Simon van der Ven in his studio, with some of his mixed media sculptures
Simon van der Ven in his studio, with some of his mixed media sculptures
When Simon van der Ven gave a “Pecha Kucha” presentation several years ago, he talked about a photography class he took in high school using a manual camera, black-and-white film and processing the prints with chemicals. “I loved every bit of it,” he said. “One day, well into the semester, on my way home, I noticed a section of roof had blown off an abandoned barn. The image stopped me in my tracks. Something inside of me had changed: I didn’t see the hole, or the underlying rafters and purlins. I saw pattern. I saw abrupt changes of value creating a particular strength of contrast. I didn’t have my camera on me, but [it was as though] I was seeing through it. My body, for the moment, had become the camera, and the camera had become a tool for me to reach outside of myself. That day was the beginning of a life of seeing and understanding the world through tools, process, and material and of seeing the potential to find meaning in objects.”

Thus began the prolific and wide-ranging artistic career of van der Ven, who went on to study printmaking and sculpture in college. Then he took time to try different things, including crewing on boats, and working for gallery owner Tom O’Donovan as a goldsmith. He worked a few years as a carpenter/builder, then settled into a steadier job while raising a family, teaching art to high school students at Camden Hills. He did this for 17 years, developing an award-winning and varied arts program for some lucky art students, many of whom keep in contact with van der Ven, having become colleagues, apprentices and artists in their own right. He has a growing list of links to their work on his website.

As to what ended up drawing him to clay, he took a year off from teaching to do a sabbatical in France, where he began working at Les Buffile Clay Studio, as well as studying painting and critical theory at the Marchutz School. Clay had taken hold, and while still teaching, he was able to do the summer MFA program in ceramics at Maine College of Art.

I visited his studio, a beautiful building in a rustic setting in Lincolnville with a well-lit workspace and high ceilings, a bustling energy helped along by assistant Kyla Quigley busily working on her own project, various tools and paraphernalia that only a working studio would have, and a gallery area off to the side. There were also a few of his pieces outside, looking very at home nestled under the trees.

Of clay, he says it’s “a material which always tells me I’m part of something larger.” 

Natural forms have been an inspiration, like fruit from a growing tree, the belly (belly balls with belly buttons, symbolising the infant potential), and the iconic egg shape. (The strength of the shape, he notes, is on the outside, and that it’s made to be broken from the inside — hatching.) Some of his “holey” egg shapes are transparent windows into the interior, or showing another vessel within.

He compared his process to the growth of a tree — reaching and branching out in several directions, while the honing of skills is a support, a core tool in the tool box to use in service to making. The vessel is a classic ceramic shape, like cups and bowls (containers that hands can hold, he says, are an instrument of nourishment). Projects like the Nest sculptures, Rack Line Series, and big eggs are explorations in varied directions from the traditional ceramic pieces.

Art can present something, but how does one describe it in words? Maybe that’s the point — it “speaks” for itself. I think there can be signposts, like the titles artists give, or perhaps the progression in a series. Simon and I both were trying to think of a word for this, but appropriately it was offered up by Simon’s wife, writer Kate Braestrup: ineffable. 

Van der Ven has much to teach — his thoughtful creativity, as well as technical expertise in wheel-throwing, carving, drilling, brushing, abrading, polishing and firing — but he is still learning (and teaching), every day.

See for yourself. Van der Ven’s works are currently on display at the Page Gallery in Camden with their exhibition “Form Follows Function,” on view through November.