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Inge Lise Westman – Living with Art

At the end of the long gravel lane overlooking the Baltic Sea and undulating fields, a white building towers over the landscape. Two silhouettes, an upright man and a beautiful, slight woman emerge from the doorway as we drive up to the front of the house. Her wild, curly hair defies being tamed in this cold February wind, but wafts like a living frame around effervescent, friendly eyes when Inge Lise welcomes us with her calm smile. The sun breaks through the clouds at this very moment, after months of wet winter darkness. The trees surrounding the old farmstead cast long shadows, all the way in to the illuminated nooks and corners where imposing sculptures from Inge Lise’s life are integrated into the landscape and garden. Her smile warms all the way into the butterflies in my stomach.

I am going to see her winter paintings. Because Inge Lise misses snow. She misses the subdued calm and white light that envelops the elements of nature in silence. And when winter’s snow will not come to Inge Lise Westman, then Inge Lise creates her own. That’s who she is, this delicate little woman with warm, effervescent eyes. She channels her creative urge through her almost 75-year-old hands into works of art that centre and fixate wildlife and landscapes in eccentric, spontaneous interpretations. I have been given an opportunity to see them, her works of art, but not before we have had a cup of coffee with toasted home-baked buns and honey from one of Ole’s honey projects.

Ole Hertz and Inge Lise celebrated their golden wedding anniversary last year, and in their presence, I sense a rare symbiosis between art and science. It is as if their home, workshops and atelier personify a common narrative. Their life together has engendered many joint projects revolvingaround the splendour and fragility of nature.Inge Lise describes her insistent absorption with natural phenomena in a quiet voice: “Back when I was attending art school in the late sixties and early seventies, many of my fellow students took a more revolutionary approach. Uproar characterised those times, with women’s groups and all sorts of political activities to get involved in. But that wasn’t for me. I just wanted to be allowed to immerse myself. Perhaps I was just a bit nerdy and different.”

Living materials of wood, stone and meticulously placed objects of art, nature and ethnography come to the fore throughout the house. They bought their house in 1971 and it has been the setting for their life together ever since, where art and nature are allowed to flourish and infuse every single room with life and immediacy. Every detail has a story to tell. All the additions to the house are made of sturdy recycled materials. The windows in Inge Lise’s workshop and Ole’s workroom are more than a hundred years old and come from the discontinued hospital in Nexø. And that is precisely what this old farmstead base is capable of: creating a setting for a life of art and creativity. Inge Lise Westman lives with art through and through, and with all her heart. And now she is sitting in her warm kitchen, looking back on an awe-inspiring career and oeuvre.

She is a graduate of the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Art. She initially attended the School of Art under Professor Søren Hjorth Nielsen, and subsequently the School of Graphic Art under Professor Palle Nielsen. Over the years, she has been involved in a simultaneous process of classic oil painting, drawings, engravings, dry point, etchings, monotyping and lithography, and has expressed herself through sculptural works, castings, paintings and graphic art. For more than forty years, she has been imparting her sensory impressions from nature and has held countless exhibitions both in Denmark and abroad. She vividly describes some of the exhibitions and off-the-wall projects she has arranged: “We once filmed me painting while I was wearing my wedding dress. It was for the ornamentation of the old Bornholm ferry ‘Dueodde’. It ended with me standing in the prow, just like in ‘Titanic’ – it was fun.”  “And the gown gradually became more and more spotted with paint,” Ole continues. Today, the same ferry plies Australian waters, still with Lise’s paintings.“The buyers insisted that these should be included in the purchase,” she says with a quiet laugh. Later, Ole takes out a photo of Inge Lise in her wedding dress, paintbrush in hand. When I ask whether she still has the dress, she lights up with a beaming smile, “It’s probably here somewhere; it might be good to have at a retrospective exhibition.” Right now, she is focused on her upcoming special exhibition at Svanekegården in late summer 2020.

After coffee in their warm all-purpose room with rough-hewn wooden floors, solid wood panelling and the lurking narwhal tusk in the corner, we move through the home with its winding angles. We round a few corners and descend a stairway to her graphic workshop.  Her spacious oblong workshop has a large old-fashioned printing press surrounded by worktables filled with paper and tools. A large stone tablet, lying on a worktable, captures my attention, and we talk about her work involving engravings and etchings, which she still makes concurrent with the vast oil paintings. Lithography is a particular focus of her interest: “I learned the technique on the Faroe Islands years ago. They do a lot of it up there; it’s an old craft and a technique many have forgotten. Do you remember the old porridge oats packages depicting a smiling boy? That’s lithography!

Her works in progress are everywhere. The meticulous, well-placed, but untamed lines form deeply etched entities and contours of woods and pine, and create raw impressions of natural elements. Ole walks around with us. We are in their home, not just Inge Lise’s workshop. While Inge Lise spontaneously rummages around for a stack of publications she thinks we should have, Ole animatedly tells us about everything the couple have experienced and created together in their lives.  Ole’s background as an ethnologist and researcher is wonderfully interwoven with Inge Lise’s absorption in nature’s structures and manifestations. Together they have created unique multidisciplinary teamwork, but always based at the farmstead. Ole has been involved with bee-keeping in global projects – from Bornholm, Læsø and Greenland to Central America, Siberia and Africa. Together they have created joint exhibitions about flowers and bees, with Ole’s photos and expert knowledge and Inge Lise’s pictorial and sculptural works of art, exemplified by the enormous bee larva now pupating in their large garden, after having been exhibited at Faaborg Museum and Museum Sønderjylland. Their home, workshops and atelier have been a permanent base from where life’s art, their children and their projects were born and shaped. It has served as the foundation for their existence with Inge Lise’s many engagements, such as her membership of the renowned associations of artists Koloristerne(Copenhagen) and Holkahesten(Bornholm), and all sorts of ornamentation projects throughout Denmark, and for Ole’s bee-keeping projects all over the world. I ask whether they have any everyday rituals as their lives move through art, studies and chores at the farmstead.  “We eat breakfast together and we eat lunch together. Everything else is up for grabs,” Inge Lise replies. Art and the creative urge are the driving forces of their life’s flow.

We are now approaching the atelier with Inge Lise’s winter paintings. We walk through a large glass door with a panoramic view of the garden, apple orchard and shrubbery. We cross the patio to a lean-to roof, under which is a small forest of plaster pine trees with fluttering white strings. They resemble winter-clad pines with airy icicles, fluttering in the breeze and attesting to the spontaneity of Inge Lise’s art. “Yes, I got the urge to make them during the winter. They stand there fluttering and will be part of an exhibition, but I don’t think they’re quite finished yet,” she says. She opens the door to her atelier – and there they are: her winter paintings. The butterflies in my stomach are released into this large space where enormous paintings, twice as tall as Inge Lise and four or five metres long, are standing side by side with smaller works in progress and finished works leaning against the walls or tidily arranged in support frames. Rolls of canvas, the smell of oil paint in a converted outbuilding with a paint-spotted wooden floor and light flowing in from above. The snowy landscapes are wild and palpable, yet quiet and systematic. After a while I notice the many animals in the room. A large collection of rooks in rows, an installation from the ‘Sjymma’ exhibition at Bornholm Art Museum in 2017, lots of stuffed hares and seagulls in the corners. I ask about the numerous hares and, thud, a large rubber hare is lying on the floor. First one then two wild rubber hares on the floor. ”Well, I’ve collected hares,”, she says, laughing. “I made these two for an exhibition at Bornholm Museum. They were made for children to play with, but I think the hares might have scared them instead.” We look at the surfaces together. I can see why: green folds of skin – resembling a mummified body, resembling her artworks’ depictions of nature. The melancholic landscapes with compelling, decomposing shapes. Works in which the impermanence of not only life but nature itself and the beauty of decay are captured in ominous, bleak compositions with rays of light and hope.

Her toying with the materials and her spontaneous approach are distinct. Here in her atelier are the heavy bronze castings of the heavy clay sheets which Inge Lise has wonderfully had pressed in against the living contour of a tree trunk. She even attaches the canvas to the frames for her enormous paintings by herself. The movement between these different types of works – from heavy to light – how does she do it? I ask if she takes breaks. ”Yes, sure, but I can still squeeze in the casting of a cabbage head,” she says sprightly, as she moves quickly over to a table with plaster cabbage heads, spring cabbage and Romanesco. She puts a cast cabbage head in my hands. Suddenly the cabbage is gone and I get a sensation of standing in the midst of a natural phenomenon, looking at the hares, the seagulls, the black rooks, the impermanence of nature and her enormous paintings. Inge Lise is no ordinary woman. No ordinary artist. There is a powerful, unnoticed force in her slight body with her small hands and big friendly eyes. Wildness and passion, intimacy and care, light and twilight.

Would you like an apple? It’s one of our own,” she says, handing me a lovely ceramic bowl with small red apples when we return to the living room. And it feels as if I am once again surrounded by my grandmother’s caring nature, like at the coffee table with the toasted buns. Inge Lise Westman lives a life immersed in art. But art is also immersed in Inge Lise Westman.

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