Candy-colored glass, a melded coffee pot, astonishingly loud jazz, a running dog and a pet rat surround the magnificent artworks nonchalantly crafted behind the red door at De Oude Horn. Emma Becque explores Bernard Heeson's atmospheric atelier in Leerdam: the Dutch city of glass.
BY EMMA BECQUE | 10 JANUARY 2024
Artistic glassblower Bernard Heesen is a man of little words. But what he lacks in small talk, he makes up for in glass expressionism. Unlike the fragile nature of the material he is betrothed to, Bernard, a teacher and artist, stands stoic.
The beginnings of a conversation unfold while pivoting around the artist's furnace within his blisteringly cold atelier, De Oude Horn, an historic steam-run water factory. In the remote countryside of Leerdam (the Dutch city of glass), only the rainbow glow and sound of snapping crystals hint at this magician at work.
Although glass has always been a part of Bernard's life - his father and grandfather both worked in glass, the former at a local glass factory designing commissions in the 1950s - his own journey into glassblowing was necessitated by a family happenstance. It diverted the young architecture graduate towards a different path, and he soon turned his artistic eye to glass towers, rather than buildings.
During his nine-to-five, Willem Heesen, Bernards's father, took an entrepreneurial stance. “My father wanted to learn the practice of glassblowing rather than just draw the designs and watch others create them. An unusual notion in the '50s when the practical workers were separate from the Head Office designers.”
Subsequently, Willem Heesen became part of the American Studio Glass Movement (1965). This creative shift transformed glassmaking from industrial to fluid, artist-driven sculptures fueled by a new, accessible furnace technology. “When I was young, my father took a chance and set up the furnace technology in De Oude Horn, leaving behind the stability of his job,” Bernard tells Cabana.
However, like most entrepreneurial ventures, the studio did not take off straight away. When the money ran dry, Bernard, his brother, and his mother learned the art of glassblowing to keep the atelier alive. This familial enterprise is not forgotten; storied walls within De Oude Horn display framed memories depicting years of grit and determination - in the prime of place cascaded over the handmade furnace.
Jumping to his father's aid, Bernard “got lost in the fluidity of the glass and felt an instinctual connection with the art”, leaving behind his architectural aspirations. Today, taking centre stage, Bernard embodies the role of both artist and artisan in practice. He welcomes the serendipitous interplay of chance in moulding the form and character of his creations. A performer under the molten spotlight, his unexpected delicate movements of blowing, swirling and bending are entrancing.
His work is conducted in harmony with his fellow artisans who, through the curtains of vapour, aid Bernard in his “greatest teamwork creations.” For De Oude Horn is much more than a studio; it houses the secrets of a practised Dutch formula only used within The Netherlands. Today, Bernard's team of three female glassblowers are “in the know” about this unique method: an industrial-pressed glass practice shared by glass artist, Heer Jeekel (1839–1885), also from Leerdam.
Bernard is a closeted hoarder for antique encyclopedias. “Ideally encyclopedias researching historic tableware and decor between the 17th and 19th century”. A library of riveting antiquarian collections and floor-to-ceiling shelves of color pigment serve as walls for a corner office where administrative practices take place “sometimes”.
The foraged books are the ultimate references when working with liquid glass, encouraging erratic forms to emerge, similar to 17th-century French vase designs.
The unorthodox artist's other inspiration, his father, is imprinted throughout the atelier. In the makeshift office, a 1960s photo snaps Willem and his fellow workers during the studio's hay day. Another perfectly harmonious photo captures the protégée female glassblowers training under Bernard in De Oude Horn today.
Rather than colorless and clean, Bernard creates one-of-a-kind experiments. Other worlds, jungles of animals, bendy forms and edible-looking colors are the ingredients for his perfectly imperfect recipe - an unpracticed and improvised form of magic.
“Transparent glass is not for me," Bernard explains. "I am not a perfectionist. If you work with clean glass, you look too closely, assessing the bubbles. Instead, by using a variety of shades, you see the material and form in all its glory.”
The colors bleed through the historic factory building in the back of the studio. Here, archival collections and “sold” pieces sit, awaiting customers in cardboard boxes or conjuring future inspiration for pending projects.
It is here that Bernard's artistic anarchy is evidenced. Unlike the clean-cut showrooms where most customers discover the glass artists' work, it is in this raw, inherited space that Bernard's most prized pieces are illuminated. A confronting concoction of candyfloss pinks, crimson reds, marigold yellows and pastel blues saturate the space, each color manifested as anything imaginable.
Upon a shelving unit, tiny trinket lobsters (too many to count) sit beside an oversized abstract goblet crawling with mangled lizards, near a collection of wonky bottles filled to the brim with discarded glass plums await another purpose.
Elsewhere, my eye is drawn to an upside-down bottle, a flamingo-topped jewellery box, and a spikey cuckoo clock, all resting on a wedge of sponge, awaiting packaging. And, in the cobweb-coated boxes, dollops of fluorescent glass balls are stacked, disregarded “but too pretty to part with.”
Bernard Heesen's whimsical creations summon us to a place of nostalgia. His father's rebellious legacy lives on through his son's boundless glass creations - a love letter to the freedom found within the art form of glass blowing.
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For more insights into the world of glass artistry, visit De Oude Horn | Follow Bernard Heesen on Instagram @bernard_heesen
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