SONJA'S CRAFTY DESIGN FOR LIFE
A pioneering artist who slotted into Ireland's creative landscape as easily as her enduring work transformed it, Sonja Landweer looks back at a life of achievement, positivity and enlightenment. She talks to Emily Hourican
The story of Sonja Landweer and Ireland is one that was meant. About three years before the Kilkenny Design Workshops invited her to come and live here, and allow her talent, knowledge and attitude to soak into the world of Irish design, she had already decided that this was the place she most wanted to be. "I first came to Ireland in the winter of 1959, to the Burren. It was in deep snow. I fell in love on the spot; I thought, 'This is the place I want to live'." By then, Sonja had already met and fallen in love with artist Barrie Cooke, who, although born in England and largely brought up in America, had settled in Ireland in the mid-1950s. Everything in her life was tending towards this country.
Back then, the early 1960s, Ireland was an insular, backwards-looking place, in thrall to a romantic vision of itself that bore scant resemblance to the reality, but there were, too, pockets of enlightened pragmatism.
One such was the 1961 report commissioned by the Irish Export Board and carried out by the Scandinavian Design Group, which found that the state of Irish design – including textiles, ceramics and industrial design – was deeply neglected and stalled. "They came over to look at things here; the only thing they thought was really passable were the Irish stamps!" Sonja laughs.
Instead of ignoring the report, or simply making polite noises, the government actually acted on it, inviting international artists to establish residencies for six months or a year, with the simple brief that they help raise the design standards of the country.
And so Sonja came in 1962 from Holland, where she grew up and studied. In the 50 years since, her influence has gone far beyond anything the Kilkenny Design Workshops (now Kilkenny Design Centre) could have hoped, reaching across art to film, poetry, farming and cooking, as well as settling – forever, one hopes – the absurd old antagonisms between 'art' versus 'craft'. In the process, she hasn't gained even the faintest hint of an Irish accent, retaining the purity of her Dutch cadence and expressions, as well as the translucent virtues of economy and modesty that are part of the Dutch code.
Now nearly 80 – although her bright, dark eyes, elegant angular nose and well-cut silvery hair make her seem years younger – she lives at Thomastown, on the grounds of Jerpoint House, the grand 18th-Century property she bought with Barrie Cooke many years ago, and turned into a beacon of enlightenment that shone far and wide, attracting poets such as Robert Lowell and Ted Hughes, as well as musicians and artists, before renting it out to the Camphill community, which cares for children and adults with learning difficulties.
You do not, I discover, 'interview' Sonja. Instead, you listen, enchanted, as she picks a trail through her remarkable life, and narrates the various events, encounters and revelations that fall across that trail. Another day, I have no doubt, the sequences of her reminisces could be quite different.
We begin with the 'art' versus 'craft' debate, because in a way, that's what brought her here. "I have found this very amazing," she says, eyes shining. "Together with Seamus Heaney I went into quite some depth to find the origin of these words, and they are very closely linked." The connection with Heaney goes back a long way, To a Dutch Potter in Ireland, written about Sonja, was the first poem he read at his acceptance of the Nobel Literature Prize in 1995, and the latest exhibition of Sonja's work, as part of the Out of The Marvellous exhibition in the National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny, sees them team up to explore the joint inspirations of poetry and art.
By the time Sonja came to Ireland, she was already an established, lauded artist in Holland, where she was included in a small, celebrated group of contemporary ceramicists. Here, however, craft was still considered homewares; pots and stuff. Or else – worse – old things, like hand-carved walking sticks and woven baskets. "David Hendricks asked me for some work for his gallery in the 1960s. I had no idea how much this man was sticking out his neck by doing that," she laughs.
Within a short time of arriving, Sonja had started to infuse the Irish art world, not just with her talent for ceramics and understanding of the ways in which craft needs to mirror and keep pace with our lives, but also with her endless energy for everything that crosses her path. Together with Barrie, she was instrumental in creating a whole scene that sprang up around Kilkenny, and bore fruit in the beginnings of Kilkenny Arts Week, in dispatching students at the College of Art in Limerick to the Burren, which none of them had ever seen, and in generally establishing the worth of some of the many things we then despised because they were indigenous. Which all might sound a bit like hard work, but was clearly much more the result of tremendous fun.
Sonja met Barrie first in Amsterdam, at her studio, in 1956. He and his then-wife Harriet Leviter, were planning a trip to Austria, but that was the year of the Hungarian uprising, and the country was overrun with refugees. Instead, they stayed for a winter in Amsterdam in a studio owned by an artist acquaintance of Sonja's, after which Harriet moved back to Ireland and Barrie stayed with Sonja. She still has the first painting he did while in Amsterdam – Woman in the Burren – on her wall.
"He was homesick for the Burren," she says. At first, Barrie didn't want to move back to Ireland, but Sonja was clear about her priorities.
"I had always said to Barrie, 'Look here, I want to be able to continue to do my work, so if something comes up, I want to do it if I want to do it'." It was a language Barrie could understand – part of the couple's connection was clearly rooted in their understanding of the other's artistic drive, as well as a generosity about each other's work. In an interview about a year ago, Barrie, who these days lives in Sligo, no longer with Sonja, described her as having "astonishing skill, so talented", adding, "She's much more famous than I am."
So back they came, moving first to a house with 20 bedrooms on a tiny island in the river Nore, which flooded when the water was high – Sonja remembers making paper boats for their daughter, Aoine, then a small child, to sail through the bottom of the house one Christmas – and then to Jerpoint, where Sonja began producing fruit and vegetables on biodynamic principles. She still supplies five restaurants around the area, and for a long time has made her own fruit teas, which she sells through various shops.
She is a legendary cook – almost everyone I talk to about her mentions this – and was at one stage asked to do cakes and desserts for the Kilkenny Design Centre cafe. "But this would mean I wouldn't do my own work," she says.
She and Barrie gradually converted the old barn into a kind of gathering and performance space, where they held musical recitals and poetry readings.
"At first it was only Irish poets, and Seamus Heaney was the one who introduced them. These readings were fantastic. Ted Hughes was also a good friend, Robert Lowell came over from America shortly before he died. At the beginning we put them up in hotels, but they were all very keen to talk to each other so they came and stayed here at Jerpoint. They would talk all night. We were so naive and unprofessional," Sonja laughs, "that we asked only for the best. You might have 'no', but you could get 'yes'. We got 'yes' most of the time. At first, everybody was wondering what would this little group in that little provincial town be doing, but then we were covered by the Observer and The Sunday Times."
The scene created by Sonja and Barrie is a perfect example of the kind of critical mass that can be achieved by enthusiastic, energetic people devoted to a common purpose, and that then spills over into the culture at large. She tells me about an early Kilkenny Arts Week in which Barrie had the idea of asking artists to make kites – "On the opening day, all the kites would be flown. Bobby Ballagh had made a kite like a man that was an exhibitionist. When it was closed, he was perfectly respectable, but when he was flying, you saw it all." She hoots with laughter, but not everyone thought the exhibitionist kite was so funny, and the committee were asked to take it down, "because there might be a nun who would take offence".
As a result, Sonja resigned, with others, but she adds: "We abandoned the whole thing. But I am happy to see the festival is still going."
Once her residency with Kilkenny Design centre finished, Sonja began to build up an interest in her work, selling through craft shops – "one of my main inputs in Ireland has been to change the way craft shops display their stuff" – and galleries, including the Peppercanister, the Fenton Gallery, the Rudolf Helzel Gallery and Designyard, as well as galleries in Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Zurich and beyond.
These days, her work is in countless private collections; the OPW has several pieces, including one in the Taoiseach's office. Over the years, she has moved from traditional ceramics into jewellery, using beads, slate, wood, paper, feathers, bone and leather, and more recently, bronze. Her forms are immediately recognisable for their exquisite confidence and simplicity, and the way they mirror natural layers of texture and colour. Seeds and plant shapes have been at the centre of her work, and it is impossible to look at a piece of her work without wanting to pick it up, hold it, run your fingers over the undulating lines.
"When I look back on it, I'm amazed how I managed to do it all," she says of those busy years. "I think I was mad. But then my downfall came and I got a frightful thyroid condition." The problem was an over-active thyroid; the normal reading is between 11 and 22. Sonja's "went to 273" and her heart-rate to 144 – from its usual athletic rate of 54. The choices with over-active thyroids are fairly unappealing – remove it by operation, kill it with radioactive treatment, or take serious medication on a continual basis. Sonja opted for the medication, as the least of three evils, but also went to an experimental clinic in the UK.
"I went in there in October 1982 and didn't emerge until April 1984." During that time, she was often in isolation except for medical visits. "I was not to read, not to write, not to see other patients. It was a very interesting exercise," she says, of the kind of thing that would have most people screaming in horror.
"I had to be quietened down. I survived it, I am still here," she says merrily. "They said they would like me to become bored, and I said, 'I'm sorry, I'm not that kind of person, I never will be bored'. And I wasn't."
Sonja was allowed to have plants in her room, and she would watch them, how they grew, unfolded, flowered and later made seeds. "I can watch forever, what they do, the spaces in between. This is one of the things that informs my work. I would sometimes put on the light during the night, to see whether a flower had opened."
What change, for a woman who had been running a huge house, grounds, gardens, fundraising and cultural events, as well as the time-consuming process that is working in ceramic. The year and six months Sonja spent at the clinic showed her that she could not continue life at the pace she had been living it.
When she came back to Jerpoint, she says: "I had to tell Barrie I couldn't manage any more. I was not fit for work. I moved into my studio, where I then lived nearly 25 years. Barrie moved into his studio. Effectively we departed our lives in the big house." They also thereafter departed their romantic life together although there is still a warm friendship between them.
But even such drastic moves were not enough, and Sonja's thyroid, and by association, heart, continued to behave alarmingly on occasions.
"I had a heart attack in 1988, a massive thrombosis in 2003, a stroke in 2008," she tells me merrily, "but I'm still here."
And still radiant with energy and purpose. Because she has had so many serious conditions, and because she was brought up in Holland, a country where assisted death is an accepted part of society, I ask Sonja what she feels about it and to my surprise, her feelings on the matter are complicated.
"I find it very difficult to have an opinion about, because I think everything that happens to you has purpose, and I believe that when we die, we continue to live in a different consciousness. And so, to wish to take your own life, however appalling it might be – and I have every understanding that there are people who want to do this and are doing it and are being helped – but at the same time I wonder if whether perhaps the things we have to endure are there for a purpose
"And maybe we don't understand the purpose, and maybe it is incredibly difficult to undergo it, but I think it has a reason for it.
"So I can't say that I am against euthanasia, not at all, I can see there are situations where it is a blessing, but at the same time, what does that do to your biography, and the journey beyond it?
"I feel the same thing with transplanting organs. It is a most remarkable offering to make – but at the same time, it's a very doubtful thing for what you go through after death, if, for example, your heart is in somebody else. We are so used to the idea that we are complicated machines and you can replace the parts, but that is a limited view of ourselves."
There is nothing limited about Sonja's views. Which is why, after all these years, she is still showing us new ways of being and believing.
'Out Of The Marvellous' runs at National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny until January 16 2013. www.nationalcraftgallery.ie
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