Many people, artists included – especially the artists – move to Bergen for its tranquil charm, fresh air, particular light and stunning beauty. True Bergenese people refer to them as ‘import’. Not severely disparagingly, but the Bergenese are a proud, hard-working people of the land who have watched with justified concern over the decades, as their village has been taken over by cosmopolitans and nouveau riche. Among the true Bergenese left, born and bred, is Eric Winder (1953), a big, grey, unshaven and balding character, who lives in a trailer in the polder and a house with his Kathleen at once and meditates. His parents were born here, as were his grand- and great-grandparents, and his great-great grandfather called for a while the oldest building still standing after the Ruin Church his home: farmhouse ‘t Sterkenhuis.
A serious and reserved, clever young man moved to the city to study chemistry. But the big adventure wasn’t adventurous enough for long. There was something inside Eric that needed out and it found inspiration in Paul Verhoeven’s provocative 1973 film Turkish Delight (Turks Fruit) starring
debutants Rutger Hauer and Monique van der Ven. In this love story written by famous Dutch author Jan Wolkers, protagonist Eric is a wild young sculptor who plays with life and indulges in the new freedoms of flower power. Our Eric found in Verhoeven’s Eric a role model. He, too, wanted to treat all convention with contempt and not give a rat’s ass about anything, and the only way, he thought, to be that way and get away with it, was to be an artist.
An aspiring Eric enrolled at Amsterdam’s splendid Rietveld art academy, was promptly accepted and started living the life. For three years he let his new-found creativity flow free, he met and mingled with the aesthetic greats and wannabes of the time and came into contact with a whole new kind of literature. The latter in the guise of Friedrich Nietsche led him astray: Ecco Homowas an “experience of enlightenment”.
The move to the University of Amsterdam’s philosophy faculty almost fed Eric’s still somewhat piously-spiritual mind too much, and he found himself writing compulsively at his desk for days and nights on end. “I tore page after page that I had filled top left to bottom right with thoughts and ideas from notepad after notepad and threw them straight into the bin that was propped up against the wall beside me, unread. I wrote not to submit to my tutors or with designs on publication, but for the act of writing itself, like in a trance. People were afraid I was going mad.”
Eric quit philosophy as quickly as he had quit chemistry and returned to the art academy to finish his course. He did.
Now what? He didn’t want to paint anymore and decided to travel, heading south to Athens on a Solex and earning cash to fund the trip by drawing portraits of people in the places he stopped along the way. “It turned out to be the freedom I had always sought after.” But he didn’t travel always, and there were plenty of longer spells in the Netherlands, where he embarked upon another adventure.
“If you’re artistic, you can go in any direction you like and I had an idea for a cabaret-comedy routine.” Adopting the stage name Sjoukje Dijkstra, Eric attracted nationwide attention by insulting the 1964 Olympic ladies’ singles figure skating gold medallist (and three-time World champion, five-time European champion and six-time Dutch national champion) and packed out just about every hall and theatre up and down the country. Audiences were
bowled over by a large, bungling delinquent wearing a silly swimming cap and American football shoulder pads, who within five minutes upended the entire set to perform the rest of the show on a chaotic mess of milk she spat out, the remains of a shattered alarm clock, toothpaste, potato starch and stinky socks for teabags.
“And I don’t even like slap-stick!”
Betty! Or rather: a Day in the Life of a Frantic Optimist (or rather, perhaps, its success) proved to be too much again. Eric suffered incredible stage fright and one way to put that to bed is half a bottle of wine before the show, the other in the intermission and maybe a joint. Always a joint. All was fine, most of the time, but on an occasion he’d lose the plot completely. Applause. Out the side door, chauffeur home for a quick bite on the corner and some more booze on the other, and up again at six to get back into the car to drive to the day’s venue. No time. Tired. Strunk. Audiences sat up, but gave him little more in return and after the show was over, there was nothing left. It had slipped away like a shadow in the wings.
Exit stage Eric.
There’s a saying in Dutch that translates literally to ‘blood creeps where it cannot go’: it’s in the blood. In this case, creativity must prevail.
Painting is more satisfying and tangible than comedy and attention turned to oil on canvas once more: oil because of its warmth and depth of colour and canvas because it’s more convenient for relatively large paintings. To raise a little capital to start another journey south, Eric participated in Bergen’s October art festival Kunst10daagse. The work he exhibited, heavily influenced by the impressionists and depicting iconic local scenes – streets, avenues, buildings, the woods, dunes and beach, but also café interiors and portraits and still lifes – found instant favour with the public and sold out in no time. Eric packed his bags and set off once again to explore more of the world.
Each year for 20 years, he returned to Bergen at least for the summer to paint and prepare for the art festival that would set him up for his next trip. But the been-there-done-that mood crept in, dulling his inspiration and numbing all sense of fulfilment and satisfaction: painting Bergen was popular with audiences and successful in that it sold, but it was not after so many years quenching his creative thirst in any way at all.
Now, at 67, Eric says he’s perfectly happy to be retired. Relieved, even, for painting had become a chore rather than a passion in which he could vent his emotions. Now, maybe things in the wild mind of Eric as a young man have calmed down enough – and are being channelled also by the soothing and sobering qualities of meditation – to be able to commit something sensible to paper. He’s unsure: maybe he’ll write, maybe he won’t.
Eric Winder, the true Bergenese, still travels around regularly, with his Kathleen, and if you happen to bump into him roaming Portugal in his campervan, which continues to double as a mobile studio and gallery, ask him if he’ll do you a quick 20 x 25 cm in return for some provocative conversation and a healthy meal. He might just be that way inclined; blood creeps where it cannot go.