Published 28/02/2010 | 05:00
"That's so East Berlin -- black comedy oozing with imminent death," Mieke gurgles with laughter as we nip into a bar at 2am for a drink to warm us up. "The place is full of so many ghosts of all the millions of people who died here at the hands of psychos like Hitler and Stalin over the years."
When our laughter at not being axed to mangled mincemeat by some stalker dies down, we stare at the snowflakes in the air out the window of the cafe. Mieke Vanmechelen is an artist who has lived in the wilds of Kerry since she was six, when her parents, Willem and Gudrun, moved over from Holland to farm sheep. Admirers and owners of her work include everyone from Johnny Ronan, through Guggi and Bill Cullen, to Norma Smurfit.
She grew up on the 260 acre farm on the Baureragh Mountain: Mieke says the inspiration to move to Ireland came when her mother travelled around Westport in the early Sixties with her friend, the Belgian painter, Lilly Van Oost, and worked briefly in the costume department of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Gudrun had worked for many years for the Belgian National Theatre in Antwerp.
"My mother is great at drawing," Mieke recalls. "I used to spend time with her in her studio when I came home from school when I was four or five. I would drop my books and go up and spend hours there with her."
Mieke can remember her mother's books on costumes: the detail, the precision. "The costumes were depicted in paintings from centuries ago," she says, adding that she felt an affinity with masters such as Rubens and Rembrandt, and the Renaissance painters, especially Hans Holbein. "That Flemishness is something that I feel is a part of my heritage," she says. "I know Rembrandt was Dutch but back then borders didn't matter. I really feel that painting tradition is in my make-up. It must be in my blood."
The hour is very late in Berlin but Mieke is a natural storyteller and no one wants to go to bed when she is in story mode. Her memory is almost Proustian in its detail. She tells how her dad had started a new life as a shepherd, in Zeeland, a part of Holland close to the Belgian border, having previously worked as a manager of a very large bakery in Antwerp. "Tragedy struck his first family and after the sad loss of his baby son the marriage broke down. Four years later he met my mum," Mieke says.
Then one day in September 1980, Willem and Gudrun, their daughter Mieke, and Mieke's young uncle Herman decided to set out on a trip to Ireland with the vague dream of buying a farmhouse. Willem had never even been to Ireland before. Over the following days they met "some nice hippies and auctioneers" in Leitrim. The farms were expensive and it was raining heavily, she remembers. "So we headed south to Killarney, to Mum's friend Lilly Van Oost, who had moved to Ireland by this stage, and was living in the Black Valley."
They had someone looking after their house and the sheep in Holland so there was not much time to spare. One night as they were sitting down to have dinner, someone came with the offer of a farm in Bonane near Kenmare. The dinner was left untouched. "About 45 minutes later we were sitting in the kitchen in the heart of the Caha Mountains being offered cheese sandwiches with onion," Mieke recalls 30 years later.
"Dad loved the farm, the house was basic but the roof seemed good and there was about 260 acres of grazing for his sheep," she says, adding with a laugh that, "most of it was at a 75° angle, but that was no problem. He was used to walking over 15 miles a day with his flock."
The farm was bought with the financial help of her father's parents in November, 1980.
"Life on the hill was not easy, far from it," says Mieke, who was born July 1974, adding that life may have been tough but it had lots of advantages. With mum and dad at work most of the time on the farm and related activities, Mieke and Herman had the freedom to play all day. They used to fish in the Inchiquin lakes over the mountain, build huts in the forest and spend days on the bog.
Herman, nine years older than Mieke, is her mum's youngest brother: Mieke's mother's mother died about 10 days after Mieke was born. "She had asked my mum to look after her little brother just before she became too ill to communicate properly. She had a brain tumour. Herman's dad had died two years previously after a long illness."
Mieke has magnificent memories of the long summer holidays spent at the pool in the river with ice-cold water and the big rocks "that used to soak up the heat of the sun". Mieke became very fond of her old neighbour, Mary, whose house was opposite theirs on the other side of the valley. Mary was like a grandmother to her.
"I would sit at the table with her and her brother having Sunday lunch, chicken, cabbage and spuds. He would fling the chicken bones out the front door over my head and we were happy in each other's company. I used to sweep her floor and argue about politics, usually about her favourite Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey. She used to make the best apple pie and soda bread. Her cottage was often cold and smoky and her cat used to try to warm himself under the hearth of the turf fire, only to catch flame and run frantically smoking out the front door."
The next morning, Mieke and I meet for breakfast in Mitte. Mieke has a group exhibition at the Turn-Berlin Gallery here at the heart of Berlin; she is working on a project for them to coincide with the 6th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, as well as exhibitions in Cork, Dublin and beyond. We wander around East Berlin like the two angels Damiel and Cassiel in Wim Wenders's Wings Of Desire, trying to observe and listen in on the complex thoughts of Berliners. Mieke's conversation, a little like herself, is quirky and irresistible. She can't stop laughing about visiting the Wank cafe last year in Bavaria. She says that her mother was a member of a women's organisation, Dolle Mina -- dolle meaning 'wild', she explains -- and Gudrun had the idea that she should take responsibility for her life's decisions: not least among them that Mieke's birth was without anaesthesia.
Indeed, Mieke's four children were natural births too. "The first two of them were home births," she says of Liam, born in May 1997, and Emily, in September 1998. "At the time it was the right thing for me to do and it worked really well." Her twins, Adam and Toby, were born in November 2000 in the Erinville Maternity Hospital in Cork, "but without any intervention of any sort. The nurse, who had worked in Africa earlier in her career, said that she had never witnessed a westerner giving birth the way that I did: completely natural, no medication or drugs. I just felt that I had to take responsibility and be in charge of my pregnancy and the birth of my children."
Mieke was, however, less in control of her marriage to German businessman Thomas Staus at this stage. Mieke met Thomas in Kenmare in the craft gallery where she was working during the summer of 1993. She was just 19. He had come in because he wanted to get a pair of shoes made. The next evening there was a piano recital in his house on the Ring of Kerry which had, she says, a beautiful view over Kenmare Bay.
"There was candlelit supper, beautiful music, and I was smitten," she recalls.
Thomas, a German businessman 13 years Mieke's senior, lived in Monte Carlo for half the year and the other half at his large home in Kerry.
Their relationship progressed quickly. A year later, they started living together in Castlegate Apartments in Dublin. Mieke was studying for a degree in Classical Civilisation at Trinity; she also did a bit of modelling for Eddie Shanahan's Agency. When Mieke graduated from Trinity in 1996, she and Thomas moved back to the house in Kerry. "It was quite a big property and it needed to be maintained. He had a gardener and a housekeeper," Mieke says. Liam was born the following summer. Mieke married Thomas in 1998 after Emily was born.
I ask Mieke if having the four children so quickly change the marriage for him. "The situation changed and the fact that we had children changed the situation. He and I just grew apart. It is a difficult one to talk about. We just grew apart. He wanted different things to me. And my home was in Ireland. He didn't want to stay. It was a difficult time. We were also trying to sell a house -- it was too expensive and too big. It didn't make sense necessarily to raise a family in it," she says. "The things that Thomas wanted to do were not the things that I wanted to do."
In February 2001, Thomas moved out amicably and by mutual consent. "Let's just say we both decided it was time to call it a day in our marriage. I was glad that the stress and the difficulties were gone once he had gone. It made it easier, even though it was really a tough, tough time. But everybody has tough times. But it was one of the worst periods of my life. My parents helped me through it. My mum and dad stayed with me. I coped pretty well. I had a lot to do. I didn't really have much time to think.
"Our marriage," she adds, "was already in trouble when the twins were born, and then it became more and more difficult. It was a very, very hard time having to realise that you have to give up all your plans and securities and let the person you love go. We split up some time after my twins were born, it was a painful process, but in the end we found a middle ground where each can live their life."
She says she has transcended the pain. You can see this pain in her work, she says. "The pieces I painted after that period in my life are very strong and full of lots of emotion. Some of it is really mind-blowing. It has that effect on certain people. It makes them uncomfortable to look at that work sometimes, which I think is great to be able to do that. So the work helped me through that. That's what my painting is all about. It is about emotion."
Mieke painted intensely during the period when her marriage ended. It made her, she says, get in touch with inner feelings that needed to be expressed. And in a way she turned the negativity of a failed marriage into something positive. "Some of my best work is probably from that period," she says, "but there is a lot more to come."
Mieke was rattling around "this big house" with two babies and two other kids aged three and four. So in August 2001 she finally sold the big house for £1.7m through Sotheby's; and with whatever was left between the jigs and reels with lawyers and Thomas, in February 2003 she "got cracking" on buying a house she had her eye on near her parents on the other side of the mountain. Mieke had always wanted to move back to the place where she grew up.
It was a farm with 160 acres "with a lot of bog and mountain and a few green fields"; the River Sheen also rises in the valley where she lives. Mieke learned to swim in it. She and the kids swim in the Sheen in all seasons.
She set about rebuilding the old farmhouse into a new home. "I felt empowered," she says. "I felt like I was building a new life for myself and my kids. I spent every day supervising the building of the new house." Mieke and the kids stayed in her parents' house on the other side of the mountain while this was going on. She renovated her studio first -- an old cowshed. She was also now a farmer. It wasn't an affectation, she says. It was a necessity.
"I had to get the farm up and running as quickly as possible," she says.
The first thing Mieke did was go to The Devil's Elbow near Caragh Lake and buy five Kerry cows from a man called Michael O'Connor. "That was," she says, "my start with Kerry cows." She has about twice as many Kerry cows now, as well as 130 sheep.
Mieke is not exactly hard on the eye. This has presented a few obstacles in the farming world below in the Kingdom. The one-time model recently had to sell a few cows. So she took three heifers to the mart in Kenmare where she got a relatively good price -- "not a great price, but a relatively good price," she laughs. Anyway, she was making her way back to the jeep when one of the farmers approached and told her that she had nice heifers. The conversation progressed and he asked her if she had any more heifers at home on the farm she wanted to sell.
"I told him I had two more. I gave him my number so he came over." That evening he arrived over to look at the heifers and they went down the field to have a look at them. It was a quite a long walk. During which he asked Mieke would she go out for a night.
Another time she received "a very charming letter" from a "very charming man" saying how he would like to take her out for dinner sometime. She never replied. She passed him on the street a few weeks later in Kenmare and made no mention of it.
"Basically," she says, "I'm on my own and don't have time to even think about romance. I am too busy, painting, farming and looking after the kids.
"My kids are very easy-going but whoever I meet will obviously have to be someone who they like."
It is now late again in Berlin. We are having dinner near the Brandenburg Gate in an austerely trendy restaurant. It is a strange place to hear someone -- Mieke -- say things such as "I have to do a Reps course [a Rural Environmental Protection Scheme course] -- "every now and then and have had some fun at suckler cow seminars, especially concerning matters like insemination and castration. Farming gives me a healthy perspective on life and I've had fun chasing sheep and cows and have a healthy fear of the bull: we had one called Flute for a while. It's great to be able to have your own meat, and we have five lambs in the freezer."
My fellow diner is the spit of young Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc. Like Saint Joan, there is a strange, almost mystical intensity to Mieke Vanmechelen -- a tendency to push impatiently at her fate. She wants her work as a painter to be known all over the world but that is going to take time: for a single mother with four children and a 160 acre sheep farm, Mieke's attempts to insinuate herself into the centre of the international art scene are not going badly. Johnny Ronan's Treasury Holdings has several large pieces of her work: Conference Call; Let's Go; Singing Wasteland; and Don't Try to Stop Me. A spokesperson at Treasury Holdings said: "She is a true artist with a bright future."
"Mieke Vanmechelen," Bill Cullen told me, "has a stunning style that resonates the colours and wilderness of the Beara Peninsula where she lives. Large canvases with slashes of daring colours are her trademark. Each of the paintings of hers that we have explodes off the wall with a bursting vitality. As they hang in our corporate offices my Apprentice candidates feel a surge of adrenaline from the energy unleashed by this slim young artist. She is fantastic."
But don't take just Bill and Johnny Ronan's word for it. "More than anything, Vanmechelen's works should be interpreted as translucent compositions that form a commentary on the human experience, in all its complexity and beauty," New York Arts Magazine editor Susan Walshe wrote in 2008.
Her work is both familiar and extraordinary, taking Irish art to places it has never been before. You wonder how autobiographical her hauntingly abstract art is. "I think every painting that an artist does is to some extent a self-portrait," she answers. "You are always doing something concerned with yourself when you are painting. The inner world and the outer world are interconnected anyway and that comes through in art. It is like music. It is a whole other language. And I paint from the subconscious."
What does she dream about?
"I tend to see pictures and paintings just before I drop off to sleep. They flash through my mind, very often. I try to captivate them just because I know I am going to doze off and I don't want to let go of them. And then they flash like film through my mind. And then years later I might do a painting and think, 'That's it'. So I know it came from the subconscious. It surfaces when it wants to surface," she says.
Does part of your magic come from your environment? Is there magic on your mountain in Beara? "The place gives me energy and inspiration. I paint quite organic paintings. I think if I lived in a city my work would be more structured and cooler. It wouldn't have the same rawness to it that it does. I feel that I have been given that bonding to nature, because of the way I have been brought up. I have that understanding of nature and that feeds my creativity. And if I didn't live where I live I wouldn't have that connection. I need to have that to be a painter.."
Mieke is a potent amalgam of comedy, wit, and beauty; emotionally exhausting and light as a snowflake, she can switch in a heartbeat from discussing the brush-stroke of Rembrandt or Goya or Gaugin to her backstroke in the hotel pool (we have been swimming earlier in the evening). Her favourite painting is Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan, by Hans Holbein the Younger, "because I saw it in the Tate in 2006 and it was a completely overpowering and intensely intimate experience". As to her favourites among her own works, Mieke is demure and says she doesn't have one. Indeed, she only has one of her own paintings in her house in Kenmare. She painted it in 1998. It is of a matador and a bull in front of a big blue door. "I kept it because it symbolised my future," she says intriguingly, as we head out once more into the cold Berlin night.
"When my children were small," she adds, "I used to paint with them in the studio. Now that they are older they still join me a lot of the time, we are a very close-knit family. They tell me straight away what they think of my work: children are the best critics of all, because they are totally honest."
Mieke Vanmechelen's exhibition is on Thursday, March 11 at the Tramyard Gallery, Dalkey, Co Dublin. The gallery is open every day, Monday-Saturday 11am- 6pm, Sunday 1pm-6pm, tel: (01) 235-1346, or see www.miekevanmechelen.com
Page 21 and Contents page
Dress, American Apparel
Page 22, left
Boots, Mieke's own
Page 22, centre
Dress, Emanuel Ungaro, Covet. Shoes, Mieke's own
Bodice, Cadolle, Susan Hunter. Skirt, Elie Tahari, Harvey Nichols
Dress, Mary McFadden, Covet.
Boots; ring, Mieke's own
American Apparel, 114 Grafton St, D2, tel: (01) 633-6953
Covet, The Powerscourt Centre, 59 Sth William St, D2, tel: (01) 679-9313, or see www.covet.ie
Susan Hunter, 13 Westbury Mall, D2, tel: (01) 679-1271
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styled by Liadan Hynes
Make-up by Vivien Pomeroy, Brown Sugar, 50 Sth William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967
Hair by Lindsay McLoughlin, Toni&Guy, 52 Dame St, D2, tel: (01) 670-8745
Shot at Carton House, Maynooth, Co Kildare, tel: (01) 505-2000.
Celebrate all things Irish at Carton House this St Patrick's Festival 2010: there will be a series of events from whiskey tasting to cookery demonstrations, including a 'Crafternoon Tea' on St Patrick's Day, tel: (01) 505-2000, or see www.cartonhouse.com