Nathalie is a Dutch artist who moved to Portugal nine years ago with her husband Paul. She’s got a vast portfolio of different types of works, but the things she’s best known for are her sculptures: surreal amalgamations of different animal bones to form a new creature.
These sculptures, called Creatures d’Or, can be spotted through the window of her storage room, just off from the main street, along with her other work, which includes paintings, textile elaborations, a book, poems, jewellery, cow bone carvings, photographs, and wooden bead neckpieces.
Each Creature d’Or is its own character, having had their own behaviours and personalities before eventually dying off. They’re each a “strong character, that can stand with pride,” Abbing described to The Portugal News. “The characters start forming as you build.”
The process begins with the unfortunate passing of an animal. Whether it be a stork that the neighbours found dead in their drive, mice and small birds that the cats dragged in, or the pets themselves long after the initial burial following their death, material for the project can come from anywhere. Then it’s a case of extracting the bones and cleaning them.
We were invited into Nathalie’s home to see her workspace in person. Everything is neatly organised, on the back wall there’s shelves full of beads, all sorted into colours, as well as several other miscellaneous items sourced from animals, such as butterflies, wild boar horns and deer antler stumps. In a filing cabinet next to the door to the living room is the bone storage, where bones of all shapes and sizes are found. Tiny mouse ribs give way to a massive boar skull, and everything in between can be seen in those drawers too.
Cycle of life
Like LEGO, Nathalie fit a head into a hipbone, and a shoulder blade onto a lower jaw, demonstrating the game of mix-and-match that builds the foundation for the creature to come. “It’s the cycle of life,” Abbing explained, “I’m taking something dead and giving it a new life.” Every sculpture, once elaborated, is coated in a layer of 24-carat gold leaf, reminiscent of the Egyptian pharaohs.
One of these sculptures is called Monseigneur Alphonse, a specimen from the beginning of human history. “Monseigneur Alphonse is an attempt in the quest for the perfection of men,” Abbing explains on her website. “Assuming men were the first humans, he got a choice in his own evolution. Understandably, men chose for a prominently present third leg.” Unfortunately for the creature, it couldn’t control this new limb, having to grow a second head to do so, which just confused things further. It became too top-heavy and devolved into a quadrupedal form. Nathalie Abbing makes these awe-inspiring sculptures for the sake of telling a story, as to where “a person inexperienced with art can look at mine and they won’t be squeamish but appreciate its beauty and recognise all the different bones, while someone who knows about art and history and so on can see multiple layers and make different connections,” she told.
Nathalie also showed her notebook, containing dozens of sketches in pen of many colours. These were mostly faces of old men, some smiling, most grimacing. In the room too is a canvas with a painting of her husband lying on a sofa surrounded by judgemental disembodied faces, a representation of Paul’s psychosis. These works are treated as good side projects to the main feature of her portfolio. “I need it all as a background for my sculptures, and I don’t want to put myself only doing one thing.” She doesn’t think of herself as necessarily skilled in a notable way, but in her words, “I don’t consider myself to be a painter, I consider myself a storyteller.”
Nathalie Abbing was born in Zaandam, the Netherlands, in 1967. At the age of fifteen, she became the owner of her own make-up company, getting clients from artists she met on the set of a TV programme her parents ran and specialising in creating characters with special effects. Having dropped out of school, she worked for several photography, television and film productions over her time in the business, having “learned a lot from other disciplines. I got to work on all the different sets which is a different experience from that of a regular person,” she reminisced.
After fifteen years though, she was ready to move on to new horizons. “I saw the limitations of working in a team versus doing it yourself,” she explained. She discovered the world of fine art and how it’s used to convey an artist’s feelings directly, and that pushed her to go back to school. In 2008 she’d graduate from St. Joost Academy of Art and Design in Hertogenbosch. Her graduation project were two series of photographs: one being self-portraits, and the other being a collection of photos of dead animals her cats brought home, showing “the beauty of what is usually not seen as appealing,” as stated on her website.
In 2015, she moved to Portugal, to the sunny Algarve town of Lagoa. She described the population as “wonderful,” explaining that “people here are more open to seeing work like mine than in Holland.”
Because of the deeply personal nature of art, “if you get criticised then it goes right through you,” Abbing admitted. “When I was in art school, I had a friend who went to university for biological agriculture, and she said in university, in the halls, you never see anyone crying. On the other hand, in art school there are people breaking down everywhere.” Nevertheless, the emotional connection with her art is something Nathalie values. “One thing I like about being an artist is that your personal history matters.”
Nathalie and Paul, who is also an artist, are having exhibitions in the Portimão Arena from September 22nd to 24th, where all the Creatures d’Or and more will be out on display for your viewing pleasure. Entry to the venue is free, and they can be found at stand number 91.
“When I was a make-up artist, I wanted to be the best in the world, to be too busy for Spielberg,” Nathalie concluded her thoughts. “So, I always aim high, but never with a finishing point. With my art, I want to humour and educate people, give them a new way of thinking. Where it goes from there, we’ll see.”
Star in the 2015 music video for the hit single “Headlights” by German musician, DJ and record producer Robin Schulz featuring American singer-songwriter Ilsey. Also a journalist.