Fine Art Connoisseur Feb ’19

The Dutch artist NICK WILLEMS (b. 1989) is making waves in his native Netherlands, and the ripples are being felt across the Atlantic in the U.S. as well. Working in a novel manner within the representational field, Willems uses the primitive medium of fire to burn his imagery into existence. With multiple “burned layers” built up gradually on large wood panels, the artist’s time-intensive process requires extraordinary patience, focus, and accuracy. Seven years ago, Willems was a freshman entering the Klassieke Academie voor Schilderkunst (Classical Art Academy for Painters) in Groningen, the Netherlands, feeling both frustrated and frightened. He knew he needed to further his education in classical techniques but could not afford this private school’s fees. Fast forward to 2016, when Willems not only completed its five-year curriculum thanks to a scholarship but also graduated with distinction and immediately sold one of his most ambitious pieces. He was then invited by De Twee Pauwen — a top gallery located near the palace of the Dutch king in The Hague — to become one of their Young Emerging Artists. “Imagine, just five years earlier I was unable to pay for my studies, and then I was welcomed into this prestigious arena,” Willems marvels. “It makes me think that as long as you put in the time and effort, anything is possible.”
Beyond the time and effort, Willems also possessed the fortitude to not follow the status quo, instead forging a new path and style. “Because I did not have a teacher in the field of wood burning, I needed to figure it out myself through a lot of experimentation,” the artist recalls. “I now use almost everything that is capable of getting hot, from a little burner to a big gas flame, from a lighter to a soldering iron, to ‘paint with fire.’ I am putting dozens of soft layers onto the wood panels, which creates contrast. For me, this is an exciting way of working where destruction creates new life and beauty.” The artist’s work ranges from aggressively burned cityscapes to sensitively composed homages. Life Companions, which falls in the latter category, was inspired by a couple who had been married for more than 60 years. “Unfortunately, the husband passed away just a few days after I finished the piece,” Willems shares. “A lot of my work is about impermanence — that circle between life, death, and new life. This concept is empowered by the technique I use: wood and fire. The living and the perished.” 

NICK WILLEMS (b. 1989), Life Companions, 2016, burning on poplar panel, 25 1/2 x 51 in., private collection