Jacobine van der Meer: Amsterdam to Landers

“I was lucky to have parents who took me, from an early age on, to many culturally rich places in Europe where I was able to absorb art from a variety of periods. I now realize how important this has been to my development as an artist.” Jacobine van der Meer

By Katie Nartonis

In an exclusive interview with the Joshua Tree Voice, Hi-Desert artist Jacobine van der Meer described her early life growing up in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She relates, “my life began in a multi-generational household in a canal house in Amsterdam. The house was owned by the protestant church of which my grandfather was a pastor.” From the 17th through the 19th century, Van Der Meer notes that canal houses were built to store goods acquired through overseas trade and colonization. “Part warehouse, part residence, they were connected to the larger waterways on which ships brought in spices and other goods from as far as Asia, Southern Africa and the Americas” She continues, “During the ‘Golden Age’, it was a time in which The Netherlands dominated overseas trade, including the Atlantic slave trade, the middle class was able to acquire a substantial amount of wealth and Dutch culture flourished.”

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Proof of this controversial past is still visible in some of Amsterdam’s architecture as well as in its historical museums of which the Rijksmuseum is the most well known. “I have visited the museum since childhood and it is like the ultimate treasure chest. My favorite section is a fascinating collection of Dutch paintings from the Middle Ages. I have always been drawn to their vibrant, colorful narrative religious scenes full of symbolism, and their radiant depictions of natural phenomena. They are like an alternate universe full of costumed fantastical characters in which one can get lost. I still visit them when I can.”

Installation view ANA 1, La Casa Erosionada, 2023. Photo by Nicole Valenzuela.

After high school and a 3-month stint at university studying psychology, Jacobine studied painting at The Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam. She dropped out after 3 years. She lived through a solitary period, “painting in a dark cellar studio with only one tiny window, made me realize that I was not ready to be a full-time painter and needed to do some exploration. While working odd jobs I did just that.” She continued, “It was a great time to be in Amsterdam in my twenties, the city was full of creativity and DIY spirit, there were inspiring art shows and concerts in the squats and other independent places. With a group of friends, I regularly binge-watched a plethora of horror and absurd movies and this sparked my interest in special effects (SFX) make up and character development. I learned how to sculpt, mold, cast and paint prosthetic appliances, bodies and body parts and started working for Dutch television and film, physically transforming actors into their characters and sometimes simulating gory situations. I also worked on multiple projects for museums, making hyperrealistic human figures.”

Intrigued by Hollywood’s special effects industry van der Meer moved to LA in 1998 and started working for special effects companies, mainly as a sculptor. “It was a great opportunity to focus and to fine tune my skills. I became involved in film projects by the artists Dough Aitken (Blow Debris) and Matthew Barney (Cremaster 3). These multi-disciplinary projects were much more interesting to me than the commercial projects that I mostly worked on and they brought me back to art. At that time LA artist Paul McCarthy was setting up a movie studio and SFX shop for his film Caribbean Pirates and hired me as a sculptor. I fell in love with one of the pirates, actor/ filmmaker/ artist Emmy Collins, it was mutual and we are still together! I worked at McCarthy’s continuously expanding studio for the next 17 years, as head of the sculpture department and eventually as part-time sculptor, while slowly building up and exhibiting my own body of work.” In 2004, she set up her studio in Landers where she had bought property. In 2019, she moved to live and work full-time here in the desert.

Besides the movie industry, there were other reasons that drew her to the United States and eventually the desert. Most important has been a feeling of openness and vastness in space. “The Netherlands is a country in which humans have altered most of the natural world. As a small and very densely populated country, every area is used with a purpose. When I first visited the Morongo Basin in 1996 something clicked right away. The Joshua Trees and other flora which look like characters, in their sandy settings bordered by mountain ranges and illuminated by an ever-changing sky made me feel like I was in the right place.”

The artist thrives in this environment. “I am extremely lucky to live in a sparsely populated area. The house has big windows which make me feel connected to the outside. I walk every day. Each day is different, each year is different. The longer I live here – the more I see and learn about the animals, the underground world in which they survive during extreme temperatures, and the cycles of the plants and their ways of adjustment. I have gained a deeper respect for the natural world.” She relates that “In the city I felt like I had to build up a ‘wall’ to limit an overload of stimuli. In the desert I don’t need this wall and I can let the outside in and the inside out. Reverence for the natural world becomes a certain spirituality. My work became affected by this and I started to see some connections between my work and art from cultures that live or have lived in close contact with nature. It is an ongoing process.

A few of my works have interacted with the land. ‘Black Clay’ (2018) was a short film and installation in which the performing characters were monumental forms sculpted from the fertile clay that came down from the mountains after a flash flood. It tells a cyclical story of life and death. A sculpture and sound installation ‘Head Space’ (2019, Mojave Sound Art, ‘Incantations’) for which the audience was invited to listen to recordings of my voice mixed with sounds of desert animals. All while looking through mask-like animal head sculptures towards a focal point after which they were invited to project their own voice into the land. Finally, ‘Queen Clone’ (1st iteration) (2023, Boxo PROJECTS, Joshua Treenial, ‘Aterritorial) A sculptural installation inspired by King Clone, the 11,700 year old creosote ring in Johnson Valley. It is one of the oldest living organisms on earth. The piece is focused on the organism’s ability to reproduce asexually by means of producing clones. The work consists of a negative mold of a large sculpture named ‘The Original Ancestor’ and two casts out of this mold, “The Clones”. The project is continuing. Extreme winds are altering it and make me respond. It is exciting for me to keep certain projects active and let them be in dialogue with their environment.

Queen Clone performance at Joshua Treenial, 2023. Photo by Emmy Collins

In a surprising development, Van Der Meer was invited (through Instagram) to participate in group exhibitions in Mexico – on two separate occasions. The drawing exhibition “Operadores de Mutación at Espacio Cabeza/ Materia de Dibujo in Guadalajara (2022) and the exhibition ‘La Casa Erosionada’ at the Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City (2023). This museum was built by famed Mexican muralist and painter Diego Rivera, and houses his extensive Pre-Columbian collection of mainly sculptural art. Build from local black volcanic stone, it is like a temple and contains many layers of information and meaning. The contemporary exhibitions interact with the building and the historical sculptures which are like a big family of characters with many stories to tell. It also has a large ecological space with protected endemic flora and fauna. Along with showing drawings there, I made and showed a small sculpture called ANA1, inspired by the museum. “She stayed there and I imagine her talking to the Pre-Columbian characters. To be invited into this fascinating country in which I had never been before was a humbling, meaningful and also very exciting experience. Being at the Anahuacalli and a visit to the Museo Nacional De Antropología, which was sculpture heaven to me, were profound experiences. I am now learning Spanish and hope to return.”

As an artist Van Der Meer wants to keep ‘playing’, and she does not care about fitting into a certain part of the art world. For the last 3 years she has been working as a teaching artist with kids at public elementary As an artist Van Der Meer wants to keep ‘playing’, and she does not care about fitting into a certain part of the art world. For the last 3 years she has been working as a teaching artist with kids at public elementary schools here in the desert through an initiative called Groundwork Arts. “I learn as much from them (the kids) as they from me. Especially for the youngest ones, creativity is natural and we are working with all the students to keep that creativity accessible and help them use it as an outlet which hopefully benefits them in the future.” She is currently working on a series of drawings and sculptures depicting female characters with animalistic elements like fangs and claws. Their bodies are like internal environments and express womanhood including the often uncomfortable and painful natural bodily processes we experience. “They are fighters. The restriction of abortion in this country has infuriated me and I need to respond.”

My artwork can be a drawing, a sculpture, a large installation or a sound performance, it is all related and feeds of each other. It usually involves creating characters and a narrative. My sound performances are always done in costume, I am a moving and sounding sculpture. I mostly use my voice and manipulate it through effects, it is emotional, direct and intuitive, even cathartic. I often perform as ‘The Brutal Poodle’. For the Queen Clone project, I embodied the ‘Original Ancestor’ and did a vocal performance from within the installation in a costume made from discarded mylar balloons which I found stuck in the creosote bushes on my walks. Central in her work is the examination of the juxtaposition of the artificial and the natural, and she sees it as one the biggest issues of our time. “My works contains organic and geometric shapes, natural and artificial materials, the voice manipulation is through electronics. My work method is like a back-and-forth rhythm of letting go and regaining control. This dichotomy of being part of a society tethered to ever more complicated technology while also being part of a natural environment affects me deeply. Luckily. I do have this outlet and by communicating through art I hope to give something back somehow.”

EVE 2, 2023, color pencil and graphite on paper, 30×22 in. Photo Courtesy of Jacobine van der Meer

She acknowledges that there is a part of our desert community which is very active in protecting the desert’s fragile ecosystem – and there have been many successes. Her hopes are for a continuation and expansion of this as well as for a growing awareness that we have taken and are still taking too much. “It is time to give back. Otherwise, our community is going to face a much more difficult future and I would hate for that to happen, especially to all our young community members. I hope natural balance will be restored.”

For more info: Instagram @jacobinevandermeer

Katie Nartonis is a writer, curator, film maker, and specialist in art and design. Her current exhibition (and documentary film) opened during 2024 Palm Springs Modernism Week: “Jack Rogers Hopkins: California Design Maverick” and is open through September 28th at the historic Sam Maloof Foundation. Look for her upcoming book, “Glimpses of the Joshua Tree Dream.”

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