Baltimore-based sculptor Joshua Wade Smith’s Working Vacation in Friesland, in the North, in the Netherlands
This past Summer, From June 16th to July 18th, as part of a one-month artist residency, I dwelled and worked in a factory in Drachten, a small town in the Netherlands. That was some time back now, but I’m still thinking about it. The town folks called my artist residence Het Fabriekje, or factory, in Dutch, the all-black building near the A7 highway. The factory was burned into my head, like a glyph, almost like a symbolic stone marker or more like a sculpture than a building. It was an odd feeling living in a sculpture for a month. Dutch sculptor Florentijn Hofman designed this sculpture and called it Little Factory (2012), to give productivity an appearance, a physical form. It is a kind of magnet for odd looks and curious passers by.
I met Hofman during his brief visit to Baltimore last Fall. In Baltimore, the structure’s form called out to me as an icon telling me if I could just get there I might find a way to be a better artist, a perfect worker. The form for the factory is inspired by a Dutch road sign, the form is something someone in the Netherlands might already be familiar with but rendered on a massive scale, a black box with a sloping, scalloped roof and wedge-like smoke stacks.
In almost all respects, my live/work space was symbolic: reductively modest but serviceable, designed for simplicity. There was no running water and the only electricity arrived through the aid of a petrol generator. For light I had three large windows and a roll-up garage door. I later borrowed a heavy-duty shop lamp. I climbed a ladder every night to sleep on a lofted platform 5 meters (or 16 feet) above the studio’s grey brick floor.
All of my basic 21st century needs were met during my stay: a camping stove for tea and soup, a portable toilet nearby; borrowed WiFi if I walked to an ambulance call center across the street; and I could shower at the city hall or at the local museum. I was the first artist to use Little Factory for living and long-term making. Every day taught me something new.
When asked how I managed, I’ve described the experience as an adventure, but that was an answer more of convenience than truth. It came as such a surprise that people tried to help make my stay in Drachten more comfortable that often I would find myself acting demure. I mostly resisted this help out of a misplaced sense of independence. Perhaps it was duty to a concept of the artist-as-laborer, or a hermit’s sense of pride, but, when I wasn’t working, I wanted to make do with four walls, a roof, and the Dutch light. Despite the difficulty of the space and my personal gripes, I persisted. The people I met were a welcomed diversion.
One funny thing I noticed in the Netherlands were the pancakes. They proliferated in the grocery aisles. You can buy them pre-made by the dozen, a perfect studio snack. Rather than only eating them, I treated them like small canvases, priming them and watching them shrink as they dried out. I stamped with them and cut them into miniature collage shapes. I eventually used them like plates in an installation.
But, Little Factory wouldn’t let me forget where I was or that I was there to work. My stated reason for coming to Drachten, other than living in the factory, was to volunteer my time for free to a community. I thought by volunteering to work outside the context of art, I would learn something about work in general. I could avoid the relative privileges of my American studio. After all, the work was a performance, a challenge to myself to produce art by giving away my labor.
Drachten is a town of 50,000. When I was there, sometimes it seemed everyone knew everyone else’s extended family, life story, and face, and if you were not a local, you could feel it. I thought it would be harder, but the people of Drachten were very receptive to my project. I placed an ad in the local paper requesting manual work: demolition, painting, carpentry, and basic electrical services. I was looking for “simpel werk.”
My usual work days began by visiting people at their homes and chatting with them over coffee before I started working. During lulls in work we would talk about art, the history of Drachten, and travel experiences. Occasionally we discussed politics, Baltimore, the United States, and the contrast in the economies of the U.S. and the Netherlands. Though it required patience, I wanted to be professional and present the face of a happy worker. I tried not to speak out of turn. I tried to present the best possible face, Drachten’s Kunstenaar Amerikaan, the city’s guest worker, its American artist.
I underestimated the curiosity and openness of the Dutch; they opened their doors, fed me, attempted to house me, shared their language and philosophy, or volunteered to do my laundry. Working in the role of Kunstenaar Amerikaan, I wanted to subvert the usual models of exchange—money for service. Instead, I would offer labor without compensation. I wanted to see new views and found that art opened many doors. I soon realized I was actually trading in immaterial concepts. In exchange for my labor, I saw a side of The Netherlands most tourists never see.
When I was out and about, I took pictures. When I was back at Little Factory, I drew and built a sculptural installation inside. I tried to make it more hospitable, more like home. One day, I led an art workshop for children who spoke no English at a local museum. Since I speak no Dutch, we communicated by exaggerated pantomimes.
Here are some other moments from my trip:
In the employee lounge of the local museum there was a notice that I would be showering in the museum on weekends when the City Hall was closed.
For several hours I weeded the chinks between the pavement stones in Mieke’s driveway. She gave me a delicious dried sausage as a parting gift.
In Bernadette’s house, there is a cupboard menagerie of animal figurines… I visited Bernadette and hung a TV stand. She had an excellent laugh and drove a school bus for disabled and special needs students. In her free time, she practices body painting and is a member of a Drachten chapter of a sort of socialized time-sharing group, “LETS.” She seemed to intuitively understand what my project was about. The LETS functions as an outreach program to the socially isolated in a community and attracts all stripes of generous people.
One Saturday, during a folding-bicycle tour of Groningen, I stopped at a cathedral, Sint Jozefkathedraal, with a guide, Be Lambert. Groningen is North of Drachten; it is the local University town. Above the exit in the cathedral was a monumental relief sculpture showing a soldier on a horse with a beggar at his feet. Before leaving the church, my guide quickly highlighted the tale of St. Martin, a Roman soldier who cut his own cloak in half to save the life of a beggar caught in a storm. On St. Martin’s day, Dutch children go from door to door with small candle-lit lantern, trading candy for a song. It felt apt, given my situation and my own experiences in the Netherlands. I was grateful to be visiting a country with a people who prided themselves on humility and generosity.
After a particularly difficult workday, while waiting for my dinner to cook, I cheered myself on by doing laundry with what I had available: canal water and dish soap. No electricity meant no washing machine. I scrubbed uniform pants, uniform shirt, and my warmest sweater on the brick floor.
I chopped wood for Lida, another member of LETS, and the granddaughter of a blacksmith… Lida raises and boards horses and dogs, and lives with her son. We chopped in parallel; her with an electric powered pneumatic splitter and me with what she called her lady’s axe, which could still cut quite deep. I chopped for a couple of hours before I limped to lunch.
Lunch with Lida: raw salmon, rolls, butter, peanut butter, honey. She also offered me tea and coffee. As lunch was winding down, I stumbled into conversation about the nature of my project–how I was trying to find a link between my work and myself. I wasn’t sure if my work was art, or what kind of story I was telling about myself and my experience in the Netherlands. The frustration I felt in the ambiguity of my situation was surprising, I didn’t have the words, even in English.
Guy’s house–Guy is a retired merchant ship captain and a Krav Maga martial artist. While he sat in a side room and looked up the cost of ferrying between the Netherlands and France, I watched a small vine that was peaking out from under the overhang above a large window. I thought I should have been staining a garden bench, but I was distracted by the Dutch light, which struck me as especially beautiful at this strange moment.
I made a large stencil for the Museumplein, a square in front of the municipal library. The sign roughly translates to: My Time is Your Time.
All photographs and text by Joshua Wade Smith. Joshua Wade Smith would like to thank Florentijn Hofman, Elly Van der Goot, Be Lambert, Hester Jenkins, Sanne van Balen, the Ketelaars, the Dreitens, The Maryland Institute College of Art Alumni Board, Deana Haggag, family and friends, and the dozens of other people he met and worked for in the Netherlands this summer. Hear and see more of Joshua’s trip to the Netherlands on November 20th, during his artist-talk for the 30 Under 30 speaker series at Maryland Art Place (MAP), or read this What Weekly article about his 2012 exhibit at Gallery Four. Art Criticism in What Weekly (whatweekly.com/artcrit) is made possible with the generous support of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Awards, www.BakerArtistAwards.org. Marcus Civin has so far edited twenty-five of these art criticism articles for What Weekly. Ben Andrew co-edited this one. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.