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Behind the curtains, Flora Bradwell

Flora Bradwell had just a few days left of her residency in Zundert, but still a lot on her to do list. She had to hem the paintings, make the construction for their presentation with broomsticks, sew the jacket and not forget about the soft little houses for the giftshop. Maybe this sounds strange to some readers; that entering a studio of a painter is filled with the noise of a sewing machine and soft materials. Well just get used to it. In this day and age the future is female, and the artist works even as she just became a mother. Caring and nursing is a concept of sharing and having the good fortune to find a babysitter in Zundert.

Dutch connection

Flora is a real Londoner, born and raised and even did her master at the Slade School of Fine Art, which is a little less theoretical than Goldsmith and more practical to her liking. But despite living at the other side of The Canal, she visited the Netherlands often because she has a Dutch mother and grandparents living in Den Hague.

“But I can’t speak Dutch. I know some words like ‘gezellig’ and ‘broodje haring’ but I can’t have a Dutch conversation although I can understand it. I am attracted to this Artist in Residence because it connects to my personal history with the Netherlands. And also to the cannon of art history.
For example, Vincent van Gogh lived in Isleworth, in London, for a time. A place that I know well because that is where my partner came from. It is the city where he started preaching, isn’t it? I suppose everyone wants their pieces of Vincent: The UK, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Each relationship from a different perspective like the mythical status the Vincent and Gauguin friendship has nowadays. They were together for a certain time but was it such a grandiose meeting? And of course, the ear, we always talk about that. There is a great book about this named Van Gogh’s Ear by Bernadette Murphy. I started to read this here but haven’t had time so far to finish it. Weird how you think you have a lot of time when you start…”

Hugging the trees

Flora has done some residencies before. She uses her ‘magpie method’ to find things and stories to put in her paintings. She mostly worked with archways and pillars as elements in her work. But here it is all square, with houses that are watching her. So, there is some tension between the inside and the outside.

“This place is different; this place is vibrating with art and historical stuff. When I came here, it was all about the trees, and then it all fell together. They are witnesses of time; I love that. Thinking about trees and the people who hug them. I did not hug the trees myself, to big, but I touched them. And Zundert has a thriving tree industry. Trees form the place. But the trees around the studio, they have their own character. When I look up in the studio through the studio skylight, I see a tree looking down at me. It is blossoming now and almost resembles an impressionist painting. I am also here with a baby, so there was a lot of holding and hugging. Living here in the domesticity of the Sexton’s Hut feels like a reflection of Van Gogh interior paintings.
Zundert is all new for me. I never have been before in a country where the houses are watching me. It must be an architectural decision, maybe because it is not a large urban place. I am used to living in an anonymous city, there is safety in going under the radar but here I am very visible. So, I wanted to reflect on the architecture of the place within the installation I intended to make. Exploring pattern and colour. The bathos of the view from the window in the Sexton’s house is quite funny. The view is not spectacular, not picturesque, so I made a different view.”

Vagina dentata

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman and being an artist makes it even more complicated. The application for additional funding for this residence was the first time refused when Flora was too honest about the need for a babysitter. Besides the fact that she had to hide her maternity leave – for the art world – by working triple as hard to reveal the gap. To prove that she is visible. So, the curtains became a motif during this residency to advocate her wish to bring women artists in the art history from behind this soft barrier.

“I started with making paintings more sculptural. Bringing the paintings away from the walls and reframing them as curtains to become three dimensional. The paintings are the same dimensions as the windows of the Sexton’s House gallery space. They will hang on broomsticks like curtains to reference the domestic. All the paintings are dominated by trees. The trees have eyes, eyes are everywhere, even the paintings have eyes. The bodily is everywhere: the flower in the vase (a nod to Vincent’s sunflower) is a vagina dentata. The toothed vagina is a reoccurring theme in my work inspired by Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine. It is a feminist symbol: a vagina with teeth, but I’m not so fussed about the biting. I like to see the teeth as a tool for speech: you need lips and teeth to work together to form words. I love how the vagina dentata exists across time and space, found in so many different cultures. The flower is often equated to the vagina, so it makes sense to combine them. Maybe I’ll add a yellow one in the painting I still have to finish.
To answer your question about being a female artist on an Van Gogh residency, I feel like I’ve got to unpick the Vincent icon. The mythmaking around the artist is ridiculous, the idea of the tortured male artist is so boring. I am glad to be a woman, not having to live under the weight of that. I just like Vincent’s paintings, that’s it. The colour, the movement, the light, the wildness. I like the gossip, but at the same time it is strange to have a construct to make things more dramatic. It is all about entering the gift shop.”

The show

A lot has happened this month. Flora discovered that after arches windows are a good starting point and that one thing led to another. She even made a scale model of the gallery to see how it all fits. It resulted in a plan how the paintings can communicate in the space with each other and the opposite windows together with smaller paintings to wrap the residency up.

“Showing your work is different than making it because there is a different context to be considered. However, a lot of tourists and visitors come to the studio, so I am always on display. There is nowhere to hide: therefore, again the curtains! I fully play a part to extend the work into the performative and make decisions in how to present myself; sometimes because I like the drama in it. Painting is a very performative thing, so I extend the patterns on the paintings to my clothes. Sometimes I wear big painted dresses, this time it’s a jacket. The painting is a part of theatrical setting, a world I know from my parents who both work in that field. Maybe it was a form of rebellion to do visual art instead of performing art. Maybe I am building performances in a different world. Maybe not so different, my mum is a writer: she creates her own worlds. But for me the richness of a visual language attracts me. I curate, I do collective things, but absolutely not with my parents!

What is new? Well, the trees. I never thought about trees before. Being here has been a lot with my 10 month old: he is starting to get his own ideas! It had been a great experience though. I also had the opportunity to do some chill things and see more of the Netherlands and visited Breda, Dordrecht, Amsterdam. Totally out of context, but in our broader conversation you must include Greggs vegan sausage rolls in the interview. People in the UK fight over them.”

Esther van Rosmalen

In April 2023, Flora Bradwell worked as an artist-in-residence in the guest studio of the Vincent van GoghHuis. The results of this working period were exhibited until the end of May in the Van GoghGalery.

Van Gogh artist-in-residence

With the Van Gogh artist-in-residence programme, the Van GoghHuis in Zundert wants to follow Vincent's dream of 'the studio of the South'. Artists from all over the world, both young talents and established names, are invited to come and work in Zundert for a while. To follow in Van Gogh's footsteps and be inspired by his work, his ideas, and the place where he grew up.

The guest studio, idyllically situated on the grounds of the Protestant church where Vincent's father preached, with the sexton's house and the vegetable garden, offers today's artists the opportunity to work in peace for a while. What the guests have in common is that they are somehow inspired by the life and work of Vincent van Gogh. A period of research, experiment, and seclusion in the immediate vicinity of his birth ground is special and very motivating.

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