Beyond Earthly Things

Comet of Salt by Anouk van Kalmthout

The Surreal Sensualism of Anouk van Kalmthout

Interview by Diana Welch
All photos courtesy of Anouk van Kalmthout

A red river slices through a frozen expanse, a soft pink mountain rises from the earth. Figures bend in prayer in or near pools of water and a heartbeat forests fill the frame. This is our world through the eyes of Dutch photographer Anouk van Kalmthout, whose breathtaking technicolor fantasies pulse with a surreal wonder, rooted in the splendor of our planet's naturally varied geographic forms.

We spoke to her from her warm, plant-filled home on the outskirts of Amsterdam, where her daily relationship to the natural world is evidenced in some of its simplest and truest forms: electricity from the sun, warmth from the wood-burning stove, and an abundance of fruits and veggies from the garden. She took a moment to share her thoughts on how her connection to Nature informs her creative process and overall sense of well-being, and also shared images of her home, some self-portraits, and the stunning personal work that she creates with friends.

Self Portrait by Anouk van Kalmthout
Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?

I was pretty shy as a kid, so I remember feeling anxious a lot, but when I was out in nature I could relax, observe and fantasize about the world around me. Even though nature didn’t play an important role in my family life, I was always attracted to it. I still feel at home amongst the trees. They make me calm and provide me with clarity.

Anouk's Home Garden in the Netherlands, courtesy of Anouk van Kalmthout
Where do you live now? How would you describe your daily life?

A year and a half ago, I moved into a tiny house with a garden in an allotment garden park on the outskirts of Amsterdam. I’ve rebuilt the place in a sustainable way and am currently exploring a thriving edible garden. Next to growing a variety of veggies and herbs, I hope to plant fruit trees and make the whole garden into a living oasis for abundant ecosystem and nurturing myself with foods. Going along with abundant flowers for bees and butterflies. I don’t use poison and try to design my garden only with natural materials. I build my own wooden structures. My electricity comes from the sun and I have a wood-burning stove for winter times. Most of my furniture I’ve found on the streets, the rest I’ve bought secondhand. All the paint I use comes from chalk, clay or linseed oil.

Inside Anouk's home, courtesy of Anouk Van Kalmthout

Moving into this place made me realize how hard I was working all these years and how I was ignoring physical and emotional signs of my body. I lacked deep inspiration in my art already for a while at that point, I was scared I had lost my mojo. Feeling more connected to a natural living has made me aware I should always only choose the things that are good for me. I took a lot of time off last year, which sometimes was pretty difficult because I lacked focus and direction in life, but it has healed me tremendously in the end. I am finally feeling inspired to create art again. I am still working less, cause arranging empty blocks and days in my schedule allows me to live more spontaneously.

What are some your self-care rituals?

I have made a little crystal altar where I do daily rituals. Depending on the day it can be journaling, setting intentions, meditation, yoga or moon rituals. I got pretty addicted to essential oils as well and use them for a variety of things, supporting my emotional and physical wellbeing. They contain the essential healing powers of medicine plants, modern medicine is actually based on these powers. I like mixing them with my water, putting them in my food, on my skin, on my pillow before sleeping or creating perfumes with them. Sometimes I make healing blends as a gift for friends and family if they struggle with disease or mental discomfort.

Our skin is our largest organ, so I find it important to know what I put onto my body and knowing where it comes from. I create lots of the products I use myself, which is so much fun to experiment with, and much easier than most people would think.

Comet of Salt and Metanoia (2020), both by Anouk van Kalmthout
How would you describe your relationship to the natural world?

Sometimes, when I sit in my garden house and watch the sunlight on the shimmering leaves in the big trees above me, I can feel the strength of nature pouring through every fiber of my being. It’s like a wave of energy and tropical plants and birds and a cacophony of sounds. It feels so important, especially because of these times we’re facing. The natural world holds such mystery and aliveness. Feeling connected to it can take me to a different place, beyond earthly things.

From Earth, Anouk van Kalmthout
How does nature inform your creative process? 

I feel like we perceive our surroundings mostly in a way that is not necessarily the truth. There are so many more layers that go beyond human sensory interpretation. For instance, we are actually not that different from a tree, but we just speak a different language. Most people see trees as a dead object that we can use to produce materials for society. But trees actually have a heartbeat, and they are extremely social. They have a gigantic network underneath the ground where they communicate with each other, providing others with food and nourishment or release warning signs if a threatening insect is biting their leaves. They are pretty magical creatures. Ever since I’ve found out about this, I’ve looked at my surroundings with a whole different view. If we could see beyond the visible spectrum of the eye, we could notice everything around us is so alive and surreal. I try to put that in my work as well.

"I can feel the strength of nature pouring through every fiber of my being."

On the Edge of Heaven, Anouk van Kalmthout

My work has a romantic and bright surreal feel but it also carries some unpredictable darkness. I see it in nature as well, where shadow and light are weaved evenly into existence and need each other to thrive. There’s no shame in shadow in the natural world, whereas we as humans often have a repulsive relationship with it. Meanwhile, if we can integrate this primal black energy, it also holds our biggest strength.

My next project ‘Metanoia’ (2020) will be about my personal transformation from last year. First diving deep, later feeling connected to myself and my surroundings more than ever before.

You describe your work as an exploration of "the Earth's intelligence."
What does that phrase mean to you? 

We are such a big part of nature ourselves, though often we assume we can control her. While nature does not need us to thrive, we do need her to survive. We are facing challenging times and things are going to be scary, but I believe in the collaborative connection and the restorative power of mother Earth. If mankind would go extinct, this planet would only need 30 years to fully recover. How amazing is that? She functions with effortless ease, with an intelligence that is beyond logic and reason. It is the same genius that lives in all of us. I find that very inspiring and hopeful.

The Last Summer of Reason, Anouk van Kalmthout
Your personal projects all share some similar qualities, but each one tells a slightly different story. Can you talk about what went into creating these images? 

When I create photos for my personal work, it’s usually during holidays with friends. Working with friends makes it easy for me to wander around and create on the spot. I do have some ideas beforehand so I bring some props, but I don’t plan out too much. We improvise on location most of the time. I react on existing light and surroundings and choose organic scenes that already have some surreal elements in them. The most work comes afterwards. I experiment a lot by using manipulation, which is fun, but takes up a lot of time. I usually remove or add elements, emphasizing atmosphere and play around with colors to create something otherworldly with a spark of magic.

On the Edge of Heaven, Anouk van Kalmthout