Colette houdt ons voor het lapje


[Translator's note: There is no easy translation for the Dutch expression "voor heet lapje houden". Think of a magician and his magic handkerchief, or silk square. Think of a young mother playing a Peek-a-boo with an infant (hiding her face behind a cloth and then peering around the edge, delighting a baby with the sudden appearance of a familiar face). In fact: playing a little trick, to surprise, never to harm. In Colette's case, there is the connection of working with actual bits of fabric, and creating something unexpected, to delight. The general usage in Dutch of the expression may apply to many situations, not necessarily having anything to do with a piece of fabric.]


"Colette creates unexpected delights"

The beautiful works of art Colette Berends produces are a visual delight. Tenderness, elegance and romance seem to come alive on beautiful paintings. Seem...because if you look really close you will see that they consist totally of bits of fabric. They are the creations of a woman who surprises us as well with another aspect. The good looking Colette started her life as a boy.
Zwolle. Saturday.
Only when you get up real close (put your nose close) to the work of Colette Berends, do you see that they are not paintings, but wall hangings (textile collages). Hundreds of pieces of fabric, over each other, bits of lace, silk, velvet, satin, kept together with some stitches, enhanced with small stones, beads, glitter. "This effect can never be achieved with paint. Fabric is much more expensive than paint, stronger, and with a glow. Of course it is not so far removed from painting, you use the same principles: you want to express something on a canvas. But instead of paint, I try to achieve it with fabric. It is probably more difficult than with paint. Fabric is concrete; you use that piece, and that is it. With a brush you can change an image somewhat, letting it fade, or changing the effect."
Colette Berends (56) speaks in a low, somewhat cool voice. One by one she hangs her wall hangings on the doorknob of a closet in the hallway of her apartment in Zwolle. Her studio is too small and too crowded to get a real look at the work. Besides, the floor is covered with just received (from Frank Govers, a Dutch fashion designer) small piles of fabric pieces (lapjes!!), waiting to be sorted by color, made into small rolls, after which they will be deposited in the appropriate bins stacked along the wall.
As subjects for the wall hangings serve nightclubs, romantic theaters, ballet, the love between a man and a woman, mother and child. "It it a little bit autobiographic as well. Although you should not dig too deep in that respect. I have worked in nightclubs, I love the theater, and love concerns us all. As far as the Mother and Child subject is concerned: I was not able to have children, but I can well imagine what it means to be a mother.
Colette's life has had many chapters. When she was twenty, she decided that Zwolle was too confining and departed for the wider world. First to Den Bosch, followed by The Hague, Brussels, Geneve, and Hamburg where she worked as a window dresser (shop window designer). [Translator's note: Etaleur, male designation in Dutch. Etaleuse = female designation. Thus the story should have said: HE worked as a window dresser. Because Colette is transsexual and was born a boy].
She decided in 1973 to undergo a sex change operation, after which she would be officially a woman and could change her name. ("a part of my previous male name is incorporated in my female name Colette"). It is impossible to now speak of a "he", even when we speak of the past, about somebody who now is so obviously a "she".
"At some point I decided I wanted to do something else than window dressing. I lived in Hamburg at the time. There were nightclubs where men played female roles. These clubs were grand, luxurious and very exclusive. There were about 10 of these artists and I wished I was one of them. But, unfortunately, I had no stage experience, and could not get the job. I went to Amsterdam and started in a club there. After a year and a half I left for the south of France, and worked in Athens, Zurich, Vienna. In fact, all over Europe. I sang and danced. When I started this chapter I was about thirty, an age when many give up this type of career. I continued it till I was forty-eight." Colette shows a picture from those years: she looks like Greta Garbo.
During the day Colette dressed up as a woman and made up her face. "Early on when I started work in the cabaret, I still dresses as a young man during non-working hours. But that was a bit odd as well. My nature was feminine. I liked being beautiful, kept a slim figure, used a touch of makeup when going out with my friend. A few hairs on my face had been removed. My hair was a bit longer than the general style of boys, and I had a delicate face. I was often addressed as "madam". I was being somewhere between a male and female".
At about thirty Colette started using hormones, having silicon breast implants, and saving money for a sex change operation.
"I have never regretted that. Right from the start it was good, visually and functionally. Finally all was in harmony. The way I felt, the way I looked. Free of all complexes. A lot of people think of it primitively as just putting on a dress, and that's it. But it involves becoming a woman, totally."
When Colette thought herself too old to continue with cabaret work she returned to Zwolle. There she started to make wall hangings. "I wanted to do something that would make me happy for the rest of my days. I had had a very exciting life and suddenly I was stuck between four walls in an apartment. It was time to do something or go nuts. I've always loved beautiful fabrics, and wanted to create something with them."
We are looking at "Mother and Child", in which a young woman cradles a toddler. The boy frankly stares at you. The expressions on the faces is so lifelike that it is almost impossible to imagine that you can achieve the effect with bits of fabric.
"I spend a lot of time with the faces. Mouth or eyes I cut directly with scissors. Then it is trying this way and that way till they are proportioned right. The thread I use to fasten it is used very deliberately. It functions like a brush stroke, or pencil: wrinkles in a face, the contour of an eye. A wall hanging as such takes hundreds of hours. It is important that the composition is right, and a certain balance achieved. Otherwise it becomes messy, just because there are so many colors."
"Then I hang this picture on my wall for some time, to see if the composition is indeed right". A gray cloth is stretched over a hard board sheet and fastened with clothespins. Basic forms are cut out from certain fabrics and fastened to the gray cloth.
This "canvas" is then place upright on her ironing board against the wall of her studio. This enables her to have a better view of the work in progress than when placed flat on a table or floor. Then the real work starts: filling the "canvas" with hundreds of pieces of fabric, usually several on top of each other, till no trace of the original gray cloth is left. A crate holding pieces of fabric of one particular color is dumped on the floor where Colette spends hours finding just the right piece. A first layer is pinned to the background, then a second, a third, each layer contributing to a richer, many-hued total. To give an idea: In "Mother and Child", a relatively small "canvas" of 29 by 37 centimeters (11.5 by 14.5 inches), more than 300 pieces of fabric were used.
"There are incredible quantities of color in my work. And beautiful materials! Frank Govers and Rob Kroner (Dutch fashion designers, haute couture) give me leftover pieces of their materials. Often small pieces, but I do not need large quantities. Right now I need a ribbon of gold lace. A very scarce resource. I first need make a paper stencil and position it on the costly fabric, to find the most advantageous layout before cutting. I frequently visit flea markets and antique stores in my hunt for special bits and pieces. There I find materials which are no longer available."

Source: Telegraaf, 9 February 1991
By: Jolanda Jansen
Translation from the Dutch: Puck Berends


Return to Colette's story at:
"Colette Berends: Her life and her art"