A walk in the woods

Artist Vera de Jong, who lives in Kodaikanal, derives inspiration from her many explorations of the hillside

January 25, 2015 06:59 pm | Updated 06:59 pm IST

Vera de Jong with her works

Vera de Jong with her works

“My parents immigrated to Canada. I too moved many times,” says artist Vera de Jong. We are in front of ‘Departure (Breathe)’, one of her fifteen works at the ongoing exhibition at Artworld. A circle runs across four panels with furrows, textures and tactile impressions. “It’s our planet, but we have done so many things to it that there is heaviness, a sense of dislocation.” From this emerges Vera’s sense of lightness. “Now, all this is a part of me.”

In 1996, Vera came to India with husband George Penner. A Canadian of Russian origin, George grew up in Andhra Pradesh, speaking Telugu fluently. His parents were missionaries and he studied in Kodaikanal International School. A love for cooking made him famous for his preserves, bagels and fruitcake. Love for Kodaikanal brought him back here with Vera.

Three dogs, a cat and George’s aromatic cappucinos greet me when I visit this summer. Then, I join Vera on her everyday round of the hillside. Moose, a friend’s golden retriever under their care, runs ahead, warding off dogs aggressively barking from settlements we pass. He splashes through streams, getting thoroughly wet.

We climb up the incline and descend; suddenly, we are in front of serene woods, rows of silver-white tree trunks under a verdant cover. “This is my soundscape,” says Vera. We fall silent, listening to the hush of wind, the far chatter of women gathering firewood and the sweet whistles of red-vented bulbuls. In these idyllic surrounds, many find their longing to express fulfilled.

Vera’s studio abutts their cottage on the hillside. Skilled in carpentry, she constructs her own frames and stretches canvas. Over several days, she applies subsequent layers of acrylic. Natural cracks and splits appear and then Vera begins to scrape, score and add colour. Distinguishing art from craft, she says, “I look at craft as working towards a known ending. While making art, I really do not know what I am going to get.” De Jong’s multi-panel works at the show reflect her explorations without a map.

“I loved how I’d be following a particular trajectory on a piece and then, on an inspiration, shift the panels, drop one out, add one. Suddenly that trajectory would be blown out and a whole new direction would open up. Sometimes I would do this over and over, and even if I did end up back where I started, it’s a different painting.”

Over the forty-two panels, there is a sense of arrival as if Vera started on these travels to find tiny closures rather than the one big ending we all like to imagine. There are secret delights, temporary surrenders, wishful thoughts and slow nuances. There are moody afternoons, light-filled days, snowfall hours and temperate evenings. Vera invokes figurative lines to give us something to grasp within the abstract.

White lines bridge a landscape of green and blue in ‘Safe Passage’. If I were a child, I would say it was a ship, roughly hewn, with a mast and a stern taking us across. De Jong’s ‘Icarus’ is on fire depicting the triumph before the fall and celebrating flights rather than commiserating with foolish attempts to make wings of wax. Blues, ochers and whites play in ‘Bird Totem’, the six panels placed side by side like the final answer to a Tangram puzzle. ‘Asking for Grace’ was born from reading Tim Lilburn’s Living in the World as if it were Home leading Vera to ‘a space where all things can slowly open their eyes.’ In our shifting inner universe, there are a hundred questions and a hundred different ways to answer each one. When we are young, everything seems possible but as we grow older, we are always trying to make things fit and the struggle is much more. We realise many things are beyond our control. Being open brought answers for Vera. Compassionate understanding breathes through these luminous canvases and asks us to open up, to let go of this moment in the woods.

The exhibition is on at Artworld, Teynampet till February 2.

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