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She was named Artist of the Year. The jury called her work 'beautifully painterly' and 'innovative and classic at the same time'. We visited Saskia Boelsums in her hut on the Drenthe heath. “It starts with me being dumbfounded by what I see.” Text: Bart-Jan Brouwer
Image Saskia Boelsums
Online editing: Mical Joseph

How did you become a photographer?

“If you live in nature, like me, you become more open to its beauty. Once while I was shopping, I saw a pomegranate. My goodness, this is so beautiful, I thought. That shine, that shape, that crown, that scent. It must be possible to capture that beauty in such a way that someone who sees it experiences the same thing. And then I thought: I want to learn to photograph. I bought that pomegranate and photographed it. Then I realized how much I had to learn. From focusing to exposure: not much was right. I gave myself four years to learn how to photograph well. That was in 2013.”

You had previously attended the art academy in Groningen. Did you benefit from that training for photography?

“At the Minerva Academy I spent four years intensively making art and looking at art: compositions, lighting, use of color... That is the basis and it also helps me a lot with photography. I think photography is a completely different world, very focused on technology. Photographers are often quite strict, I think, 'this is allowed and this is not allowed'. Artists create the image they have in mind, and it doesn't matter how they do it.”

What came next after the pomegranate?

“I started photographing still lifes. Just a table in the daylight with all kinds of things on it. As an artist you spend a lot of time alone in your studio. You weigh and consider, and at a certain point something is allowed to come out. I had had enough of that. I thought: I'm just going to show what I do. People are welcome to see that I have not yet fully mastered something that I am learning. So I started posting pictures on Facebook every day. That was great fun. People started to sympathize and gave reactions – that grew very quickly. I started getting more and more attention. The Dagblad van het Noorden devoted an article to my art, I won the Emmen Culture Prize and the Young Masters Art Prize, a prize for people who are inspired by Old Masters. I watched how those Old Masters played with the light, on lemons, on walnuts…”

What came after the still lifes?

On a day when it never seemed to stop raining, I asked my partner Peter Veen: 'Shall we make a Hendrik Kerstensje?' (Hendrik Kerstens makes portraits of his daughter Paula with which he refers to the Dutch masters; ed.). Set up a studio in the shed, put a plastic bag on Peter's head and click. Posted, great success! But when you do something like that, you experience how difficult it is to make a really good portrait. The skin, the light in the eyes... And when things get difficult, I like to explore that. So that's when I started delving into portraits. From Peter. In the craziest situations. For example, with his head in a transparent container of water and then photographing through it. Gradually you see in my development that I wanted to go outside more. I started building installations, including a large horse that I put Peter on. Peter became very famous because of all those photos. We were once walking in Foam Museum Amsterdam and heard people say: 'Hey, that's Peter. And then that must be Saskia.' He became so famous because of the photos. They were also very strange photos, haha! My journey outside made me more aware of cloudy skies. My world kept getting bigger. At that time I read a book about the last year of Jan Wolkers' life. It described so beautifully that before he went into his studio to paint, he allowed himself to be completely immersed in nature. Hours of walks on Texel, early in the morning. I thought that was such a beautiful feeling. I wanted to experience that too.

It also seems as if you have been inspired by Old Masters for your landscape photography. How did that signature come about?

“That's because of the visual artist in me: I look like a painter. And that's how I work on my photos. Sometimes I spend two years working on a photo before I feel like it's finished. In that sense too it is as if I am working on a painting. The photo is an initial sketch. But I can't turn something very boring into something very beautiful. It starts with me being dumbfounded by what I see.”

I can imagine that you get up early every day so you don't miss the sunrise.

“What I especially like in the morning, on a cold day: cows steaming in the meadow, where the frost is still on the ground. But I find the evening light more beautiful and warmer. When the sun is low, you have beautiful light over a grain field - it looks like gold. That only lasts a few minutes, then it's gone.”

You have been named Artist of the Year 2020. What was your first reaction when you heard that?

“It's a kind of appreciation prize. The Art Week Foundation looks at which art is most appreciated at the moment, that's what it's all about. A panel of a hundred art experts nominates names, after which the public can vote. The jury then decides who the finalists are, and then the audience decides who the winner is. On the one hand, it is very nice that your name is mentioned by those art experts, on the other hand, it is fantastic that people vote for you and that they appreciate your work. I had already been mentioned for two years and suddenly I was a finalist among big names such as Erwin Olaf, Iris van Herpen, Theo Jansen and Daan Roosegaarde. I was at NPO Radio 1 during the announcement. I heard live on the broadcast that I had won. I also heard the motivation of people who voted for me. For example, when they see my work with tears in their eyes, it touches them so much. One man said, "You're photographing my childhood memories." Moving.”

What does this award mean for your further career?

“It is recognition and is very motivating. There is now more attention than usual for my work. Just before I became Artist of the Year, the Drents Museum purchased one of my works, Landscape #109. That also provides extra attention!”