Categories: Poetic License

POETIC LICENSE: Dutch still-life meets the DE LA TORRE BROTHERS


Artist Studio Visits by Chi Essary

I looked at the HUGE suitcase I agreed to bring to the de la Torre Brothers for their upcoming installation at the Glass Cities art exhibition in Leerdam, Holland. Einar & Jamex had crammed it with toys, metal trinkets, plastic beads, bottles of toxic resin, spray-paint pens, and a plastic gold-doily tablecloth that they’d bought in a fabric shop in Ensenada, Mexico, where they live most of the year. The suitcase weighed just under 50 pounds, the airport check-in limit. Fifty pounds of baubles! The airport security x-ray images were sure to be epic!

The festival had invited thirteen artists and designers, pairing each with master glass blowers from several European cities known for their glass technique. For six days, master glass blowers would assist the artists, and their work would be exhibited at the historic Kunst Fort, built in 1847. The brothers were unique in this selection as they are both artists and glassblowers. They were excited to be working with the other master blowers, many of whom are longtime friends and colleagues. With six days of glass blowing and a 50-pound suitcase of random trinkets, it was going to be a De La Torre fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants extravaganza.

***July 6th ***

The brothers start the morning by reviewing their sketchbook, modifying and sketching out new ideas inspired from the environs of Holland and their interactions with the locals. They had come with the idea of recreating a traditional Dutch still life interpreted in the de la Torre style. Wild-mouthed creatures and prominent phalluses had made a debut in the previous days’ pieces but today’s piece, which incorporated fishes, would be relatively tame. Because fish were the topic, there was no need to be anatomically correct—or so I thought.

Einar laid out the powdered colored glass on the metal work table and began drawing hieroglyph-like images. Jamex joined him and the two worked on the drawing together, taking turns or simultaneously drawing out the designs before the picture was rolled onto a molten glass bubble. At this point, I found a vulva snuck into the little drawings. “Hey! What is that?!” I teased. Einar just smiled with de la Torre pride; both brothers enjoy sneaking in hidden gems or little jokes to discover. The naughtier the better!

Between them and their four assistants, five languages were spoken throughout the day: Spanish, English, Romanian, Turkish and Dutch. Hand signs were paramount as much was lost in translation. Two of the assistants were the Romanian brothers Constantin and Vacyli with their magnificent musketeer mustaches. They were ecstatic to be working with glass again after the glass shop in their town closed and to make ends meet had to become farmers. Constantin wore leather gloves the whole day—unusual, because most glass blowers only wear a right glove, and only when they are sitting on the bench, close to the molten glass. With a big smile, Einar tells Jamex that Constantin likes to keep his hands soft for his wife. “Damn! That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard—taking care of his wife like that!” Einar added and they both chuckled and smiled approvingly at Constantin’s chivalry; his old-fashioned gesture mirroring their own traditional Mexican romantics. Even though it was the last day in a long week of blowing glass, there was high energy and excitement as one set of brothers assisted the other, everyone obviously enjoying working together.

At the end of the long day of blowing glass in the Royal Crystal Factory, the brothers hopped on their bikes— the preferred mode of transportation for the Dutch— and returned to their hotel. Working with Constantin and Vacyli marked the last of six days working with glass, which left a day and a half to set up the installation. Supplies needed to be bought as well as the quintessential visits to second-hand stores.

***July 7th ***

The next morning, Einar and Jamex discussed over breakfast what they would do that day—the opening was at 5:00 pm the following day and the work wasn’t even at the fort yet. At that point, they had only seen pictures of the two rooms they would transform in their Fantastical-Baroque-de la Torre style. As the brothers rode their bikes through the quaint Dutch town, cobblestones gave way to paved dikes with occasional bridges over the locks that control the flow of water throughout the countryside. Crossing yet another bridge and parking their bikes next to the Kunst Fort, the brothers discovered that the fort wasn’t open yet. A few master glass blowers who were old friends of theirs heartily welcomed them as they waited out front drinking coffee from the little cottage cafe next to the fort.

They were finally able to gain access a little after 10:00 am. Mesmerized by the domed brick ceilings, thick walls, and circular floor plan, they walked through the fort, coffee cups in hand, talking about which pieces would go in which room. (The brothers were given two rooms but I will focus on the main room for reasons of brevity.) The first thing they asked the caretaker of the fort was if they could glue plastic butterflies to the walls. “Of course! The white stuff on the walls constantly flakes off the bricks. If you pull it off this year it will be back next year. But it probably won’t stay long as when it rains the walls become moist.” He went on to explain how one artist came to tears after mushrooms had destroyed her work. Surprised by the unique features of the fort environment, the brothers chuckled over how they could make a piece on which mushrooms would grow.    

After the walk-through, the two sat outside and discussed the layout of the rooms, referring to the drawings in their sketchbook. They borrowed a car and collected their work from the Glasblazeriji, the Royal Crystal Factory, and Bernard Hessen’s studio—the “hot shops” where they had worked over the past six days. Meanwhile, the curator Joyce Dunki Jacobs drove me to the hardware store to fetch a special request: pink spray paint. I asked her how long the show would be up. “Oh September, maybe October, depending on when the bats return.” Bats?! Yes. She explained that they closed the fort every year during the winter because that’s where the bats go to survive the severe weather. I thought about the massive mess there must be, envisioning thousands of bats hanging from the domed brick ceilings dropping guano all winter long. I couldn’t wait to tell the brothers what would decide the length of their show, knowing they loved the bizarre and macabre. “Guess what!” I exclaimed when they returned, and told them the dramatic story. Jamex smiled thoughtfully. “Isn’t that beautiful they’d consider the bats’ needs?” I’m always struck by the gentle respect the brothers have for nature, given the sometimes crude irreverence of their work and the plastic and Day-Glo mash of color they gravitate toward. Somehow that irreverence is reserved for mankind; our beastly-human nature makes great fodder for their work.

When they returned, we all carried the bubble-wrapped pieces into the fort. They had been collected from the Glasblazeriji, the Royal Crystal Factory, and Bernard Hessen’s studio. Einar laid out the gold-doily plastic Mexican tablecloth and the brothers began placing the confetti of colored glass pieces willy-nilly on the table, standing back to review as they placed and replaced them. It was after 1:00 pm. “We need to get to a second-hand store…” “Yeah, it’s getting late!” they both interjected, the only time I actually heard the concern in their voices regarding the condensed timeline.

Another complication loomed—the brothers had a Skype meeting to discuss a public art installation for a new library in San Ysidro, CA for which they would need the good wifi back at the hotel. Following that, I foresaw a late night in the cool, moist fort.

The brothers asked the caretaker how late everyone would be setting up, thinking there would be crazy artists up until 2 am. “We’re closing at 5, maybe 6?” The brothers froze, realizing they would not be able to start the installation until tomorrow—opening day. Jamex looked down and shrugged, “well …we’ll set up tomorrow.” I was struck with how they both just adjusted their expectations, and I remembered something Einar once said: “The process is about limitations; it’s about what you do with what you have.”  This attitude and approach to creativity allow them to adapt to the time and resources available. How they handled this episode would be another interesting feat of creativity. For now, the only thing to worry about was the next thing on the list: second-hand stores.

Arriving at the first shop, the brothers both immediately broke off and started looking through the eclectic rubble. With a satisfied smile, Jamex picked up a two-foot plastic horse on a base. How a horse would fit into a Dutch still-life was anybody’s guess. “…it can be on a platter for dinner…maybe I’ll cut it in half and make guts spill out…nah, it’s hollow…” Jamex half spoke to Einar. “Jamex this stand would be great for the Pig! We need height on the table…” And they broke into Spanish, switching back and forth between the two languages, depending on which language was better at expressing an idea. “Yaaah!” Jamex nodded his head approvingly, holding up a gaudy golden teapot to show Einar. As they enthusiastically stacked up a pile of oddities, the two grandmothers behind the counter looked on with visible confusion. Taking their box of treasures to the car, Einar placed a gilded wooden cross on the car hood for a photo opp. Catholicism being a favorite subject matter in his work, he couldn’t resist the irony of a crucifix hood ornament.

The next shop was tucked away in a back alley. Dark, narrow walkways were lined with hutches and shelves crowded to the low ceiling with dishes, platters, and teacups. The brothers discovered a plethora of traditional Dutch blue and white plates replete with windmills and other proper Dutch scenes. They were both ecstatic, as these dishes appear in paintings by Vermeer and other old Dutch masters, and their discovery would allow them to add another layer to their de la Torre Mexican/Dutch amalgamation. Returning triumphantly to the hotel, they relaxed with a delicious Belgium beer before the Skype meeting, resigned to the fact that all the magic would have to happen tomorrow.

***July 8 ***

9:15 am: T minus 7 hours and 45 minutes until the opening and there is a mess of bags and bubble wrap scattered around the floor. The 50-pound suitcase looks as if it has exploded.  Trinkets and bottles are crammed onto any horizontal surface and spilling onto the floor.

After sawing the horse off the plastic base and handing it over to Jamex, I hurry off to find an extension cord for the glue gun. Stressing over time, I run up the stairs and bound into the room to see Jamex contemplatively balancing a bust of Julius Caesar on the horse’s back while Einar arranges the mess of objects on the table. The opening is in less than eight hours and they don’t seem concerned in the least?

9:23 am: Einar starts messing with the horse too, balancing four of the pink plastic quinceañera-girl cake toppers along its back. “I kinda like it…Quinceañera-stegosaurus …” He cocks his head to one side as he arranges the pieces.

I run down the circular stairs and find the caretaker, a rugged woman in her 50’s who took me to the tool room for an extension cord. In the dank, dark room, random boxes are covered in the white debris that constantly flakes off the bricks. “There must be a lot of bat guano covering everything when the bats leave in spring?” I ask once I find out she had been volunteering there every Saturday for 12 years. “Oh, well, maybe this much,” she says, showing me an imaginary cantaloupe sized sphere between her hands. Confused, I ask her how many bats there are?! Speaking slowly in her guttural Dutch accent, she shatters my wildly romantic image of thousands of squeaking bats: “There are 47.” “Forty-Seven?! You count them?!” “Yes, they’re endangered, that’s why we close the fort to keep from disturbing them.” Only 47 bats, only a cantaloupe of guano…the Persephone-like vision of thousands of bats descending onto the fort for the winter and giving away to art shows in the summer was now somehow disappointingly lopsided. And of course, the brothers find the contrast of our unintended expectation comical! 

12:33 pm: T minus four hours and 27 minutes until the opening. “Oh, that’s why Jamex wanted the hacksaw,”I think as I walk in to see the crucifix that had made a short appearance as a hood ornament and was now coming cockeyed out of the horse’s back, flanked by Einar’s quinceañeras. While looking around the table, I notice the combinations taking place, each plate arranged with its own mélange of objects, and an eyeball floating in goo in several teacups. As the brothers work, every inch of the table comes alive with some bit of color or oddity. “I’m balancing everything out; we want every area to have content, no area to be boring…” muses Einar as he nestles another quinceañera up to a large glass heart in a pool of red goo on a plate. As he is fond of saying: they are not Minimalists; they are MAXimalists!

2:50 pm: T minus 2 hours and 50 minutes…. After returning the broom to the tool room, I find the Piggy drying on the floor after having received a wipe down of the requested pink spray paint. I frantically sweep up the last of the white flakes that have dropped from the ceiling and pack away the leftover trinkets that didn’t make the final cut as the beer cans from the midafternoon break are added to the table as the finishing touch.

3:50 pm: T minus 1 hour 10 minutes till show time! Jumping on their bikes, the brothers finally ride back to the hotel for a shower and change of clothes.

5:17 pm: Einar dressed in a green blazer and Jamex in a button-up, they retrace their bicycle route back to the fort less than an hour and a half later. A typical Dutch parking lot of hundreds of bikes lined up on the grass circles back around the old fort. The opening ceremony is in full swing. “They just called your name!” a fellow glassblower merrily pats Einar on the back as they walk up to over 200 people sprawled out on the other side of the fort. Not bad for a city of 20 thousand! As they squeeze up to the front to get a handle on whether they are supposed to do something, the tool room volunteer very gravely whispers in my ear—the Dutch guttural “h” particularly heavy: “The HHHorse fell over…” I whisper the news to Jamex who instantaneously disappears, right as the brothers are called up to the stage. Switching to English, the emcee welcomes the brothers… Einar, standing solo, looks questioningly around for Jamex, who unbeknownst to Einar is aiding the fallen horse. After the usual pleasantries are exchanged, champagne is passed around to all 200 attendees and Jamex is suddenly among the artists, the quinceañera stegosaurus standing once again before everyone spills into the fort. Walking into their main room now crowded with people, Einar looks over at the horse sitting on the low table. “Why isn’t that in the window?!” In the crush of people, there’s no time to tell him and I chuckle to myself as the horse makes its way back into the spotlight, the only piece completely devoid of glass.

6:43 pm: Once the crowd begins to thin out as people take their places at the outdoor café for a customary beer, the brothers lean back to survey the fruit of their frenzied past few days, a look of satisfaction on their faces after the rush of excited guests and congratulatory friends from several corners of the world.

8:26 pm: And finally—riding off into the Dutch sunset!

Vanguard Culture

Vanguard Culture is an online media entity designed for culturally savvy, socially conscious individuals. We provide original interviews and reviews of the people, places, and events that make up San Diego’s thriving arts and culture community, as well as curated snapshots of the week’s best, most inspiring and unique cultural and culinary events. We believe in making a difference in the world, supporting San Diego’s vibrant visual and performing arts community and bringing awareness to important social and community causes.