“Every colour and design is chosen with the gut.” Klaas Rommelaere on his instinct, influencers and intimate tapestries

“Accidentally”. Something speaks to us, a sound, a touch, hardness or softness, it catches us and asks us to be formed. This is the poetic premise, taken from lines by Anni Albers, that encapsulates the artistic thought processes behind Soft? Tactile DialoguesAs a collaboration with fashion institution MoMu, the exhibition is being shown at the Maurice Verbaet Centre until the museum is ready to unveil its newly renovated space in 2020. Featuring tapestries, paintings, sculptures, clothing and tea towels, the first rooms sees installations of hanging, frayed rope and ethereal kite fabric that catches the light. At the forefront of the show is the artists’ interaction with material, and the blurred distinctions between fine art, textiles, fashion and crafts. It will walk you through 1970s explorations of femininity and domesticity, to fragile and kitsch wall hangings by contemporary artists. For the occasion, we’ve selected four participating artists whose work you cannot miss.

Klaas Rommelaere (1986) grew up in Roeselare, studied fashion in Ghent and is now based in Antwerp. His fashion education lead to experiments with embroideries, which have since evolved to the sprawling tapestries on display as part of Soft?. Rommelaere’s intricate textiles resonate a slowness, elucidating the expansive time periods they take to create by hand. The works are densely populated with cartoonish figures, domestic scenes, humour, sadness and glitchy patterns. Their intensity and colloquial quality reflects our contemporary digital sensibility; the montaged, fuzzy and fast images we consume through advertising, television and the internet. An onlooker at the Maurice Verbaet Centre could fixate and move through them for hours; the images are almost inexhaustible. Read about his hermetic lifestyle, elderly influencers and upcoming projects. 

At its core, what is your work about? How would you describe it?

My work is about me handling this world, in all my personal situations and views on stuff. This is very intimate and translated to the viewer. It is not because a boyfriend broke up with me that I am going to make sad works with broken hearts. It results in textiles and crafts, creating flags, tapestries, masks and installations.

What is its starting point and statement?

The starting point is something I live through – something I see or an idea in the background of my mind – which I then start to link together. I see images on Tumblr or in books to back up what I have in mind. I make an outline in my sketchbook, which is without colours and will definitely change, but is still something to hold on to. Then I put the drawing on the fabric or grid where the handwork comes on. Since it takes at least a good six months to finish a piece, I adjust the work constantly to make my point clear and well-balanced. I’m never worried if a piece is going to be good or not because it’s like building a house. You start with the foundation and you build it up. 

I just finished an installation I created specifically for MoMu’s SOFT? Tactile Dialogues. It’s a series of 60 canvasses with hand embroidery on knit, cotton and crochet finishing. The piece is called Future, which was based on Feist’s song Mushaboom. She sings, We’ll collect the moments one by one/I guess that’s how the future is done. I thought a lot about that sentence when I started dating my boyfriend last year. He sent me photos of the havoc we would leave behind after our dinners – always so many cans lying around. For me, these cans symbolised those moments. In addition to these ideas, every piece of “future” is a symbol for a moment of the past year and I think that all of them together must represent what is yet to come.

Can you talk to us about your approach in general?

It’s a very thought out process, because it takes so long to finish a piece. It is, however, very intuitive. Every colour and design is chosen with the gut, because it feels good and expresses what I want to say, not because it looks good. I like to work hard and hate art that looks very easy or appears to be devoid of any thought, ambition or craft. I also have a few ladies who help me. Some in Roeselare, my hometown, and some in Merksem, Antwerp. Even my mum and grandma help me out. I have one woman, Rena Deblaere, who has helped me for almost eight years now. I owe everything to them – they influence the result without a doubt. I like how they see my work and how they embroider and use colours. It’s a very pure approach.

What characterises your work? 

Everything is done by hand – I hate machines and cannot handle them. It also becomes part of the process to do everything by hand; it’s my way of working. My works seem very busy and have lots of details, but that’s just how I tell a story.

How do you actually work on a piece, from start to finish?

My studio is a cocoon in which I work every day. I really enjoy the freedom of being in my own space. I start drawing and embroidering while Netflix is playing, and forget about the world around me. It’s calming. It may sound very dramatic, but I use my art to process small and big events in my personal life. These also include positive events of course, otherwise my work would be rather depressing. I prefer to do it this way instead of bothering other people with my stories. Creating a work takes about six months, and this slowness is an essential part of the end result.

What series or projects are you currently working on? 

There are a few things. Last week Thursday 8th, I opened the exhibition Clues (a speculative present) with Frederik Heyman at Antwerp’s DMW Artspace. He’s a visual artist who mainly works in 3D on the computer, which is the total opposite of what I do. I’m also working for the Antwerpen Barok 2018 festival: I was contacted by the Merksemdok cultural centre to create a big Baroque carpet with their memebers who come from all around the world. It was very interesting because for the first time I was able to let completely loose and could not control the artistic process. Besides this, I’m also making a big wall tapestry for Rubis, a yarn company in Izegem, using their materials.

 What were your first introductions to the visual arts? 

I remember reading my grandfather’s books on Felix De Boeck, and there were the works of my grandfather as well.

Who would you say was instrumental in shaping your artistic practice?

When I was in school I made my collections with my grandparents. My grandmother was very deft with handwork and my grandfather was an artist who made pieces using metal. I think they taught me everything I know from work ethics to art, and are the reason why I choose to work with senior ladies. 

Also, going to fashion school was important. I always loved fashion but lacked ambition when I started – I just went to see what would happen. When I felt really happy with what I did, I was on my own trip. My first year at school is when I started doing embroidery and handmade stuff. If it weren’t for fashion school, I wouldn’t have found my craft.

What are the challenges you face as an artist working in Belgium today?

There are always struggles with money but there are solutions for that, like working in a shop. 

How do you see yourself fit into the country’s contemporary art scene?

I don’t feel that I am part of an art scene: I’m very reclusive and don’t go out very much. I think I’m my own person, who’s created his own world and bubble. I don’t like to get influenced by other people’s art, even subconsciously. 

Talk to us about the people around you, your local scene. To what extent does it inspire and influence you?

I live and work in Antwerp, but that could change; I’m here simply because my friends live here. The women from Antwerp and Roeselare influence me especially and have become an integral part of my work itself.

What does success look like to you?

To not depend on other means of income, and just rely on your work: that’s the basic kind of success. That’s now the case for me, but for a long time it wasn’t. To do what you love everyday without compromise is the best.

To you, what role should contemporary art occupy in the community?

I think art sometimes lives in a hermetic bubble. Working with my team of helpers is a great form of communication, and creates your own bubble with people in it. 

Which Belgian artists do you follow, look at for inspiration? 

I try not to be influenced by other artists but I really love the works of Brecht Vandenbroucke, Frederik Heyman, Hannelore Van Dijck, Dirk Zoete, Athos Burez, Felix De Boeck, Kati Heck, Raf Simons and Walter Van Beirendonck.

On a more personal note, how does your everyday inform your work? 

I work everyday from 8h till 22h. The good thing is, I can work while I play podcasts and Netflix in the background – it just relaxes me. I also work alone, which I prefer. If I haven’t worked a day or two I become very nervous. I’m also constantly thinking about work, which is why I don’t sketch much; it’s all in my mind. When I work on a project I’m not a social person, I’m just thinking constantly about work and I focus on that. The only way I can really relax is to go and watch a movie in the cinema.

And what do your parents, your family, think of what you do? 

They have always supported me in my work. In fact I think they did even more than support; they helped me, practically, with what I do by embroidering stuff. I’ve never depended on them financially though, because when I needed money I just started working in a store. That’s my piece of advice anyone looking to start: just go work part-time in a store, be independent and work hard in your spare time.

As part of Soft? Tactile Dialogues city takeover, Klaas Rommelaere has work on display at Maurice Verbaet Center until Sunday 24th February 2019.