Interview with Roos van der Vliet for ‘Mirrors of Your Soul’

Thinkspace Projects is excited to present Roos van der Vliet’s latest solo show, ‘Mirrors of Your Soul.’ Featuring an entirely new collection of the hyper realistic depictions of hair she is known for, there is a piercing energy at the heart of each piece.

The body of work is the result of the recent pandemic, a return to portraits at a time of extreme isolation. Van der Vliet begins each painting with the eyes, bringing the subject to life from that first moment, a magnetic vitality that is immediately evident to viewers. While the concepts of this solo exhibition are familiar for the artist–hair, piercing eyes, golden hour light–the intention behind the works has changed. Rather than focusing on differences, ‘Mirrors of Your Soul’ highlights the similarities between us, emphasizing that we are all more alike than we often care to admit.

In anticipation of ‘Mirrors of Your Soul’ our interview with Roos van der Vliet discusses her journey back to drawing, a deeper look into her creative process, and her dreamy garden with full of fruits and vegetables.  

For those who are unfamiliar with your work, can you share a little about your background and how you came to know about Thinkspace?

Of course. I’m from the Netherlands, was born in Dordrecht, famous for the light that inspired many artists like William Turner.

My art career has been a bumpy road. I’ve been drawing all my life and becoming an artist seemed like the only option for me ever since I learned the word. After being rejected to art school for illustration at 17yrs old, I was heartbroken. I decided to do a gap year and work on my portfolio. When I discovered that illustrating would maybe not be enough, that I needed more freedom as a future artist, I applied for fine art the next year and got in. I started painting and stuck with it. I became pregnant at age 20 and gave birth in 2006 to a boy while attending art school, so I’m a mom too. I painted with my son in my lap, dragging him to art school where he was cuddled and admired by the students and teachers. I graduated about 10 years ago and have been painting ever since. It’s been a bumpy road, but I’m super grateful to where it led me.

 I’ve known Thinkspace for a long time. It all started when I did a show in the Netherlands next to a work by Kyung Yup Kwon, who then had a solo at Thinkspace coming up. I admired her work so much and showing at this gallery seemed like miles away for me at the time. I had no idea things would go this fast! I still have to pinch myself sometimes.

I moved to my forever home last year with my love, my son and my cats. It’s a small old farm with a huge garden with an orchard and a big vegetable garden. When I was a kid I fantasized about being a witch (I actually told myself that I had been one in a previous life, burned on the pyre of course). Not a witch from old fairytales, but a wise woman, grey-haired, growing medicinal plants, herbs, and mushrooms, knowing exactly what to use for what illness. I’m now given the chance to become that, to learn with my hands in the soil. I really hope I can live here for a very long time. The lady that owned the house before me was born here and lived here for 90 years…

I’m currently building my studio out of straw and clay in the garden, it’s quite a project and I hope to finish it next summer.

What was the inspiration behind this latest body of work? And were there any specific themes or techniques you were exploring?

My inspiration basically came from the pandemic, and the strong urge to feel a connection with the paintings I was working on. I painted portraits before of course, but this time it felt like I NEEDED them. They became like imaginary friends to me in a time that I hardly saw anyone. I was having whole conversations with them while painting. This must sound like melodrama but that’s what isolation made me realize, that I might think of myself as being an introvert but that I’m actually not the hermit I always considered myself to be. What a relief!

Regarding themes and techniques, a while back I became interested in the divine feminine, deities from all over the world. I listened to a lot of podcasts and read books about this theme and became fascinated by the symbolism behind every deity, the part she represents that’s within us all, not just in women. The paintings all represent a different deity that I felt particularly inspired by during the time I made the painting. The technique has always been to paint as realistically as I can. In a way, this is how I try to understand life, by observing it from up close.

What is your most favorite part of the creative process?  Least favorite part of the creative process?

My favorite part is the part where the canvas is blank when I only made a sketch, and the final result is still a promise, a fantasy. When I don’t actually know if the painting is going to be good, but I can feel it in my gut that it will. I love it when I know that this process needs time and all I can do is create, there’s no need for impatience, the painting takes the time it needs.

The part that I least enjoy is the part where I have to finish it, accept it the way it is because it’s never truly ‘done’. I could go on forever. And, maybe this sounds strange, I don’t like the part of showing it for the first time, which is on social media most of the time. It’s not that I’m afraid of negative feedback or whatsoever, I’m okay with that, it’s more like I just gave birth and have to leave my baby to strangers. But the funny thing is, as soon as I start working on a new piece, I don’t feel that anymore with the previous painting. It’s like I keep replacing babies, only loving the newborn. Wow, this sounds so bad, hahaha.

What was the most challenging piece in this exhibition, and why?

That must be Medusa, and I think it shows why. All the different shades of black in the background, the lack of light in the braids, the piercing eyes that I wanted to be looking right through you… All of this made it the most difficult piece I created in a long time. It was one of the first I started working on for the show, and the last one I finished. It’s one of my favorites from the series though, maybe because of all the energy that went into it and how rewarding it felt when I finally stood back and saw that I accomplished what I was going for. There’s no need to put up a mask for Medusa, she looks right at you and knows your true you. I don’t feel judged by her though, she doesn’t scare me. That’s the sad part about the myth, she wasn’t always like this, she is actually a sad brokenhearted lady, a beautiful and sweet one, trapped in her own myth. So, the painting is not meant to be scary, it’s meant to bewitch you in a way, makes you feel seen on a deeper level than a fellow human could.

How do you go about sourcing models for your works? Do you know the look you’re searching for ahead of time, or do the models inspire the pieces?

I pick my models intuitively, sometimes because I have a particular idea that fits the model but in most cases, the models inspire the work. I don’t know exactly what makes me gravitate towards a certain person. Some women I work with are friends already (like the girl with the bug on her forehead) or a model might be my sister (like the model in the purple painting ‘Eyesis’), sometimes I meet them during a night out, or even on the streets. And sometimes I paint myself (like the painting ‘Ave’ which is a self-portrait). Or, what happened in this series, I saw the LA artist Rachel Silva on Instagram posting a picture of herself and I knew she’d be perfect for a painting I had in mind.

Does your work encompass a lot of symbolism? What is the insect that sometimes appears on a person’s forehead? Does the free-flowing hair mean something different than the braids?

The firebug on the forehead is a wink to the Indian heritage of the model, meant to look like a living bhindi, the dot that women in India wear on their foreheads. I chose a firebug because it looks like a third eye in the form of a living being, the shadow it leaves on her forehead is the dot that symbolizes the center of the universe, like the center of a mandala.

Whether I chose braids or free-flowing hair depends on whether I want the viewer’s full attention, or give more space for a dreamier atmosphere. The purple painting for example was an attempt to create a purple world of luscious hair in which you almost have to dig in to get to see the girl underneath, like she’s hiding yet still a little visible, in her safe space. The free-flowing hair allows me to improvise more. I’m not looking at a picture when I paint hair like this, it just develops on its own. This gives me more freedom and painting like this is like meditating.

Can you tell us what is planted in your garden, and what is one of your favorite things to make from its bounty?

My favorite subject! I only live at this place for less than a year so everything I planted I’m seeing growth for the first time. The previous house owners left us with a garden full of vegetables.  In April rhubarb was the first thing to be picked from the garden. It’s not my favorite vegetable but it’s great when processed in chutneys and jams. Around May/June we could literally pick kilos of strawberry every day. This was the best surprise of the year. I made dozens of pots of jam which I shared with all my family and friends. I discovered a new berry that was already in the garden, the tayberry, a cross-breeding between a blackberry and a raspberry. Super delicious! We own a little greenhouse that produces too many tomatoes to be eaten (is that even possible?) and I’m looking forward to the fall when we can harvest some big pumpkins that we planted a few months ago.

Right now, the trees in the orchard are heavy with pears and apples, and I’ve already baked a few typically Dutch apple pies that are delicious and that make the house smell so wonderful. Cooking, in general, makes me incredibly happy, but baking cakes and pies have been lifesavers. Whenever I feel depressed, I just start baking something. Success guaranteed.

The drawing you created for our friends at SpokeArt for their Moleskin show was your first true drawing in 15 years – have you continued to draw since rediscovering that part of your artistic voice? Did you consciously know that the rejection you had experienced from applying to illustration school was the reason for walking away from drawing?

Yeah, that was quite an important moment in my career, picking up the pencils again. I had no idea that I quit drawing because of that rejection. That’s something I remembered as soon as I started working on this piece for Spoke. I even said in interviews before that I never draw because I’m terrible at it, and believed it to be true. I started drawing again because I sometimes miss the spontaneity and easiness of drawing. Making a painting requires so much. A lot of time, the perfect lighting, all the art supplies, a great idea… I thought that it would be good to learn something ‘new’. So, I bought pencils and started. I literally burst into tears after half an hour of drawing, because I saw myself doing something that felt so natural because it once was! Then the memories came back to being rejected, how that felt, and how I just gave up drawing and switched to painting and that was that.

Over the past few months, all my time has gone into painting for my show. But I’ll be giving myself some time off from painting, and I’m definitely planning on making some drawings in the garden under the sun.

What is a piece of advice you would give someone currently experiencing the sting of rejection?

There are two different worlds you have to deal with as an artist, the inner and the outer world. The inner world is where creativity comes from, where you can find the innate need to create, but also the joy, the self-criticism, the discipline, the courage to walk your path. This inner world is an endless ocean of inspiration that’s just there, ready for you to dive into. The outer world is the public, the galleries, art school, but also your parents and friends, basically everyone with or without an opinion, social media, and so on. You need the outer world to be able to make a living and not only that, a lot of interesting, fun, and inspiring stuff happens in the outer world that can definitely help you forward in your career. But be aware that the outer world and the inner world don’t get mixed up. When you’re being rejected, that doesn’t have to change anything in this vast ocean of creativity. That’s yours and it’s beautiful and eternal. It’s always been there. That’s something I didn’t know when I was 17.

What are the musical artists or songs that you’ve had on repeat lately?

Oh, this is such a hard one for me because there’s so much I listen to, and in a way it feels very personal to share. I’m addicted to Spotify, have many different playlists I made over the years that keep growing and growing. Music is there wherever I go and it highly influences my work. Depending on my mood I switch between many different genres. But while making the paintings for this show I had Nils Frahm – Fundamental Values on repeat, Kevin Wrenn – Unwoven, and Rey&Kjavik’s remix of Earth by Mogli. I listened to Wardruna, Dead can dance, everything by Tool but especially Pneuma, from their latest album. This song resonates with me so much. And all of that was mixed with some psytrance, Indian mantras, African beats and singer-songwriter. So don’t try to put me in a box!

You’re throwing a dinner party!  Who would be on the guest list (it can be anyone, dead or alive)? What’s on the menu? And what is your icebreaker question?

I’d love to invite mother Mary, William Blake, James Maynard Keenan, Ram Dass, Vija Celmins, Plato and the goddess Kali to the table. My icebreaker question would be ‘Plato, would you please tell that story about the cave?’ And that would be the start of an evening full of enlightenment.

Mirrors of Your Soul

Opening Reception:
Saturday, September 18 from 6PM- 10PM

Masks and Social Distancing Required

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