I published this article after an interview with Petrus Spronk in November 2019..it seems like light years ago! It was one of the highlights of the research for my book and I’ll never forget encountering the creative mind in all its purity and the outstanding talent of this great artist. The article spawned conversation and comment in our Viva community and is worth a revisit on this our second birthday of Viva70!
In the series 50 Faces 50 Lives I interview men and woman who have shaped a joyful, meaningful life in their later years. When I started this project 10 interviews ago I thought it would be fun and a way of meeting some interesting people. It is so much more. There’s richness and learning in every conversation. A book based on these interviews is taking shape and has to be written. There is so much to be shared. The interviews provide new and important insights into the resilience, creativity, humour and the richness of older age.
This week’s interview took me into the world of Petrus Spronk, a very successful artist who recently turned 80. It’s taken a few days for me to sort through why I was so deeply moved by our 2 hours spent together. There’s the beauty of his work as a sculptor and ceramic artist. There’s the fact that when Petrus was told he had cancer some years ago he turned this into an arts project! He blogged, interviewed his doctors, was the subject of an ABC program. He took back control and ” disrupted” the passive patient role by using his creative force to reshape relationships and find new purpose. From our conversation I learned the power and potential of the creative spirit to change the world. I hope you enjoy our Petrus week….
I’m lost on forest tracks on a rainy spring day with written directions in my hand and wonder in my eyes. Acres of pine trees and Eucalypts look down at me. There are no people here. I’m searching for the home of a recognized artist, Petrus Spronk. I’ve heard he’s a fine ceramic artist and sculptor. I’ve read his articles…yes he’s a writer too and I wondered about the origin of his name. Back in the forest, a car emerges out of the misty morn. I wave him down and shout Petrus…..Petrus Spronk….? The locals all know him and I’m not far from his property after all. The forest seems friendlier now. A house in the forest.
Petrus greets me warmly and I’m a stranger in his world for only a few minutes. He smiles and we drink tea at his table. He hands me a gift of his book about his travels in Korea. It’s glossy and smooth and beautiful to touch. I wander in the pages and bump into The cosmic spirits have ironed the clear clean autumn blue sky crinkle free and seamless. Such imagery! How do you do that? I’m still learning.
His home seems familiar and reminds me of the artist’s homes I have known before. I feel comfortable here among the warm timbers, lofty ceilings and cosy, earthy feel. A place of calm and creativity where nature is his neighbour.
We talk birthdays. Recently, one hundred and fifty people attended his 80th birthday party at a local music venue. Petrus dyed his hair purple for the event and shows me the finely tailored dinner suit he bought for the occasion. He smiles “Five dollars from the op shop!”
He has much to celebrate. A lifetime of work as an artist. The National Gallery of Victoria has purchased a number of his ceramic bowls evoking the colours and texture of desert, leaves and the beauty of nature. Outside the State Library of Victoria, is a famous sculpture by Petrus – Architectural Fragment (1992) As crowds rush along busy Swanston Street, as I have many times, you have to stop in wonderment at this fragment of stone cheekily emerging from the pavement. Even grim-faced office workers have to smile. His work touches the heart.
He has had many solo exhibitions, the most recent, Feather Light, at The Australian Gallery this year. Meditations on a Korean Odyssey, (2004) is the book Petrus has written about his artist in residence time in Korea. It’s full of philosophy, acute observation and wit. He’s a fine writer, exquisitely sensitive to all around him. His eyes see the world differently. He hears the sounds of Korea, the smells and touch of the country and interprets his experience so others may be present.
I decided to approach this totally new environment (Korea) with an open heart and mind, not to be critical and judgmental and to say yes to everything that came my way.
There’s nothing so energizing and health maintaining as new situations, especially those which require a creative response. They need our attention and focus and involve as a consequence learning, the strongest positive force.
It’s this sensitivity and generosity of spirit that makes Petrus a fine artist and a lovely human being. There’s a gentleness, kindness and humility. But also a deep intellect and a powerful commitment to his art. Petrus talks of the freedom required to be creative. And I wonder at the other human qualities needed to become a creative spirit.
I’m deeply moved when he reads the speech he gave at his 80th birthday. It’s funny…so funny and warm and loving. He’s not afraid to share his humanity, with all the vulnerability that this implies before his 150 friends and family.
What a gift this is! I ask if I can print his birthday speech in Viva70. Without hesitation Petrus says, “Yes, I’ll send it to you….” His speech is the story of a man who knows how to create a life that is vital and has meaning. There’s no talk of retirement, a passing wave to the cancer he has conquered and a nod to Parkinson’s disease, which he now lives with. This moment is alright says Petrus and that is enough.
He shows me his studio and then we head out to a large shipping container in the back garden. He pulls open the heavy doors to reveal a white, light filled room lined with the most beautiful ceramic bowls. It’s the gallery space of Petrus Spronk. I’m childlike, eyes wide. I want to touch everything. The bowls are smooth and iridescent. Cool and marble- like. There are large bowls edged in deep ochre. Delicate soft leaf swirls seeped into an oyster translucent surface. Night black patterned and textured bowls and intricately decorated bowls. I’m drawn to the smooth silky bowls with their dancing swirls of smokey greys and twists of pink. Petrus talks to me of the significance of the empty space. The void. The important part of the bowl is the empty space inside. I want to listen but I’m in another place. Exploring a sensate relationship to this exquisite art. These are SO beautiful.
We head back to the warmth of the cottage. We dance lightly over his backstory-Dutch heritage, hence the name. Petrus is one of 8 children, he was kicked out of high school after 2 months and did an apprenticeship in a bakery. Petrus came to Australia in 1957. He went to art school in Adelaide. Then a water fall of stories tumble out……setting up an art school in a VW bus, travelling around the world for 8 years, building a house in a shed, the Flinders Ranges… each one a rich vein of wisdom and experience. But it’s time to go. The stories bump up against one another in my head and I need some quiet time for sense making.
The forest is alive with rain and the smell of the earth. There’s a sign that says, “Kangaroos day and night.” On cue a small kangaroo emerges out of the bush and travels along – side for a few steps. “Have I got a story to tell you……..!” I say to my large footed fellow traveller. But he’s got other things on his mind and bounds back into the forest.
The rain thrashes the windows of my cottage that night and with candles lit, muic as my companion and a glass of wine in hand I settle in to read Petrus’s book. He had pointed me to a quote on the back cover of his book by Anne Michaels. It says it all.
Important lessons. Look carefully.
Record what you see.
Find a way to make beauty necessary;
Find a way to make necessity beautiful.
Meditations on a Korean Odyssey by Petrus Spronk can be purchased by contacting us at viva70.com. The cost is $A20