'Every Danish home has one of these' - Inside this artist's Scandinavian-style home on an Irish island
Claus Havemann’s apprenticeship as a house painter stood him in good stead when it came to building his house on Sherkin Island, but he felt at the time the locals were dubious about his abilities and materials
There is a pine dresser in the kitchen of Claus Havemann's house on Sherkin Island, and you could say it and its contents are the embodiment of the spirit of the craggy Dane.
The dresser contains a collection of Royal Copenhagen cups, saucers and plates, and he is very proud of his family connection to the iconic china. "My grandfather worked as an artist for Royal Copenhagen and he painted unique pieces for invitees of the royal family of Denmark," Claus explains, adding that he himself used to paint coats of arms for the queen of Denmark at one stage in his own career.
However, the dresser itself is Irish, and the Danish china and the Irish woodcraft work well together, each highlighting the other's beauty. After 50 years of dividing his life between his native land and that of the wilds of Sherkin, Claus would see himself like the china-filled dresser, as a bit of both; a combination of the two cultures.
Claus is well known as an artist back in his native Denmark, and is unusual among artists in that he made his living all his adult life from his paintings, but he took an unusual route to art, becoming first a house painter. "I hated school, mostly because I was dyslexic, which wasn't understood in those days," he says, "so I left when I was 15 to become a house painter. I've never regretted that, because I learned about mixing colours, signwriting and marbling."
After his apprenticeship, he did go on to art college and gradually became extremely successful. In his early single years, he loved to spend the summer months travelling, and that was how he found Ireland, and then Sherkin. "I ended up on Sherkin Island by mistake," he says. "I had missed the ferry to Cape Clear; up to then, I had spent three summers there. I made some friends in the pub in Baltimore, and woke up on Sherkin the following morning. It was love at first sight." he enthuses, adding that he had never met anybody before as friendly and warm as the Sherkin Islanders. From then on, Claus began to spend six months of the year in Sherkin, arriving on March 28, and returning to Denmark in October. Despite his dyslexia, he quickly learned English. "I've always played and sung jazz music. I play the saxophone; I played every week for years, so I have a good ear," the multi-talented artist notes in his perfect English, only slightly tinged with a west Cork accent.
When he met his wife Ulla, she came too, and when their daughter Krestine arrived, they brought her, and put her in the local schools during the spring and early autumn terms. By then, Claus had developed a pattern to his painting, which he only does when he's in Sherkin. "I don't paint in Denmark. When I am there, I reflect on what I want to paint when I return to Sherkin in spring," he explains, "In Sherkin, I get up early in the morning when everything is quiet. I start every day with a swim, a cup of coffee, and I feed the wild fox and cat that have taken up residence near the house, then I start painting." Each year, he says, he has new ideas: one year it was skies and clouds; another, people's eyes and hands. Other themes have been migration and the microplastic pollution in the seas. This year's theme is Sheela-na-gigs. "The most important element in my paintings at present is the way I use the square," Claus explains. "It is an abstract form which doesn't exist in nature. I superimpose transparent squares on my naturalist paintings, combining the abstract with the figurative."
This current preoccupation with the square possibly relates back to Claus's youth, when he toyed with the idea of beoming an architect, but, because of his dyslexia, he gave up the idea. "Proportions have always been a preoccupation: I was always full of good ideas," he says.
It's obvious he did have a talent for architecture, as he designed and built the house he's lived in since he first came to Sherkin. "I acquired some land and applied for planning permission," he recalls. "Nothing happened, so I built it anyway. I asked the ESB for electricity, but they said I couldn't have power until there was a house. I tried to explain that I needed electricity for my power tools, but that didn't work so I started building with non-power tools."
At the beginning, he did have one friend helping him, but that was a disaster. "He built one wall, but didn't anchor it and went off to the pub. There was a bit of wind and, when he came back, it was down in the field," Claus recalls with a laugh. "He was a nice chap but he was in my way, so I did it myself."
Despite his good ideas, Klaus admits it was all a bit of a learning curve for him. "I had no experience of building a house, but I learnt as I went along. It was to be a traditional Scandanavian wooden house, built on stilts, so the air could circulate around the bottom of it. Often, at the end of the days when I was still working, some locals would come to watch the Danish fool building his wooden house in the wet Irish climate. 'It will be rotten in a couple of years,' they said. Forty years on, it is still as good as new, and I know the locals came to respect me for it," Claus notes.
Claus is 75, and like all lives, his has had its roller-coaster moments, including cancer, for which he's currently undergoing treatment. There was also the breakdown of his marriage; he and Ulla separated after 21 years. "She had enough of me. Men are a bit stupid; we just think tomorrow will be as good as yesterday," he volunteers. Ulla lives full-time in Denmark, and they're on good terms enjoying a relationship as parents of Krestine, now grown up and a successful photographer. Claus is very happy in his relationship of 18 years with his Irish partner, Pauline MacSweeney. "Pauline teaches harpsichord and piano in the Cork School of Music and comes to see me as often as she can," he says.
Claus's house has a kitchen, living room, sun room and bedroom, with a mezzanine bedroom that used to be Krestine's room. Claus furnished the house simply with a mix of old Irish pine and Danish pieces. Colour and vibrancy is added through his artwork. As well as his paintings, he brings his house-painter skills into play by stencilling directly onto walls - for example, his row of onions in the kitchen. Some bits of Danish living he found essential and brought with him, like the meat slicer in the kitchen. "Every Danish home has one of these," he notes.
Making it easy for the three of them to share the space - as Krestine likes to spend time in Sherkin, too - Claus built a separate little house for her. "She works and lives in Copenhagen with her partner, Mark Tynan, and his eight-year-old daughter, Matilde. Her long-term dream is to once again be able to spend at least half the year on the island," Claus explains. She has a strong bond with Ireland, just like Claus himself.
"I feel better in Sherkin than I do in Denmark. As Brendan Scannell, the now-retired ambassador of Ireland to Denmark, said to me, 'Maybe you were born in Denmark, but your heart is Irish'," Claus notes with a hint of emotion, adding, "I cried when he said that. I think he's right."
See claushavemann.com See havemannphoto.com
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Krestine Havemann
Sunday Indo Life Magazine