The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Art with a meaning

The artist Peter Ursem likes his work to ‘speak to other people’. Hester Viney went to meet him.

The day before he opens his studio to the public for Dorset Art Weeks, Peter Ursem lets me in. It’s a notoriously busy time for artists across the county, so I expected a certain degree of last-minute disorder or, at the least, a sense of impending invasion. But there was nothing of the sort. Peter is a man who functions with precision and style. It wouldn’t suit him to dash about, juggling canvases, phone-calls and press releases, pallet in hand, working to the wire. Classical music eases its way into the room from some invisible source, and there’s time for a cup of tea before we begin our interview.

Peter at work in the open air

Peter at work in the open air

Born last of nine children, Peter grew up in the Netherlands. It was 1963 and, still feeling the effects of war, his parents didn’t have a lot of money. Fortunately, they both brought creativity into their home so entertainment was never lacking. He remembers the whole family sprawled out on the floor, drawing on New Year’s Eve, in a memory that oozes contentment. His mother is a painter now, though at 82 it is a skill she had to wait to nurture, given the size of her brood. Peter’s father was the head of distribution for a Dutch newspaper, and it is to him that Peter credits the strong organisational gene he has inherited.

It is not a gene that has gone to waste. Not only does Peter paint, draw and make prints, he is also the manager of ArtCare at Salisbury Hospital, and co-director of his own charitable company, Counterparts. Lost in the mix somewhere, he is also a writer. It was in writing than he began his career, with a degree in Dutch Literature and Language, and an MA in Comparative Literature Studies. The course of his career took a dramatic swerve when, to his surprise, he secured a place at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. ‘There was this undercurrent, always,’ he says of the shift in his focus at that time. ‘I decided to bring art to the foreground.’

Not one to take the easy option with student loans or bar work, Peter opted to remain in Utrecht where he made a living as a freelance writer, travelling to the Hague for evening classes at first three, then five nights a week. It was in Utrecht that he met Helen.

Talking through his biography, education and early career, Peter is methodical, helpful, linear. But when I ask about Helen Porter, the singer and composer whom he married and with whom he eventually moved to England, he becomes a writer, sketching with visible fondness the moment their fates fused.

Landscape with small trees, oil on canvas

Landscape with small trees, oil on canvas

In 1990, as Peter was beginning his studies at the Royal Academy, Helen worked in her native England as a composer of musical theatre. One day she had a last-minute request to cover for somebody, leading a weekend course on musical theatre in a drama school in Utrecht. ‘So she said yes to that job,’ Peter tells me with a smile. ‘She stepped out of the plane in Amsterdam, it was a beautiful sunny day, and she said to herself, “There’s something here for me”, which, in the end, turned out to be me.’ It is a statement of absolute happiness and modesty. It was an event that shaped their futures.

After graduating in 1995, Peter built up his work as an artist in Holland. His degree had been in painting, drawing and printmaking but, unlike many others, he continued to work in all three. The Academy had prepared him well; he knew he would need to have a signature if people were to like, understand and follow him, but the limitations of this on his work were something on which he could not compromise. ‘It’s true that if you’re selling from a gallery it needs to know what you are; they need to know what they’re promoting,’ he concedes. ‘But I always trusted the fact that if I just followed my interests, somehow who I am will just come through anyway. And I find that’s more and more the case.’

He always found the right thing to say about her newest dress, linoprint

He always found the right thing to say about her newest dress, linoprint

And so it is. I spend an hour or so with Peter. We look at his drawings, his paintings, his dense, well-observed linoprints of landscapes, and the more lighthearted ones of people. I notice the slightly rougher, freer drawings, and the meticulous pen and ink work, dotted about his large, light studio. While all are distinct, carefully crafted works in their own right, true to their mood and medium, they are all, also, distinctly his. The theme, the thread that subtly links one to another, is best explained by the artist himself.

‘I’m very keen that art needs to have a meaning, it needs to say something,’ he begins. ‘For me it’s not about big ideas, it’s mostly about very intimate ideas, or intimate feelings within myself, that somehow find a way out through a picture. But the picture needs to have an atmosphere, or tell a story. Somehow it needs to have a meaning that speaks to other people, otherwise it’s no good as an artwork.’

This idea, of the artist imparting a meaning to his work, is what ties each of Peter’s pieces to the next. Whether he uses oil to capture a few funny round trees in a French garden, huddling together like fat ladies, or whether linocut and printed, it’s the intimate moment between a couple when a man makes just the right comment about a lady’s dress. There’s always something acutely observed and communicated in his work. The consistency is in his line of thought, the little things that have pleased and inspired him.

We are lucky to have Peter here in Dorset. With Counterparts, he and Helen are reaching schools and communities with musical theatre, creative writing and art. For ArtCare he affects the experience of thousands of patients, visitors and staff providing colour and inspiration within Salisbury Hospital. And for the rest of us, he captures moments of beauty, intimacy, curiosity and grace, and all without losing his cool.

An exhibition of Peter’s latest works opens at the Guggleton Art Gallery in Stalbridge on 18 September and will close on 2 October.

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