Susan Cummins has been involved in numerous ways in the visual arts world over the last 35 years, from working in a pottery studio, doing street fairs, running a retail shop called the Firework in Mill Valley and developing the Susan Cummins Gallery into a nationally recognized venue for regional art and contemporary art jewelry. Now she spends most of her time working with a private family foundation called Rotasa and as a board member of AJF and California College of the Arts.
The first time I encountered Felieke van der Leest was at an AJF-sponsored talk in 2004. She was funny and imaginative and also extremely practical somehow. She was playful, for sure, which probably adds to the appeal of her work. It is outstanding and unusual partly because it is just plain accessible. Anyone can enjoy what she does. Felieke is having a show this month at the active and lively Galerie Rob Koudijs in Amsterdam. She has reached back into her childhood memories to create creatures from the Wild West.
Susan Cummins: Where did you study, and who were your early influences?
Felieke van der Leest: From 1986 until 1991, I studied at the technical school for goldsmithing and silversmithing in Schoonhoven, Netherlands. I was a fan of the surrealist Salvador Dali and Egyptian jewelry. From 1991 until 1996, I studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, Netherlands. I have no idea who and what influenced me. Those years were a struggle. Fortunately, in my graduation year, the head of the jewelry department Ruudt Peters noticed some textile crochet work I made for fun. He allowed me to see that what I made was special. Luckily, I listened. From that moment on, I have worked nonstop making jewelry and objects.
You are using textiles techniques with plastic animals to make jewelry. It is an unusual combination. How did you come up with your particular working style?
Felieke van der Leest: I graduated in 1996 with all crocheted and knitted textile jewelry. I continued doing that until 2002, when my arms became painful. I had to change something in my working process to avoid having problems with my body in the future. So, in addition to the textile techniques, I started working in metal again. Throughout the years, I collected plastic toy animals and sometimes made jewelry from them as Christmas gifts for my brother’s children. While surrounded by all these animals, an endless stream of ideas began to flow, and so they also ended up in my professional work.
You have been using animals in your work for years, and I am wondering why? There is humor for sure, but is there a message?
Felieke van der Leest: Every year, new plastic toy animals are produced, so my collection of animals grows and grows. They keep inspiring me because there is such a large variety, and yet they give me some boundaries to work within. I have no message. Maybe the message is to allow the viewer to come up with her own message. I am always surprised when people tell me they see a narrative in the work that I have not seen myself.
Do you have a lot of live animals in your life?
Felieke van der Leest: I don’t have any live animals in the house except the usual small insects. My husband and I are passionate bird lovers. We always have food on our balcony for them, and we try to make our garden as bird friendly as possible. There are two pairs of binoculars on our diner table in case we see any suspicious or unusual bird while we are having our meal. I am also a horse lover and had a horse when I was young. My dream is still to have one or two horses or some donkeys in the future, one day…
Can you tell me where your exhibition Once upon a time in My West has been shown before this exhibition?
Felieke van der Leest: Once upon a time in My West (Part 1) was first shown at Galerie Rob Koudijs in April 2011, and now you can see Part 2 there. Charon Kransen Arts had these pieces at SOFA Chicago in November 2012. (In August, I would have been the highlighted artist at Charon’s booth at SOFA Santa Fe, but unfortunately the fair was cancelled.) In December 2012, Once upon a time in My West (Part 1 & Part 2) will be shown at Gallery Deux Poissons in Tokyo, Japan.
Can you tell us the idea behind the title and what kinds of pieces were included?
Felieke van der Leest: The American Wild West inspired the pieces for this series. It is based on stories about cowboys and Indians and memories from when I was a child. I wanted to be an Indian because of their beautiful beaded clothes and their colorful horses. (A bit superficial, but as a child living in the Netherlands, it was a far away world.) In Part 1, there are the brooches Peace Parrot and Crazy Horse (no relation at all with the famous Indian chief), a double necklace called The Beaver Family from Pencil Creek, and the object with necklace Incognitos Anonymous.
How does Part 2 of Once upon a time in My West being shown at Galerie Rob Koudijs differ from Part One?
Felieke van der Leest: Just before starting to make the pieces for Once upon a time in My West, I had a son. I thought I could continue working like before, but it was better to slow down for a while. So, I decided to make a smaller solo exhibition (Part 1). I knew a second exhibit would follow because I had many ideas left. Now, I still have more ideas, so I am thinking of a Part 3 in the future.
Can you tell us something unusual about how you work?
Felieke van der Leest: Is it unusual that I watch a lot of television while I work? Not when I do the metalwork (that would be a disaster), but while I crochet. After designing the final crochet pattern for a new piece, I write it down in my pattern book. Since I make small editions, I repeat those patterns when needed. The crochet work is always very labor intensive. Because I don’t need to concentrate so hard, I can watch television and learn a lot about the animal world and the universe. In the winter, I love to watch ice speed skating competitions.
Where do you live now? Can you give us the flavor of the area?
Felieke van der Leest: In 2008, my husband and I moved from the big city of Amsterdam and the flat country of the Netherlands to a small town in the countryside of West Norway. Mountains and forests surround our house, and from it we have a postcard view looking down on the small village of Øystese. Behind the village lies the Hardangerfjord and on the other side of the fjord there are other mountains and the Folgefonna glacier. The air is fresh and crisp. When sitting in the garden, you hear different bird concerts, and once in a while, a tractor passes.
Sounds lovely. Thank you.