Ireland-born Cléa van der Grijn spent her childhood between Amsterdam and Dublin. Her artist father Erik van der Grijn’s “disciplined studio practice, the space, the solitude” impressed her and “the smell of turps still triggers my olfactory senses”. Never allowed in his studio, she was, she says, “excluded from a process I unconsciously yearned for” and yet “I understood his need for sanctuary”.
Van der Grijn has no childhood memory of drawing but says: “Sometimes I would sneak into my father’s studio and out of sheer defiance, I would make a mark on his canvas. I never doubted for a moment I would have my own studio, to have my own space to be just me.”
Now Sligo-based, Van der Grijn has lived in Mexico and Italy, spent time in Central and South America, and spent two years travelling in India and Indonesia with her children, Oskar, Maximilian and Orlando. But, she says: “Sligo, surrounded by sea, woods and mountains, makes me feel grounded. The simplicity of life allows my complex mind to run free.”
That complex mind is found in her work. She has “always felt like an outsider”, has known sorrow and though recently diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD), doesn’t see herself as a victim.
She misses her ex-husband, filmmaker Paddy Jolley, and Maurice O’Connell, her partner of many years. Both passed away. She misses “their dogged determination, their exciting ideas, their complexities”. Her brother also died. “I would so very much like him to know what I am up to,” she says.
“My brother and I learnt ‘The Jabberwocky’ as small children” and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland , first published 1865, inspired her latest work. “The rhythm of the nonsensical words which rolled across our tongues caused utter delight. In my 20s, I returned to Alice in Wonderland through the Jefferson Airplane song ‘White Rabbit’”.
Virginia Woolf thought Alice a book “in which we become children” but Van der Grijn sees it as “an introduction to the complexities of mental health and personality disorders. I see it as a mirror to society and to all the layers that humankind must navigate to survive. It is also a celebration of life outside the norm, or what is considered to be the norm”.
For Van der Grijn: “Every word, every sentence creates visual imagery. The absurd seems rational, the nonsensical becomes rational in highlighting human fragilities.”
The paintings made in response to the book were “inspired through expression of unravelling trauma” and in this work, One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small , mixed media on linen, she says: “I am asking what is it to have a personality disorder?”
It’s a muted, quiet, beautiful work. “I was trying to create the sense of calm, a sense of balance. That somewhere between the two pills there is a safe place. The constant fluctuation of size is Carroll’s metaphor of trying to fit in,” she says.
“I knew nothing of the man when his works seeped into my consciousness as a child but when I allow myself think of Rev Charles Lutwidge Dodgson/Lewis Carroll, who was, by all accounts, a man whose sexual proclivities were more than disturbing, I get disturbed that somehow I may be endorsing him. I wish I never got caught up in the world of Alice. Yet here I am.”
Here she is, curiouser and curiouser, her complex mind running free.