Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Portrait of a Sculptor - Ynskje Penning

It is two o’clock on a Friday afternoon, as I make my way along the narrow stone alley of the Uurwerkersgang. I pass the Harmonie buildings of the Rijksuniversiteit on my right, complete with its boundary of metal bicycle racks, filled to capacity as usual.

A little further down on the other side is Ynskje Penning’s gallery, and as I approach I can see she is less than amused by the fact that an enormous silver-coloured car has been parked right in front of the gallery, blocking the entrance completely. Fortunately, there is just enough room for us to squeeze alongside the car and into the gallery.

The interior is surprisingly more spacious than the outside had led me to believe, and its wooden beamed ceiling and white painted floor give it an airy feel. Atmospheric, scenic and portrait paintings cover the walls from a guest exhibitor, Jacqueline Kasemier. Ynskje’s sculptures sit at intervals on long low black plinths around the room or in the two glass cases either side of the door. There is a small reception desk on which a neat pile of one of her historical novels Emo’s Labyrint is stacked; she is a published author too.

We head upstairs to her studio, but before we can start our talk, there is a customer. He buys a signed copy of the aforementioned book and talks at length with Ynskje about her work. Pen and pad in hand, I stand and listen, jotting down facts as he covers areas I had planned to ask about myself. Curiosity satisfied he leaves, and Ynskje and I sit down with cups of Camille tea, surrounded by her work and posters of past exhibitions on all sides.

Always interested in art, Ynskje wanted to study at art school, but was advised by her parents to follow a study that would offer her a way to make a living. In their eyes it was hard to earn a crust in the arts. Taking their advice, Ynskje studied to become a teacher and taught for a number of years. It was only after her marriage and the birth of her daughter that she decided now was the time to follow her passion. So, she gave up teaching and started writing and sculpting.

She learnt the sculpting tricks of the trade as well as clay and wax basics at the Kunstencentrum. After that, it has been a long continual search spanning thirty-five years, coupled with sheer determination and an invaluable study of anatomy. The results of this can be seen in her bronze busts, where not only the physical but the essence of the person is present. In her words, sculpting is more complicated than painting, as it has to make sense for the whole 360 degrees of the head. Also, whilst a portrait may be emotive it must be timeless.

A commissioned work isn’t realized from a selection of photos, (and where relevant) sittings alone, it often involves the whole family as well as friends. Ynskje uses their reactions to gauge her work’s authenticity, and no sculpture is finished until both parties are absolutely satisfied; a portrait must be tangible, and if she has done her work well, often it can be confrontational too. She gives the example of the man who commissioned a portrait of his then deceased wife; he wanted a younger, timeless version, not his wife aged sixty-two. By studying photos of the woman taken over the years, it was possible for her to create a bust which brought back the striking youthful face of the woman in her younger days, for a cast in bronze. Constructive comments from the family helped along the way with necessary alterations, and, she knew she had succeeded when the woman’s brother-in-law exclaimed “This is her!”

Her personal sculptures differ greatly in style; her inspiration comes from both people and animals, with a particular love of human characteristics in the latter. To illustrate this point she motions to the coffee table and her piece of a mother elephant and child; a study full of movement, with the baby pulling on the mother in much the same way as a human child would do. In contrast to her commissioned work her human figures are simple, with unnecessary detail removed and stylized so that the essence and glance remain. Male models are harder to come by, so her subjects are generally female, voluptuous and curvaceous, often carved out in a white stone.

Her other passion is writing, and she has over sixty books to her name, including historical novels and children’s books. Oftentimes, she will have to research an historical era before embarking on a new project; this can mean delving into hundreds of years of history. Her most popular to date are Emo’s Labrint and Storm Vloed, in their second and fifth editions respectively.

I ask Ynskje if she has any advice for anyone interested in starting a career as a sculptor. From her position seated calmly in the middle of the sofa, with her hands folded in her lap, she tells me that sculpting is a dying art; few sculpting courses remain in The Netherlands, so interested parties often have to travel abroad. Also, you have to ask yourself some serious questions; do you think you could earn a living from it, and if not or it doesn’t turn out to be as you expected, what do you do then? It takes a long time to become a sculptor; you have to be driven, learn to look and be prepared to give it all you’ve got. The world of three dimensions is a long road to travel upon and as her father said: “You can want it, but you have to have the opportunity.”

Should you want to see more of Ynskje’s work, from April 2012, her work can be viewed in her new studio: Emmalaan 7, 9752 KR, Haren.

© Alison Day
First published in the 
Connections magazine #35 Spring 2012
Read & download issue here

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