In memory of my father Jan van Velzen
On Sunday 19 January 2020, at 1:14 a.m. , my father Jan van Velzen. passed away. He was also a sculptor, an artist, but above all someone who practiced the art of life. This is evident from his sayings, of which the title of this blog post was one that I had never heard of him before. He made this statement in the last days before his death, a period in which he looked back on his life, full of gratitude and love.
Jan van Velzen was by no means a woolly kind of person. He had been a small scale farmer and flower bulb grower and worked hard all his life.
A poor hamlet
Onderdijk in 1931 was a poor West Frisian linear settlement village in North Holland. It lay on either side of a high dike and many houses had their own bridge over the canal to the foot of the dike. His father, also called Jan van Velzen, was like most of the villagers a market gardener or small plot farmer, who sailed with a barge to his piece of land across the lake to grow onions, cabbage, carrots, red beets, tulips and potatoes. After the harvest, the boat also carried their produce to the sailing auction in Medemblik.
Longing for beauty
Jan was the second child, a rather quiet, sensitive boy who only started walking when he was two. He was horrified by the drab hopelessness of the hard work and the humdrum grind with which all the brilliance and beauty was brought back to 'just do normal and go on'.. He had an intense desire for beauty and talked about the delight he could feel when he heard beautiful music in the church. His father was a warm-hearted man with a lot of wisdom. On his deathbed, Jan told how he still could see his father on Sunday mornings, in his shirt, throwing the shaving water into the ditch with a swing, singing loudly and with a swarm of children around him.
As a child, Jan was already busy with creative expressions. Sculpting clay dolls or making boats by folding and bending large tin cans to form whole battleships. But whereas I had enjoyed the creative time in kindergarten, he had experienced that same daily grind at the custody school.
Apparently the "teacher’ had the view that the children just should be kept quiet, because they had to sit still and weave mats, otherwise they had to go into the spider cupboard. To him, weaving mats was one of the symbols of "this is how it should be done and that is how it goes". Awful, because all creativity was suppressed.
Jan actually didn't feel like becoming a market gardener at all, but his father fell ill and the eldest sons, though still in their teens, had to take over the work. He would much rather have apprenticed to the blacksmith, because he was much more interested in making things from iron with your hands and welding . The blacksmith was regarded with awe by the little boys. His younger brother's legendary answer to the question of what he wanted to become later was "Fat blacksmith Kees Slaman!’
It was hard work in the heavy sea clay around Onderdijk and everything was done by hand: digging to sow, digging to harvest and digging two spades deep to prepare the land. Jan hated hopelessness, so his creativity was expressed in all kinds of "Jannish constructions": inventions meant to make everything just that little bit easier. He was therefore one of the first to bring the floor of the barge to the very top, so that you could drive in the wheelbarrow instead of laboriously lifting everything in and out.
Flippus the Dreamer
His solutions were not always appreciated. "Jannish constructions’ was not really an appreciative term, and because he sometimes had his thoughts elsewhere, he was also called Flippus the Dreamer at home. He had a somewhat philosophical streak and also spent time observing his surroundings. Looking back, it is also understandable why he was born in that place: for him it was a way to go all the way from heaviness to light, and he was able to bring his light to a time and environment that was mainly focused on survival.
At the age of 20 his number came up for military service. But the hard work had already had its consequences: he needed surgery to his knees and had to recover in the military hospital. To his horror, the therapy consisted of weaving mats! But in the classroom next to it, modeling lessons were given. At his request he was transferred and there his talent was soon discovered by his instructor. This man even arranged an introduction for him at the art academy in Tilburg.
I had always understood that it never was followed up because Jan was needed at home and because his mother always said: "Fiddlers and pipers don't go to heaven". But that was not really the biggest deterrent. Last year he told me that he was very shocked by the unkempt figures with long hair and feral beards walking around, and that he had felt very uncomfortable and out of place. But his teacher was very disappointed that he missed out on this opportunity. "Stupid cauliflower shrub!’ the man had called him, probably out of frustration that so much talent was being lost.
Jan married Alida when he was thirty, a girl from that same village of Onderdijk, in which he recognized something of playfulness and beauty, and of being free from all the conventions of the village. He started his own business, but times had changed. The number of small scale farming businesses declined rapidly and many self-employed people had to work at a factory in the Zaanstreek, going there every day in a van. Jan was looking for solutions with a number of like-minded people and decided to expand considerably with his two brothers. They had also already focused entirely on flowerbulb cultivation for a number of years. He used his creativity in this work as well: he built his own machines for cutting the tulip flowers and for washing the bulbs, and adapted many machines to make them work better.
-to be continued-