I have been lucky to meet up with René Holm, a successful Danish painter. We talked about how he realized his dream. His childhood. Turning down his dad’s offer to take over the family business. Daring to take risks and leaving your comfort zone. How important it is to have the right partner in life, who supports you. How graffiti influenced his life.
We talk about why he thinks iPads and iPhones are putting a lid on kids creativity. Why he does not believe in the “Happy” and “Perfect” Danish life. We talk about the internet and the challenge comparison and living “online” poses to parenting today. We naturally also talk a lot about his art. The symbolism in it. Where he gets his inspiration from. Why he likes to paint the “darkness”. In this final part of the interview René shares a heartfelt and warm experience he had when he visited an Orphanage run by “Little Big Help” in India and how his very special gift to them ended up impacting the children. Finally René shares some valuable advice for other aspiring painters who wish to live of painting. If you want to read it from the beginning, you can find Part 1 here.
(Find links to Renés website and social media below.)
René and I are talking about how his visit to an Orphanage in India had a very big and emotional impact on him. He painted the series “Good luck” about the experience, but also ended up giving the Children of “Little Big Help Orphanage” a very special gift. The last few questions are “re posted” so you can better follow the story.
René: That is probably why, when we travel, I always bring my family to the shit hole in the town. I went to India on my own, cause my girlfriend was like: “I don’t want to go to India, it is too dirty and too poor. It is just too bad.”
Nina: And what was it like?
René: For me it was amazing! You know the smells, the crowds, the noise. It was a great experience for me. I did some volunteer work for a project called Little Big Help with a Danish girl who runs three homes in Calcutta and outside Calcutta, for homeless kids. You know I thought I would come out and get inspiration from the Kids, but they were just part of it cause it ended up being you know, the whole street life.
Nina: Did you make paintings from it?
René: Yeah, I did a series called Good Luck.
Nina: It is so cold to hear what lies behind your picture…the background. It makes the pictures tell such a different story.
René: That is also why I have somebody writing a introduction for each show and for the catalogue. The text is not about one painting, but all of them. Especially when you have kids it is a very emotional trip to go to a place like that (Orphanage in Calcutta). I think cried every day out there. Then she asked me before I came if I would paint something out there and I was like: “Sure”, but I had no idea what I was going to see or what to expect before I got out there. So the first home was for kids at the age of six or seven and up to 18. They learn to write and read English. Go properly to the bathroom and they get three meals every day and wash them selves.
Nina: So for us very basic things.
René: Yeah, very basic. And I came to the home and I was in the very VERY poor area of Calcutta. In the early 1900 century they called Calcutta Paris of Asia. Now they call it the Shithole of Asia and it is SO poor. You have more than 300.000 kids living on the street. What they do is that they beg but they also live around the main railroad station. They collect plastic bottles and when they have 10 they can sell them and get enough money to buy a tube of glue.
Nina: And they sniff the glue?
René: They sniff the glue through a cloth. So, they try to find the best kids. The kids that are not totally addicted to glue yet.
Then we came to the school and it was like a 3 stories building and on the top they had a roof top. I went up there and it was all dirty cause of the humidity. Some of the guys were playing a bit of soccer. They had a net-like-thing and all the buildings are really close to each other and the buildings around their building were taller.
Nina: So there was also no light?
René: Well, that is probably good in that area cause it is so warm. But the thing I noticed was that kids were hanging out of the windows of other buildings and looking down at those kids playing football. Like, they were just standing in the windows and they all know that these are the homeless kids and you also have those caste systems in India.
Nina: Ahh, so they are the lowest caste.
Renè: Yes, really! So I thought, we have to do like a really cool soccer stadium up here! So we cleaned up everything. Then we bought some paint and I was painting everything green and with white lines and circles and goals and the whole staircase up to the roof, too. Then I wrote “Litte Big Help Soccer Stadium”. Then we had the opening for the kids and that was just like the best evening ever. It was a great gift and I noticed that all the other kids that lived in the buildings surrounding the soccer stadium thought that this was cool. And the homeless kids noticed that, too! So they felt like “now we have something that they don’t have”.
I know this guy who sells sports clothes and equipment, so when I got home I went out to him and said: “Anders, we have to get 15 sets of gear with socks, shorts, t-shirts and print Little Big Help on them”. He said: “Sure” and then we sent it out to them and I got this photo from them where they were standing like a real soccer team.
Nina: Feeling proud, maybe for the first time?
René: Super proud. So that was a great trip even though I got sick for 11 months after that.
Nina: 11 months! Wow.
René: Yeah, I really went to India and got something we can all have for a few days, but this just lasted longer.
Nina: So a bacteria?
Nina: But a beautiful story!
René: Yeah, it was a very good experience.
Nina: It puts things into perspective and I like that you take your kids and show them the more dirty and dark sides of life. Hopefully, that makes you appreciate what you have got more.
René: Well, you forget it very fast and you get back to your normal life right away. But I remember the first two weeks after my trip to India, my kids should not argue in the kitchen over who took the last piece of bread or why their iPad is not charged. I would say something like: “You are REALLY lucky and there is plenty of food. Maybe not what you wish for right now, but then there is something else you can eat or drink”. So, yes it would definitely be a good experience for all kids to see a place like that.
Nina: Yes. So once more getting back to our topic “darkness”, you have to see the dark to appreciate the light.
René: For sure, but you should not go around every day and say: “I am so lucky I am alive and I should appreciate this and that”. But once in a while it is good to…..(René pauses)
Nina: Move out of your comfort zone?
René: Yeah, and you know see things that make you think about that you are lucky. That you are lucky that you can try to live your dream, which other people cannot! They don’t even have the chance to even try to be a musician or an artist. Even though you will struggle, you will still have a place to live and probably still be able to get food every day.
Nina: And medical help if you need it.
René: For some people in big parts of the world like in India or Africa, they would never ever have the chance.
Nina: Yes, we are lucky. We are born under a shining star although many of us fail to see it. We get lost in the small problems of “the little mind”.
René: Yeah, maybe cause we look at people who have something that we don’t have. A bigger apartment, a bigger boat and that brings us back to what we already talked about: Comparison! You will always see someone who has more money, longer legs, bigger boobs, bigger boats, a more crazy life. My kids are watching a young Swedish couple right now on Youtube. It just seems like every day is amazing.
Nina: And then they dream of having a bit of that too or?
René: Well they compare. They are sailing, skiing, on a rooftop. Well this is maybe possible for a few years and you have to remember that they are actually filming everything.
Nina: Yes, you have another lifestyle, but everything is public.
Nina: Well, let me just see…I think we covered everything I wanted to talk to you about today….Oh wait, there is one more question: Do you have some advice for other artists that aspire to live of painting like yourself? Maybe one piece of advice you wish you had received back then?
René: Ha! That is a good question. Well, it is definitely important to do what you want. If we talk about painting, then paint what you want. Don’t make art that other people want. Don’t make art just to please people. I would never do that. I know that my art pleases a lot of people, but as we talked about with the “Darkness” and “Strangers” series, you know that was definitely a series I did not do to please people.
I also think all artists show their work at places, which they might regret later if they get success. But that is something you could not know. That is like musicians who would play at a crappy venue just for the money.
Nina: Maybe like a wedding singer or something similar…but not the bigger stages haha.
René: And then of course it could be good to have a mentor from the very beginning. Well, there are definitely some things I wish that I had not done. But I had no one who could explain this to me or support me, since my parents are not into art. So in that sense I could not ask them about anything, cause they would just say anything is fine. Lets say that one of my kids would turn out to be an artist, you know I could definitely be a good mentor for them. Not regarding what they should do, but more what they should not do.
Nina: But although you say that there are things you should not do, you are here today and you have success.
René: Yeah, sure.
Nina: So even though we face challenges and may regret things, it is all part of the road to where you are now, right?
René: Yeah it is and you also have to accept that of course. Hmmm, but there is just some things in the art business that are….well, you know if you make a wrong step, you would never be invited to the real elite.
Nina: You mean in terms of art galleries?
Nina: So, as a painter you have to be a bit careful about where you exhibit things.
Nina: This is interesting. That is definitely a good point if this characterizes the art business.
René: I would say don’t look at the space, but who you want to exhibit with. That would be my best advice. Instead of saying yes to an amazing space that shows “shit art”. There are really some bad galleries around haha!
Nina: So do your research basically. Don’t judge a book by the cover but go a bit further.
René: Yeah, and maybe don’t focus on economy as you make your decisions. It is easy for me to say, especially if you are in that moment where you really need the money and someone says: “well we can sell your stuff here” and you go…hmmm, this is really a shitty place…but…
Nina: Then your advice would be “don’t do it”.
Nina: Then find another way to make money until you find the right gallery to show your art?
René: Yeah, because there are some artists around, where you cannot point fingers at anything they have done. Even thought they were living in a shit hole, they were so honest towards their art and they were not taking any assignment that would take them away from the road they were trying to walk.
Nina: So be true to your gut feeling, when it comes to your art.
René: Yeah, cause when you succeed, no matter what you do in life, be it political or something else, people will “dig in your past”. Maybe not for an artist like me, but you can see just how much you found about me on the net. You know if you really spend time on it you can find newspaper articles that are 15 years old or more. Things I am not proud of. But as you say, it is part of my very long story.
Nina: But I guess that the most important thing in it all is that you can stand by your choices. So even if some people ask you why you made certain choices later on, then at least you can say you did what you felt was right at the time and that you felt it was good. I think it is more tricky when you go against that gut-feeling. Then you have to live with the: “oh, I knew I should not have done it, so WHY did I do it” feeling.
René: I did not know cause I had no one to tell me about it.
Nina: Thank you so much for your time René! It has been a very inspiring talk.
René: Thank you for having me and letting me talk.
Nina: And good luck with your next work! We will be following you closely.
René: Thank you.
If you want to find out more about René Holm here are links to his website and social media:
Coming exhibitions with René Holm in 2018:
Code Art Fair (DK) at Galeri Benoni (30th of Aug – 2nd of Sept), Esbjerg Gymnasium (DK) presenting new work in glass and neon made for the school (Aug), Kühlhaus Berlin (DE) group exhibition during Berlin Art Week with Kurator Uwe Goldstein (Sept), Museum Frello (DK) Group Exhibition (Sept), Hygum Kunstmuseum (DK) group exhibition (Sept) Galeri Benoni (DK) Solo exhibition (Nov).
Smiles from me in Berlin to you, where ever you are!
Pssssst……!! If you enjoyed reading this interview, I am sure you will like my interview with Boney M singer Marcia Barrett about how her life before, during and after Boney M. You can fint it right here.