the two mountain ranges that bisect the state from north to south and the sweeping desert areas east of it still have plenty of real wilderness. Emptiness, as far as the eye can see. All possible landscapes: a beautiful coastline of more than six hundred kilometers. Eternal snow on the peaks of the Cascades volcanoes, temperate rainforests in the westernmost mountain ranges close to the coast, endless forests of Douglas and Sitka spruces in the central and higher ridges that separate eastern and western Oregon. A vast semi-desert in the east, with many different biotopes and a much drier climate than the west.

We have spent a lot of time in that wild nature with our good friends, many of whom had experience with wilderness survival and wild camping, and I consider that time as my real upbringing.

And with that, I don't want to detract from what I learned at the University there: it was the best school I've known, and I owe everything to my teachers and fellow students there. I am eternally grateful to them. But the greatest lessons were the ones I learned while traveling through those beautiful primeval forests, those wonderful temples in which an endlessly varied light plays on the greatest possible diversity of living beings.

It was an environment that was not without risks: black bears, cougars, rattlesnakes, scorpions and black widows were also among the fauna there, something that constantly invited a certain vigilance, but also a realization that if you use that space in the right way. and enter with due respect, you have little to fear.

And also a thorough awareness of the sacredness of this space: something becomes tangible here that we have long ago lost in Europe, and certainly here in Flanders. Nature in its original state, nature that has remained unchanged since long before man appeared on earth.

It was also an initiation: of course I didn't know wild nature when I arrived there as a twenty-three year old painting student, raised as I was in one of the most urbanized areas in the world. I was a city boy.

The passage through the wilderness did not turn me into some kind of Bear Grylls, but it imbued me with a feeling for the irreplaceable richness and splendor of wild nature, and how essential it is to our humanity.

It instilled in me the realization that ultimately we are an inseparable part of that same wild nature: to the extent that we destroy wild nature on this planet, we are digging our own grave.

So the years we spent in Oregon were instrumental in forming my new bond with nature and renewing my "old" love for our planet. As a child I was already very much interested in 'the environment' (a somewhat flawed term that already refers to the fundamental separation that we have created between ourselves and the world), and as a teenager I considered a career as an environmental activist.

Although we considered staying in Oregon after completing our studies, circumstances forced us to return to Europe. We settled in Belgium, and we started a career in part-time art education. In addition to our teaching assignments, Agnes and I were active as visual artists, and we exhibited regularly. Our work as artists has undergone a major evolution, which I will elaborate on in the chapter 'my visual work'.

Our love for wild nature shifted somewhat to the background, all the more because returning to Belgium was not so easy in that respect. From the vast expanses of forests, the pristine coastline, and the endless plains of the semi-desert, back to the overpopulated and built-up region of Flanders. It was a difficult time, in which worked incessantly,  in an attempt to re-create a center from which to live.

In 2012 Agnes and I founded the artist collective WorkPlace in Antwerp together with three artist friends. The collective had free access to a stately mansion in the center of Antwerp, and in the three-storey space we organized many exhibitions by well-known and unknown artists for almost four years. It was a very enriching experience and also a new impulse for my own work as an artist, which began to take decisive shape during those years.

During all the years after our return from the US, photography has remained one of my passions. During our years in Oregon I had already focused on landscape photography and after our return to Europe I continued to capture the landscape as much as possible, and that was one of the channels through which I still kept in touch with my love for nature and our environment. I went on a few journeys in which I became more and more impressed by the beauty of our world, and how that world is increasingly threatened by climate change and the biodiversity crisis.

In February 2017, I was able to do a three-week residency at the Krakeslottet Regional Art Center on the remote island of Senja in the far north of Norway. That became a new turning point. The three weeks I spent there largely alone, in the Arctic winter, in an old wooden fishery partly built on stilts over the Arctic sea, was another very powerful initiation and a 'homecoming' in a sense.

Being alone with the elements, during the dark winter storms that shook the entire structure to its foundations, was a wonderful, life-changing experience. Snowstorms that lasted for days covered the entire area with a carpet of snow that was more than a meter thick. After a while it was by no means obvious to go outside. The raging arctic ocean slammed against the rock and poles on which Krakeslottet was built, and at night I was sometimes treated to the mind-boggling spectacle of the Northern Lights that defied description.

I spent the time drawing and painting from the landscape, something I hadn't done for a long time. And I started to write: a series of texts that were to be the start of a writing project related to my visual work. It was the first time that I really devoted myself to writing, and as I worked on the first texts about my visual work, I noticed that the place and the landscape became more and more of a protagonist in my writing. I was also passionately photographing: the far north of Norway is a place of hypnotic beauty, otherworldly landscapes like I had never seen before. I explored the island further, more and more amazed by the incredible beauty of the place.

But I was also reminded of the drama of climate change, which is progressing much faster in the Arctic regions. The first days after my arrival were unusually warm for the time of the year, there was no snow in sight but it was raining a lot. Only after a week the snow came, which I was very happy about.

I had already had a few 'climate catharses' in previous years, moments when the reality of the crisis came in with great force.

And my time on this remote arctic island impressed me with the beauty and fragility of this part of the world, which is warming much faster than the rest of the planet.

These three weeks were the seeds of my renewed bond with wild nature and the splendor of our world, the only one we have. This did not become fully clear to me right away, the incubation period was several years. In those years that followed, I had even more 'climate catharses'.

For example, when I was in Venice just after the disastrous flood at the end of 2018, a flood that was surpassed last year (2019), or when I was in the south of France, also in 2018, during a historic heat wave.

The trip to Venice, which I had taken to see the painter Albert Oehlen's exhibition at Palazzo Grassi, was another turning point. Throughout the journey, compelling unrest began to gnaw in me, and I began to write almost compulsively about my intuitions about the climate crisis. I had taken a low-cost plane, the dirt-cheap option, and that bothered me more and more during the trip. I had never been a frequent flyer, but in recent years I had often succumbed to the cheap airfares within Europe, despite my awareness of the ecological cost of flying. The reasoning with which I could justify that choice for myself began to crumble more and more. During that trip to Venice it became clear: I would never again choose airline travel for such a trip.

My wanderings through Venice, a place that has been very dear to me for almost four decades, this time had a rather melancholic character, as it became clear that this wonderful place is threatened with disappearance. It is unlikely that we will find any part of Venice above water within a century.

During this trip the catharsis had finally started. The process went on for a long time, but a half year later the question began to arise whether I should not devote myself entirely to something so dear to me: our planet, and the fragile space we call our 'biosphere'. A world so small, whose wealth and splendor we are in the process of destroying.

We are on the verge of the ultimate demise of this beautiful world, and the ultimate demise of our own species. The world we will be leaving behind for our children and grandchildren is in danger of becoming an uninhabitable hell, and a majority of the species of plants, insects and animals living now in that beautiful fabric of the biosphere are in danger of extinction.

We have really come to the end of a road, and the first step we have to take is to really become aware that this is the case, because we are still living as if nothing is fundamentally wrong.

The corona crisis and the lockdown were the final act in the process that lasted for a year and a half. The mandatory 'pause' and the opportunity for reflection that the isolation offered, as well as the realization that this crisis is also a direct result of our dealing with and especially the abuse of our environment, were the last elements of a puzzle that started to fit into place for me. I felt that I could not continue as before in my studio, and that in these circumstances I could no longer justify to use my time, attention and resources for a path that mainly concerned myself. I felt I had to do something different, and somehow commit myself to the planet, our mother, our home.

So I did not rush things when it came to the decision to stop painting. It was a process that took a year and a half, with much worry and headaches and soul-searching.

Especially since the last few years had brought a breakthrough in my work, and leaving that process behind after more than three decades, was certainly not an easy task. But somehow it was a logical consequence. The theoretical and philosophical 'train of thought' that accompanied my work has led me time and again for several years to the conclusion that we as a species - homo sapiens sapiens - are on a wrong course, and that the reason for that wrong course lies in the mythology that we developed thousands of years ago, and which defines all our cultural metastructures (religion, science, social organization, ...). A wrong course that may have been necessary as a development phase, but which has now overshot its target and, if no change of course follows, will seal our own fate.

Painting started to seem more and more like an unsuitable medium for what I actually wanted to tell. All the more because the painterly image is necessarily open and multi-interpretable. The 'meaning' takes shape in the material itself, and that language is not that accessible. A literal representation of a message almost always leads to an inadequate and pamphletary work, which fails on both fronts: it falls short as a visual work, and it almost never succeeds in communicating a message or story powerfully.

The photographic image does not have that handicap: it can be a very strong image as well as a powerful messenger. Writing also lends itself more to communicating a message in an accessible manner, in a way that can have formal integrity and retain its own quality or poetry.

Since I have been involved with photography my whole life, and had already started writing as a regular practice a few years ago, new options soon presented themselves that could offer more suitable ways of communication, expression and activism for my new path.

Where this new path will lead me is still unclear. The path gradually reveals itself, step by step. In a way, it is as intuitive a leap into the unknown as the choice of painting once was. Not a rational choice, but the gradual result of listening to something larger than myself.

And that seems to me to be something we will all have to learn to do (again) more often: listening to the bigger picture of which we are part. Regardless of whether that message sounds 'realistic', 'achievable', or 'reasonable', because our form of 'realism' has brought us to the brink of self-destruction. So I think we can safely say that another path is in store for all of us.

That is why I also find it irrelevant whether my individual choice can have any direct influence on the future course of events.

As climate author Dahr Jamail aptly stated, we must learn to also disconnect our actions from the expected outcome: we must do things because they are the right thing to do, even and perhaps especially when the situation is hopeless.

But our situation is not (yet) hopeless, so it is up to each of us to roll up our sleeves! What are we waiting for.


Antwerp, November 2020

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