It is 11.00 and I am in Berlin Friedrichshain to meet the famous Danish painter René Holm, who has a studio both here in Berlin and one in Denmark. René greets me with his black hat, black T-shirt and black shorts. He opens the door to a super cool flat in a building that used to house a factory. The flat has high ceilings, is stylish, minimalistic and done with class. It is full of amazing art pieces, both René’s work and the work of others.
The first room we step into is his studio and I feel a thrill of excitement. I had not expected to get s sneak peak into his work in progress. This magic space where creativity flows and turns into art pieces manifested on a canvas. “Wow, can I take a look?” I ask. “Yes, sure” René replies and adds that he often has clients who come to see his unfinished work and some even buy it before it is done. “I work on several pieces at once and move around between them. Last night I worked on this one and painted the wire a bit longer” he says and points to a large picture on the wall of a girl by a lake (see below). We talk about his art for a while before he makes me a cuppa tea and we sit down to start the interview.
Nina: Who are you René Holm?
René: Well first of all I am a Danish artist who is very curious about telling stories through my work. I am a painter, which is easy to see if you see my work. I love all the different layers, the different techniques in paintings…ehm, cause painters they work in very different ways. You can see painters that almost don’t have any layers. If you see my work, you can really see that I am a painter.
So to come back to your question: I am a painter and I want to tell stories to the viewers and that is probably why I find it interesting to work with people who struggle most in their lives. Not that it is something that I do personally. Well I do have some concerns and thoughts about my work all the time of course, but mostly for me it is interesting to visit people that we hear about in the news or we see on the streets. Then you know, you have thoughts about them and our kids have thoughts about them and we talk about it in our family. So for me it is important once in a while to meet those people.
Now I want to meet the refugees. I want to meet the homeless people. All those that I don’t meet in my daily life. So, it is kind of like a research in the beginning. Almost like somebody who travels around and tells stories to a newspaper. I keep all those experiences for myself. You know, we can Google everything but to see the people and to maybe feel their pain, smell the smell of a homeless, hear their stories, you know in the street. It is something else than if you google everything. So I come home with all those experiences, feelings and I always bring my camera.
Nina: When you go out?
René: Yes, so I can take pictures of people. And then I come home after a trip to somewhere and I have many pictures of somewhere or of a group of people. Then it takes me a while to figure out why this is interesting. Why is this interesting for the viewer. How can I take those people into my work and put them in a new or different environment and through that tell stories to the viewer. Cause for me it is important as an artist and if I see art, that the artwork can have a dialogue with the viewer. So if it is hanging in your home or in a company and 4-5 or 10 people are standing in front of it then maybe they can have a good discussion. It is not about if they want the work in their living room, but mostly if it can give a good discussion about ”no I think he is looking for that or searching for that”.
Quite often I have people who write me long emails about that they have seen my work. I don’t know them and they write me very honest stories about how that painting reminded them about a certain thing in their life. And that is a big thing for me, that they actually take time to do that. It is just a good feeling that my work actually does something for somebody. That keeps me going into the studio every day.
So first of all, when I go into the studio it is not for the…. (René pauses)…of course I want to sell it, cause I need to sell my art, cause I have tons of expenses. But it is never with that option or that point of view when I start to do a series of work. Cause after almost 20 years of course I know which paintings are easier to sell than other paintings. And especially with my new and very dark series of paintings I know that they are harder to sell because they are so dark. Most people want to have bright paintings in their room and also because of what they tell.
Nina: Why do you think so may of us don’t like dark paintings in our homes? We talked a bit about this when I arrived today, before we started the interview, and you said ”actually life is both light and dark”. We have the night that is dark and it can be beautiful biking home in the dark. But we automatically associate the darkness with something negative. Do you think that could be a reason why many of us refrain from having a darker pictures?
René: I am sure that is one of the reasons. It is because the darkness is a mental thing and a physical thing. And for me the darkness is really beautiful when I ride my bike through the city or a park at night, you know to take a piss with my dog late at night. I often stand in the street and I am almost the only one there and you see the light from the light poles or the stars or the moon or whatever. Then you have the mental part, which will strike every human in life and we will all loose somebody close to us eventually.
I have friends who have been in a dark period. It can be from a divorce, it can be from work, stress or whatever and then we all need to find our way back to life. And that is why all the paintings have small light points.
So either they are holding a light to kind of guide them through life, or they are searching for the light on the other side. And it can be the beauty there that they are looking for, but it can also be you know, to come back to life.
Now you ask me why people don’t want to have dark paintings mostly, and I think some people they can see the beauty in them, but a lot of people…I think they are kind of afraid to have them. Not only to look at, but also because it can send a wrong signal to their friends or family you know. Why do you have something so dark?
Nina: ”What are you hiding from us…haha”
René: Yeah, and especially as a Dane, you know we need to be so positive. We are that most……..
Nina: Most happy nation, right?
René: I don’t know where it comes from haha…. (we both laugh)
Nina: Yeah, I also asked myself that a few times…(note to reader: I Nina, grew up in Denmark, too)
René: So I think sometimes, especially as I know Danes, you know we have to be so positive, we have to live so amazing. What we have on our walls should be like ”happy clowns” or whatever. I do know a lot of people who have dark paintings with dark themes, but that is because I do what I do. I know a lot of people who collect art, but that is 2-3% of the population in Denmark who really collect art and also see the beauty in something dark or a dramatic photo with blood.
Nina: Yes and to get through life you cannot avoid the darkness. But if you constantly avoid it because it is uncomfortable, for me at least, there is something you are trying to escape from right? If you dare to look at it and feel what it really provokes inside you, then you can also let it go. But if you always try and hide it away, it just will stay inside you. Then every time you see something dark it will feel uncomfortable until you get past this and can just see it for what it is.
Nina: I must admit I can feel like the people you describe as being uncomfortable with the dark pictures. But, at the same time it also makes me curious cause I am always searching for why I feel the way I do, so I get curious to find out, why does it make me uncomfortable.
René: Yes, some of the works that are dark and have this dark feeling or atmosphere show that there is something happening which is not part of the perfect life. Some people will see them (the paintings) but they don’t comment them cause you know, this is too dark.
Sometimes I wish that we could have some of the way of living like they have in South America, cause they really almost celebrate darkness and death in another way. And they strongly believe that there is something after death, like in other religions in the far east. So for them darkness is not something negative. And as you said it is almost something that you don’t talk about. And you know in my family, as my parents and my mother in law …. (René pauses for a while)….hvad fa’en hedder svigerforældre (that was Danish and means: what the f…. do you call in-laws)?
René: In-laws… hahaha….It’s like…we don’t talk about not feeling good. Really not at all in our family. It is something you just swallow. And I don’t know any families that don’t have any issues. Really!
Nina: No, the perfect family does not really exist although we all try to create it.
René: Well, I know some where they really really want to show that their family is super perfect. Their kids are like super kids and I don’t fucking believe it!
Nina: Yeah and the thing is also what is the cost. What is the price you pay to try and create this perfect family.
René: That is a lot of stomach pain. When something goes wrong in a family like that, which I have seen….that all of a sudden the son or the daughter does something or the husband might come out and say: “well I have seen this other woman for five years “ or whatever…then everything just brakes totally down. Then you can really talk about darkness and finding your way back. And I often hear…and that really makes me mad…the “what would other people think” phrase.
Nina: Yes, but that is the general problem right, of people living lives they create to be accepted by the outside world.
René: And that is really bullshit! You know when people say: “what would other people think if we do so, or if I get tattoos or if I get whatever”. I am like, if you want to do it, then do it! What does it matter?
Nina: Yes, and would people really care about what YOU do in the end? Maybe they would talk about it for a few minutes and then that’s it. We always think everyone else it so occupied with that we do, but actually they are not.
René: No no.
Nina: It is all in our heads. And we are so afraid of falling outside the norm and not being accepted. And if you are like this, you can keep being like that for the rest of your life.
René: I think some people they really…if people do something different…think: “ why didn’t we do that too? You know I am working from 07.00 – 18.00 and I am doing whatever…”
Nina: Maybe just to make money…
René: It IS to make money to have the perfect outside life. And especially with all the media now, we show our perfect life. If you are on holiday it is almost like: “Don’t touch your food and put the expensive wine bottle in front of the camera” so that everyone can see how great our vacation is.
Nina: When you walk down the street and you see people at the restaurants, many of them are not even talking together, cause they are busy posting pictures of their food on social media. And does it really make you feel better when you get 10 or 20 likes? Why is it we do this? Is it to get acceptance?
René: Some people do it to tell their story and some people do it to be part of the great world, or be famous, or get accepted. I am that old that I grew up before the smart phone… haha….good for me, but as a dad of two kids… (René pauses…)
Nina: How old are your kids?
René: 21 and 16.
Nina: And the 21 year-old is your son and the 16 year-old is your daughter.
René: Yes, and for my daughter it is definitely more important to show the perfect pictures on instagram. They both don’t use facebook. Or almost not at all.
Nina: So the younger generation is more on instagram and snapchat?
René: Totally. Facebook is almost done for them. They probably go through it to see who’s birthday it is today, just to say happy birthday.
Nina: Why do you think it is like that? That it is different how your daughter and your son are on social media? Are girls more into what other people think of them? (….to be continued)
René: In general I think they are. You know as a dad to both a boy and a girl, I knew that there would be more, you know what I call small problems in my daughters world, which in her world are like huge problems, then there would be with having a son. It is not that I love my son more than I love my daughter, but I just knew. You know once I was a teenager and when boys have issues they either hit each other on the shoulders or say “ok, fuck you”… and lets go play some soccer again.
With girls, they are just more mean to each other. I always told my daughter that when she gets a boyfriend, and now she has a boyfriend, since we all have cameras and I can see that people post you know pictures of them selves in bed and in underwear etc.
Nina: From the age of your daughter?
René: Yeah, they start around 14 or 15…and you know I told her this years ago, cause I know people take more nude pictures of each other. I just said to her: “don’t take any sexy photos of yourself and send to your boyfriend. If you get some, then delete them!”. Cause if you really want to hurt somebody when you brake up and you really hate the other person, then having almost a nude photo of somebody, being in that place of pain and even though you know it is wrong, but you just want to hurt that person, then you post it.
Nina: And then there is no way back. Then it is out there!
René: Yeah it is.
Nina: Yeah, this is a big issue in Denmark. I remember reading about a case with kids that posted pornographic content and it is as if they don’t understand what happens in the “real world” when you do something like that. Maybe because so much of their life is in the online world. It is a bit like you are somewhat disconnected from what is happening outside you in the physical world. You have two worlds now, online and offline. Online is something you can create and you can make a fake lifestyle.
René: Yeah really. You can fake your face…haha.
Nina: Yes, and then you build this life that you would like to live, but the more you build it, the more distant it becomes from the real life. Then you just have this huge gap, which is emptiness. I think this is why we see so many young people with big personal problems, cause you are constantly in a state of comparison. Everything is posted online, so you can also compare everything. I really wish for young people they would detox from the online world and try and live without internet for a while. Be in nature or do something else and tune back into who they REALLY are and feel that it is about them and not everyone else.
René: It is a lot about being perfect. Have the perfect legs, but, boobs, face, lips, you know. And I try to say everyday that: “No one IS perfect. I can see that one of the girls you follow on istagram or a friend has longer legs than you, but then she doesn’t have you know…this or that that which you have,” I tell my daughter.
Nina: We also don’t post our imperfections right. Girls might be beautiful, but maybe extremely stupid or you know…
René: There is a funny woman on instagram or facebook (note: her name is Celeste Barber) and what she does is that she finds those really perfect women laying on the beach or by the pool in a perfect pose. Then this woman does the pose in her environment. And you know it is so cool! She really shows how we look.
Nina: She is also not the model-type of woman, but more the “housewife-type”
René: She’s got a tummy and morning hair.
Nina: I think she is Australian and she is hilarious! So, now we have talked about your values when it comes to bringing up your kids. I guess you would like them to be more true to who they are and not focus so much on perfection and the outer world.
René: You can try you know, but I don’t know if you succeed.
Nina: How would you describe your own childhood if you look back?
René: Well it was not about you know, being perfect. I think you always want to look as good as you can, when you get to a certain age and begin getting interested in girls. That is how it was for me at least. Me and my friend would go shopping, cause fashion was a big thing for us. But there was not all this posting thing going on. We could only try to make our hair as cool as possible with gel and all that…
Nina: And impress the girls at a party!
René: Yeah, you know…maybe by being a good dancer. But for me, it was definitely a childhood without a lot of concerns. I grew up with my parents and my brother and we lived very close to the forest, until I moved out from childhood home. I would say from the age of 6-8 years until 12 or 13, I remember that almost everyday when I came home from school with some friends, we would drop our school bags, put our knives in our belts and go into the forest and then we made arrows, bows and spears and shelters. I had a dog around me all the time. We kind of thought we were this Robbin Hood gang living in the forest.
Nina: You were also creating things.
René: Yeah, and we came home smelling of dirt. We heard there were other gangs in the same city doing stuff in the forest. Then we went out to try and find their little camp…haha.. and if they were not in their camps, then maybe we could steal their spears and bows and that was really cool!
Nina: I don’t think a lot of 13 year-old boys do that today? It is probably more computer games.
René: Yeah and I could also sit for hours drawing all by myself. Today I have friends with small kids and when I come and visit them, I never see 2 or 4 kids sitting at a table with tons of paper, crayons and markers and just drawing for hours. You know, today they are sitting with their phones or iPads doing like this…(scrolling) with their fingers up and down. And you know I think about it almost every time I see it.
I think you can be creative and I know the world is changing from people hacking into a stone, to drawing and that is fair enough. But, I think you will loose young kids who actually are creative if the parents don’t spot it at a very early age and you know get into a small art class after school. But I do think you loose some talent. It is also very easy, cause you get home (as a parent) and you are very tired and you just give them an iPad with a movie.
Nina: It is the “quick fix”, but maybe long-term it is actually a very bad fix.
René: School also did not mean a lot for me! Haha….
Nina: So you were not that enthusiastic about school?
René: I was in school every day and I did my homework, but you know I would rather be in the forest or come home and draw. When I turned around 15 or 16 years-old the whole hip-hop / graffiti wave from America and New York rolled in over Europe like a Tsunami. With all the album covers with trains with graffiti on. With the Wild Style movie that came out in the early 1980s as the first movie where all the photographers followed all the graffiti painters into the tubes in New York. And I was doing hip hop and break dance with my white gloves….
Nina: You were into break dance? You are a dancer too then…Haha!
René: Yeah! I love to dance (we both laugh). So you know that whole thing really just hit me like I don’t know… maybe like what young women might have felt when they first saw Elvis moving his hips in his leather pants.
Nina: You were sold!
René: I was totally sold. And there were just two books you could get. First one came out with graffiti from New York. Because you know back then we could not Google everything!
Nina: No of course. You had to get physical books. And you had to go to the library?
René: Yeah, and there was one book and one movie. And then all the album covers came with graffiti on. So I was sitting in front of the Tv with the old VHS tapes and I would put the video recorder on pause, to see trains with graffiti on. Then I was sitting in front of the tv and drawing to learn how to do graffiti.
Nina: Wow, this IS a whole other process than today where we can just google everything.
René: I think my son Oliver was around 10 when we took like 4 hours on the internet and I gave him the whole story of graffiti from TAKI 183, who was like one of the first to do tags in NYC in the late 70s and the whole story up until today. And then after you have been looking at what other graffiti painters would do, then you start to create your own style.
Nina: So your first passion was actually graffiti and tagging?
Nina: So that is how it started. Was this when you realized you would like to do something along those lines for a living? I mean, you live of painting today, but when did you find out you wanted to be a painter?
René: Oh, it was definitely not when I was doing graffiti, cause that was something really cool and it was a rush you know, to crawl out of the window when your parents were sleeping. It was really a big thing! We would sit and make drawings and listen to hip hop. I don’t remember I thought I was gonna be an artist. Maybe I thought back then it would be cool to do graffiti for the rest of my life. Then you get older and you get a job and then you maybe get your first apartment and you need to be somewhere every morning at 08.00. You begin to realize that maybe you are getting to old for this graffiti shit…haha! You know, I still thought it was cool and during the winter I would teach kids at a school how to do graffiti.
Nina: So you taught Kids graffiti skills.
René: Yup, hired by my city. I thought this was pretty weird you know, hiring me to teach kids how to do graffiti….so that they then can go out and do graffiti.
Nina: Yeah, then they need to train some people in removing it after…haha…
René: Haha…yeah! So I think 10 years after I stopped doing graffiti, I bought a canvas. I actually don’t know what made me do it. Maybe cause I had some regular jobs and I thought: “this is kind of boring” and I did it just to make some money. I always liked to do something with my hands and that was to draw or do graffiti.
Nina: Or building things in the forest…
René: Yeah. And then I thought I could try to do paintings. You know, I am not from a home with art. We had something on our walls but we did not talk about art. We didn’t go to galleries. I don’t think that my parents ever took me to a museum …haha! Then I began to paint and my friends would say: “can we buy that?”. And I would say: “sure”….and they would ask: “and how much is it?” and I would think, well what are my expenses for the canvas and a few hours work. You know….give me €100 or whatever.
Nina: And that is how it started?
René: That is how it started. Then I did some more and I went to a place to get them framed and this guy said: “Have you ever thought about exhibiting them?” and I am like: “how do I do that?” and then came my first exhibition.
Nina: When was that?
René: Ohhh…(René thinks for a while and says)…that is probably back in 1986 or 1987.
Nina: And then it just took off from there and today you exhibit all around the world?
René: Many places yeah. And you know I am not the kind of guy that is afraid of taking a chance. I actually had a job. I was selling clothing.
Nina: But you also mentioned you liked fashion.
René: Yeah yeah. It was an interest, but if I had made a choice to be in fashion I would have probably been the one on the designer part rather than the selling part.
Nina: Maybe that is due to the need to have an outlet for your creativity, cause it is such a big part of you.
René: Yeah, and you know I had a good job, a nice car, and they paid my expenses. I had a free phone and was traveling and making good money. But, I could just feel that the more I was painting, I knew I would have to do it 100% to see if I am really good at this.
Nina: Wow, so you just quit your job?
René: I quit my job and back then our son Oliver was 2 years and 3 months old. My girlfriend also quit her job. She was selling insurances. We sold out little house. Our first house. We packed everything down. Then we bought 17 open airplane tickets, which we should use in a year. Then we bought one ticket to Bangkok. We did not go to Google earth and we did not book a room. We had not planned our next flight.
Nina: Wow, and this was with a little son of 2.
René: Yeah, so he had his little red suitcase that any kid had at that time and he was allowed to pack what he could fit into that, from his room full of “made in China” toys. That was all that he could bring. Then we traveled for 10 months and had an amazing trip. That was really an eye opener to what I was planning to come home with. We were traveling around using our savings. We made some money on the house we sold and we knew we were coming back within a year. We had some money left over for when we came back, so we could start on a fresh.
Nina: This is so important in my opinion, when you want to start something. One thing is to quit your job and say I am gonna try out my dream, but you still had some money saved up as a back-up. When I first wanted to do music, I also quit my job on a whim, and I did not have a backup of savings. So, I quickly began to freak out about where the money was gonna come from and this completely blocked my creative process. So for me that was the disastrous way, where as the way you did, well at least you did not have the same financial worry.
René: Well it was not a big concern, but still it was there for it was not millions we had at all. We knew that when we came home from our trip, we had to start on a fresh in a new home and my girlfriend needs to get a new job.
Nina: And you were gonna focus on your painting?
René: And I was starting on the academy of Art for five years with no income! So it was not like our economy was of no concern, cause I was going from a good salary to zero.
Nina: So your girlfriend became the breadwinner at that time?
René: Yes, cause she got her old job back. We talked about this earlier, that a lot of people might have thought: “why don’t we do that” when they saw what we did, but they were not brave enough to do it.
Nina: Yes it is most likely the fear of not being able to control the situation, while jumping into the unknown.
René: Yes and the thought about “what will happen when we come back”.
Nina: You know, I think it is cause we are so wired for the negative side effects that could happen when you do something new. The focus is most often on what can go wrong and not what you can achieve and people go: “did you think about the consequences”? But just think about what you CAN achieve by changing your lifestyle and trying something new.
René: Of course there were some concerns from our parents. I was quitting a good job.
Nina: And being the farther of a very little one, too.
René: The place where I worked offered me to be partner of the company and actually to take it over within an amount of time.
Nina: And you said no?
René: I said no.
Nina: This also shows how much you really want to realize your dream of painting and that you have to be prepared to take risks.
René: Yes, and you only live once! All our friends thought it was great what we did.
Nina: So what would you then say if one of your kids came home and said: “Dad, I want to be a painter”.
René: “Good luck. Give it all you got and if it doesn’t work out, you can do something else. If you have this dream or if you think you have a talent in something creative, be it writing, singing or painting or all the other art forms, then you should give it a try. And then say to yourself: “I am gonna give it a try 100% for say…five years”. If everyday is a struggle about how to get get food and pay the bills, then after five years you must accept that now you can only do it part-time.
Nina: So then it is time to get a job and an income and do your art on the side.
René: And maybe that will succeed. You don’t know, but you should give it a shot.
Nina: Yes, cause if you are so creative as a person and you don’t use this talent, it is such a waste! I mean, one thing is if you can live of it or not, but if you completely shut it down to have say a full-time job, I do believe you shut down such a huge part of yourself at the same time, that you will very rarely feel complete happiness. You are not using a big part of yourself and what you need to express. So instead of “either or” maybe it just has to be a mix for a while.
René: Yes, and when I was going to the Academy, we also had other types of vacations. It was not from here to luxury in Jamaica. It was not that we were less happy or did not go out that much. You know, then you find the free concerts in the parks and whatever. You’ll get through it if it is a 3-5 year period. Life is long.
Nina: And another important point is also that you had a partner who supported you in realizing your dream.
René: Oh yes, from the beginning.
Nina: Yes, so when you go out and find a partner you wish to share your life with, it should also be a person who is as risk-taking as you? Or willing to take risks with you.
René: Yes! And I would do the same you know. If my girlfriend wants to quit her job one day to start a small bakery or something else.
Nina: Yes and maybe even more cause you really know the value of doing what you love.
René: Yes, and because I see friends who live in great houses, with nice cars in the driveway and they are not all happy. They are just waiting to get retired.
Nina: So they can begin to enjoy life?
Nina: And hopefully then also with a good health, cause we don’t know how many years we’ve got!
René: You never know. Even though we do get older and older. And you know it is not that it is easier to sit here after I have succeeded. I would do it anyway. My dad had 5 or 6 stores where he sold radios and tv’s.
Nina: So an entrepreneur.
René: Yeah, he called himself an old-fashioned Kaufman.
I knew that the day would come, where he would call my brother and me to the dining table to offer us a part in the firm. I worked there after school since I was 16. But now it was really to become part of the company and eventually take it over. I knew I would say no, when he would ask.
The day came and we were sitting down and I knew exactly what was about to happen. He would introduce the idea and say that he had talked to the lawyers and all that about how we could get into the firm and take it over within five to ten years or whatever. And I was just so clear after he was done with his “speech” and I had to say: “thank you, but it is a no-thanks”.
Nina: How did he react to that?
René: Hmmmm, well probably you could see that there was disappointment in his eyes, but today he is SO pleased that I did not do it, because the competition in that business really exploded after five years.
Nina: And that would have been around the same time as you were to take it over.
René: Really! Not that I knew back then, but I have other friends who took over parents’ firms and I can just see that it is an issue. Even though the parents are now over 70, and some almost 80. They are still part of the firm although they have retired, cause the firm is like their kid. You will always be concerned about your kids, no matter how old you get. You know my mother will still say: “Drive safely” if I am driving to Berlin. When we go skiing, she will say: “Don’t go off-piste” and all that. I am like: “Mum, I am not 16!” haha….
Maybe they (the companies) have a hard time after some years and their parents have to invest money into the company again, because it will always be their company. Then they have some disagreements about how to run it. You know, I am SO happy that I did not do it. No matter what, even if I could have made tons of money and have had a company car back then, and I was only 20.
Nina: This was also very brave, to dare to say “no”, cause so many of us are afraid of disappointing our parents.
René: Yeah, most would probably say “yes” just to make their parents happy.
Nina: Exactly. Earlier we also talked a bit about when you have to choose which education to take as a young teenager, most of us don’t even know what we want to be. Today the young people have to make big decisions about their future early on and how can they possibly know what is the right thing for them, when many of them have not even tried what is “out there”. Or, don’t even know what their passion is, cause they have not had a proper chance to discover and develop it. It I such a pressure, and I really feel for all these kids and youngsters, who have to make these decisions and also in such a stressful environment.
René: Yes, and so early! That is what I can see with my kids. They are asked in school: “if you go to college, what direction do you want to go? What do you want to do after school?” “Well I don’t know! I have no idea” “Well, what do you like?” “I like this and that”….
I always tell my kids and I probably did so more than 200 times: “you have to make a choice in school or college about which direction to go in. This not necessarily what you want to do in five or ten years from now”. And then I say: “Look at all our friends and all the homes that we come in. This guy is a banker, this guy is buying and selling properties, this guy is living in Spain and doing that and that… What they are doing today was not what they were doing 30 years ago. It was not part of their plan. This guy who is building and selling properties used to be a lawyer. This other guy was in his dad’s company and got stress and now he is doing whatever.
Nina: So the choice you make is not a final one. Life is all about change.
René: And you know, I am a good example too…haha. So me and my girlfriend…cause we are not married but we are still parents, we never talk about you HAVE to do this or HAVE to do that. Well, you have to go to school every day and do your best at school, but we don’t expect you to come home with top grades. Just do your best. Do your homework. Be prepared when you go to school. And then life will work itself out.
Nina: They are definitely lucky to have such open-minded parents like you and your girlfriend seem to be. The support from home is so important.
René: Yeah, cause I have examples. Most of our friends are the same age as us and so are our kids, plus minus five years. I know kids, who are almost afraid of coming home with a B and not an A+ and you know the parents expect that they get A+.
Nina: Wow, that is quite a pressure to put on your kids.
René: And I think it is really stupid and I don’t think anything good comes out of that.
Nina: No. Of course it is nice that you teach them that they have to do something to achieve things in life. If you don’t get the best grade it does not matter, as long as you did your best.
René: Exactly! That is all you can do.
Nina: In general, you cannot be the best at everything in life, so why expect you to be that in all subjects in school?
Rene’: Yes, and don’t put yourself under too much pressure when you are young, cause it will definitely come later, when you are grown up anyway.
Nina: These are some very important topics we are touching upon, although they are not directly related to your art.
René: No, but you know, every day life is part of my work. I get my inspiration from every day life.
Nina: So, what are you working on right now?
René: Right now I am working on paintings for an exhibition in Copenhagen. The good thing about this gallery is that it is not huge, so I don’t have to do like 15 paintings.
Nina: This of course helps…
René: That helps a lot…haha. So I could come with three very large paintings and actually take up the whole space. Or I could do 20 small paintings or five midsize.
Nina: Where in Copenhagen is this?
René: It is Gallery Benoni in downtown Copenhagen.
Nina: And that is in November?
René: Yes, November.
Nina: But all this information people can find on your website, which I link to at the end of this blog.
René: The same gallery will also show three of my Darkness paintings from my recent museum show in Szczecin in Poland.
Nina: Which I have been very lucky to see as they are right here now in your flat in Berlin.
René: Yes they are. They have been around those paintings. They came from my studio in Denmark to Szczecin in Poland and then I had the chance to show them here in Berlin for a five day show. Then I was wondering if I should do that or not, cause it is a lot of transport and packing, but I decided to do it. Now half of them are being delivered in Copenhagen today.
Nina: And hopefully they will end up in a home somewhere?
René: Well, one of them will be delivered to a private home today. A new and amazing penthouse flat, at the harbor in Copenhagen. Another two of them are reserved, so the customers are coming on Saturday to see them at Gallery Benoni in Copenhagen. I am excited to hear what happens. This is what happens every time I do a series of paintings. I have been so lucky that I sold a few of the paintings before I actually show them.
Nina: So people buy them before they have seen them?
René: No no, they are allowed to come to the studio to see them and then they say: “can we buy that one”…”can we have it now” and I am like: “No, you can have it in 10 months”.
Nina: So after the exhibitions?
René: Yes, so the one that is being delivered today they saw in August last year I think.
Nina: So they have been patiently waiting. “Don’t put sticky fingers on it in the gallery please!”
René: Haha…I have tried many times that people want to buy something that I have in the studio before it is publicly shown. I had a guy who waited for 4 years cause I was doing a paper show from clippings from all the free magazines you could get from around the world, with art and fashion. I always collect them every time I travel. Sometimes I could find a picture of something. Then 4 years ago I was reading in my magazines again cause I have stacks of them in my studio. Then I saw this great picture. It could be a model standing in a great environment. And I was like: “hmm it could be funny to paint on top of the page from the magazine”. So I ripped it out and I painted on top of the person. I thought: “this could do something”, cause the painting on top of the photo was kind of weird and mysterious. Then I put it aside and over the next 4 years I did one hundred.
There was one guy who came to see me in the studio and he was like: “So what is this?” and said: “Well it is a project and I don’t know where I will show it and I don’t know when.”. Then he answered: “Oh, can I see them?”…. “Yeah. Sure” I said, and then he picked out four he wanted to buy. I called him up like 3 ½ years later and said: “Do you still want them? I see your name on the back of them”. He said: “Oh, you are finally done?”
You see for me they had to be part of the show. I could have easily taken them out. Nobody would miss them at the show cause there were so many.
Nina: But you knew that they were a part of a bigger “picture”.
René: Yeah and it is like with the Darkness painting. I could also just have given them the painting back in August last year, but for me it would be missing in the series. You also don’t just rip out pages from a book. My pictures work together and they talk together and they are about the same theme. But I also know that when it is done they will be split.
Nina: Your little family will be split up and sent around the world.
René: Yeah, but that is fine, cause then they will get their own life in a new environment. They have to be strong on their own.
Nina: It is exactly like raising kids!
René: It is.
Nina: A very beautiful way of describing parenthood.
René: Yeah you know your parents are not always around. It is like sending your kids to school for the first time. The first time they walk to school you are like: “Please do as we practiced the last three months”, you know. And the first time they have to ride their bike to school, that is not the day you want to hear the sirens five minutes later…haha.
Nina: This is all about letting go. It is a big topic both in parenting and in art. You have to be able to let go of your art and then comes the question…when is it finished and ready to be shown.
René: I think all artists, be it writers, musicians, dancers or painters can keep on adding something to their work. But there probably comes a certain time where you have to come up with say a new album. You know you have a deal with a record label. Or if you have to paint paintings for a show. I know the date for my next show. Of course I can call up and say: “ You know, it is all fucked up and I can’t do anything”. But I will produce something for the show. I would rather come with four paintings than 10 paintings where six of them are not ready. So you know, the more success you get, the quicker you have to decide when something is done.
Nina: Cause you have more demand?
René: Yeah, and you have less time.
Nina: But, what about you? Now you have a name, but what about performance pressure? How do you deal with expectations from people who know you deliver a certain quality and type of work? How is it for you to exhibit your “darlings”? Is there a bit of fear even though you have done this so many times?
René: Fear not. But you are always a little bit nervous, cause when you take them out of your studio, then you say it is done. It is almost like a naked feeling. You cannot “take them back” once they are “out there” and say: “this is not done, I am taking it back to the studio”.
I remember the first time I had my really big solo exhibition in Denmark. I sold everything…they say… within 35mins.
Nina: Your first solo exhibition and you sell everything so fast. That is quite something.
René: I had shown at a few fairs and I had been part of some group exhibitions and I could see that the interest was really coming over a year. Then I had the solo show and my girlfriend was also there and people were coming up to her asking her: “what can we buy?”. I never experienced anything like it before and it will only happen a few times in an artist’s life. Then there was a great article on the news, like a whole page, and it ended with the words along these lines: “I am really looking forward to see what he is doing next time”. I am like: “doing next time?”…. Well I could copy the ones I just did, but this was the first time I really felt…oh, there is a next time.
Nina: Yes, and there is an expectation now!
René: Yes, there is REALLY an expectation and there were maybe 30 or 40 people who wanted to buy a painting but everything was sold.
Nina: So how was it when you did your next show? Did you feel more pressure or did you just think…”this is my art, this is me, so take it or leave it”?
René: See, the way it works for me is to do a series over a theme that I really go into. Then I do a series of work and I don’t know if I will do 10 or 25 paintings. Then I will find a new theme, cause this gives me the urge to keep coming into the studio every day and not just copy myself. The guy who owned the gallery from back then said: “Well you have to go back and do another 30 of these paintings.
Nina: Of THESE, so the same style?
René: Yes, the same style and the same theme.
Nina: Cause that is what people want.
René: Yes, cause he saw money and I was like: “yeah yeah, sure, I’ll do it” cause this was many years ago. Then I came back to the studio the Monday after a great night at the studio with wine and all that. I still couldn’t figure out what was going on and I had many galleries calling me up who wanted to work with me. So there I was in the studio and took out the first canvas and I was like: “no, I can’t do it”. Cause, when I was doing the last picture in the last series of paintings I had just sold, that was because I felt that it was a final picture of that story.
Then I had a show a year after at another gallery and that was quite a funny experience. I did a show about refugees coming to Denmark.
I called up some Red Cross Centers, where they live for a time, while they hope to get into this fairy tale country called Denmark. I was allowed to speak to 25 families and hear there stories and visit them in the small homes they were provided with at that time. We drank really sweet sodas and really sweet cake from the Middle and Far East and then I did the show called “Strangers”.
Nina: Can we see those online?
René: I don’t know if they are still on my website?
Then I took pictures of them and then I placed in the environment that I thought was important back at that time. And you could see that they were from the Middle East from the men’s beards and the women’s clothing. And you know there was really some expectations for this show, which was one year after the first one where everything was sold. The Gallerist was like: “Hey, we have people coming, who want to buy something and they have not seen anything in a year” and then the opening came.
Actually the paintings had the same style you know with the brushstrokes. There was just something different going on in the paintings, which was very easy to see. And ehm… there were definitely some people who were afraid to have the darkness in their rooms. You know people came in their nice cars and the women in their furs and they did not say it, but you could definitely feel how they were thinking: We are not gonna have Muhammed….
Nina: In our room…
René: In our Hall, which you enter after having passed our Mercedes and the designer chairs. People might go: “Do you support them!?”
Nina: Do you really feel this was the attitude?
René: You could definitely feel it! Ehh, and that was a great experience for me. You know, going to the Red Cross Center to visit those people. Doing the paintings. And normally when I open a show as I told you, I can only stand and get good or bad feedback. But this was really a good experience.
Nina: Did you sell some of your paintings?
René: Yeah, I sold some. But people also expected that I was not gonna do the same work as last time. You know I have a lot of people who follow my work and I have some who have bought five or six paintings and they say: “It is easy to see that you did the paintings, but they are all different. They are either from the homeless or the shelter or the series from China. They all have their own story, but it is hard to find new themes and subjects.
Nina: Yeah, you have to be out there and part of all areas of life.
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. 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 are 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.