“Being truly creative means that you will travel roads you have not traveled before, which comes with insecurities. Don't be afraid of that, it's part of the package.”
The Dutch painter Wim Heldens was born in 1954 in Sittard, in the south of the Netherlands. As a child, he was always experimenting with drawing and painting. Because the father of his best friend was a local painter he was, from a young age a frequent visitor to many studios in the local art scene. His mother studied art history for a while and Wim grew up in a household filled with art-books and paintings on the walls. For his 17th birthday, his parents gave him a box with oil-paints, from that moment on, there was no way back anymore. For the next year and a half, he experimented with every style one could possibly imagine, but discovered that figurative painting was his true calling and when he applied to various academies, he already had an impressive body of work. Nevertheless, his unusual talent was not recognized and he was not admitted. Disappointed, but still determined, he applied to the Kunstacademie in Frankfurt Germany in 1974 and was immediately accepted. But when the good news came, he had just moved to Amsterdam and decided that he had proven his worth, he preferred to go his own way. He began to be asked regularly for exhibitions in galleries in the Netherlands. Various trips to Italy in the seventies were a great stimulation; the greatest impression from these years was the psychologically dramatic work of Carravagio.
“Talent is a divine gift and it comes with a vocation to channel the Gods. And nobody, NOBODY but your talent should tell you what to paint!”
Making a living from portrait commissions, Heldens developed this genre as a means to explore the human condition. The discovery of the art world in New York opened a new field of stimulation and experience. In the period 1990 – 95 Heldens divided his time between New York and Amsterdam, easily mixing in the exciting American artistic community. He painted various portraits in commission. From 1995 on, Heldens focused on the portrait-art-scene in London, where his work has been exhibited regularly in The Mall Galleries and The National Portrait Gallery. In 1983, Wim Heldens had his first solo-exhibition in Museum Het Kritzraedthuis in Sittard NL, and in that same year a solo-exhibition in Museum Aemstelle in Amstelveen NL. In 1986 he participated in the exhibition “Contemporary Portraiture in The Netherlands” in The Singer Museum, Laren NL. In 1995 and 2001 his work was on exhibition in “Representing Representation” in The Arnot Museum, Elmira NY USA. His paintings have been shown in countless museums, art-fairs, and galleries in The Netherlands, the USA, the UK, Italy, and Spain. In 1998 his painting “Blue Hair & Braces” won The Menena Joy Schwab Award in the Mall Galleries in London (this painting is now part of the permanent collection of The Arnot Art Museum in Elmira New York). In 2011 his painting “Distracted” won the most prestigious and important award for contemporary portraiture: The BP Portrait Award in The National Portrait Gallery in London. In 2017 he was commissioned to paint a double Portrait of Lady Carol and Sir Harry Djanogly (famous British philanthropists), for the permanent collection of the NPG in London. In 2015 his painting “Cats & Dogs” received “Mentiones di Honor” in The Figurativas Exhibition in MEAM in Barcelona and that painting is now part of the permanent collection of the MEAM. His paintings have found their way into private and corporate collections in The Netherlands, The USA, UK, Germany, Italy and Turkey.
Wim Heldens’ art fills us. He offers us scenarios as natural and honest as they can be. The captured moment says everything, inciting us to know more. Often in his paintings we can see a mirror. And then we realize that often what we see is not really what it is. A mere reflection can change or deviate the whole story and we come to understand that life is just like that. We take a route, determined with our thoughts and beliefs, only to find out the path has been detoured and derailed…but it is up to us how to find our way after all. Sometimes all it takes is to take an honest look at ourselves to finally see the whole and complete picture.
Q. What role does the Artist/ Painter have in society?
A. I sincerely believe that art should have the purpose to enrich and deepen people's inner life, and so the task of the artist is to make authentic and honest work. To achieve those qualities, it is important that artists stay true to themselves and stay true to their talent and inspiration. This is not always easy because society often has a demand for what is
pleasing and comfortable, but artists who submit to those demands often end up producing decoration instead of creating art.
Q. What’s your best childhood memory?
A. My best childhood memory is of an aunt who was married to an artist and who would clear a space in her living room for me to me paint and I remember how liberating it was to paint in that room with old furniture were creating art was infinitely more important than keeping the furniture and carpet clean...I was a teenager then long time ago, but I am forever grateful to her.
Q. As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up?
A. Believe it or not, but as a child, for a while, I wanted to become a potter, I was very intrigued with baking pots.... glazing them etc....never got around to do that though.....
Q. Do you remember the first art you made? What was it and how old were you?
A. I was always doing something with painting and drawing, but the one thing I remember is a drawing (or a gouache?) I had made of a farmer who carried a pitchfork on his shoulder and I was particularly proud of how I had drawn his arm and hand convincingly (as much as I could judge that at that age)…I probably was 12 years old.
Q. How and when did you first become seriously interested in art?
A. I was always very intrigued by art and there was a lot of art around me, but I think the first time I connected that to what I might be doing in my life was around the time is was 15. A friend of mine had decided she wanted to write a book and we had agreed that I would make the illustrations. It turned out that I was much more dedicated and disciplined about those illustrations than she was about the book in the end. What really changed things for me was that her mother (who was a very talented painter of folk-art) encouraged me enormously. She approached my painting just like my aunt had done and that was a tremendous stimulant for me.... to her I am also very grateful.
Q. Tell us about your particular style and how you came to it?
A. The style I work in is usually referred to as “Realism”, “Figurative” or “Representational”...to name a few. All that does not mean much to me personally, I believe labels are good for clothing (that's practical for washing instructions). I simply discovered around the time I was 19 that this way of painting was what my talent was about. It was no other choice than the choice to be true to myself, never religious or political to me nor better than other artistic expressions. It just has the right vibration for my specific talent.
Q. What does your art aim to express?
A. This is a question I have actually never asked myself, I would just paint and I was never intellectual or philosophic about it. But now that I am so much older and can look back at my body of work and the responses my paintings have provoked over the years. I think I could say that my work tries to express the connection and the love between people. In the past years, I have begun to realize that all that must be exactly the opposite of what modern art seems to have been so obsessed with in decades:......estrangement. I want to see the good in people and that is what I want to express!
Q. What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?
A. My impatience!!!!...the irony of life is, that when one becomes older (and therefore has less time) one finely learns to be patient.
Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career?
A. I had to sacrifice the obvious financial security for my work, and that is often harder than outsiders can imagine, it's not only the lack of money that hurts but also the insecurity of never knowing if you're going to survive, the worries, the panic...... Because of my stubborn choices in my work, I have also sacrificed for a very long time recognition, respect, being a part of any group, belonging somewhere. I have been a pariah for a long part of my life. Lately, all that is changing, fortunately.
Q. Who are your biggest influences? Are you inspired by the work of your peers or anyone else in particular?
A. My biggest influences come from the old masters obviously, my two great heroes are Vermeer and Caravaggio. But I have also been hugely influenced by many many painters who came later and contemporary artists who each gave and give their own interpretations of these style-forms. I stay in contact with many artist-friends all over the world and we exchange ideas and experiences, influencing each other.....it is always evolving, as is our work.
Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
A. The artist's life is very lonely, of course, the activity itself is very solitary and years and years of no recognition and isolation do not make it any easier. The trick is to learn to be able to be happy by yourself. In the past decade through my success I have become friends with many other artists and as mentioned before, we stay in touch. Whenever possible, I visit my friends in their studio. Fortunately, I get to travel a lot...those contacts are of great value to me and make me feel I finally belong to a wonderful group of insanely talented and unique, beautiful creative people.
Q. Apart from art, what do you love doing?
A. I love working out, I'm a real “gym-rat”, I love going hiking in nature, the woods, mountains and on the shore, I really love to be at the water. I LOVE traveling and “broaden my horizon” with new experiences cultures, people and ideas. I LOVE music, pretty much a total omnivore at that. I love Italian opera, Verdi and Puccini, piano concerto's symphonies, baroque music, but also Mahler symphonies and am a HUGE Janis Joplin fan, love Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday...Sarah Vaughn.....Bessie Smith....... too much to mention. I love animals and children.......oh...and I love drinking strong coffee.
Q. What is your philosophy in matters of art?
A. Never give up on your dream, believe in your inner voice, follow your heart. Talent is a divine gift and it comes with a vocation to channel the Gods. And nobody, NOBODY but your talent should tell you what to paint!
Q. What does 'success' mean to you?
A. Success means a connection to the world and people for me and therefore, it is the source of great happiness. My success tells me that I was right to go my own way all those years, that I have left all those people who wanted to control me far behind me. It makes me so happy to know that so many of my paintings have found their places in this world where people see them and appreciate them. And success also means sometimes money in the bank, and I can't deny that after many years of struggling that too can make me very happy!!
Q. What are the biggest things you've learned in life thus far?
A. One of the biggest things I learned in life is to embrace the concept of diversity, to not be afraid or feel threatened by that what is unknown or different. Once that idea really sinks in, life becomes infinitely more exciting because others are not competitors any more but sources of great inspiration, they don't come in your life to take something away, the come to bring you something.
Another major lesson I have learned as an artist, later in life, is that a lot of “advice” people are giving you about your work, is actually not advice, but projection from their own fears or narrow-mindedness. I have had to hear all my life that I painted very well, but I should paint “something else.” I have also heard people tell me all my life: “Wim you should not say those things out loud, it will get you in trouble.” I'm glad I “stuck to my guns” in my painting, and about saying “those things”, I would like to quote Mae West: “People who are easily shocked, should be shocked more often!!”
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and by who?
A. The best piece of advice came from a friend years and years ago, he was older than me and saw me struggling with my frustrations, disappointments, my emotional pains and a broken heart now and then. His advice was to embrace it all, to start realizing life isn't meant to only be happy. More so; without the darkness, you would not be able to appreciate the light. He explained to me that when you are a sensitive talented soul like me, you're bound to feel insecurities, to get hurt, to feel rejected. “Embrace it all”, he told me, “life is all that together”. The best advice I ever got....... another friend I am eternally grateful to.
Q. What advice would you give to the next generation?
A. Paint what you really believe in, paint what really fascinates you and don't let anybody but your own talent tell you what to paint!
Do not try to please a certain crowd, be authentic, don't go for quick commercial success, it might be tempting, but when you're selling your soul to the devil there's a catch: eventually he will come to collect that soul and you'll feel bitter and unfulfilled because you have squandered your talent. Some emotions that are part of a creative process are often hard to recognize when you're young: being truly creative means that you will travel roads you have not traveled before, which comes with insecurities. Don't be afraid of that, it's part of the package.