March 11, 2022
LIGHT IS WHAT WE SEE
Photography by Michèle Polak
Words by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico
Bergen is a village in the Netherlands, in the province of North Holland. It is known for its magical light. Bergen is positioned between the North Sea to the west, and Ijsselmeer, and Markermeer two large lakes to the east. These three bodies of water act like a tripod of mirrors reflecting the light through the atmosphere meeting at their apex, then reflecting the concentrated illumination back down onto North Holland’s Village of Bergen.
This luminous light drew many artists to the countryside of North Holland in the beginning of the twentieth century. Between 1915 and 1925, a new school of painters developed around the french painter Henri Le Fauconnier called De Bergense School. With innovative creative thinkers, like that of Leo Gestel, Dirk Filarski, Arnout Colnot, Matthieu Wiegman and Charley Toorop, began the artistic movement that was to become known as Dutch Expressionism. This movement in dutch painting embraces influences of dark colors found in cubism, while exploring characteristics inherent in expressionism.
Michèle Polak has been influenced from an early age by light, and by the way light is captured with a camera. Michèle was given her first camera at the age of 14, a Yashica B medium format camera, using 120 film, producing 6x6cm negatives. Over the years of her exploration in different fields of photography, light has remained a focus in personal work. In this feature on Michèle we will explore the inspirational light of the Village of Bergen portrayed in her work over the years.
“You are so a part of the light, the light becomes part of you. Light is what we see. Most importantly, if there was no light, we wouldn't see anything would we?”
The first series of photographs reflect similar landscapes of color and light as that of De Bergense School painters from the twentieth century. It is interesting how the light begins to take on a personality all its own. It is that magical light of the Village of Bergen. Come saturate yourself in the color and light that has moved and inspired Michèle for more than a decade.
Michèle Polak was born in Amsterdam into a family within an artistic milieu. Michèle’s family has had an association with De Kring since the 1950’s. De Kring is a club of Artists, Scientists, and Art Lovers, founded in 1922. It has been the ‘Place to Be’ for writers, poets, painters, actors since it was first established and has remained the center of cultural Amsterdam.
Michèle met her husband at her interview for membership to the club. He was Chairman of the board. She was shy, but he was taken with her, and made himself important in her life. His persistent devotion led to a close friendship and relationship for almost forty years, united in marriage for thirty eight. A true love story. Michèle and her husband moved to the village of Bergen thirteen years ago, while their two daughters stayed in Amsterdam to study, and still reside there today with their children. It gives Michèle much joy to share the magic of the Village of Bergen with her grandchildren, and to spend time playing in the special light that illuminates the streets and landscapes inspiring a unique way of seeing.
Michèle has a diverse background in a variety of disciplines related to photography and the arts. She has worked and interned in the Dutch film industry, dabbling for a while in the world of still photography, working on documentaries. The constant demands and pressures led Michèle to take some time to travel. Traveling gave Michèle a new perspective and need for independence. She returned to an unexpected position as a Resident Photographer for the De Nederlandse Opera House in Amsterdam. Her disciplines in photography were nourished with the abundance of different things she had to photograph. Michele honed her skills in storytelling, cataloging the details of the performances. Her photographs became the instructions with explicit details of how to reconstruct the production from ground up. Everything from the costumes, to makeup, sets, lighting, and props, including the sets and their designs, were then able to be reproduced to perfection. Michèle relies on her motor memory skills and utilizes what she has learned instantly, giving her the ability to apply technique without thinking, but by just doing.
Michèle has been greatly influenced by art, and one person in particular has made an indelible impression on Michèle, Kees Wieringa, a world renowned pianist, composer, writer and cultural entrepreneur. Michèle talks about his influence and inspiration. “Kees Wieringa takes chances, with an incredible personality. His ‘Canto Ostinato’ was for me, a life changing experience, as it is for many people. It’s like meditation, hypnotic and all consuming. Simeon ten Holt is the composer of ‘Canto Ostinato’ and lived and worked in Bergen.”
Michèle has always found nature and the light of the Village of Bergen to be a focus in her personal work. Michèle believes that “You are so a part of the light, the light becomes part of you. Light is what we see. Most importantly, if there was no light, we wouldn't see anything would we?” She remembers one time in particular that made a significant impression. Michèle and her husband were flying home to Holland from Scandinavia, and they could see in the sky that Holland was blanketed with a flame of yellow. This yellow comforter was a thick layer of pollution.
During the Pandemic, when ‘Stay at Home' restrictions were put in place in the Village of Bergen, Michèle instantly noticed changes in the sky. Without all the cars and ‘Business as Usual’, the polluted and yellow flame over Holland was being extinguished. This led Michèle to her project ‘Blue Diamonds.’
Michèle began to document the Sky over the Village of Bergen, and the restoration of the clean atmosphere with no pollution. She decided to take a mirror into her garden three times a day, morning, noon, and night. She photographed the reflection of the sky above her. Michèle was fascinated with the changes and the positive influences the pandemic has had with the quality of the air over the Village of Bergen.
I found these images to be provocative and hypnotizing. I asked Michèle what these blues meant to her, what they represented. Michèle told me, “Blue can represent many things. Blue can be melancholy, it can reflect grief, sadness and sorrow. Blue can be a solemn place where there is purity, beauty and eternal light. These images represent clarity, a guiding light of hope, that embraces love and inner reflection. They became peaceful and liberating, and healing. They were my ritual of joy. Like a fresh breath, when you inhale deep, you look to the sky.” Michèle sees beauty in the sky whether it rains, snows, or the sun shines.
Michèle's work outside of this project addresses nature and the elements in nature. She explores color, light, shape and form, allowing them all to become elements in her creative thought process. Michèle investigates the atmosphere, the fire of the sun, the air we breathe and the illumination and colors of light in the sky above the Village of Bergen. Michèle explains, ”My work is not a translation of reality, my work is an interpretation of nature in the universe, it’s a timeless view.” Michèle believes, “Color does not necessarily have to be ‘True to Life’, but should evoke a special emotion and a passionate response to nature. I am endlessly fascinated by the slow motion of nature, as well as the elements. They become dialogue in the now and the future." Michèle uses sharp color contrasts to emphasize the beauty of nature.
Michèle is always working on numerous projects, and there is no surprise that she found even more inspiration and new direction during the Pandemic beginning a new collaboration with another artist Paul Allender. Paul is a painter residing in Sheffield in the North of England, with his partner. He has been painting for ten years and says his work is very influenced by his early childhood years. I talked with Paul and he describes his work, “Formally my work is trying to find a place/space between abstraction and figuration and its content is autobiographical, even when it doesn’t look like it is. The paintings often use bright, saturated colour combinations. The drawings and paintings are very direct and maybe somewhat naive.”
I asked Michèle how their project began. “Paul and I have followed each other on Instagram for many years. We began to chat early in 2020. We had a mutual admiration for each other’s work. Our discussions focussed on our work. Then, in August 2020, I asked Paul if he would consider collaborating with me. He said yes immediately and the work began. At that point the type of images we worked on were very organic, somewhat geological in appearance. There was a great delight for Paul in working into these images with oil sticks, oil pastels and paint.” This project gave Michèle and Paul an artistic outlet for creating something new and exciting, while adapting to life during the pandemic. Michèle found Paul to be an intellectual, inspiring in thought as well as process. He had a willingness to compromise, and to allow equal collaboration, always respectful of her work. He allowed their work to progress naturally. All the ingredients for a successful project!
I asked Paul what was his direction...what was his intent? What surprised him, inspired him, even while challenging him. Paul explains this part of their collaboration. “Our original intention was to work together and see what happened - simple as that. For me to paint and draw on Michèle’s original digital images. What initially surprised me was how easy it felt. I had great admiration for Michèle’s work and felt that I couldn’t ‘improve’ them in any way! But she gave me total permission to do whatever I wanted - so I did! And images that were quite different to her originals began to appear. It was beautiful. It was easy with the more organic, abstract images. This was not the case though with the figurative images. I felt very hesitant to work on them. They seemed so complete, delicate and, in some ways, fragile. I didn’t want to upset their equilibrium. So, Michèle very gently guided me with these - giving me ideas about what I might do. As I had worked on the pieces, back in Sheffield, my confidence began to grow. Michele was great - hugely supportive of what I did. We established huge trust, However, there was still some nervousness about how she would respond to them.”
Their work began in August of 2020 and their commitment to their disciplines and inspiration found in their work culminated in an exhibition together in Paris in October 2021 titled ‘We Could Breathe’. Michèle would send her digital images to Paul, printed on a very special photographic paper, Hahnemühle printed with premium pigment inks. Paul then worked with oil sticks, oil pastels, oil paint, and acrylic paint to create the new work from Michèles images. For fourteen months while Paul worked on their pieces in his studio in Sheffield, only Paul saw the completed pieces in person. Paul describes this union, “Up until that time, Michele had seen only photographs. Unveiling the work in our Paris hotel was quite an occasion. We were both delighted with it. Then, within an hour, we took it to the gallery to hang it.”
Michéle and Paul are now working on a new project together ‘De Bergense School’.
The project is in its infancy. Michèle has given her images to Paul for his interpretation, and collaboration. Michèle chose some new elements like figure and form to share processes with. She also understands the collaboration process, and what the finished pieces feel and look like when completed and seen in real life. She can adapt her choices now to better accept Paul's influences and inspirations with his painting. Paul continues to explain his part of this process. “I have begun to work on one of Michele’s images - and the first impressions are very good. I usually focus on one image and do multiple versions of working on it. These can get amalgamated, be used in their own right or rejected. So, we will work together on this in the coming weeks and months and we hope to show this work in North Holland. It is looking good.” They are inspired by their past work together, growing and adapting to change and applying what they have learned to create new work. By re-evaluating and understanding what their collaboration has evolved from, is developing into, will propel their project to new heights of understanding and awareness.
Paul is presently mentoring classes with Turps Banana, a painting magazine and educational set-up in London. He has exhibited with them online in 2021-2022 and is currently writing an article for the magazine on George McNeil, a little-known New York Abstract Expressionist. Paul is also organizing a solo show of his work in Sheffield, at a wonderful venue, the ‘Yellow Arch’ studios. This is taking place between the 8th and 24th June 2021. It will be a large exhibition, showing a cross section of his paintings and drawings over the last ten years.
Michèle has had some incredible exhibitions in the last few years from Songs of the Night, Warszawa Polen 2019, the De Winter Salon 2019-2020, People's Revolution Paris 2020, Venice Photo Lab October 2021, Rebirth Venice 2021, to Instant Éphémère Paris 2021. Michèle’s future exhibition at De Kring is very special. Together they will celebrate 100 Years De Kring, 100 artists, for 100 days through September. If you have a chance go see her work, be transformed and have your soul enlightened.
Michèle Polak is an inspirational woman that has found photography to be a way of investigating the world around her, her explorations have led to discoveries of a lifetime. She has had exceptional discipline to create throughout the years, finding joy in her process, never needing for finality. She always has a camera around her neck, and will be constantly observing the environment around her. She is always engaged with her process, body and mind. Michèle feels herself as just another element in the universe. She is always smiling, which makes her very approachable, and immediately her contagious smile ignites yours, and she inspires thought and communication. I said to Michèle, “You are a true artist!” she immediately replied, “NO! I am a life, the love of life, so much so it is the air I breathe deep.” These elements of landscape and light she studies and explores transcend her work, illuminating her soul.
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OF IMPORTANCE TO MICHÉLE: