Interview with Atolty

Atolty got the alias from his father who used it in his love letters. Atolty: Across The Oceans Love To You


For many years Rupert van Woerkom has been a defining name in the world of magazines, both inside and outside the Netherlands. He is concluding his media career as a media consultant and creative director with Head Office NL, a subsidiary of Sanoma Media. Recently he picked up the threads again of his favourite craft: painting. But now as the self taught artist Atolty

You’ve always worked under your own name; why a different one now?

Atolty yeah. It's actually a new beginning. My real name is inextricably linked to everything I've done in the media business, all the concepts I came up with for television, radio, digital media and magazines. Of course. I realised I could break free, but not from the people around me. I’ll always be associated with my work, which I’m proud of. But you get typecast, particularly if you're quite well known in that small world. I reasoned that with another name I could shake off the media stigma.

That name was Atolty, what its significance?

It’s a sort of tribute to my father, who flew all over the world for KLM. From every city he visited – and, believe me, there were lots − he always sent my mother a card with an endearing note and always signed it “Atolty”. I still regret not asking him earlier why he never signed with his own name. I surmised that it must have been a romantic secret between him and my mother. It took half a lifetime before I finally found out what Atolty meant. My father diffused the mystery just before he died. It was an acronym for “Across The Oceans Love To You.

What does art mean to you?

It’s a way of life, a way to feel happy. But of course it’s more than just creating art, it’s a language. One that I sometimes speak fluently and other times rather poorly, but I never ask myself who understands it as a language. That's why I use texts in my work so much. And very often the same ones, because it’s a state of mind, like “Desire Is The Only Motivating Principle”, there’s so much in that, you could write a book about it. The letters are sometimes icons for me and I strip them of all their literal meaning. It was in Curacao, the Dutch Netherlands Antilles, where I’m from, that I first became acquainted with the petro glyphs made by the Arawak Indians, who date back to about 1300 I believe. They were fantastic. I think those early memories might subconsciously have been the stimulus for me to want to become an artist, and the canvas on which I work is actually a kind of stone blackboard.

So what was so special about those cave drawings?

They were like children's drawings, simple language, images of objects, animals, as well as indecipherable signs etched onto rocks and in caves. They captivated me, I found them beautiful.

You drew and painted when you were younger, but you stopped a long time ago. Why?

I never set out to be a professional artist, if that’s what you mean. In my opinion you don’t become an artist, you just are one. And I’ve always been creative; it’s second nature. Without art I couldn’t live, still can’t. It’s an all-consuming love of mine. Other people’s artwork also fired me with energy and inspired me with ideas for the magazines that I made. These were also minor works of art, or does that sound too immodest? At home, in my little makeshift studio, I make many of my own collages and I’ve collected innumerable finds from the kunuku (jungle in local language Papiamento, ed.) of Curacao. My parents wouldn’t let me be a painter because they saw little future in it. I dutifully listened and did their bidding, without protest. Don’t forget, I wasn’t living in the Netherlands. There was no Maagdenhuis in the Antilles (university headquarters occupied by students in 1969, ed), and no Beatles or Rolling Stones at the time on the island. Protest wasn’t an option; your parents called the shots and you just had to toe the line. So when we came to the Netherlands I obediently started studying. My biggest inspiration, I think, was my youth in Curacao, those petro glyphs made by the Arawak Indians. But it was also the heyday of the Abstract Expressionists. I saw a lot of that stuff because we always went to America on holiday; after all, it’s just around the corner from Curacao.

Tell us about your childhood, did art already play a role?

I have enduring memories of carefree days and perfect freedom in Curacao. The whole family was in a sort of dream-like situation. The Netherlands, which for us was synonymous with cold, cows and domesticity, was a long way away. I grew up with my brother, who was four years younger than me, and despite my father rarely being there it presented us with few problems. Nor my mother, because for her living in Curacao was a blissful existence that spared her the drudgery of living in far-off post-war Holland, where she had little affinity with Dutch social life. She passed on that free-spirited character to us children.

Curacao was all nature, playing outdoors, donkeys, cacti, throwing stones, kunuku, swimming, water, looking for and diving for shells, which I collected, my first kiss in primary school with Josephine, Karin, the Swedish girl next door with whom I played a lot, and who told me 45 years later that I was once so angry with her that I peed all over her from the tree in our garden. And there was football and hockey, more donkeys, many local friends, drawing lessons and music lessons. Looking back, it felt like one long holiday, lasting my entire childhood. My mother was really into art and she introduced me to the world of art history. But in that eccentric former Dutch colony, surrounded as we were by sea, there were absolutely no museums or galleries. Happily, America was pretty close, a source of magazines and books, with images of artists and their paintings. For many years I created mini works of art, lots of collages, and mixed media concepts too. Influenced by Dada (Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Hans Richter, Hannelore Baron) and by all the American Abstract Expressionists such as Sam Francis, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Chuck Close and Cy Twombly. But also the younger ones like Joe Bradley and Richard Tuttle and German painter Anselm Kiefer to mention a few. Cy Twombly, however, was my big role model. His work reminded me of those Indian cave drawings from my youth. He also etched and used indefinable characters, and he too loved to write. I find his writings matchless. We actually met through my work. But life began in earnest when we were back in the Netherlands. And I wanted only one thing: to be creative.

Why do you work in Amsterdam?

I live there. I’m sure it has many subconscious stimuli that inspire me, but I wouldn’t be able to name them. And it’s not just because it has galleries and beautiful contemporary art museums either; other cities have those too. For example, I love the Kröller- Müller in the heart of the Netherlands, The Hague Municipal Museum, De Pont in Tilburg and the Fundatie in Zwolle, but I don’t get to go to them very often. It’s enough for me to cycle through a city and just soak up what I see. Yes, I prefer cycling because I hate driving through the city. I always try to imagine what it would look like without cars. Wow! Is your studio your sanctuary? My first studio was in the rafters of our house. Small, too small really. It was a sort of Kurt Schwitters-like space – or with a little imagination Merz-bau perhaps − but then much smaller. I really should have found somewhere bigger, but one way or another having to work in those few square metres was also good for me. Having to contend with a situation like that gave me a sort of Calimero feeling. From that small confine I had to approach things differently. My work couldn’t be bigger than the door.

And even then it was pretty difficult exercise in manoeuvring. That said, my studio was a form of altar where I felt incredibly good, and safe. Now I have my own studio in a building that houses many more studios. In the city, so I can cycle to work. We’re very happy there, my studio and me. Everything and nothing happens there. I can spend hours just thinking, hours ostensibly spent doing nothing, hours trying to make studies on a piece of paper or jotting down ideas that are just not good enough. Or I’ll rattle off a blog. I sometimes work according to a predefined plan, fully thought-through and executed according to notes and drawings for paintings, which I commit to my book. But I also do conceptual work. And I sometimes work completely intuitively and argue the point afterwards, ha-ha. Actually, that’s the way I prefer to work, but it's not easy. I like to quote what someone in Suriname once said to me. “If it doesn’t go as it should, then it should go as it does.”

Is creating art a form of addiction?

No, it’s my purpose in life.

Text by Enzo Nevellyn Photo by Eline Klein