UNESCO x BBuzzArt: Denise Buisman Pilger

Q: Tell us about yourself.

On November 13, 1978 I was born in Amsterdam in the Netherlands to two awesome moms and a sister, who is four and a half years younger than me. I have always been drawn to anything creative. Drawing was my favorite subject in school and art supplies were always on top of my wish list for birthdays or ‘Sinterklaas’ (a Dutch winter holiday).

Living in a big city like Amsterdam, we were very lucky to have grandparents who lived on Ameland, one of the small islands of the northern coast of the Netherlands. We would stay with them most school holidays and spend our days riding horses, playing games and roaming the beaches and sand dunes. I remember always asking my grandmother to do crafting projects together, as she loved making things and would always come up with something new and exciting.

My parents have always been very active. Most weekends we would go out and explore, visit a cool city or town, go for a walk on the beach or, on rainy days, visit a museum, see a movie or go to the theater. They gave me lots of opportunities to experience a wide variety of art disciplines. I played the violin in the school orchestra all throughout middle school and was part of a local theater group in high school. In 1996 I won first place in the design category of a local art competition and art was always meshed right into my childhood.

Question: How has your nontraditional family inspired your work?

I do not think it has had any influence on my work at all, the thing is, to me it never really felt like it was a big deal. I had several school mates who had either two dads or two moms, I also had a friend who had neither and lived with her aunt, it was just the way it was. I never got any comments and, until I moved to America, I wasn’t even really aware that it was still such an issue in other countries, I consider myself very lucky to have grown up in a country where -people have the freedom to love. And, although I don’t think growing up in an all-female household has had any -particular influence on my work, I do think it gave me a certain amount of confidence and strength as a female artist. In our family women were always considered equal to men something that, unfortunately, is still not the case, everywhere else.

We traveled a lot when I was a child; we would often spend long weekends camping in Holland or Belgium and when we were a bit older, we would travel by car or by plane to places like Greece, Spain, Portugal and France. When I was about 12 or 13, my aunt and uncle moved to Florida for a couple of years, so we spent two summers traveling around the South Eastern United States, an experience that definitely influenced my decision to move to the US in 2006. Even now we will often travel together as a family, sometimes visiting the places of our childhood, like Ameland or Amsterdam, but often we will explore something new. Occasionally it will be just the four of us, like when we went to Rome in 2005, but at times other members of the family will join in. Earlier this year I had the wonderful opportunity to take my moms on trips around Japan, together we explored Nagoya and its surroundings, Hiroshima, Kyoto and Okinawa.

School and my first mixed media cityscape:

Going to school in big cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam, with easy access to world-class museums and galleries, was a wonderful experience. In middle school, we would often take school trips to museums, orchestras and theaters and my high school was actually located around the corner from the Rijks, Van Gogh and Modern Art museum. After graduating high school at the Montessori Lyceum in Amsterdam my parent allowed me to go to art school under the condition that I would learn a trade, so I applied to the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam to study illustration. Even though I ended up as a visual artist instead of an illustrator I am still very happy that illustration was my major.

The fine arts department was mainly focused on idea development, which was one of my classes as well, but on top of that, the Illustration department taught a very wide range of techniques. Alongside an array of different drawing and painting techniques we learned photography, various printing techniques, digital design, hands-on 3D design working with metal, wood and clay as well as art and cultural history. Studying photography in art school is directly responsible for the huge number of pictures I take everywhere I go.

When studying illustration, you are required to work with a wide variety of subjects, live model drawing, imaginary light exercises, character development and much, much more. I really feel like I had a chance to try my hand at everything which was amazing, of course, but as a result I fell in love with too many techniques which resulted in the lack of a distinct style or direction after graduating. I did, however, create my very first photo based, mixed media cityscapes in art school. The piece was created for a book cover assignment, the requirements were simple, there needed to be space for the title and author’s name on the front, a summary on the back and it needed to be a cityscape.

I was totally in love with black and white photography at the time, so it felt natural to go out into the city to gather my materials. This piece inspired me to use the same techniques in one of my graduation assignments.

My partner in Life the Universe and Everything:

While I was in art school I met my amazing husband, Sonny Pilger, at a local McDonald's where we both worked. Although I didn’t know it at the time, meeting Sonny has been one of the biggest influences on my career as an artist, without him I would not be where I am today. Not only is he one of the most supportive people I know but he also puts up with my artistic weirdness on a daily basis, the other day I left blue tack in our bathroom for some reason and he didn’t bat an eye! Sonny keeps me focused, he is my number one supporter, but he will not shy away from offering constructive criticism and he always makes sure I don’t lose sight of the business side of things. Being an engineer, he is also very handy to have around when hanging exhibitions and he always has the perfect solution for all my technical problems.

We both love traveling, our first trip together was a trip to London in the summer of 1999. I am definitely not the easiest person to travel with, I am always in ‘artist mode’, lagging behind taking pictures of obscure little things, or walking around buildings to capture multiple angles. The fact that Sonny’s still willing to travel with me and even points out odd, quirky details for me to photograph, is even more evidence of how supportive he is of my career.
 The biggest influence Sonny has had on my life and my art, has been our move from Holland to Texas in 2006 and from there to Canada and Japan. I used to be very bad at leaving home, my first few weeks in pre-school I would throw up from crying because I didn’t want to say goodbye to my mom. So, moving away from Holland seemed like a big deal, but it turned out to be a liberating experience. Moving away from your home country and all the people that have known you since you were a child, gives you an opportunity to re-invent yourself, you get to figure out who you are as a person without all these outside influences. I am definitely a stronger, more confident individual because of this and I am 100% sure that I would not be a self-employed artist if we hadn’t moved abroad.

Question: What is love to you?

A really intense feeling that cannot be described in words.

From illustrator, to desktop publisher, to artist:

At the time I graduated art school in 2002, the economy was in a downward spiral and making a living as an illustrator proved to be very difficult, so I started working as a graphic designer. From 2003–2011 I worked as a desktop publisher and art director for several companies. I didn’t paint a lot during this time, but I did pick up many valuable graphic design skills that I use on a daily basis. My graphic design background is still reflected in my artwork today, I use photo manipulation in the creation of my compositions and even the way the pieces come together reminds me of the way I used to design the pages of a magazine. When I start working on a piece I will first choose one city to work with, go through my photographs and combine different elements from that city, making them fit together in a new way, creating condensed memories of my travels. These skills also allow me to take care of my own graphic design needs when it comes to websites, business cards and other print media so they have proven very valuable indeed.

In April 2006, I moved to Fort Worth, TX to join Sonny who had already been living there for a year. I worked part time as an art director for a Dutch magazine and finally had time to get back to painting and photography. Because I hadn’t been painting much, I still lacked a distinct style and direction, which is very evident in the work I was creating at the time. I loved live drawing, so I joined a life drawing group in Dallas. I also loved oils, so I combined it with my love for drawing at the zoo, so off to the zoo I went. Photography was the only constant throughout all of it. My work was all over the place, until one day Sonny reminded me of those mixed media cityscapes I had created in art school. That’s the moment when everything fell into place. It was the perfect combination of all the things I love, travel, photography and painting. I immediately started working on the first pieces of my on-going body of work; ‘Traveling the World’.

Question: Do you ever travel alone?

Yes, I do travel by myself on occasion, mostly for exhibitions and sometimes specifically to take photographs for pieces I want to do. I will also travel to Holland by myself every once in a while, to visit family and I often go out into our current home city by myself to take photographs. I feel really lucky that I have the opportunity to take the time to really explore different cities in depth because we get to live there for a couple of years. I like going out by myself like that, just focusing on photography and discovery, but for long trips I definitely prefer to travel with my husband — traveling is so much more fun when you get to share it with your favorite human!

Becoming a full-time artist:

In April 2009, we moved from Fort Worth, TX to Montréal, Canada and right at that time the company I was working for went bankrupt. I continued working as a part time, self-employed graphic designer, but started spending more and more time painting in the studio. In 2010, one of my mixed media cityscapes won first place in a local art competition, which lead to my first two-man exhibition at the art center. Later that year I would start working with Viva Vida Art gallery, a gallery that represents my work until this day. It was about this time that I decided to stop working as a graphic designer all together and focus on my art career completely.

In 2011, I organized my first solo exhibition at an artist-run space in downtown Montréal, which was followed by my first solo exhibition at Viva Vida Art Gallery later that year. In December 2011, I was invited to be a part of the Canadian delegation at the Salon de Société de la Nationale des Beaux Arts at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris.
 Encouraged by my personal victories, I worked nonstop to establish myself in the local and international art community, collaborating with other artists, giving artist talks, presentations and workshops and participating in art fairs. As a result, photographer Pazit Perez and I received a best of Show Award for our collaboration project ‘Journey’ at the Festival d’art érotique de Montréal in 2012.

When I arrived in Montréal I initially decided to create three pieces about the city during my time there, one in the first year, one on the second year and one at the end of my stay, as I was interested to see how living in a city would change my work over time. By the time I finished my second piece I had discovered that the island of Montréal is made up out of 33 different boroughs that all have their own vibe, just like little towns. This discovery inspired me to start a series titled ‘Discoveries: Montréal’, a body of work that consists of a total of 32 18”x18” pieces, one for each borough, plus one 36”x36” piece that includes a building from every borough, to represent the city as a whole. In 2013, my book: ‘Discoveries: Montréal’ was launched at the vernissage for the solo exhibition for the series.

In 2016, I was accepted to be part of the Artist Project in Toronto, this would be my first, high end, indoor art fair so to help with the logistics and preparations I joined forces with fellow Montréal artists Louis Bernard St Jean and Jono Doiron who were exhibiting for the first time as well. Working together on all the preparations was not only super helpful but it also led to some nice articles in local newspapers and an interview on one of Montréal’s morning news channels. In 2017, Jono Doiron and I returned to the Artist Project and we decided to collaborate on two pieces for the occasion.
 We combined our vastly different styles and created two pieces that played with the rivalry between Montréal and Toronto. Over the years I have learned that collaborating with other artists can be very helpful and inspiring.

What is the best part about being an artist?

Creating, making something beautiful that wasn’t there before. I’ve always had this urge to create so my favorite part is definitely the time spent in the studio painting. Being an artist is not easy, you’re effectively running a business all by yourself, contrary to what many people think, you don’t have the luxury of locking yourself in your studio 24–7 to just create so whenever I get a chance to do just that I grab it with both hands because studio time is the best time!

Moving to Nagoya, Japan:

On June 22, 2017 Mr. Tigger (our then 16-year-old Dutch cat), Sonny and I boarded a plane that would take us on a new adventure in Nagoya, Japan.

Despite our extensive travel history this would actually be our first time in Asia. Living in Japan comes with a unique set of challenges, but it has been an amazing, life changing experience. Even though I have only been in Japan for little over a year it has already had a huge influence on my work. I have been taking huge amounts of photographs, as always, and have already started creating some new, Japan themed pieces in my tiny, Japanese-sized studio.

When I came to Japan my main goals were to let myself be inspired by this country and to learn about the culture and especially Japanese art techniques. I have been taking a lot of classes, learning everything from traditional calligraphy to washi paper making, even trying my hands at Shibori tie dying and getting my hands dirty on the Japanese pottery wheel. The paper making was very inspiring, and I have recently started experimenting with working on Japanese washi paper, letting the materials and the minimalist Japanese style influence the work. It’s still in the early stages but I feel there’s a new body of work in there. I am also starting a Japanese woodblock printing course in October where I am excited to adding more Japanese techniques to my toolkit. I signed up after seeing an exhibition of mind-blowing woodblock prints by Judy Ongg at a local museum.

My work has been received very well here in Japan. In November 2017 I was awarded the Foreign Artists Organizers award at the 32nd Foreign Artists Exhibition and in May I was the first foreign artist to receive the Foreign Minister Award at the 18th Global Artists Movement Exhibition at the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art.

What made you interested in Japanese art techniques in particular?

To be honest, before I moved here I didn’t know a whole lot about Japan, except for the things I had learned in school, which was part of the reason I was so excited about moving here. I had never been to Asia before and I knew Japan was a country with a very rich cultural history, so I knew there would be techniques and materials I had never used or seen before, which was really exciting. Whenever I move to a new country I see it as an opportunity to learn about a new culture, in America and Canada the differences are subtle and artists use similar techniques and materials as I was used to in Holland. But because Japan has been completely separated from the rest of the world for a long time, they have developed a wide range of techniques and materials that are completely new to me. Contrary to many -western cultures, here in Japan there are still many artists and artisans that use the same traditional techniques that their family has been using for hundreds of years which is absolutely fascinating.

What are some projects you hope to do in the future?

Right now, I am really inspired by my travels in Asia and I am exploring all these new techniques and materials here in Japan. I have only just started working with Japanese washi paper so I hope to be able to continue exploring this wonderful new surface. I am currently working in smaller sizes but eventually I hope to be able to do larger pieces and maybe incorporate more Japanese techniques like calligraphy and woodblock printing. So far, I have only created Japan themed pieces but we’ve been traveling a lot, I have so many images floating in my mind right now and I think it would be really interesting to see the juxtaposition between western imagery and the use of Japanese materials and techniques.

Eventually I would love to collect inspiration from all over the world, explore all of Europe, see Russia’s awesome cities, visit -India, China and Australia, Africa and South America, this world has so much beauty to offer and I feel the constant urge to capture it all! But for now, I am very happy to continue my adventures here in Japan, it is a -beautiful country that has so much inspiration to offer and it is close to many new places that I haven’t visited yet so I -definitely want to make the most of it! And as I continue to travel I hope to be able to incorporate more and more -traditional -techniques and materials from all over the world, I’d love for my work to keep evolving.

Why have you chosen to work with black and white, with colorful accents?

I have always loved the feel of black and white photography, even when I did photography in art school I preferred working in black and white so I think is something that has grown naturally. People sometimes ask me if I’m -depressed because I work in black and white so much but I would say the opposite is true, the black and white images make me really happy. I like using the color accents to guide the viewers eye through the piece and to highlight certain -elements. In general, I stay close to the colors as I encountered them in real life although I like to enhance and -brighten them and will allow myself some artistic freedom on occasion.

Effects on the environment:

The way I live my life, moving from country to country, I continue to see the world through the eyes of a traveler where everything you see is new and exciting. Even mundane, everyday items like pay-phones or fire hydrants look different everywhere you go and become something special. Now that I have been away from the Netherlands for over ten years, when I go back, it almost feels like a foreign country to me. The cities and towns have lost their mundaneness, which means I can finally enjoy their beauty and uniqueness in full. I continue to be inspired by the urban landscape and the people that populate it. We so often complain about our cities being old and dirty and we forget about the beauty that can be found there. Through my work I want to give people the opportunity to see their cities through my eyes, re-discover their beauty and inspire them to go out and find that beauty for themselves.

Exhibiting my work around the world and being able to observe people from different backgrounds and countries react to it is very exciting and insightful for me. The most common reaction across all cultures is people recognizing elements from the cities they are familiar with. They will enthusiastically point out familiar elements and often become really curious and interested once they notice that the painting doesn’t resemble reality. A reaction that is very familiar and close to my heart is the lingering nostalgia for a place they once lived or used to visit often. This is a common reason for people to add a piece to their collection and it’s definitely something that comes up regularly when I work on commission, though I also have many collectors who fall in love with a piece without having any connection to the location.

A sense of wonder and discovery is the reaction that I love the most, because it is closest to what I hope to achieve. I enjoy watching people discover new things about the city they have grown accustomed to or see them travel the world and get excited about different places through my work. People often tell me they feel like they could step into my pieces and be part of the story. The best compliment I ever received from a collector was when they told me that adding one of my pieces to their collection has inspired them to re-discover their city, and possibly fall in love with it all over again.

Exhibiting in Japan has definitely been a little different then my experiences in North America and Europe, although the reactions mentioned above are still quite common. Here, it seems people are not as familiar with the techniques that
 I use, which means the conversation often comes back to that. I guess the language barrier has something to do with that as well. I have a video that shows my process that I always bring to exhibitions because I feel the visual really helps people understand the work and has proven to be very helpful in Japan. For my exhibition ‘Foreign Views’, that is currently running at ITbM Gallery, I spent two full days painting at the gallery, specifically to give people an opportunity to interact with the artist and see the creative process up close. For many people art is this mysterious, untouchable thing, being able to see a work being created made them feel like they were part of that magic for a little while.

Something I would have never expected to hear, and probably never would have if I lived in North America or Europe, is that the images are strong, and the work is quite large (for Japanese standards). People are surprised the work is made by a woman. I grew up in a very liberal country and was taught that I could achieve anything I set my mind to if I worked hard enough, so it never occurred to me that female artists would be viewed differently. I’ve heard stories, of course, but I haven’t had any experiences myself — this is the first time my gender has even been mentioned in relation to my work. I do not consider myself to be an activist, but if my work provokes this reaction I can only hope that seeing it will be empowering to others.

Earlier this year I started taking photographs of my work around the city, love the look of my paintings hanging out in real life locations. I am considered to be the weirdest gaikokujin in Nagoya right now, but if I get the perfect shot by being sprawled on the street in the middle of downtown and give someone a laugh in the process, that’s a nice bonus. An added benefit is that these photo shoots are like little pop-up art exhibitions and lots of random people get a chance to interact with the work. It will often happen that people come up to me to ask questions. Last weekend, when we were out taking shots, people even asked if they could take some pictures with the painting as well.

What made you want to draw your travels instead of photographing them?

I do actually photograph them, a lot, but instead of showing multiple pictures of a place, I want to combine the -specific elements that captivated me. I love the tactile quality of a painting, the textures of the brush strokes and the palette knife, the chunkiness of the wood panels and the delicate natural edges of the washi paper. Combining my -photographs with textures and paints gives me the freedom to rebuild the places that I have visited, I can highlight certain details, enhance or even change colors and blend them together into a condensed memory.

As I continue to travel and explore the world, my work will keep changing and evolving, I am excited to see the adventures the future has in store for me and what I can bring to the world myself.

Where are you off to next?

That is a great question I wish I knew the answer to, unfortunately, in my husband’s line of work, we often don’t hear anything until maybe 3 months in advance if we’re lucky. I decided a long time ago that worrying about it is a waste of time, we can’t change anything about it anyway. For now, we’re enjoying every day in Japan to its fullest and when the wind changes we will see where it will blow us to next.

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A big thank you to Denise for your time in this interview!

You can find more of her works here.