Stany Defize is an extraordinary man, much like a colourful character out of one of his seafaring novels. I don’t care if only half of the crazy anecdotes he regales us with are true, what touches me most is his constant drive for adventurous undertakings combined with a sincere willingness to question his true motives. He is both loud and modest, demanding and generous, impulsive and thoughtful, he can be overbearing one minute and fragile as a child the next. These contrasting qualities I see reflected in his art, in the subtlety of his exquisite drawings as much as, for instance, in the refinement underlying the development and execution of his Prototype project. It is also in this acceptance of uncertainty, contrast, and mystery that I see an affinity to my own work.
Stany was very surprised when I told him he was something of a father figure to me. “But I invited you to participate as an equal, like Luc and Leslie, it never crossed my mind that you’re actually so much younger,” he answered, visibly ill at ease. I was trying to figure out why exactly he would ask me to participate in a show around the theme of potlatch. I checked my faithful Oxford Dictionary: “a ceremonial giving away or destruction of property to enhance status.” Stany’ definition of the term was different, but neither of them was quite satisfying to me. I needed to know more about what was going on.
So I asked Stany, enjoying his objections to being considered a spiritual parent of mine, about his own father. “Ah, he was a cold man.” And he told the story of how, in 1976, his father, a well-to-do businessman with the airs of an upper-class Brit, had been taken hostage by Japanese terrorists along with the French ambassador to the Netherlands and nine other people in The Hague for ten days. They were all finally released at Amsterdam airport unharmed, and Stany, who was then a young man, told me, “I noticed two things immediately when I saw my father come through the doors at the airport: the impeccable crease in his trousers, after sleeping rough in the French embassy for ten days, and that his beard was grey, for I had never seen him unshaven. And then he walked straight up to me, took me in his arms, and broke down crying. And that was the only time I ever felt him close, the only time I saw him cry, and not a week later he was his same distant self again.”
Stany’s long-term partner, Claudine, once told that one reason they had moved back to Brussels after ten years in the French West Indies was to re-launch his career as an artist in Belgium. And then she passed away suddenly and he found he couldn’t draw anymore. Believing he should not let himself go but take good care of himself, he decided to undergo non-urgent routine surgery, but the operation went wrong and he almost died twice as a consequence, and recovered only slowly over many months.
But one day he announced he was accompanying a friend on the last leg of a journey around the world, a sailing trip on which he would take a photo of every sunrise and every sunset along the way, to make colour pencil drawings of them. Talk about a man contemplating the arc of his life and the inexorable encroachment of its end looming on the horizon. That’s what I thought, anyway. And he invites three men a generation younger to take the thousands of pictures he brings back from this journey and asks them to accept them as a basis for their work, and to display the results of this exercise alongside his own contemplations on the sun and the sea and time passing. To me, it sounded very much like a father wanting to pass on his passion, for travelling as much as for art, to his children so that they might continue in the same tradition, indeed a “ceremonial giving away.”
So to me, yes, my participation in this exhibition is very much about Stany and my relationship to him. It is not about the Indian Ocean, its indigenous population, nor about ancestral practices of the Chinook tribes, though these elements of course provide the framework for our show.
“Putting me at the centre of this exhibition flatters and scares me both,” Stany told me. I asked him if he had other pictures for me to use, older photos of him. If the journey that this exhibition is about should also be a reflection of an entire and very rich life navigating the depths of existence, I wanted something more than just beautiful pictures of the southern seas and its island peoples. For beyond the ostentation of debonair onboard activity and visits to exotic street markets, Stany’s is also a life full of contrast, of darkness and uncertainty. And as Arlo Guthrie says, “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.”
Stany found some old black and white images of him on a sailing boat as a kid, and told me about when he was sent off to boarding school in Switzerland, some 700km from his home, when he was six years old. “That’s what the haute bourgeoisie did at the time, it was normal,” he tells me. He also handed me a book his father had compiled of newspaper clippings and other documents about the hostage crisis in 1976.
Something that intrigues me especially is that as a young man, Stany got into a habit of gathering around him what I would call lost children, or, not to be unfair to their mothers, the fatherless: taking in as his own the two young children his wife brought into their marriage from a previous relationship; often caring, with his wife, for a girl whose parents they had become friendly with and who were in difficulties; as a surrogate father to his nephew living one flight up in the same house. There’s something of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in Stany I find, longing to catch the little children running through the rye fields lest they fall off the cliff beyond.
And when this summer I asked his son Batiste, who was on board La Malu II along with Stany, what he thought of my take on his father and our common project, he replied without missing a beat, “Oh if he asked you to participate in his exhibition, it’s only to reassure him, that’s for certain,” and then laughed his raucous, diabolical laugh.
In my paintings, I always hope to strike a kind of balance between all of the elements I observe—in this case via my relationship with Stany, who to me is not only a friend and a colleague, but indeed, and in spite of his protestations, a father figure.
Ultimately, I see all of my work as part of an ongoing attempt to respond to the oftentimes contradictory and ultimately unfathomable forces that make up a life, and the inextricable mystery of all our journeys.
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