I park my car outside a red half-timbered house close to the main road through the village of Vestermarie, only a stone’s throw from the church. I recall countless cycling trips along these same country roads as a child, with views across what seemed endlessly vast expanses of farmland. I feel the cold wintry rays of sunshine on my face and notice the fading patches of snow on the ground. Birds are fluttering around me. Spring must be just around the corner. This changing of the seasons encourages makes to soak in the rays of sunshine with a little more intensity at the entrance to Ben Woodhams’ home.
Ben meets me at the garden gate. Behind the house is a charmingly untamed garden where, my ears tell me, birds feel right at home. Ben invites me inside. I sit in his office as he makes coffee for us, and my curiosity is aroused. The office abounds with drawings, books, sketches, paintings and all sorts of things that astonish and fascinate me. Outside, the birds continue their lively twittering and fluttering back and forth in front of the big window. Ben returns from the kitchen and suddenly remembers that he forgot to feed them. A daily ritual. An agreement of sorts between him and the birds.
Ben Woodhams came to Bornholm 13 years ago. He was born and grew up in Brighton, England, and met Tina, his Danish wife, in Hong Kong in 1993 while he was living there. They lived together for several years in different countries, but at one point Tina felt the urge to return to Denmark. Ben was not wholly convinced that Denmark was for him, though. Until one day in 2007, when he was spending a holiday with his family on Bornholm. Something happened. Ben knew instinctively that this was a place where he could live. The island appealed to him. Today, Ben and Tina live in Vestermarie, and Ben can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“Bornholm has had a remarkable effect on my art. I don’t think I could have made it work for me anywhere else. I soon discovered how the people of Bornholm took ownership of my artistic works, and I’ve had invaluable help and support from the local community,” Ben explains.
Transitioning from international vistas to the small island community of Bornholm appealed to Ben, and he soon felt the creative urge welling up in him again. “Ever since early childhood, I’ve tried to discover how I could express this urge to create and a dream of living as an artist that I could feel inside. But I hadn’t really found out how to get there,” Ben explains as we drink coffee and enjoy views of farmland and the birds busily pecking at the birdseed outside the window. “I’ve been deeply fascinated by birds ever since I was 12. I’d always wanted to take my binoculars and go out to watch birds, but I also felt it was a little embarrassing. I was young, and bird-watching wasn’t the most ‘in’ thing to do at the time,” Ben laughs. “It wasn’t until I became a father and experienced the joy of nature through my children that I got the courage to pursue my interest again. That’s when I took out my binoculars, and now they’re with me wherever I go,” says Ben with a smile that expresses both pride and wonder – and perhaps even astonishment about how his life has developed into what it is, through art. Because Ben was never admitted to the art programmes he applied to as a young man, and the path to leading a life as an artist on Bornholm has been erratic and unpredictable. Considering the popularity of Ben’s works of art today, it is difficult to believe that it took five years of arduous – unpaid – artistic endeavours before he successfully tapped into the artistic vein that would define his oeuvre. The fortuitousness of life – and yet. Because, from my perspective, Ben’s urge to watch birds and his passion to immerse himself and work in nature seem to have been there all along. And are notably the essence of his works today: being at one with what is happening around him in the quietness of a moment when he perceives nothing but light, sounds and smells, and converting this perception into watercolour motifs on paper. Ben would never dream of photographing a motif in the wild and then returning home to paint it in his atelier. The work of art must embody the process of experiencing nature, and Ben often paints his observations at the same location multiple times and at different times of the day and year.
This is also how his collection of works, ‘KYST’ (COAST), from 2018, came into being. KYST is a 52-stage trek round Bornholm depicting changes through time and space, with Bornholm serving as a gigantic clock or calendar. Each leg became a day-long journey under the passing sun, yet also across millions of geological years and through thousands of stories, seasons, bird migrations, tides and much more besides. Once a week for a whole year, Ben walked along a section of the Bornholm coast, from sunrise to sunset. Slowly, observantly. He drew and painted what he saw and was captivated by. The paintings were gathered into a 224-page artist’s book with narratives and creations from the project. “The KYST project made me realise how dependent I am on defining frameworks or dogmas for my art. I had to fully accept that nature and time had the upper hand. My artistic control wasn’t lurking under a specific, perfect light, and it didn’t have the same appearance from one day to the next at the same time. I had to acquiesce to nature’s definition of the framework. Once I did, it became a journey I’ll never forget,” Ben explains. He adds that all the people of Bornholm he met along the way took a keen interest in his work. “Bornholm is unique, of course. People have personal feelings about the motifs I paint and gladly contribute their own stories. I had to get used to this at first, because I’m actually a rather private, withdrawn person once I get started on a painting.”
In the course of our talk, I realise that much of what Ben refers to in his work concerns its outer framework and limits. Ben seems motivated by the contrast between the unpredictability of nature and his own inner struggle when creating a work of art. “In my experience, the closer I get to the limit, the greater my chances of creating something interesting,” Ben explains, readily admitting that the rules and frameworks he defines for his work bring him even closer to nature. Such as when he marks out meticulous quadrants in Bornholm soil, snow, water, ice, or in trees. In January, when frosty weather was gripping the Bornholm countryside, Ben made scratches in the ice on a field near Vestermarie which, from a specific angle, seem to form a quadrant. This marked the beginning of a new year-long art project entitled ‘Fire Kanter’ (Four Borders), which Ben is working on in 2021. ‘Fire Kanter’ is made up of anamorphic quadrants, created and photographed in natural Bornholm settings. In woodland, fields or along the coast. An anamorphic square is not actually quadratic, but it appears so when seen from a specific point in space. The challenge is to create the illusion in a dynamic location using nothing but natural materials. The wind, temperature and malleable natural materials determine whether this proves successful. The essence of the project is what puts Ben to the test. The struggle between feeling an urge to do it and, at the same time, saying to himself, “This is bonkers.” The process involves creating details that nature cannot make itself but which nature quickly takes control of and, in so doing, becomes Ben’s fellow artist over time. “I came up with the idea for ‘Fire Kanter’ to express how we humans are well on our way to destroying our natural surroundings. Almost everything we do impacts the natural environment. I was inspired by how I could ‘destroy’ some of nature’s order and, at the same time, bring about a gradual change that is controlled by nature and in which nature creates new life.”
It seems rather silly to ask Ben what Bornholm means to him after such an exhaustive conversation about the impact of nature on his oeuvre. And then suddenly Ben himself says something that resonates deeply in me: “I am very happy to live on an island. My life is defined by the coast. I can’t just keep on going forever. I have to relate to the island’s confines, which suits me very well.” Bornholm’s rocky coasts, beaches, slopes and cliffs are a natural delimitation to Ben’s art, and he seems to have found a ‘home’ here on the island. A home for his creativity and a home for his art.
Our conversation has covered a lot of ground. Ben’s watercolours of bird life are fascinating, and it is a unique experience to sit there in Ben’s office looking at all the birds fluttering in the hawthorn bushes outside his window and then at all the paintings of birds around me. Most of the watercolours I have seen previously depict living birds in their natural habitats, yet suddenly I realise that all the birds in the paintings around me are dead. Why? I simply have to ask him. And not surprisingly, Ben again draws a parallel to the very act of meticulously examining nature’s details. The fact that the process is delimiting in itself. “When the birds are dead, I can study all the details close up and decode the regimen of nature. See how everything is interconnected. As if nature has a colour scheme for each bird. Different shades of the same colour scale. It fascinates me,” he explains. “Sometimes, the birds seem to just drop down out of the sky right in front of me,” he smiles, “as if they’re begging to be painted.” In fact, Ben has a freezer filled with dead birds waiting to be painted. Birds that found their way to Ben even in death, and birds given to him by hunters to be immortalised in his works of art. It’s as if Ben’s inner calling to paint birds is reciprocated by his surroundings and the birds themselves.
I fall into fascination with a beautiful painting of two swallows. It’s true. The colours do correspond with one another. Nature does have the upper hand. And Ben shapes the experience into impressionist watercolour paintings. It’s difficult to leave the two swallows on the desk when we get up again and Ben accompanies me back out to the garden gate. And when I return home, I feel like they’re missing.