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Meet SOFT? artist: Klaas Rommelaere

Shot of Klaas' studio with his embroidery work scattered across the room
Studio of Klaas Rommelaere
Frederik Vercruysse

Why didn’t you pursue a career in fashion?

During my last year at KASK, I had already wanted to make everything by hand: embroidery, crochet, knitting, knotting... you name it. I already had a strong preference for manual work at that time. When you are a student you have little money, and embroidery is an easy and cheap way to get your prints and drawings onto fabric. For four years I specialised in different manual techniques. Then I had an internship at Danish designer Henrik Vibskov, where I got to see how art and fashion successfully influence each other. During my next internship at Raf Simons, I learned to make the right mental connections, for example, how to translate your inspiration into fashion. It was then and afterwards that I realised I wanted to create things that were much freer than fashion.

Klaas Rommelaere graduated from the fashion department at KASK Gent in '13. He focuses on visual art inspired by his personal life, family, etc. Rommelaere expresses himself through textile and crafts, creating flags, tapestries, masks and installations.

Klaas Rommelaere in his studio sitting on chair surrounded by his (un)finished work
Klaas Rommelaere in his studio
Frederik Vercruysse

In each tapestry, different scenes seem to develop as a horror vacui (fear of emptiness). Where do you get your inspiration?

I do not follow hypes or trends in art. Ethnic cultures, on the other hand, I find interesting because of their traditional and ancestral value. I like to be inspired by contemporary folklore from my own soil. Another great source of inspiration are films and series. If you ask me there is no cultural expression better at capturing emotions than they do. My work is for a large part autobiographical. Despite the many characters and scenes, my tapestries do not read like a comic strip. I do not literally transfer personal events or interests into my work. I am able to explain a canvas or installation in just one sentence. For me, my work is quite simple: usually, it is based on one idea and because I have worked on it for so long, it is also fully substantiated. Personally, they read like a diary of the past years, but spectators are able to see their own story in it.

Detail shot of Klaas' studio: shoeboxes
Atelier Klaas Rommelaere
Frederik Vercruysse

You work in peace in your studio in Borgerhout. Do you have a ritual?

My studio is like a cocoon in which I work every day. I really enjoy the freedom of being in my own studio. I start drawing and embroidering while Netflix is playing, and I forget about the world around me. It is calming. It may sound very dramatic, but I use my art to process small and big events in my personal life. These also include positive events of course, otherwise my work would be rather depressing. I prefer to do it this way instead of bothering other people with my stories. Creating a work takes about six months, and this slowness is an essential part of the end result.

In the meantime, you have intensively been working together with a group of seniors who meet in service centre ‘De Zeelbaan’ in Merksem, also known as your ‘madams’. You also rely on seniors in Roeselare, Ingelmunster and Westende. What does this intense collaboration add to your artworks?

In my school years, I already worked together with my grandmother. She helped me with the manual work and taught me almost everything. When I used to work alone, I only made three works a year. So, when I moved to Antwerp, I started looking for more grandmothers. I give them a drawing or pattern, show them my inspiration and then tell them what I want the work to become. Then I let them interpret my drawing in their own way: they choose the colours, the wires and the technique. They have their own aesthetic. In fact, I find the result much more interesting when there are as many ‘madams’ as possible working on it. The different influences are enriching. I really owe everything to my ‘madams’ and my grandmother – they have given me their skills and time. It is important to me that I do not work with these seniors just to keep them busy. I am not a social worker. They are an essential part of the creative process. For ‘SOFT? Tactile Dialogues’ you made a monumental installation entitled ‘Future’. We see different characters, as well as a lot of cans of soft drinks and beer.

Je werkt ondertussen al vijf jaar intens samen met je ‘madams’: een groep senioren die samenkomen in dienstencentrum ‘De Zeelbaan’ in Merksem. Daarnaast heb je ook nog dames in Roeselare, Ingelmunster en Westende. Wat voegt deze intense samenwerking toe?

Tijdens mijn schooltijd werkte ik samen met mijn oma. Zij hielp mij met het handwerk en van haar heb ik bijna alles geleerd. Toen ik nog alleen werkte, maakte ik slechts drie werken per jaar. Toen ik naar Antwerpen verhuisde, ben ik meer oma’s gaan zoeken. Ik toon hen mijn tekening en vertel hen waar ik met het werk naartoe wil. Daarna laat ik hen volledig vrij in het interpreteren van die tekening: zij kiezen de kleuren, de draden en de techniek. Ze hebben een heel eigen esthetiek. Ik vind het eindresultaat veel boeiender wanneer er zoveel mogelijk madams aan werken. De verschillende invloeden zijn verrijkend. Ik heb werkelijk alles aan hen en mijn oma te danken. Het is voor mij wel belangrijk dat ik niet met deze dames samenwerk om hen bezig te houden. Ik ben geen sociaal werker. Ze zijn echt een wezenlijk deel van het maakproces.

Atelier of Klaas with his embroidery work hanging on the wall
Atelier Klaas Rommelaere
Frederik Vercruysse

Do you want to tell us more about this?

The title ‘Future’ is based on the song ‘Mushaboom’ by Feist. She sings “We’ll collect the moments one by one, I guess that’s how the future is done”. I thought a lot about that sentence when I started to date with my boyfriend last year. He sent me photos of the havoc we left behind when we had dinner. There were always a lot of cans. For me, these cans symbolised those moments. In addition, every piece of ‘future’ is a symbol for a moment of the past year and I think that all of them together must represent what is yet to come: the future.