My youth was spent in the city of Leiden. After completing my secondary education, I decided to follow a drawing course at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. During this degree, I realised that drawing was not enough for me to express all my ideas fully. I enjoyed working with various other materials, and that became the start point of creating jewellery and small objects.
It was my reason to specialise in designing jewellery at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Here I had the privilege of being taught by Jan Elders and Onno Boekhoudt. Jan Elders taught us to develop our own craftsmanship adding a solid technical background. With Onno Boekhoudt it became more of a free art form. He gave his students the opportunity to experiment more freely with the materials than was actually permitted. It was exactly what I needed.
I very much admired Onno Boekhoudt’s work. Other artists whose work fascinated me were those of Paul Klee, Brancusi, Morandi, Rothko en Eugene Brands. I found what they had in common was a sort of silence, soberness, contained emotion. It was the simplicity that made their works powerful. Next to these, other influences formed, which can subtly be found back in my work. These included African jewellery and Celtic ornaments.
The fact that I like contrasts surfaced while experimenting with two different coloured metals - black burnt steel and gold leaf (1). These are what help shape the graphic character in my pieces.
During the 1980’s architecture became another source of inspiration, namely the clear linear forms which were used. This is when my admiration for Rietveld’s ‘Zigzag’ chair came to be, and the period when I began working on my objects (2; 3). The pole formed brooches followed (4).
By directly re-modelling the metal with a hammer as tool, my work became more spontaneous. That architectural line disappeared and was replaced by more rounded forms. Black steal bands were shaped into spirals, which could be worn as necklaces (5). Gold leaf is added to the metal so as to accentuate the form of the object (6). All in all, the only wish I had was to hammer and enjoy the beauty of the structure that was being created (7). Understanding the technique of hammering demanded enormous amounts of concentration, it became a sort of meditation for me, wherein the body was at work and the spirit was free.
Around 1985 several things came together, namely my love for nature, my drawing background, my newly found passion for hammering and my admiration for the Japanese Mokume Gane technique. The Mokume Gane technique was developed from sword making. The base metal is made out of copper. It is composed out of several copper alloy layers and is about 3 to 8mm thick. Using files, drills, chisels, hammers and a rolling mill, you are able to create a pattern on an ever-thinning plate. Thanks to a project grant, a subsidy and the help of Englishman Alistair McCallum, I was able to work towards personalising this technique.
I was sketching on metal and succeeded in perfecting my technique so much so that distinct forms became apparent. Both the sketching and the form influenced each other during the development process, coming together creating a natural whole (8; 9).
In 1990 I was able to make a catalogue of these poetic pieces, thanks to the help of a presentation grant. It was named ‘Birgit Laken, Metal in Motion, works in Mokume Gane’ (10; 11). The exhibition, constantly enriched with new pieces, travelled through Australia, the USA and several European countries.
After the intensive labour of the Mokume technique - with mainly unique pieces - I began designing series jewellery (multiples) in 1993. This was a project that I was assigned to by the Ministry of Culture. I was to design a ‘Ministry present’ (something that the Ministry could give as a gift showing good relations to another). From this, simple monumental forms developed, for example the’jojo’ pendant, the ‘disc’ pendant and the ‘pointed’ pendant (12).
1994 was the beginning of a new phase in my life. A search for freedom in my work became a new priority. Objects that I had been collecting for the last few years, mostly from nature, all became sources of inspiration. Room was made to experiment with other types of materials. Big colourful necklaces made out of wood came into being, such as ‘Oogst’ (‘Harvest’) (13). During this period I became interested in finding out the essence of an ornament. Through pure impulse and sense of freedom, one realises that the process of design has more to do with the senses and intuition (14). In the search for what was important for me to bring out into the forefront, I stumbled upon the fundamental processes of human relationships. It was as if of its own accord that the Heart project came into being (1996) (15).
I embodied the heart - symbol for love - into a series of necklaces made out of gold wire that has been shaped by means of hammering. If laid flat its form is a heart, but when worn, another form would appear (16a; 16b; 16c). While working on this series, different definitions of love came to the out. The titles speak for themselves: The stretched out heart, the opened heart, the listening heart, the safe heart (17a; 17b; 17c), and the beloved heart (18a; 18b). This project was named ‘Heartwear’. With a work grant that I received at the end of 1998, I was able to continue to work on this theme.
A new project, ‘Heartwork’, arose from the need to work in a more proactive way. Together with a Swiss college of mine, Margrit Linder, we made a start. We would make heart sculptures in the sand and watch, as the tide would wash over them, transforming the sculpture (19a; 19b). This process of working with water, sand, the tide and the weather was captured on lens. I was so gripped in this project, that for months after I was still busy trying to capture all the endless possibilities with my camera. My photos inspired me to design new jewellery (20a; 20b). The small installations which developed from this, tell piece by piece a story about love 21a; 21b).
Content wise, my work is becoming more interesting for me. However, I still consider my steal band, goldleaf spirals from 1985, to be an ‘ironstrong’ series of works (22). The multiples from 1993, the ‘jojo pendant’ (23) and the ‘disc pendant’ (24) will still remain my favourite. And from the ‘Heartwear’ series, I consider the ‘push up’ not only beautiful, but also I find it contains a sense of humour (25; 26). The heart series, which were made out of thin gold wire, which would change shape once worn, I find inventive (27a; 27b; 27c). The ‘Two Hearts’ hanger, made from tombak, became top for me. In this piece, the romance and my love for nature are aspects that come together in a subtle way (28). From the Mokume Gane series, the brooches, which take the form of long pieces of stone, are very intriguing, its monumentality appeals to me (29). What all these pieces have in common are their purity and powerful forms.
From 1999 onwards, photography became an important factor in my work. Capturing amazing images with my camera during the Heartwork project made me realise that I could not abandon my camera anymore (30; 31).
Because I believe the heart is the core which everything turns around, my lens delved into the heart of a flower, giving birth to a new theme, ‘Summerlands’. Photographing flowers so close, is so overwhelming thanks to the intensity and beauty of the colours (32). It let forget you everything for a while and enjoy the purity (33). Besides the photos, I made jewellery. Bright colours, sprayed brooches with pressed bronze (34). Or silver brooches with coloured Swarovski crystals (35). Sometimes big flowered shapes of hammered silver, set with pearls, worn as necklaces (36; 37).
I give lectures, guest talks and workshops at art academies, colleges and universities throughout the world. During the last few years I have put more emphasis on my jewellery and photography.
Meanwhile my work has been included in 17 different museum collections. In The Netherlands, there are 3 galleries that show my work. These include the Ra gallery in Amsterdam, Marzee gallery in Nijmegen, and the Lous Martin gallery in Delft. Abroad, Orfèo gallery in Luxembourg, Reverso gallery in Lisbon and Pilartz gallery in Cologn.
Creating jewellery, objects and taking photographs, are not so much a goal for me as they are a way of expressing the emotions and feelings deep inside of me. They are a process of consciousness and a form of communication. I have no kind of target group that I would direct my work to. I just want to make it possible for the people who like my work to be able to buy it. That’s why I make as well ‘multiples’ and try to keep them as profitable as possible. You could say that I am reaching my goal by doing what I love to do, by a non-verbal communication, a love that can be shared with others.