I thought it was a rather bizarre question. I was asked it out of interest by our family doctor, whom I have been visiting for years and who has also known me and my family for years. At that moment, all I could do was say 'uh.... Yes? How come?' uttered. How could I not see myself in that way? I grew up in an artist's family, went to art school (bachelors and masters) and then you are an artist. With a stamp. Approved as an artist. But what actually is an artist? It remains a vague concept of course. When we started our studies, it was instilled in us that it would not happen by itself. That we had to be prepared to make the ultimate commitment, a way of life, "almost like entering a monastery" (literally). In other words, if you have doubts, you can still go back now! That didn't scare me. I didn't know anything else. My parents had worked hard all their lives as artists, my grandfather was an artist, was there any other life?
Being an artist is not only a way of life (preferably full of misfortune and loneliness, art is suffering after all), it is a way of being. You are born with the congenital defect of being sensitive. Sensitive not in the sense of emotional, but in the sense of being aware of everything. Every mood, every detail, the big picture, the little things. The smell, the material, the feeling that goes with it, nothing escapes you. I call it a deviation because it deviates from the average. That is not a value judgment but an observation. You try to find a way with those specific characteristics. You have to do something with it. Because otherwise the world is overwhelming. As a child at the Montessori kindergarten, for example, I always sat under the tables to escape the bustle and chaos. In my own world in my own head it was already busy enough.
You soon notice that you are different. With craft tasks, I always did things slightly differently. Because I liked it better, or wanted to discover how it would turn out. Of course, the result was disapproval from the teacher. After all, a butterfly flutters, but I thought zwiffel-zwaffelen was a better word. The teacher had probably never taken a good look at a butterfly before.
In short: the world did not understand me, and I did not understand the world. This went on throughout secondary school. Fortunately, I was able to join a group of people who thought differently. In those days, we had a cheerful mix of hippies, punks, new wave, hard rockers and everything that was different from the standard. Things are different now. When my son was still in secondary school, I marvelled at the uniformity. Every girl who cycled by when school ended was, to me, perfectly interchangeable with the next one. Same hair, same clothes, same bike. I survived mentally by dyeing my hair in wild colours, working on my jeans, repairing my father's torn jeans with safety pins, different pieces of fabric visibly crossed over with a zig zag, large stitches in a contrasting colour (what's new sashiko and boro... Been there, done that). Once on the academy in Tilburg, there was no need for all that. How delightful that you could be who you were there, with all your peculiarities.
There, we learned to look, above all. We all see, but to look consciously and to observe and discover. Not to let your own prejudices get in the way, but to look for what you did not know. Doing research, the process is more important than the outcome. Throw away your first obvious nice result if it gets in the way of something better (kill your darlings) and look again. Look through the eyes of another person, with questions and (self) criticism: "Is this really the best result? Does it tell the right story? You have done this at the front, but what happens at the back? If my work was not judged by the teachers at the academy, then it was judged at home by my mother (a textile teacher). You are an artist. You look consciously, experience everything, ask questions about everything and if they are interesting enough, you investigate them. You have learned to work hard, to be tough on yourself when necessary. Along the way in life, you accumulate baggage. Your way of life is not standard. Because it is not interesting. It is not a choice, it is who you are. No, I don't like cheese and sausage birthdays and small talk. You do learn how to adapt, but it only goes so far. I still remember the face of my Bompa André van der Burght on the couch of my other grandpa and grandma while grandma was cooking beans and wanted to start a cosy conversation. Couldn't those beans have been put on the fire a bit quicker? At least then the conversation would be over.
You gather valuable people around you, people who also have their own view on things. With them you can have a conversation that goes somewhere. To something you had not yet considered.
Being an artist is not about whether you make bronze sculptures or paintings. It is a way of life. You can make bronze sculptures without being an artist. There are plenty of them. But an artist does things differently. Shows you things that you did not know before. Amazes, raises questions, slaps you in the face, shakes you awake or leaves you with an itching question in the back of your head for weeks.
I make clothes. Does that make me an artist? Yes, I think so. I do not just make clothes. Each piece is born out of necessity. A necessity because I want to explore, a necessity against the established fashion order. I don't make fashion, please don't. It is applied, you can wear it, and many people do. It tells a story, a history. It is about the drama of just the wrong button. It has to rub, not literally of course, but visually. Only then does it create tension. Searching for a balance between beauty and ugliness, sitting on the edge, because that is where it happens!
So mister doctor: Yes. I am an artist
Sunny van Zijst
I am maker of vintage inspired couture. I was trained as a designer for theater costumes. Now I enjoy making vintage inspired clothing for men and women.