Eternal art

The universal creative impulse

Creative Class

July 27, 2018

Sporenburg Island, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Just after midnight 10 years ago, a young doctor replacing our dear friend and own physician, Maurice Bom, who had just left for holidays, entered our home in the architecturally renowned Ceramique development near the River Mass in Maastricht to sign the death certificate for Martijn, my beloved husband who had just exchanged his limbs for wings after a valiant, almost two-year battle with cancer. He died as he lived, with a smile on his face surrounded by loving, caring people in the familiar surrounding of our own home.

This year on the 10 year anniversary of Martijn’s death, I asked my brother-in-law, Janus, to help me plan a low-key yet special commemoration at Martijn’s graveside. Around 20 family and friends gathered at Maastricht’s Oostermas Cemetery under a blazing blue sky. Martijn and I together designed his monument with a local sculptor, Catharina Ramaekers, known for her unique ceramic grave markers.

While Martijn was still very much present, together we engaged in a creative exercise that simultaneously diverted his attention from his pain while using art for its widely accepted function as an expression of immortality. Our idea was to make his final resting place an actual garden, complete with a small center bowl to hold water for birds or the occasional small critter that might need a drink on a day such as this anniversary.

It may seem odd that we undertook together an act of creativity while Martijn was slowly dying. Indeed, our sculptor Catharina explained that she rarely worked collaboratively with the family members, let alone with the soon to be deceased. And at first she balked at the prospect. But as with most creatives, she soon recognized us as kindred spirits, and working together she turned our rough ideas and drawings into a monument that is said by the cemetery groundskeeper to be the most visited and photographed in a graveyard more known for somber Catholic markers.

Among these, except for graves of small children, Martijn’s monument humbly reveals an astounding joy for life and creatures. The centerpiece is meant to mirror our wedding bands, which were two gold frogs holding a center garnet meant to resemble our twined heart, reflecting the power of relationship — two individuals made stronger by the mutual support of their love. It is said that properly made ceramic sculptures will outlast even granite in the elements. In ceramic clay with special glazing, Catharina transformed the symbol of our wedding rings into a sea-colored band, a strong circle transfixed with a ruby sphere, double symbols of eternity. Fused inside glass in the circle’s center is the very first photograph taken of us, under the red umbrella, two people as one who know they’ve discovered their soul mate.

Our frog symbols are intertwined, dancing, frolicking in the center of the little fountain bowl. Anchoring each corner of the gravesite are a ceramic cat and bird. We wanted no heavy granite covering over Martijn’s remains, but rather a garden growing up from his very flesh and bones, indicating fully that life and death are undeniably one cycle. From human remains, life regenerates.

The day after this 10th anniversary gathering, which took place on what would have been Martijn’s 66th birthday, I took the opportunity to return alone, sitting quietly in fierce sunlight, simply remembering the moments of our life together.

Martijn had fallen instantly and deeply in love with Minnesota — from our first home on the banks of Lake Minnetonka in the tiny village of Cottagewood to our final home together in the Seward neighborhood, where he wrote a column for the now defunct Seward Profile called “To Your Health,” focusing on exercise, mediation, body work and diet. From his academic degree in philosophy, he trained to become a shiatsu therapist, and in addition to a thriving, home-based private practice he worked at the former Target Arena club, developing a small but loyal clientele of Lynx and Timberwolves players as clients.

The majority of our life together was Minnesota based. Coming from this practical country, the Netherlands, with its advanced and progressive views on individual freedom, equality and environmentalism, Martijn nevertheless cherished our state’s enviable nature. Most mornings he could be found running along the Mississippi River or, in summer, swimming in our bountiful lakes. Though he left behind the marvels of the Dutch art scene, he cherished particularly the Minneapolis Institute of Art with its diverse, world-class collection and free entry.

In 2004 I moved us from Minneapolis to Martijn’s hometown of Maastricht to attend Maastricht Univeristy, for what I thought would be a temporary stay, earning my “Drs.,” a doctoral equivalent in European Public Affairs. Our plan was to return to join the faculty of the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota, where my former mentor, the adored Barbara Lukerman, head of UMN’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs program, had secured a spot for me.

Alas, Martijn’s illness and death ended that hope. I remained in Maastricht for three more years after his death, teaching marketing and influencing decisions at Maastricht University and tutoring English at its Language Center. I also wrote a column similar to this Creative Class column for Maastricht’s online ex-pat publication, “Crossroads.”

I had met Barbara Lukerman when I hired her for the public affairs program I conceptualized and implemented for Cuningham Group Architects, “The Minneapolis Riverfront: Vision and Implementation,” which drew much needed attention to the then neglected riverfront, where fittingly I now live and where Martijn and I married in the then Whitney Hotel.

In a previous Creative Class column, I highlighted the strong connections between Dutch and Minnesotan creative sensibilities derived from this early contact I made with Dutch urban designers and architects. In that article I featured the work of Julia Robinson, a U of M professor who continues this creative cross-cultural exchange, hosting lively tours and lectures in both countries.

I am inextricably connected to my dual global homes, not only by authentic admiration for Dutch creativity in arts, urban construction and social systems but by family ties and this patch of earth where the twin of my soul literally pushes up flora and nourishes fauna under a ceramic sphere that symbolizes human kind’s eternal essence through an art form as ancient as human history. I have found inspiration for profiling creative artists in the knowledge that their contributions to our lives are also universal and eternal.

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