Every so often you cross paths with someone who embodies the creative spirit, who lives and breathes his metier, and for me recently, that someone is Johan Hierck. A Dutch artist who has lived in rural France for the past 35 years, Johan is the son of the painter and first monumental sculptor in Holland, Hub Hierck. Hub was also an art teacher in Rotterdam and philosopher at large, and from him Johan inherited an acute pragmatism, a lifelong love of learning to question everything and exceptional skill. By the age of 15, Johan had already learned to weld in his father’s studio and showed exceptional, natural talent.
Johan came of age in the 1960’s, a heady time, not only in America, but in Holland and France. Holland was already in the midst of a cultural, social and moral turning point and while at University Johan became involved in the civil unrest that punctuated rising conflicts between students and authorities, not only in Amsterdam, but in Paris, as well. In a show of solidarity, he traveled to Paris in 1968, to the streets surrounding the Sorbonne and joined the sometimes violent protests which the de Gaulle government feared would result in civil war or revolution. General strikes were called for, factories and universities were occupied and de Gaulle even fled the country in secrecy during the chaos that ensued. Ultimately, the movement succeeded as a social revolution, not a political one, its changes positively reverberating through French society for years. Johan discovered anything and everything is possible and that colored the path for years to come.
Although he and his future wife were busy in Holland and commissions for sculpture were plenty, something was gnawing away at Johan – he was not satisfied with living in the city. The young couple joined the back to the land movement which sent hundreds of young Dutch people looking for a simpler life elsewhere. After numerous trips to other countries, they settled on relocating to the southwestern French countryside. Idealistically, they bought their first farm with a goat, a cow and enough room for a studio, however, Johan soon discovered there was only time to work on the land and not on his art. They lived there for 12 years and had 3 children, one of whom had cystic fibrosis. The farm was too small for the growing family, so they sold it and bought another much larger farm by a lake, but after 6 years they realized it was detrimental to their ill son’s health, and between working the land and driving back and forth to hospitals in Paris, there was hardly time to sleep let alone be creative. They sold the farm and bought a maison de maitre (mansion) just outside a small village. In trying to escape the long, deep tracks of history he created his own ruts which, at times, seemed almost impossible to climb out of. Hidden in the forest they healed their lives and eventually flourished.
Johan now lives alone in the secret wood in the old mansion, exquisite in it’s decay and disrepair. His studio, impressively large and equally dilapidated is flooded with natural light, casting haunting shadows on old and new work – it’s a magical place of dreams and nightmares, a work of art in itself. A few years ago he started to design furniture, tables and chairs of all shapes and sizes, from metal gathered at the surrounding vineyards. I spoke with him for 2 hours while seated on what initially looked like a very uncomfortable metal chair made from the thick bands that held ancient, oak wine barrels together, but it was sculpted with vertebral nuances that remarkably fit the small of my back.
In the silence of his studio we talked. Johan reflected upon his life. He has 3 grown sons – the one with cystic fibrosis survived. He and his wife divorced. His art is collected by connoisseurs around the world. He works in his garden creating wild landscapes. He reads voraciously, mainly books about art, history and philosophy. He still ponders big questions, like koans that have no answers. What is art? What is beauty? If something is not beautiful can it still be art? What is reality? We decide art is something created with imagination and skill, something that expresses ideas and feelings. He says reality is a mental disease, that it’s not as important as we think. We laugh and share endless cups of tea under the shade of one of the most beautiful catalpa trees I’ve ever seen. I’m reminded of something the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz once said, “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”