Constructing Beauty: Anne ten Donkelaar

In the Netherlands, this artist creates floral art that melds both the real and the cutout in a narrative homage to blossoms she gathers from forest and garden
"I love a flower with really long legs. It makes it more elegant somehow, almost as if it’s flying. I strip away all the leaves and let the flower stand out, stand tall." –Anne ten Donklaar
The artist created windows for the Paris department store Printemps in celebration of its 150th anniversary. “I love a flower with really long legs. It makes it more elegant somehow, almost as if it’s flying. I strip away all the leaves and let the flower stand out, stand tall,” says Donklaar.
Ann ten donkelaar
Multiple components make up each one of Anne ten Donkelaar’s constructions, allowing her to build on diverse textures, colors, and shapes. The end result is a shadow box, custom made to give each element space to stand on its own.

When Anne ten Donklaar takes an increasingly rare moment to sit down and talk about her art—the complex, beautiful constructions she creates from real flowers as well as two-dimensional representations she finds in books—she practically radiates. Pretty and energetic, bright and open, the 36-year-old Dutch artist inspires and motivates because she so obviously finds contentment in what she sees and does. And what Anne does has resulted in a robust body of work that has captivated flower lovers around the world.

“I don’t start with an idea in my head or a sketch on paper,” she says. “I follow the flowers and the colors I’m working with.” Anne says she has always loved making pictures, playing with color, and concocting floral soups and art out of the things she finds in the garden. When asked to name her artistic influences, she simply points to a sweet pea that lies in wait in her studio. “It is always the flowers. They lead me to each composition.”

It has been that way from the start, as Anne’s interests have veered toward the creative since early childhood. At art school, she studied product design and was working on a related professional project when she found her current calling. “I was creating designs for embroidered pillows,” she says. “I was making mood boards with everything I wanted to include, collecting flowers from the garden and picture books. I started to like my mood boards more than my pillow  designs, so I followed that trail and here I am.”

Her mood board/floral constructions  incorporate blossoms, stems, and natural objects that flourish around her home and that she finds throughout her travels. “I am working toward a balance in each piece. It’s like a puzzle or a dance,” she says. “I may love a plant and then build flowers around it. Or I may begin with a color or a shape.”

flower construction anne ten donkelaar
The artist balances the colorful with the subdued, the cutout with the real, as shown in her work, Flower Construction #58

As much as her work reflects her love for color and the showier sides of the plants she selects, the more utilitarian stems play a vital role in her compositions as well. “I love a flower with really long legs,” she says. “It makes it more elegant somehow, almost as if it’s flying. I strip away all the leaves and let the flower stand out, stand tall.” In some cases, she incorporates the miniature root ball; in others it is all about the sinuous stem that leads to a broad or minuscule blossom.

Anne has learned to trust her instincts. “My professors were not always so happy with my ideas,” she says with a smile. But she continued to follow her own head and found satisfaction in her creations. Validation from the outside wouldn’t be far behind. The artist has completed a major commission for the windows of Paris’s Printemps department store as well as work for clients who find her through traditional means (art galleries in Europe), social media platforms (Pinterest has been especially important), and, not surprisingly, word of mouth.

Her process starts with secondhand books and walks in the forest, meadows, and flower markets of Utrecht. The books provide images that Anne cuts out with precision. “I glue them to paper to make them stronger and easier to work with,” she says. For her foraged flowers and stems, she uses a large press made by her husband, Vladi Rapaport. “They must be completely dried before I can use them.”

She lays a canvas flat and begins composing the construction, arranging and rearranging elements until she is satisfied. Then she moves the piece to an easel and changes things around some more. “I see it differently once I move it, and I add or take away,” continuing to pin and paste to make each piece complete. Vladi, who is a product designer, builds the frames—shadow boxes that allow for the layers of flowers to emerge and even cast shadows. “When they are hung so you see the shadows,” Anne says, “that adds another dimension to the piece.”

flower construction anne ten donkelaar
The precision and meticulousness that goes into each one of Donkelaar’s works is evident in the details of Flower Construction #2

Having moved in to their current house last December, the couple now lives in a community comprised mostly of fellow artists, all who have studios in their houses that surround a grove of cherry trees. Anne’s walls are covered with pieces waiting to be shipped off to collectors and those staying close at hand to inspire her. She takes a disciplined approach to her craft, devoting regular 9-to-5 hours to her constructions. At least that’s the plan. “But sometimes I get stuck or have an idea that I just have to finish, so I come back after my son has gone to bed,” she says.

For although Anne tries to impose order on her day and on her methods in much the same way that she elicits order from nature, ultimately she knows it’s often best to let nature take its course.

By Frances MacDougall

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