IN 1953, KAREL DORUYTER'S family emigrated from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, a city of roughly 500,000 people, to China Lake, a tiny hamlet southeast of Quesnel. He was 11 years old. “There was a one-room schoolhouse that went up to grade six, and maybe a population of 30,” the artist laughs. “I remember my sister and I banging with two-by-fours and a big drum, making sure the bears didn’t come too close.” Though they didn’t know the language—and in retrospect, he appreciates how difficult it must have been for his parents—the youngsters “found it all very exciting.” This new way of life was utterly different, and the total shift from urban centre to the isolation of the BC interior left its impression on Doruyter.
Fast-forward to a view of one of his current rainforest landscape compositions, and the wonder of such a place is as fresh as it would have been to his young eyes.
From a room’s distance, Doruyter’s acrylic paintings have the uncanny quality of a photograph, appearing almost hyper-realistic. For one thing, the point of view is eye level, exactly that of a person who would be standing amongst the trees. And then the green mosses and leaves seem lit from within by the rays of a persistent sun reaching over and around to land on that one chosen frond.
As the viewer nears the work, however, Doruyter shows how he has internalized these landscapes over years of experience: What appears from a distance to be a delicate branch swaying in a gentle breeze, its bark surely dappled with lichen and tiny creatures, is no more than a light stroke of ruddy brown applied with a sure hand. Like the forests themselves, these paintings convey volumes in their simplicity.
They need to be seen up close for full effect. They are mainly large works with images ranging from a single canvas to sweeping triptychs.
Over time, Doruyter has developed a technique for building up the surface of the picture plane with his own concoction of plaster and other additives to create a relief that brings more impact to the texture of a tree’s bark, the driftwood on a wooded shore, or the corroding carved arcs of a Haida mortuary pole being reclaimed by weather, as seen in the painting “Closure.”
Of his technique, Doruyter says, “I basically draw out on the canvas where things are going to go, then I apply [the material], sometimes in multiple layers, but I try to make it as exact as I had it in my mind. After it’s set up—I generally leave it overnight—I use a Dremel tool or a file to get the texture of the bark, although I try to build that in as I do it, because it’s far easier doing it then than after.” Once he is satisfied with the texture, he gessoes the works and commences painting.
He can conjure these textures from memory: They are surfaces, objects, places that Doruyter knows well.
While he has painted most of his adult life and studied Fine Art and Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, painting has not always been his main source of income.
After graduation, he finessed his way into a job as a surveyor with the Department of Transport and worked on the building of several airports in BC. He eventually became the chief design draughtsman at Vancouver Airport, then became the manpower training and planning officer for the region. A transfer to Ottawa and the prevalence of managerial politics was too much for the iconoclastic Doruyter, however. To the shock of many, he left the position, with all of its security and predictability, and found a path that, while it was admittedly peripatetic, ultimately led him to where he needed to be.
“From that point on, my while life changed,” he says. His first marriage broke up and he moved to Australia, working in mining in Tasmania for a couple of years. Most significantly at this time, he became interested in boat building. He explains, “I was fascinated by the idea of designing something you could live in, you could work in and you could move around in. And how you built the boat was how your life went. If you did a poor job building a boat, you might run into a problem. Your whole life depends on what you build.”
Doruyter eventually moved back to Canada and worked in a mine in Port Hardy, where he met an Englishman with whom he started a boat building company on Quadra Island. They made a go of it for five years, but material costs were prohibitive and they dissolved the company. That led Doruyter down yet another path. “By this time I had built my third boat and started to do charters up and down the coast and to Alaska,” he recalls. He also met a couple who were involved in major arctic and Antarctic expeditions and spent some time in Chile helping them redesign their vessel for said expeditions.
Another work opportunity led Doruyter to live in Haida Gwaii for a number of years. He continued to do charters and spend as much time in the rainforest as he could. “I think living there really shaped me as an artist, being in Haida Gwaii and going up and down the coast,” he reflects. “That’s why I paint the way I paint now; I mainly paint the West Coast rainforest. It’s fascinating. I don’t know how many times I have been up and down the BC coast; probably several hundred. Each trip up and down, no matter how short or how long, it’s different. You could spend several lifetimes just between Victoria and Hyder, Alaska,” he says. The common theme running through all of these ventures was the constant pull of geographical isolation.
While he used to live in Victoria, Doruyter now makes his home in Penticton. From there, he paints his forest scenes and manages Arctic expeditions for the same couple. From time to time, he will escape to some appealingly isolated place, like Tierra del Fuego, where he spent a month hiking a few years back. “It was so beautiful in a minimalistic way,” he enthuses. “Just the glaciers and the mountain; there is such a presence.”
It’s that feeling he seeks to evoke with paint and plaster on canvas: the monumentality of our natural world as it can only be understood in the places of isolation that so appeal to him. “I am basically drawn to the…emptiness,” he says, searching, although dissatisfied with the word. “Let’s put it this way: it’s empty of people,” he settles with a grin. “I am trying to get that feeling of ‘I have been here, on this spot, for 300, 400, 700 years. I was here when you were nothing.’”
Karel Doruyter’s work can be seen in Victoria at a January group show at Madrona Gallery, 606 View St, 250-380-4660, www.madronagallery.com.
As soon as she notices herself sighing and grumbling, Aaren Madden knows she is overdue for some regenerative time in the woods, where she will find the “everything and nothing” that she needs.
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