Amidst ten thousand pieces of wood, I see the sculptor, Ron van der Ende, working on a bas-relief. He reminds me of a monk, bent over his work, almost fused with it. He sometimes works on a wooden sculpture for months at a time. ‘Meticulous’ is the word that comes to mind - but it’s too arid. It masks the pleasure. He also reminds me of the American writer, James Salter, who called himself a frotteur - ‘someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible’. That is how Ron van der Ende turns old wood into art. He looks at a piece of wood, measures, saws and files it, until it has precisely the right dimensions and form.
The wood can come from anywhere. Ron van der Ende is a fanatic collector, as well as being an artist. There are bins containing pieces of wood sorted by colour: red, white, dark green and different shades of grey. There are planks, beams and flooring in other places. “Friends ring me up if they see a skip full of wood,” explains Ron. “Then I go and see if the colour is good. I don’t like that dirty, light yellow you often get, but I like blue a lot.” He once bought two hundred and fifty antique doors from Franeker which had to be delivered by lorry. “Those doors are in practically all my work,” says Ron. The same applies for the solid floor and walls from a farm in Pijnacker.
The wood has to have character, the paint mustn’t shine, “Or I might as well paint it myself,” says the sculptor. He saws the wood into planks three millimetres thick, the veneer with which the frotteur starts work. He holds it in his hands, looks at it, feels it. He always has splinters in his fingers. Ron van der Ende doesn’t free his art from a block, he builds it up. The relief is the foundation on which he lays a mosaic of innumerable pieces of wood. Perspective is used to create a fascinating trompe-l'oeil, to create cars, hulls of ships, space capsules, the rear of a pianola or a rib-eye. He is working at the moment on one of Jupiter’s moons using a NASA photo. Oceans flow under a crust of ice that covers the moon, a hundred kilometres thick. The unbelievably cold and lonely surface has already been partially laid. The sculptor uses a lot of white and grey. It is his 107th bas-relief.
He made his first flat work 15 years ago - a 1965 Chevrolet Chevelle. A series of wrecks of old American cars followed - a Dodge Charger, a Pontiac Bonneville and a crashed Toyota Corolla. Ron regularly gets asked to make a Porsche 911, but he refuses. “Then you’re just being employed as a craftsman,” he explains. “I’m a sculptor who tries to make real works of art.” His work doesn’t have to be regarded as art to be appreciated though. “Laypeople have to be able to understand it and find it beautiful.” His rib-eye from 2010 is hanging on the wall of the Genarro restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue in New York. He says that with some pride, but his modesty disappears entirely when he talks about the wood the meat is made of. Wood from a red floor, which carpet had been stuck to with tape. “There was a structure, a beautiful pattern,” he explains. He also talks lovingly about the veneers in his hands, “This piece might be a hundred or even two hundred years old.”
He sticks it on the moon. He uses wood glue, and nails from Vietnam which he buys at his local DIY store. They are one and a half millimetres thick, sixteen millimetres long and have lattice-pattern nail heads. “Without the nails, it’s too much of a picture. Now you can see that it has been made by someone.”
A sculptor, a monk, a frotteur. Ron explains how it can get so cold in his studio in the winter that the wood glue doesn’t work. He then has to use rabbit skin glue, which he has to keep warm in a pan. He carries on working on his sculptures even if it’s minus seven. He has already sacrificed a fingertip to a saw.
His grandfather was a carpenter and his father worked in a wood mill where his mother was a cleaner. They took Ron with them. He was three-years old. His earliest memories are of machines, dust and the smell of wood, exactly the same thing he smells when he opens his studio door in the morning. He is now a man who works on the moon made out of a farm in Pijnacker and doors from Franeker, and perhaps a piece of childhood, a boy’s dreams.
Ernest van der Kwast (1981) is a programme maker and writer. His breakthrough as a writer came in 2010 when his novel Mama Tandoori became a bestseller in the Netherlands and Italy. His latest novel, The Ice-Cream Makers (2015) will be published this summer in English by Scribe. In his talk show, Rotterdam Late Night, the author dedicates an ode to a special person every month. In December 2015, it was the artist Ron van der Ende’s honour.
Photos: Aad Hoogendoorn for Rotterdam Late Night