An interview with renowned ceramist Babs Haenen

You know you have something unique in hands when you compare the ceramic work of Babs Haenen (69) with the amount of ceramics objects produced nowadays. It is an understatement to say that her work is very much impressive, colourful and it seems as if it will burst out of their static forms any minute.
Text and production Lorraine Dunkley

Take us back in time and tell us what characterises your work.
‘In 1979 I graduated with Geert Lap, Barbara Nanning and Paulus van Leeuwen at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Back then, my work was found wild and frankly odd. Garth Clark – of the online magazine Cfile – had a gallery in New York and it was him we met at a lecture at school. This specific moment resulted in an exhibition in his gallery overseas. From 1986 up until 2005. A few years later, Clark wrote an article about my work in the catalogue ‘A decade of work’ on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Interior Dances’ in The Princessehof National Museum of Ceramics in Leeuwarden. Garth wrote “the inside is trying to become the outside”, and that specific sentence captures my Turbulent Vessels work perfectly.’

Where do you find your inspiration?
‘Nowadays, I mostly find inspiration in the paintings of the 15th and 16th century . I am truly fascinated by the way artists painted garments and used colours so profoundly in that time. I always experiment with these elements from back then and try to apply this in my own work and porcelain. This means that I need to make my own new colours. I find a lot of inspiration in scenic motifs as well.’

How do you work?
‘My work consists of different coloured slabs of clay. I deconstruct, cut, add and rebuild each layer resulting in one form. Commonly known as slab building. Because of the different colours I use and the layers that I fuze together, a painting arises in a natural and quite random way. After being bisque fired for several times – to intensify the colours – I finalise the objects and add some semi-transparant glaze to it.’

If your mold is your starting point, how do you expand?
‘Firstly, I create different types of molds. After a night or so, the clay has become hard and firm. After this, I use little slabs of porcelain to create a bigger, and more extravagant piece.’

And how do you know which colours to use?
‘In the beginning, after the Academy, I could get struck by the pattern of a fabric or piece of clothing. Immediately, I would try to sketch this pattern on paper. Textile patterns were a huge fascination for me. I would try to apply those lines and stripes on to my porcelain. After this phase, I got fascinated by different paintings. Let’s take a Rothko painting for example, how on earth could I try to implement different elements in my work? Well, that’s the challenge.’

You receive a lot of positive reactions on your work, especially in the United States. How come?
‘The coloured slabs of clay are being folded and pleated and I try to create a subtle wavy motif. I use a lot of shapes, patterns and colours. At the beginning of my career people quite often questioned my work; “what is the relation between the drawing and the actual shape?”. In the US this wasn’t a question at all.’

What do you mean?
‘Yesterday, I wandered around in the Bijenkorf. And I stumbled upon the newest collection of Dries van Noten. And this collection is an explosion of colours and patterns. And not only in the fabrics themselves, but even in the way these were mixed and matched. Nowadays, it is easier to express yourself without being peculiar.’

When did you decide that it was time to create greater and more expressive pieces?
‘It just happens, actually. There wasn’t a specific moment in time where I decided that the moment has come. I think that all my experiences and different influences formed a total package which made me ready for the next step. Next to my pottery, I have always created bigger and more architectural pieces. I wanted to create center pieces. My vases were always an expression, rather than being functional.’

For a number of years you were a teacher at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. What is the main thing you tried to learn your students?
‘I was a teacher at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy for roughly 19 years. And in those years I have always tried to tell my students that they need to discover their personality and in which way they would translate into their clay. Rather than creating something they didn’t fully put their heart in. I have always said: “create the unexpected without keeping others opinions in mind”.’

Which project is on your agenda now?
‘I am turning 70 next year. A big solo exhibition in New York would be fantastic!’

With her work that has been showcased at HOW&WOW at the Dutch Design Week 2017 in Eindhoven, Haenen stays true to her grand, coloured and infinite universe.