A Kiwi in the paddy
The greens are darker, denser and deeper in his homeland. Tones in his birthplace are brighter, shriller. All are teasing, shifting, mysterious even, difficult to catch on canvas.
New Zealand artist John van der Sterren doesn’t shrink from the challenges of Java’s landscapes. “I have the itch,” he says and flexes his fingers. No arthritis, though he’s 78 and spent his early childhood deprived of all essential nutrients in a tropical concentration camp.
The awful experience scarred in other ways. “I get depressed,” he adds, “but art is also therapy. Perseverance is very important for an artist. Deep down I know the urge comes from up there.” He points to the sky, but claims not to be conventionally religious.
“I’m not so prolific now, maybe 60 paintings a year compared with more than 200 at my peak. But I can’t keep away from the studio.”
This is a splendid purpose-built building set among the rice paddies of Central Java. It’s called Villa Sikepan (named after a nearby village) and sits over a disused sugar-cane rail line and stone overpass known as the Bridge of the White Tiger. Locals claim to have seen this mythical beast so tend to keep clear.
The three-level home stands alongside a rushing creek, one of hundreds that irrigate the Kedu Plain, the fertile farmlands between the Progo and Elo Rivers just seven degrees below the Equator.
It would be difficult to find a greater contrast with NZ, which accepted the young John and his Dutch parents as refugees. They’d survived more than three years harsh internment during the Japanese occupation of the then Dutch East Indies
About 100,000 non-Asian prisoners filled the camps where the death rate was up to 30 per cent. When the gates were opened after Japan lost the war attacks by vengeful mobs hating the former colonialists took more lives.
The family was offered repatriation to Holland or safety in the South Pacific nation. They spent two months in Invercargill, one of the world’s most southerly cities. Their only child was eight.
“It was the most marvellous time,” said the artist. “We were made to feel so welcome.”
Back in Indonesia the returned Dutch were refusing to recognize Soekarno’s declaration of independence and so began a guerrilla war. This only ended in 1949 when the colonialists accepted the new post-war reality of surging nationalism.
During the four-year conflict the Dutch briefly gained some mastery over the revolutionaries so the family returned to Indonesia where father Albert worked in the airline industry. But they rapidly realised the old days were over so headed back to NZ, this time settling in the capital Wellington.
At school John was good at cartooning and keen on music, eventually becoming a cello player with a string quartet. But art didn’t pay in the NZ of the 1960s. “You’d be eating dog food to survive,” said van der Sterren
So he worked with an advertising company for the next quarter century. Along the way he got married and had two daughters, and pushed Indonesia aside. Art stayed a weekend pastime but became more serious when he met landscape painter Cedric Savage.
“He never taught me, but he did encourage me – and that is so important,” said van der Sterren. “He once looked at one of my works which I thought rather good. It had a clear blue sky.
“Cedric picked up a brush and painted a horizontal line through the sky. In one stroke he changed everything.”
Then his company offered to send him to Indonesia to help open a new office. The memories were brutal but the assignment was attractive and Java’s beguiling colors beckoned. He met French art dealer Didier Hamel in Jakarta who challenged him to take his talent seriously. In 1991 the Kiwi walked out of his day job and into the unknown.
Two years later his first exhibition exceeded expectations. Commissions to paint the Presidential Palace and portraits of the prominent followed, for the man has eclectic talents, shifting from close-up to wide screen with ease.
Some of his earlier figures have Vincent van Gogh intensity. His landscapes are easy on the eye and getting starker as he ages.
“Looking back it was the right time to turn full-time,” van der Sterren said. “Before the economic crash of 1998 Chinese businessmen were enthusiastic buyers, competing among themselves for new works.”
After trying other locations he settled near Mendut, a 9th century Buddhist monument related to the nearby Borobudur Temple complex, the World Heritage Site that draws millions of tourists.
Once free of office routines van der Sterren toured the archipelago drawing just about everything including shrines and temples that remain from the Buddhist and Hindu eras that preceded Islam.
He has also painted his way across much of Asia. Hamel, who has written two books about his client, describes him as ‘one of the most famous landscape artists living and working in the Far East’. Van der Sterren’s own books include sketches of old buildings in Surabaya and Jakarta.
Though the area is rich in artists he seldom joins their discussions, arguing that as a foreigner he should not compete with locals. Some are graduates of the prestigious Indonesian Arts Institute in nearby Yogyakarta, the center of Javanese culture.
“I’ve never been to art school so I’m not in that scene,” he said. “Besides, I don’t like too much natter. I want to do.”
He is also critical of current fads for abstract and surrealist art: “Who wants to hang a black superman sitting on the toilet picture in their bedroom?
“To be successful you need to have talent, a good dealer, great friends and lots of luck. I’ve had all those, particularly being accepted in NZ and becoming a citizen. I return now and again. But I still find those greens difficult.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post Monday 9 January 2017)