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Interview: Femke Hiemstra, Author of Rock Candy, The Artwork of Femke Hiemstra

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On the surface Rock Candy, a book collecting Femke Hiemstra’s illustrations and sculptures, has a delightful air of whimsy and sugary sweet innocence. When you stop for a moment and look past the smiling faces and the colorful enthusiasm her art presents, however, it becomes apparent that there are darker and deeper waters present with its pages.

The first thing that came to mind when turning the pages of Rock Candy were the illustrations from a beloved copy of Alice in Wonderland, truth be told. Filled with cute and brightly colored characters in its own right, Lewis Carroll’s book shines with a sly darkness at every page turn. Both in Rock Candy and in the illustrations mentioned from Alice in Wonderland it seems almost as if there were a black layer of oil slightly wiped away from each illustration. Only, it wasn’t a complete job but was instead a slightly sloppy one that left behind a slick shiny brightness that failed to completely hide some of the left behind grit and oily shadows within all the illustration’s nooks and crannies.

Then again, this could all just be a way of searching for the right words to express both the delight and the candy-sweet darkness found in a book that seems to revel in frustrating and evading any written explanation at all… at least from this particular reviewer.

And so, hoping to understand the images on the page just that little bit more, to the source and to Femke Hiemstra herself, a look is taken and a few questions were asked and graciously answered:

Thanks to the promotion team at Fantagraphics I was able to look through an advance copy of your book of collected artwork, Rock Candy. Before even taking time to open the book itself I must admit that the title caught my attention, but after having looked through it more than a few times I’m still intrigued by the choice. Where did the title come from?

Rock candy, (the candy), has a sweet/sharp character. In my work I tell tales of characters that look sweet but find themselves in more "darker" situations like battles or a hunt. I compare my concepts to that of Rock Candy, sweet but with sharp edges.

Looking through the book it seems as if you have a great fondness for painting onto found objects. What makes found objects so desirable to you? When you come to an object (whether a clock, book cover, old clock face, etc.) do you already have in mind what you think you’d like to do with it? Or, does the finding of an object and coming face to face with it then tell you what it would like to be used for?

Often the latter. Old "canvasses," whether it's a book or an old wooden panel, tell a tale of their own. I'm a romantic and I love objects that have lead a life, so Flea and Antique markets and (vintage) bookstores are some of my favorite places. I feel "new" materials just don't fit my work.

I tell about characters from all times and places and that mixture comes most (into) its own right upon an old surface.

To me it's not very difficult to imagine a whole new story behind a book with wear and tear that's written in old German, printed in (almost unreadable) gothic typefaces. I immediately see a German shepherd dog in my minds eye, one that has gone to a war and is on its way home…

I see that you work in many types of media, some occasionally blurring the lines and living together in one particular image or piece. Do you have a particular favorite media to work in?

Acrylic paint and color pencil. Pencil has such a wonderful structure and I love the transparency of acrylics.

Lovely and surreal at times, much of your work (or at least the works gathered into this collection) as I mentioned in an earlier question, seems to be an artistic manifestation of what one capable of dreaming with childlike wonder might see. It’s almost as if Little Nemo had fallen asleep in Alice’s Wonderland in a story as narrated on canvas (or media) by, well, by you; is that childlike gleam in your art’s eye something deliberately striven for or is it simply something that you are unconcerned with? I suppose what I mean is whether you are chasing down these visions and trying to pin them down with paints, or are they more that your dreams seem to run through your paints and leave these lovely little painted footprints in their wake?

Most of my ideas come from earlier times and my own childhood experiences, and stories are part of that. I grew up reading a lot with my mom providing me with Little Golden Books and my dad, a comic book reader passing down to me his collection from the 60's. Blend that with me roaming through the fields in search of animal skeletons and stone pipe heads (and passion for material from days gone by) and you'll have part of the inspirational grounds I harvest from.

I do not deliberately strive for a "childlike" feel or a "children's book gone wrong" atmosphere in my work. But I'm aware that that's what's in me and therefore in my work, so a vibe like that will of course be a part of it. It's a funny thing, now that I think about it. In a way I kind of rolled into making art. At one point the offers to join in art exhibitions got more serious and I made the decision to drop illustration work and focus on making personal pieces. I had enough painted stories to tell, so it all went in a natural flow.

But lately I’ve wondered. Would I have made different work if I choose to be an artist from the beginning of my creative work life and not have done illustration first? Would I also keep it very personal, intimate and close to myself — as I feel I do now — or would I have made enormous pieces of art with different themes?

Finally, because I do not want to take up too much of your time, I was wondering what it is like to not only be a beautiful young woman in the commercial world of art but also one coming from a small town just outside of Amsterdam? Has there ever been any issue with people taking you or your work seriously?

Well, not really. But I'm not always aware of people responding to an appearance because I'm not the most self-confident person in the world and I'm often more impressed by the other. But I am confident in my work and do feel that that could take away any weirdness. When I worked as an illustrator, respect in general, could be a nuisance.

I enjoyed my work as a freelance commercial artist but there were moments where I was well aware of my position as the last rung on the ladder. Of course making art and working with galleries is another thing and can also be difficult at times but I do feel the position I'm in today is different. Making personal work has brought me more freedom in several ways. And I feel that in general I'm not on that last rung anymore.

With the level of work and talent shown within the 176 pages of Rock Candy there is no doubt that Ms. Hiemstra is very far removed indeed from that "last rung" in every way possible. Much like her art she comes across as pretty and lovely and then when one steps a first cautious foot into trying to understand her, she is found to be deeper and wonderfully more curious and complex than at first thought possible. Just like her art.

For anyone that loves art that contains both an equal mixture of beauty, childlike wonder as well as a sense of the surreal, then Femke Hiemstra and her sugar sweet Rock Candy is something to be celebrated. Buy it now and then you can sit here on the sidelines with me and hope this little lady from Amsterdam has many more years of art and books such as this one in her future.

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