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A career in clay

May 23, 2018 10:00AM ● Published by J. Chambless

Artist Marijke van Buchem with her 'sun totem' sculpture in her backyard garden. She credits the Cecil County Arts Council as supporting her artwork by offering classes and groups throughout the year.

Gallery: Artist Marijke van Buchem [10 Images] Click any image to expand.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Surrounded by her art, Marijke van Buchem can look back on a richly rewarding life. Her home near Elkton is impeccably decorated with her own creations in sculpture and pottery, reflecting a wide range of styles that could represent five or six different artists, but actually all spring from her boundlessly creative mind.

The Cape Cod home she shares with her husband, Evert, has a studio in the converted garage that is a happy jumble of supplies and little sculptures she has created over the past decades. They are tucked here and there on shelves, keeping her company as she works. Speaking softly with an accent that reflects her Dutch upbringing, van Buchem laid out three self-published photo books. One details the three years she spent in a detainment camp in Indonesia as a child. Another details her return to the country for a journey of rediscovery.

But first, her childhood.

“My father, when he graduated from college, it was during the Depression,” she said. “So people said he should go to the colonies, to the Dutch East Indies. There were lots of jobs there, so he did. He got a good job making sugar bags for the sugar industry. He was a mechanical engineer. While there, he met my mother, who had also gone to Indonesia as a governess for a Dutch family. They were married in 1936. I was born in Indonesia.”

When World War II began four years later, Japanese troops invaded the Dutch East Indies and rounded up Dutch citizens into detainment camps. At the age of 3, barely able to know what was going on, Marijke was imprisoned and spent the next three years under the control of Japanese soldiers at two different camps.

“My mother, my sister and I were sent to a women's camp. My father went to a men's camp. That was very hard, of course, for my parents,” she said. “They could send cards, but those were censored. And you could only send positive news – 'We are fine,' 'The kids are doing well.' Of course, we weren't fine, but you had to read between the lines”.

“Of course, the leadership was harsh,” she said softly. “You had to stand at attention, and if you didn't behave, you would get slapped. The punishments for people who were misbehaving were given to the whole camp. You would not get your rations, or you would have to stand at attention for a long time in the sun. As a child, I could hide behind my mother's skirt. But yes, that was hard.”

Eventually, the number of Dutch prisoners decreased due to deaths in the camps, and Marijke and her family were moved to a second camp, much farther from their first. “We were put on trucks and buses and dropped off at the train station, then we had to walk to the camp. When we walked into that camp, it turned out to be the camp where my mother's sister was, with her daughter. She moved us into the goat shed in back of where she lived.”

In the barracks, detainees got one square meter of space per person. “Luckily, my sister and I were small,” Marijke said, smiling, “so my mother had room to lie down. In the second camp, we ate mostly corn starch. I contracted something that they thought was tuberculosis, so I got rations of sugar. After the war, when I was checked, it wasn't tuberculosis. But I got nice treatment in the camp because of that.”

She and her family somehow survived. “My parents could not forgive the Japanese,” van Buchem said. “My father had nightmares the rest of his life. My parents never talked about it. When I went to Japan to visit friends in the 1980s, my parents were surprised. But it is my art that got me there. You cannot hold the whole Japanese society to blame. It's not the people.”

The book van Buchem published about her years in the camps has a cover photo of a trunk that her father kept throughout the war. It's painted with the family name, Phlippeau. Inside the book are her recollections of the camps, and illustrations made by other prisoners. They show the grim reality of daily life, including cooking in huge iron kettles, trying to keep clean, and bowing whenever a soldier walked by. It also contains photos of the few identification papers her father kept.

On the wall of van Buchem's living room is another memento -- a pencil sketch of her as a child that was done by an artist who was in one of the camps. It's a strikingly beautiful portrait.

When the war ended in 1945, van Buchem's family went by troop transport ship to Holland. She was 6 years old. “On the boat we had American food,” she recalled, smiling at the memory. “The apples they had, you couldn't believe your eyes. They were so big and red! We had a party when we passed the Equator, and the drink and cookies the kids got, well, years later I found out it was a Coke. And the cookies were ginger snaps.”

The boat stopped in Suez, where there were tents full of donated clothing from the Red Cross that the refugees could take, van Buchem recalled. “We didn't have anything but the clothes on our backs, and there was almost nothing left of them,” she said.

The culture of Japan is reflected in some of van Buchem's cups and bowls, which have a distinctly Asian influence. “Isn't that strange?” she said of the way the past is reflected in her art. “I think I've left it behind totally, but amazingly enough, my pots have a Japanese influence.”

As a child, van Buchem enjoyed drawing and had teenage plans to be a fashion designer, but her family advised her that she would be working for someone else and could be limited in her career, so she became a physical education teacher in Holland.

Then fate took a hand. “I was invited by a friend to come to a sculpture class with her. That's when I started sculpting clay,” she said. “That really got me going. I was hooked.”

She met and eventually married Evert, who later got a job offer from St. Andrew's School in Middletown. “My last sculpture teacher, Johan van Zweeden, said, 'Oh, don't go to the U.S. There are no sculptors there,'” van Buchem said, laughing. But the couple did move to America, where they spent a happy period of 30 years at St. Andrew's School in Middletown. “It is a great place,” she said.

While living in the Middletown area, van Buchem took pottery classes at the Delaware Art Museum and continued pursuing her art. She taught physical education at a private day school in the Middletown area. After her son,Victor, was born, she took a break from the hard work of making pots and took up weaving because it was less stressful on her back and elbows. After 12 years, she had healed up enough to return to clay.

When a new headmaster, John O’Brien, came to St. Andrew's School, “he asked what I thought of the art department. I told him it was OK, but limited,” she said. “Teaching only drawing and painting is not for everybody. There are kids who would like to play with clay, for instance. He asked if I wanted to start a program. So that's how I became the pottery teacher there. I could make my own pots and run my own program.”

Across van Buchem's long career, her work is admirably diverse. Her figural pieces are technically very fine and capture fleeting expressions or postures that make them come alive. If she has a trademark, it may be the sinuous vessels shaped like female torsos. They are, in a word, sexy, but are even more exceptional because they are hollow. The shape is defined by the clothing, not by the solidity of the body. She calls them “Empty Vessels.”

“The funny thing about my work is that it's always me,” she said of her variety of styles. “Sometimes I wonder, 'How did I do that?'”

In 1994, Evert retired and the couple moved to the Elkton area, where she built her studio and occasionally teaches private lessons in her home. She hasn't promoted her work, or worked with an agent, “because I feel I could not have been innovative or spontaneous if I had commissions,” she said. “I don't want to make a sculpture of somebody, and then they don't like it. To me, my husband is always number one. I want him to be the most important part of my life -- being with him, not the job. Evert has always been a big supporter of what I want to pursue, and he is my most ardent admirer.

“To be among like-minded souls, I have been taking classes with Lauren Vanni in the ceramics program at Cecil College. I like her classes. They are lively and inspirational. I've had exhibits at Bookplace in Oxford, at the Cecil County Arts Alliance, and at St. Andrew's School. And I have participated in group shows.”

She has avoided art fairs because people feel free to haggle about the prices. “I tell them, 'Oh, you would like me to work for less than $5 an hour?'” van Buchem said, sighing. “'You think that's too much?' And then they walk away. So I am low on the totem pole, but I love what I'm doing.”

Although her hands aren't as agile as they once were, she still keeps busy, and is working to re-dedicate herself to a daily schedule of studio time. “I'm not as busy now, but I told Evert I want to keep sculpting on a schedule now,” she said. “I did it as a job in my early retirement years, but it's very hard to do. It's funny how you're so busy with all kinds of other things.”

She is working on a new idea – sculpting portrait masks and adding them to a plaque that would contain sculpted details tailored to each sitter. But this is still mostly an idea. “Oh, I'd do them every week if I can find time,” she said.

And out back behind the house is an abstract sculpture made up of blocks with varying incised patterns. It's the first of its kind – yet another new direction for the artist. “I like how the sun can play with the surfaces,” van Buchem said. “It's a kind of totem, but a friend said I should call it a 'sun post,' so that's what it is. A sun post. Of course, now I'm working on another one.”


To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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