Pictured Above: “Aquaduct” by Annelies van Dommelen. Photo Credit: Contributed.

Annelies van Dommelen: A Portrait of the Artist by Her Peers

By: Lori Goldstein

While Lambertville artist Annelies van Dommelen completed the process of selecting works for her retrospective exhibition, “Unstill Life,” at New Hope Arts, February 17-March 10, writer Lori Goldstein had the privilege of talking to her and to several of her friends and colleagues. What follows are highlights of conversations she had with these artists. Their words evoke profound admiration for her as a person, a friend, and an artist.

James Dupree, the eminent Philadelphia artist who opened his Lambertville gallery in 2022, taught Annelies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the ‘90s, and Annelies considered it a “life-changing class.”

When I first met Annelies, I asked, “Where are you from?” and she said, “I’m Dutch.” I flipped out because during my undergraduate years I used to have to go into a museum and copy paintings, and I copied Dutch paintings.  She’s the only and first Dutch student I’ve ever had in my 50 years of teaching.  We immediately became friends.

 

She had a nice stroke; she was already developed more than the other students in the class.  Everything she asked me I had an answer for, technically, and she just ate it up.  She paints as I painted for a while: the paintings are very different but they’re very dense, layered, overworked almost in some points.  Annelies has a complete control and understanding of how to manipulate space in a painting.

Pictured Above: “Aquaduct” by Annelies van Dommelen. Photo Credit: Contributed.

At the end of class, she invited me to be in a show with her and her friend Stacie Scott Speer, in Bucks County 20 or so years ago. [In turn, James invited them to show at his Philadelphia gallery, and most recently at his Lambertville gallery in 2023.]

Somebody once said to me, “Your work reminds me of Annelies.” I said, “Thank you very much, she was one of my students.”

I was impressed with Annelies’s knowledge of art history and already her ‘signature’ in her work.  I teach all my students to find your uniqueness based on your fingerprint.  It’s the one thing we all have that’s unique to ourselves.  My mantra was: find your fingerprint, your signature.  You can chase that for the rest of your life.  But Annelies has found it.   

My cliché about [the Lambertville/New Hope art community] is if you’re in the art world around here and you don’t know Annelies, then you’re not really from Lambertville.

Her role in the community is giant.  This is a very small art community and she’s one of the most unique painters [in it].  She’s a lifer.  Annelies is not talking about it, she’s proving it. 

 

I’ve lived seventy-five percent of my life.  When you look around, how many people are like that in the art world? And those are the ones, whether they get the credit or not, what we all want is a footnote while we’re here.  Annelies has achieved her footnote in this town.

Pictured Above: “Anthology” by Annelies van Dommelen. Photo Credit: Contributed.

Pictured Above: “Corvid” by Annelies van Dommelen. Photo Credit: Contributed.

Annelies’s work doesn’t resonate with popular culture, and she doesn’t want it to.  First of all, most people don’t even register that she’s Dutch!  That art she’s making, I’m just trying to think what it would have been like 200 years ago [for her] as a female Dutch painter.  When I’m with her, I [feel] like I’m with this famous Dutch painter.

 

[Ironically, I told James that when I first stepped into Annelies’s studio, I felt that in a hundred years or so, her work would be included in college art history classes and exhibited in major museums.]

The question that was posed to me once was: what would you rather have, fame or fortune? My answer was: give me the fortune because I can buy the fame.  In order to have the fortune you must have the talent, the time, and the work to merit that answer. And Annelies is one of the few artists here like that.

 

[When I mention to James that Annelies knew her art did not fit in to the Bucks County landscape scene, James says, “Good!” with laughter. In fact, Annelies jokingly told me, “I paint houses so that I don’t have to paint landscapes.” She had a thriving house-painting business to supplement her art income up until Covid.]

Pictured Above: “golden girl,” oil on panel, part of the neverfade series by Annelies van Dommelen. Photo Credit: Contributed.

Artist Stacie Scott Speer, known for her collages, mixed-media work, print-making and atypical landscapes—recalls Len Restivo’s famous adage:

 

If you turn over a rock on the Lambertville or New Hope side, Annelies’s name will be on the bottom of it. 

I really got to know Annelies in 1985, when several artists, including Annelies, founded Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville, of which we were members for more than a decade together. [Annalies was also a founding member of Artsbridge.] In the early 2000s, when we were both affiliated with the Bucks Gallery of Fine Art in Newtown, we had a joint show there, to which we invited James Dupree. 

 

Annelies’s art is complex.  It has recurring imagery and emotional content.  Quite often a character or a figure that is neither female nor male appears as a part of the emotion of a piece.  She’s also interested in animal iconography, which includes different kinds of insects, birds, and other animals.

What I admire in her work is the continuous sense of inquisitiveness, particularly with new mediums and new methods.  I don’t think the narrative or content part of it changes too much, but the curiosity and mastery of mediums is definitely a life-long pursuit for Annelies.

 

Her curiosity with mediums extends to her curiosity with people. She’s always one to ask questions and probe.  She’s always one to be comfortable enough to go up to artists, introduce herself, to engage people.  She’s also been supportive of young and new-to-the-area artists and galleries. Annelies has always been willing to connect, and to connect others with her considerable list of people that she knows, and she knows everybody.  It’s really tough to walk down the street with Annelies because she gets stopped a million times.

Pictured Above: “Disruption,” oil over montype 2017 by Annelies van Dommelen. Photo Credit: Contributed.

What the retrospective will show, first of all, is the level of craftsmanship.  Her craftsmanship is very high regardless of what medium she tackles.  You’ll see watercolors, prints, oil paintings, three-dimensional dioramas.  It really doesn’t matter what it is, because you will always see craftsmanship, incredible hand skills, even in her embroidery work. 

You will see a darkness, particularly in some of the oil paintings and some of the older paintings.  She does have that Dutch influence of that asphaltum brown, which comes into play; whereas if you contrast it with, say, the monotypes, you’re going to see an incredible lightness, almost like an ethereal quality. 

 

In terms of what the show will do for her, going through those massive drawers [in her studio] packed with work and the archives that she has–it’s got to be overwhelming and rewarding to see your life’s work. This is a chance [for her] to say, whoa, this is where I’ve been and this is where I am.

[Ironically, Annelies described the retrospective’s function similarly, though a bit more bluntly: “where I’ve come from and where I’ve ended up in 50 years.”]

 

[My friendship with Annelies] is clearly one of the most inspiring relationships that I’ve had in my life, for sure, and I cherish it.

Joseph Vorgity, a woodblock print-maker and watercolorist who now lives in Los Angeles, met Annelies when he was 19. 

 

In 1976, we were in the same class at Philadelphia’s Hussian School of Art, studying commercial art. I lived in Northeast Philly, and Annelies, who was LGBTQ back then, would invite me to New Hope’s gay-friendly Prelude dance bar. I would hang out with her during school breaks, and when I moved to New York City, she would visit me there.

I always admired how spontaneous and fluid she was with her artwork.  Mine was linear, hers was multi-disciplinary.  She painted, made paper, did print-making, and made paper-maché masks. At the Laceworks Studio in Lambertville, in an old mill there, she mastered the art of paper-making.

 

From the beginning, Annelies’s artwork was intense and complicated, and has remained so today. Annelies really goes deep into herself and reveals things about herself and about the world. [This matches up to her motto: If you can’t go out, go in deeper.] Sometimes her themes are painful, and I think working through the art helps her heal physically and mentally.  People looking at her art—it touches them in a way that helps them heal.  Once in a while, she’d make some art that was frivolous and fun.

We’ve been friends for so long–we’ve seen each other at our worst, yet our loyalty to each other [stays constant].

Pictured Above: “Specimens,” by Annelies van Dommelen. Photo Credit: Contributed.

Annelies is a very big presence in the community.  She knows all her neighbors.  When we were younger, they used to call her the mayor of Lambertville.

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Susan Roseman, a printmaker and watercolorist with whom Annelies exhibited at Rittenhouse Square, ran Riverbanks Arts, a gallery in Stockton during the ‘90s. 

 

Annelies has charmed her followers with a body of work that accompanies the artist on her path.  That Annelies works in such a personal realm is supported by her courage and creativity.  The results are often exquisitely personal, color-fed, and passion-filled!

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Bill Jersey, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning documentarian of such films as “Super Chief: The Life and Legacy of Earl Warren” and “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.” At 97, he now exhibits his landscapes at Artists’ Gallery. In 2022 Bill made a film of Annelies in her studio for Phillips Mill’s “Art Talk.”

 

Some people are very much like their work, but her work is much more complicated than any analog.  How do you describe somebody who’s both assertive in their brush stroke, very complex in her use of color, and it all adds up to what you have to say is inimitable.

She’s not a mystery to me, she’s a richly painted portrait of herself.  Her world is an imaginary world that she constructs, revises, and expresses—not necessarily in that order.

What I like about her art is it’s authentically hers.  With her work, it’s so unique.  It doesn’t influence me, it just impresses me.

It feels like I’ve known her forever, but it’s been about seven years.  The richness of the relationship is such that I don’t remember or care when we first met. She is many things to me.  At times she is like a sister, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes annoying, sometimes delightful.

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Carol Cruickshanks, executive director of New Hope Arts, has been Annelies’s friend since 1980, when they were both involved in the arts community centered around Robin Larsen and her activities in New Hope and Lambertville.

 

I’ve always admired her dedication, her perseverance, and her eclectic knowledge of methods and materials.  If Annelies’s art could be classified, I would say it’s contemporary with a strong reference to 16th century Dutch art, which is part of her heritage.  Her work calls to mind that of Breugel, Vermeer, and Bosch.

 

This is a time to celebrate Annelies and honor her in a situation where I can provide a wonderful setting for her work all in one place.  She’s participated in so many events with New Hope Arts over the 12-1/2 years that I’ve been here, and prior to that she had exhibition pieces with Robin Larsen.  The retrospective feels like a culmination of a career.  It particularly honors her triumph and perseverance with art as her medium throughout her life.

In the time I’ve spent talking and texting with Annelies, I’ve learned she’s a very funny person, despite the loss of both parents when she was in her 30’s and her battle with breast cancer when she was 40. She’s blessed with a 35-year “non-marriage” to Paul, whom she met when she was a cocktail waitress at Havana’s, and two lovable dogs, Opal and Fenway.

 

The walls of her home and adjoining studio are filled with art, mostly not her own; her work, complete or in process, is packed away in wide file drawers. The studio has a cathedral ceiling and natural lighting; it was built 10 years ago, when the landlord of her old studio across the street sold his property.

Annelies describes how her parents emigrated from Holland to the United States after the War. First, they moved to Connecticut, where her father found himself ill-suited for chicken farming. Eventually they made a home in Washington Crossing State Park, where he became chief forester. Her mother had an innate sense of beauty and balance. In a house filled with all their furniture from Holland, her mother once rearranged an object on a table to achieve just the right balance.

When I ask about her Dutch heritage, Annelies shows me an old photo of how her mother dressed her up in kindergarten, in traditional Dutch garb, complete with blond braids–courtesy of a wig. In 1984 she was invited to show her work at the Galerie van Hulsen in Holland.

 

Annelies’s hands are never still.  When she’s not experimenting with her latest favorite medium—gelli plates—she works at a piece of embroidery with immaculate stitching.  One of her projects is to finish a book of insect illustrations, but she has to learn the caterpillar stitch first in order to bind it.

She won’t show me another project: completing a painting which is “85% good, and the other 15 percent is embarrassing.” But she now has a confidence born from experience. “When I started that painting 20 years ago I got stuck, and I still can get stuck sometimes.  Then I have to put it away or get beyond that.  That’s a weird place to be.  I have it infrequently now, whereas I had it more [often] when I was younger.  I can remember the day when I sat in my studio and said, ‘I’m finally free.’ I’m free of the fear of making a mistake. It was 30 years after I started.  It’s art, I can do whatever I want.” When teaching monotype students, she tells them “nothing’s precious until you decide it is.”

 

“I love art history,” she says, “So I know a lot about it, as much as I can and I’m still learning. Sometimes you’ll paint a little section and you’ll think that’s Bruegel, I’ll recognize it in my own work.  [Or] that’s exactly the color that Van Gogh uses, it’ll show up in my work like that, I don’t do it purposefully.  Because of all the artists’ [work] that you’ve seen in your lifetime all of the history that you’ve studied, things will come to you, you’ll recognize a certain color as being Courbet green, and that’s probably osmosis.”

Pictured Above: Artist Annelies van Dommelen.  Photo Credit: Contributed.

Annelies proudly confesses that “80% of my life was rejection. I was rejected many times from lots of shows, and then I’d get accepted and win a prize, so that was confusing.”  She tells me that some of the rejections will be in the retrospective, but she won’t say which ones.

 

“I’ve closed a few good galleries,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve been the last show.” I ask, “Are you a closer?” and she replies, “Yes, I wouldn’t sell anything,” recalling a Doylestown gallery that shut down after exhibiting her work. “I’m not a big seller, I’ve never had a sold-out show in my life.  That would be fantastic, but then I’d be painting Bucks County landscapes!”

When Annelies reflects on how quickly her life’s gone by, and how happy she is with the way she’s spent it, I say, “You may have 30 more years of painting in you.” Her rejoinder: “Then I’ve got to sell more work because I can’t afford 30 more years!”

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