We all struggle at some point in our lives. But whilst some people struggle in the face of problems, others face them strongly and overcome them – like Martine Johanna. When this Dutch artist suffered a painful loss, she realized she was no longer a child, but a woman. Art became her main ally to escape obscure feelings and she discovered optimistic motivations within herself so that she didn’t sink but kept on swimming. Now, Martine has become an incredible painter depicting the female figure as very few can. In this interview, she talks with us about her work, the delicate and powerful role of women, and her new house in the middle of nature.
You define yourself as an introverted artist but with an extroverted imagination. Do you think art is the best way to express your deepest feelings?
Making work is a need I’ve always felt; from my first scribbles to anything else I’ve ever made. It helps me to think and process realities that are hard for me to deal with – not that every thought stream is in there though. It’s mostly an outlet for things that I feel words don’t do them justice. I love visual language so much because it is a realm in itself.
Your work is quite self-referential, but not all of it consists of you. What is the relationship between the female characters you paint and yourself?
The figures are fictitious women, reconstructed models from my own photography. Somehow, they have some resemblance with myself – a natural side effect. Through them, I process my own circumstances, as they mainly are the heroines of my storylines translated from reality to imagination.
Have you ever experimented with the male image in your paintings?
So far, I rarely painted men, as ‘she’ is the main character in most of my concepts. There are some male bodies in my drawings, but that has to do with the difference in expression and technique.
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Losing your parents must have been really hard… and you acknowledge that the way out of your suffering was through art. Do you believe that the creative process acts as a remedy for everybody, and did you try anything else to help canalize your feelings?
Painting and drawing work well – but I also enjoy writing, art direction, architecture, interior design, working conceptually, and also coaching students. Anything that has to do with the positivity of the making process is an outlet, whether it’s art, music, film, acting, dancing, woodworking, building, designing, math, research, writing, sports or helping someone out; it all has value and consists of both struggle and fulfilment.
Have those forms, that create a positive dialogue for you now, also generated a negative connotation in the past?
I always prefer dialogue and openness to linear thinking. I see possibilities – I believe in grey over black and white – in humour, perspective and retrospective. We are not owners of one single truth; we’re all here for a single blink of an eye. In that second, we should have something positive to contribute that comes from our own strengths, and not from our fears or prejudices. This train of thought has gotten me into severe trouble but has also helped me gain perspective in my youth as a teen living in a very conservative religious area.
Which techniques are involved in your creative process to end up with these artworks?
I write, think, visit places, have conversations with friends and fellow artists, and then do photo shoots roughly based on topic matters that I’ve been involved in. I rework those photos and use them as a starting point. Then I spend my time painting (with acrylic paint) and reinterpret the image until it’s done.
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I can sense a lot of female power through your paintings. What are you trying to convey to the audience?
When I work, I don’t consciously involve the spectator in my decision-making. I intuitively balance and process my own way of working, including in the storytelling aspects. So these are inherently my own types of female.
Has painting has always been your main interest, or have you experimented with other fields?
I started out drawing and when I felt I needed colour and size, I slowly switched to painting. Those are my main outlets but I also love music, dancing, film, architecture, and interior design; also, clothing (in its least commercial form) fascinates me.
In addition to being an artist, you also teach at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute. Have you always liked to share your knowledge and teach? What would you say is the best part of working as an art teacher?
I started to teach part-time nine years ago. I mainly focus on teaching my students creative research; investigating the meaning behind an image so that they learn to slow down and derive more meaning from creators. It also helps them to express their own work into a bigger scope of words and visuals – they learn about being critical from an open and attentive point a view.
I teach in Fashion and Visual Culture, helping students create their own stories through image, and eventually, through film. I also give workshops to trigger imagination and create new visions for film concepts. All of these aspects feed my own enthusiasm for the creative process as well, and it is very fulfilling to see them grow and expand their imaginations and possibilities – I love my students a lot.
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You have been living in Amsterdam for a long time. Are you willing to dwell there all your life?
Although we are in Amsterdam every week, my husband (artist Louis Reith) and I actually moved from there to a house/studio in the countryside. I lived in Amsterdam for twelve years and thought we would never leave. But for many artists, the city has gotten terribly expensive and very touristy. Last year, we had the chance to buy our dream house in the middle of nature, which also had space for a studio – I redesigned the interior, we broke down some walls, and now it’s even bigger. All windows look over our garden and its huge trees. The house was inspired by mid-century architecture, so it has all the style elements but not the age. At first, I was homesick, and then Louis was. But now we wouldn’t want to leave, it is so beautiful, clean and spacious in here! We can go to Amsterdam whenever we want to enjoy it, not endure it.
Wow, that sounds great. But for sure you still have some favourite spots around the city. Tell us about some special places we should visit to get some inspiration or fun.
My favourite places in the city, after KochxBos Gallery, are the Stedelijk Museum, the Film Museum, Foam and Grimm gallery. Willet Holthuysen is my favourite historical house. Regarding food picks, I recommend a Vietnamese restaurant in Leidsestraat called Ichi, De Tolbar and Tolhuistuin’s cafe. The best markets can be found at Noordermarkt and IJ-Hallen and when it’s time for guilty pleasures, watch 3D movies at Pathé Bijlmer Arena.
Tell us about your last solo exhibition, Dark Matter, at Kochxbos Gallery in Amsterdam. Did you notice a big change since your last solo two years ago?
The exhibition before this, titled Something’s Wrong, was in New York. I made it during and just after the passing of my mother, my husband’s mother and a dear friend of him. Our world was shaken; we had seen terrible things that couldn’t be unseen. That exhibition was like a flight for holding on to the past and denying the new reality that we had to face. Thus far, all the shows are connected through my own experiences and universal themes. Coincidentally, the show’s concept ran concurrently with the election of the new president of the United States, and the loss of the democratic ideals. We were in the country during the pre-election debates and felt the dread; some of that stuck in my mind, I think, seeing the topic of the show.
Are you planning other exhibitions over the next months?
In October/November, there will be a new show in New York at Massey & Klein in the Lower East Side. I’m very excited about that, it’s in development!
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