This week, the Weekender edition of The Daily Herald spend a whole page on the works of Heleen Cornet. They wrote: “Through the works of Dutch-born Saban artist Heleen Cornet, the magic of Mt. Scenery, the zenith of the kingdom, virtually travelled to the Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle but not without overcoming challenges”. What better Saba promotion can we wish? for?
The large-scale exhibit titled “Tropical Kingdom” celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The grand opening will be this week, November 28, at the Theater Odeon with the exhibit lasting until March 16. Twenty artists from the six Dutch Caribbean islands will display some 130 artworks in sprawling installations. Among Caribbean Netherlands exhibiting artists, Saba- Mt. Scenery’s misty magic travels to enchant Kingdom Celebrations born artist Glenda Heyliger joins Cornet; Magumbo Muntu from St. Eustatius also joins five artists from Bonaire. Ras Mosera will represent St. Maarten together with a contingent of 11 artists from Curaçao. Within this artistic diversity, the misty magic of Saba’s cloud forest, masterfully rendered in Cornet’s work, captured the imagination of the Dutch curators.
They selected one of Cornet’s huge, three-metre wide painting to feature as the cover on all the exhibit’s publicity materials. Trained in Europe, Cornet settled in the Caribbean for over 40 years developing an artistic identity that bridges both worlds. In an interview before her departure to Zwolle, she talked in veiled accounts of her partial belonging and acceptance within the home communities on both sides of the Atlantic, a feeling shared with her husband esteemed biologist Tom van’t Hof.
While they humbly shun any form of recognition, he is the father of the marine and terrestrial nature reservation parks of Saba while she gave the community a vibrant mural, full of light, lush vegetation and angels covering the altar of the Sacred Heart Church in The Bottom, a Caribbean Sistine Chapel of joyful colours. They both have their following of admirers in the nature conservation and art-scene respectively both in the Caribbean and in Europe. Cornet feels she is still able to remain connected to the cross-pollination of artistic trends via the internet, but she admits that the remoteness of the island poses unique challenges for an artist at times. From the mundane long-duration of ordering art-supplies to the repeated problems during the overseas transportation, these challenges take an emotional toll.
Many of Cornet’s works are very large paintings, often triptych nature scenes inspired by the mossy rainforest. She used to go camping with her husband, settling in the forest for weeks, surrounded by the wild life that inspires her. Capturing
the island’s natural surrealism is a work of passion begun amidst the mist of the cloud forest and later finalized in the artist’s studio.
The couple lives on Saba’s Troy Hill on a property with several natural moss-covered wood gingerbread cottages that seem to have escaped from a children’s fairy tale book. While in her studio, she shared with joy the techniques of her painting, the layering of oils over watercolours, the use of leaves, lace and textile applications for creating unique patterns and the secrets of her signature colour palette. Captured in a certain light and colour, the rainforest elephant ears become wing-like floating silhouettes on a light-washed backdrop of happy colours that invite you to step into the large painting to discover the lush vegetation beyond.
Because of a recent falling accident while camping and sketching in the forest, and some knee problems, Cornet was immobilized in her home-studio. In a typical story of life-changing adversity triggering the artist’s creativity, Cornet painted 12 large paintings that she sent to The Netherlands. Many of these large canvases were drawn in stages like rolled manuscripts since she could not standup. While she expressed no ounce of resentment towards the company that generously transported her artwork probono to Zwolle, she could not hide her devastation at discovering that some of her paintings were partially destroyed. They were taken out of the original PVC-pipe packing and left for months in high-humidity crates reaching The Netherlands partially damaged. Some of the paintings could not be recovered.
The struggle of overcoming this incident and the good intentions of all involved are a central part of the exhibit’s goal to bridge the spatial and cultural divide. Cornet is reeling from the realization that her installation may miss some of her paintings. She dreamt of creating an atmosphere in the hall that would allow visitors to step into Saba’s misty cloud forest surrounded by her work and the dramatic fluid music of Arvo Part, complete with the sounds of the forest, rippling drops and church bells.
Cornet’s work receives recognition across the shores of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, with a notable “Mélange of Milieu” exhibit at Agora Gallery in the heart of New York City’s Chelsea art galleries district last year. After recently receiving an award for innovation in watercolour at the International Triennial of Caribbean Art, this February her work was featured in the Mon Art Gallery at Renaissance Mall and Rif Fort in Willemstad, Curaçao. The exhibit titled “The Magical Rain Forest” featured her signature watercolours with overlay oils in mixt media paintings, depicting her unique colourful perception of Saba’s Elfin Forest.
Her prolific work and altruism in sharing it as one shares joy have at times exasperated curators. Cornet: “I paint because I love it and because I want people to sit and enjoy the feelings inspired by my paintings in their homes.” The international exposure tricked into follow-up extensive coverage of her work in the June issue of the Watercolor magazine. The eight-page article featuring her most recent paintings and techniques triggered great interest and Cornet was subsequently included in a newly published book The Best of Watercolor – Splash 14: Light and Color by North Light Books in the United States. The book quotes Cornet about her serene life on Saba “surrounded by the sounds of birds, dripping water and wind” the muses of her light and colour-filled creations. She writes how the “watercolors float and work for themselves” and of the perfect match between her watercolour and her environment defined by the common elemental base, water.