People often postulate about what makes art, art. Is Rothko art? Warhol? Hirst? What about the values in the differences between Rembrandt and Matisse? The answer, of course, is that they are all art, brilliant or valuable in different ways to different people. Art is subjective, and everyone will see something different, or feel something unique, in each piece they see and love one artist differently to another for reasons all their own and in ways which are often inexplicable.
Color Me Chocolate Roses & Wildberrys. Courtesy of Aase Birkhaug. All Rights Reserved.
But besides all of that academic to-and-fro, you have art which is easy to love. Often, art which is easy to love is simple. Not simplistic in skill or even in subject—but rather, art which is easy to fall for because the beauty of it is plain to see.
Flowers are not only an enduring subject as far as fine art is concerned, but they are also a complex and weighty one. Not only beautiful to look at, the pretty petals of flowers carry a whole language of symbolism—but that’s not something you have to see. You can look at a flower and appreciate it’s simple beauty without having to see anything beyond that.
Abstract Autumn Roses. Courtesy of Aase Birkhaug. All Rights Reserved.
Norwegian artist Aase Birkhaug paints roses. A lot of roses. She’s been painting and lovingly admiring them for years and years, now. And her fascination with the pretty blooms isn’t as simple as just the appreciation of a beautiful thing. Birkhaug is as dedicated and invested in health and wellbeing as she is in painting and artistic skill. A physiotherapist as well as a painter, Birkhaug believes that art holds the key to wellness.
We know that colour therapy works. We know that being surrounded by beauty and loveliness can help improve moods and infuse calm, and hospitals now, especially children’s hospitals, are using bright and fun art to varying degrees in their treatment rooms as a means of soothing patients.
Autumn Roses. Courtesy of Aase Birkhaug. All Rights Reserved.
Fittingly, Aase’s art made it’s first prominent public debut in the waiting room of her physiotherapy office. She lined the walls with bright, gentle florals and found that her patients not only appreciated the art itself but were soothed by the roses, as well.
Apart from floras and nature, Birkhaug also draws influence from her own personal history. Her family is dotted with creatives and artists—from the painter and Norwegian art school founder Anna Soe Brunchorst Ibsen, to poet Henrik Ibsen and Doctor Conrad Birkhaug.
Late Autumn Rose. Courtesy of Aase Birkhaug. All Rights Reserved.
Birkhaug’s roses have quite the following, and her colourful canvasses have been cross-crossing the globe in exhibitions and showings since the ‘90s. This coming year alone she’s taking part in a score of festivals, including the Florence Biennale, and showing in Palermo, Garda, and New York, among others. Apart from just exhibiting her works, Birkhaug is also due a haul of prizes this year and is beginning work on a book of and about her art.
I recently chatted with Aase about her roses, what it is about them she so loves, and the very busy year she has coming up:
Courtesy of Aase Birkhaug. All Rights Reserved.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where do you live and work now?
I work both as a painter and also as a physical therapist. I was born in Bergen, Norway, and I grew up at a place called Paradise in Bergen with my parents and my little brother. I lived there until I was 18 years old. My mother still lives there–she’s now is 90.
I now live only a 10-minute drive from Paradise in a place called Fjøsanger, Grønnestølen (which translates to Green, or something like that). At home, I have my own atelier on the first floor.
It’s quite large; about 96 m2.
What drew you to art?
I think I was born into art. I have always been interested in art, and I have always painted and drawn. I think of painting all the time, and I think about colours all of the time. I was born in the astrological sign Libra, and one of the Libra traits is of aesthetic sense, such as the appreciation of the beauty.
My grandfather Harald Ibsen, my grandfather’s cousin Anna Sofie Brunchenhorts Ibsen, my aunt Borghild Ibsen, and my father’s uncle, the famous Doctor Prof. Conrad Birkhaug, were all painters. The famous poet Henrik Ibsen is Anna Ibsen’s cousin (Anna Ibsen had a painting school in Bergen in early 1900), so it’s possible I inherited some genes from my relatives and ancestors.
Also, from an early age, I attended art exhibitions and was very interested in colours, shapes, textures, and the impressions that paintings give.
What ignited your passion for painting roses?
I have been painting Roses since the early ’90s.
I’ve always been very interested in botanicals and botany, and have always admired flowers. Later on, in the 1990s, I started to window shop florists looking for roses and often found myself inside florists looking at the roses; smelling them. During the summertime, I started taking photos of roses. Every day I would travel to the Arboretum at Milde in Bergen to take pictures of the roses. They have about 500 – 600 different types of roses there.
I started painting a series of Roses in 1990 and 1991, through 1992.
I received the rose lists from the botanical staff in the Arboretum, and have also bought many rose books. To take inspiration from the literature and the photos in the books is of huge importance to me.
Autumn Roses II. Courtesy of Aase Birkhaug. All Rights Reserved.
What is it specifically about roses that inspire you?
The look of a Rose, the colours, the smell, the shapes, the shades, and their impressions together with their names. Often, roses are named after prominent and famous people in the world and throughout history.
Inspiration, for me, can also come from the meaning of a Rose in a philosophical-historical sense. A famous Italian philosopher wrote a lot about this when we had the ‘Exhibition Una Rosa e Una Rosa’ in Musei Di Strada Nouva Palazzo Rosso in Genova, Italy last summer.
Do you have a favourite rose or a varietal which you especially love to paint?
David Austin Roses, Old English roses, historical roses, and Gallica roses are some of my favourites. My favourite colours are double filled pink shaded and white roses. But my absolute favourite rose is the ‘Rose Felicite Parmentier’, which was selected by the Norwegian Rose Association Board as the 2017 ‘Rose of the Year’. I have painted it, and I use it as my promo card.
What’s unique about Norwegian art? And how do you find your heritage has influenced by your art?
It’s difficult to say what’s unique about Norwegian art. Maybe nature and the botany give me the inspiration to paint.
As I mentioned, my heritage has influenced my art because of my family and ancestors. Watching what and how my grandfather and aunt painted and drew, as they did in my grandfather’s house, and looking at their paintings has also been influential.
Anna Sofie Brunchenhorst Ibsen’s ‘Rose paintings’ inspire me, as well. I recently received some works of hers from an art trader.
Rose Felicite Parmentier (The Rose of the Year 2017, Norway). Courtesy of Aase Birkhaug. All Rights Reserved.
How has your art changed and evolved from when you first started, to now?
What has changed the most in my art as from my start to now, is my technique. I started painting only watercolour paintings or aquarelle, and later on developed and evolved using other techniques like oil, tempera, gouache, pastel and acrylics.
I like tempera, watercolour and gouache best. I feel that working with tempera is working with the real pigments–the real colours.
Walk us through your process—what’s the first thing you do when you’re about to start a new work, how does it come together, and how do you know when it’s finished?
The first thing I do when I am about to start a new work is thinking about the process. I select a motif or motive that gives me the inspiration to prepare to a make a new painting; that can be a trip in nature, in the rose garden, in a rose book, or looking at the fourteen thousand photos I have taken of different roses over the years.
I then select paper or canvas, choose colours, and select the size. Sometimes I use the motive or motif I have selected all the time during the painting process, and other times I do not use it more than just to get started. Then I paint until I intuitively know I have finished.
The painting process may take some time–from days to weeks to months–and differs from painting to painting. Often, I have to take a break and the look at it again to see what is missing. That can be the colours, the shapes, the softness, or the whole composition of the painting.
I know it’s ready when I feel the painting has a sort of balance–harmony in colours–and the spread of the painting on the paper or the canvas is in harmony.
You were recently selected to participate in the Florence Biennale this coming October. What do you have planned for the festival?
I am planning and preparing three paintings for The Florence Biennale 2017. The theme is ‘Earth, Creativity and Sustainability’.
The first painting is ‘Roses & Birds in Nature’. It features dark pink and natural brown colours in acrylics and tempera. I haven’t yet decided on the title. The second, a dark pink abstract tempera painting, is ‘The Roses in Universe Together with Stars and Planets’. The third painting is called ‘Roses in Harmony with Each Other’.
Rose Louis, watercolour, 2015. 10 x 15 cm. Courtesy of Aase Birkhaug. All Rights Reserved.
You’ve also won a host of awards over the past few months and have also been invited to exhibit in New York. Firstly, congratulations! And secondly, can you tell us a little bit about all of that?
Thank you very much. Yes, I have received about 17 or 18 international awards and prizes since March last year up to now. It all started when I set up my Facebook site in August 2016 as a way of sharing my paintings.
The site has received about 70,000 likes over the year, and some of the paintings have received from 2 likes up to as many as 10,000 and 80,000 likes–some in only days.
When the Facebook site went live, art curators and other art people suddenly started contacting me and inviting me to international exhibitions, art biennials and competitions. I started receiving international awards and prizes all at once when working on these competitions, exhibitions and biennales.
I have a long list of exhibitions coming up this year–at the New York Art Expo, Tokyo Art Expo, Florence Biennale 2017, Dubai Museum 2017, and many more.
Where do you hope to see yourself and your roses five years from now?
I hope five years from now I will be working only as a painter. Painting my roses and trying to share my impressions and the feelings and the ways I perceive roses with the rest of the world, and with people who like them and love them.
What’s coming up for you?
More exhibitions and international Biennales, I think. Maybe more international awards and prizes will come up during the coming years.
I have had many invitations I have had to turn down due to a lack of time to prepare for the exhibitions. I hope my life with my roses can bring joy and happiness to other people, entertain them, and that they like looking at them.
Rose de Paradise III. Courtesy of Aase Birkhaug. All Rights Reserved.
You can find more information about Aase Birkhaug and her artwork at her website.