Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Golden Lace Artwork of Henny Wasser-Smeets[1]
Artist’s Profile

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

I am no expert on bobbin lace but I do pride myself on having a rather eclectic taste for all textile artwork and being aware of some leaders in most textile art fields. Hence it came as a surprise to me that when I opened the exhibition – “Memory Cloth” - featuring Cherilyn Martin, Els van Baarle, Glenys Mann and Cas Holmes at the Kantfabriek (Museum Lace Factory in Horst, Netherlands) - that Ms. Tineke Geurts-van Rens presented me with a book - Kant en Zelf-Kant: The Gold Lace of Henny Wasser-Smeets[1].

As I pored over the pages of the book in my leisure time, I quickly realized not only how prolific and delicate her artworks were, but moreover, how insightful they were in terms of the crisis she had to surmount throughout her life.

She died at the age of sixty-eight after searching for answers to the most fundamental questions of life. Her openness, wonder, intelligence and creativity (especially in the most difficult times in her life), funnelled her creativity into the gold lace bobbin artworks she birthed, thereby bringing to the fore the expression of her feelings and thoughts. In 1983 she held a ground breaking exhibition where the paintings she created with gold lace received the attention she deserved. In 1996 she created new gold lace paintings in order to create a collection to preserve and disclose her artwork to future generations.

The book – Kant en Zelf-Kant[1] – gives a selection of her work based on important themes she explored throughout her life such as the origin of life, birth, family, the position of women and especially the sea - the latter acted for her both as a symbol of life and also death. In her gold lace artworks the sun over the water played a clear role as a symbol of “feeling and warmth”.

The Great Snuf (April, 1982).
Size: 53 x 63 cm.

She died bravely from cancer but with the realization that she had completed and finalized a significant body of work. Her search for being an independent identity was in harmony with her sense of belonging in the memory of those who were near and dear to her.

Henny Wasser-Smeets.

This post is just a taster of her artwork[1]. Adding this book to your textile art library is a must!

A life With Bobbin Lace
Below is an extract from the preface of the book[1]. It has been loosely translated by myself and so should not be construed as being an “expert” translation but hopefully it will give an insight into the life and times of Henny Wasser-Smeets.

Bobbin lace had long been a great hobby and passion of Henny Wasser-Smeets. She searched for lace that possessed golden sides, and together with the challenge to perfect executed techniques, she wanted her lace artworks to give expression to her thoughts and feelings. Her bobbin lace works had no function and so demand to be seen as works of art (see my necessary conditions for a work to be considered art). A very small selection of her artwork is included in this post.

Tress Mother - Long Lock Of Mother’s Hair (November, 1981).
Size: 32.5 x 42.5 cm.

Henny Wasser-Smeets was born on August 30, 1927 in Griendtsveen, a “peel” village on the border of Brabant and Limburg (The Netherlands) where her father was an agriculturist. She had a carefree childhood and approached life with her chin to the fore. She experienced and understood the great disparity between those labouring for a living compared to those who managed them.

Connectedness [Of] Father (January, 1982).
Size: 32.5 x 42.5 cm.

She attended a boarding high school in Aarle- Rixtel. Away from her family and her family home, she often felt homesick. This was exacerbated by the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and forced relocation of her parents.

In 1943 she obtained a diploma and was advised to go to Tilburg to train in an advertising agency. She did not follow the advice since it was not in close proximity to her parents. Instead, she worked as a doctor’s assistant with the renowned physician-painter Hendrik Wiegersma in Deurne. She came into contact with numerous artists, which provided an inspiring environment for her.

Clocks 1948 Deurne (March, 1982).
Size: 32.5 x 42.5 cm.

She was twenty-one years old when her mother died. The loss of her mother had a significant impact on her life. In her later years she continued to feel this loss.

My Dead Parents. The Graveyard (November, 1982).
Size: 42.5 x 52.5 cm.

In 1952 she married Thieu Wasser. The marriage brought her to Tilburg, where he worked as a psychologist. They had three children and when they grew older it gave her more free time to shape her own creative development.

Love (March, 1983).
Size: 14.5 x 19.5 cm.

She was fascinated by bobbin lace. A television program alerted her about a village near Turnhout (which was near to her) and which had long been a center of bobbin lace, where individual lace classes were taught to novices.

Her Unborn Life (March, 1983).
Size: 14.5 x 19.5 cm.

In 1969 Sister Idesbalda taught her the rudiments of lace making. A few years later she was accepted in the lace circle of Henk van der Zanden. For years, she continued to master the techniques of lace making. She learned Binche lace from Herik Hardeman in Utrecht, Rijsselse lace with Mrs. Cools in Beveren Waas, Parisian lace with Mrs. Neyrinck - van Herck in Turnhout and Duchesse lace with Sister Judith in Etten-Leur. She had a special interest for bobbin lace patterns from Denmark, Sweden and Finland because of their bright, clear and harmonic structures. With her sense of precision and with a steady regular hand, her hand-made artworks were often indistinguishable from machine lace.

Pending (November, 1983).
Size: 19.5 x 25.5 cm.

She experimented with different thread colors. The elaborate white lace she sometimes found too hard, especially if it was not thin or delicate enough.

Thanks To The Cordon (June, 1982).
Size: 19.5 x 25.5 cm.

Most of all she preferred to work with sand color, ecru, which created delicate artworks that exposed lighter touches.

Mother With Young (March, 1983).
Size: 32.5 x 42.5 cm.

Besides making bobbin lace she found the time to develop her own curriculum for the basic techniques and so she gave home workshops to interested parties.

After uterine surgery (1980), her lace making underwent a profound change. She stopped teaching all together. Based on existing patterns, she designed her own compositions. A basic gold thread underpins most of her artworks; for decorative threads she chose different colors - yellow, green, blue and black. As a background, she usually employed a moss green velvet in a brown frame. Sometimes she chose a red background and combined it with silver and red decorative threads. She would on occasions embellish her works with a green background formed by peacock feathers, where the gold thread would then act as the frame.

The Woman (February, 1983).
Size: 20 cm diameter.

Henny Wasser-Smeets found in her gold lace her own expression. She wrote about it in 1981:
"Lace bobbins keeps me balanced. [It is] technically very interesting [since you need to] concentrate. Despite [the use of] classic patterns, lines [that you create] can work well, and approximates your [attempts] at perfection. It is very relaxing and thus fascinating."

In 1981 she made the first artworks using gold lace - it was named "Despair". It was followed by an explosion of artworks in which she elaborated the themes of her life, which for so long had been dominated by her parents, marriage, motherhood, womanhood, sea (mirroring life and death) and illness.

The Submissive Wife (October, 1982).
Size: 25.5 x 31.5 cm.

Both connectedness with others and finding her own authentic independence were important to her for her self worth. In 1990 she wrote:
"I march [with my] own step and not [with] another".

About marriage she wrote in a difficult period in 1981.
"Lonely, and not just one together, and not alone."

The equality of men and women was an important issue for her. She recognized the role of women and the different modes in which they are interpreted: "The submissive wife", "The Cool Mistress", "The Woman As A Ballerina." She was happy being a woman and moreover, in her art she trusted her woman’s intuition far more than rational logic, which is the hallmark of science.

Woman As A Ballerina (October, 1982).
Size: 42.5 x 52.5 cm.

She was very fond of the sea, which symbolized for her both life and death. The sea - which was the first source of life forms - fascinated her strongly. The artwork named " The Closed Oyster " was very dear to her.

The Closed Oyster (March, 1983).
Size: 14.5 x 19.5 cm.

She also loved shells, and corals and the tension that is created due to the movement of waves. In her diary in 1989 she wrote:
"Let seas waves. The waves undulate about themselves, Until it rests on the quiet beach".

Seahorses (April, 1983).
Size: 25.5 x 31.5 cm.

She loved the seasons - autumn, clouds and trees. Trees come in her artwork: "My Life", "Mature", "Flight". As a tree has several branches, so life also offers several possibilities. She wondered, which branch should have been nurtured the most in order to yield the most fruit.

Mature (March, 1982).
Size: 25.5 x 31.5 cm.

The sun setting over the water inspired her choice of gold thread in her artwork. She saw a parallel between the sea and the life-giving potential of the woman (1989):

"The woman and the sea is full of anemones".

After her hysterectomy she wrote (1989):
"It is sad my sea has lost its waves".

Many of her artworks relate to her illness, which is often shared within a framework of seizure, fear, despair, flight, restlessness, and sadness. Death became an integral part of her life in general. She saw herself as a mortal person. In her diary she wrote (1989):

"I live with death.
Without death, I cannot live.
Within this limit exists the ability [for a] most intense life.
Death stimulates me."

The thought of death gave her the strength to live. Life and death, finitude and infinity layered within her. In poems, but especially in her artwork she took death very concretely. She wanted to walk barefoot through the waves of the sea to eternity to meet with its Creator. She wanted in the rays of the Sun to die and then be reborn by the waves. In the deep silence of the sea, she sought her grave. Her artworks - "The Sea Of The Dead," "The Deep Silence Of The Sea", "One With The Waves," "Sea Woman's Grave" – give testimony to these thoughts.

Sea Of The Dead (November, 1982)
Size: 42.5 x 52.5 cm.

In 1983 she held an exhibition entitled: "Kant and Selvedge". Her feelings, ideas and images of her artwork had a wide-ranging impact and so she was finally recognized as an artist in her own right.

After a difficult time in her life she found a new equilibrium. Her wonderment of life took her back to philosophy. She attended philosophy lectures at the KUB Tilburg. The early Greek philosophy that centred on nature especially appealed to her. She was struck by the doctrine of Empedocles with the four elements - earth, air, fire and water – present in all matter. She was less tied to the element “earth”. Rather it was the fire element that played a crucial role in her life since she wished to be cremated and her ashes scattered in the sea via the air – three of the four elements that made up life as she viewed it.

The Last Day – Judgement Day (May, 1982).
Size: 42.5 x 42.5 cm.

In 1988 she had a second operation, since cancer was detected in her body. She wrote in 1988:

"There are two holes in the death shroud of my life"

Then in 1989 she wrote:
"Sometimes I smell death".

This was followed by a new period with gold lace. In comparison with the gold lace from the first period, the latter showed to be more concrete representations. She raises in her artwork her life living with cancer. Sometimes the artworks are aggressive, but mostly they are passive in tone. She understands the joys and sorrows in life and hopes that one day these extremes will eventually reconcile. In August of 1989 she wrote:

"I'm lucky if my sorrow and my delight [will come] very close together in me."

In October 1989 she studied philosophy again and she wrote:

"It is autumn [and the] waves [of] philosophy came hot on me."

In 1993 her cancer manifested itself again in the pancreas and she was operated on again. At first, her battle with cancer seemed to have been won, but she became ill again in mid-1995 and this time she would succumb to it.

On the 26th of January 1996 Henny Wasser- Smeets passed away, with a strong mind in a weakened body. She was loving, courageous and spiritually devoted to her art and to the meaning of life as rendered by her golden lace artworks. She left behind, her husband and three children.

Rest (March, 1983).
Size: 14.5 x 19.5 cm.

[1] Kant en Zelf-Kant, Valkenburg Printers Echt, Tilburg (1997). ISBN 90-9010202-7.

1 comment:

Lesley Turner said...

Thank you for sharing the work of another important female artist