Eoghan Holdahl – Staff Writer
Scorch marks and cloudy shadows of smoke greet people attending Dordt University’s art gallery. “Out of the Fire” celebrates Professor Emeritus Jake Van Wyk’s past 50 years of creation and expression. It is an exhibit born out of the fire that desecrated his studio in November of 2019 when the heat loss from Van Wyk’s restored kiln caused nearby objects to catch fire.
“I know fire, I know draft,” Van Wyk said. “And I knew I was pushing it with this setup. I was suspicious of it, but I thought I was smart enough to compensate. Well, obviously I wasn’t.”
Most wood-fired kilns release their heat upward through a vent, but when Van Wyk restored his he installed a fan and backup fan to blow the heat out of a vent in the side of the kiln. There was also substantial heat loss through the walls of Van Wyk’s kiln, which he says could have been prevented with a thermal blanket.
While Van Wyk left for a short break, the fan and backup fan both failed. This, combined with the heat loss of the old kiln, was enough to ignite the picture frames and shelves nearest to the kiln. He was gone only seven minutes.
“It was devastating, and I was just numb,” Van Wyk said. “It was just a toxic stew.”
According to his official statement, Van Wyk’s studio was filled with “drawing, mixed media drawings, fine art prints in etching and lithography, painting, and clay works.”
All of this was transformed into 8-12 inches of melted debris. There were “hundreds of works of art, over 200 frames, 34 canvasses, and countless tools and equipment” lost in the fire, according to Van Wyk. Fortunately, pieces of art that were sandwiched between glass were preserved along with some sculptures, which still bear blackening from the fire.
When Van Wyk showcased Shadow Box, a piece that got him into grad school, he pointed out the beautiful way the smoke marks accentuated his design.
“It was not only saved, but God decided to add just a little bit. God took away a lot, but gave me back multifold,” he said, “in ways that I could never reproduce even with my best airbrush technique.”
Van Wyk has reframed two of his paintings to show the smoke marks on the back of the canvas instead of the original painting on the front.
Along with the reclamation of art, the fire also gave Van Wyk the opportunity to rediscover some of his work from as far back as the 70s.
“Even though these pieces were done many years ago, I look at them, and I can relate to every intimate detail,” Van Wyk said.
Apart from the emotional restoration the fire provided, it also gave Van Wyk the physical opportunity to clear out all the junk his studio had accumulated and start again. With $9,000 from a GoFundMe along with insurance claims and various sales, Van Wyk has been able to rebuild his studio.
The fire also provided an opportunity for Dordt University’s Assistant Professor of Art David Platter to meet Van Wyk, and the two have discussed and learn from each other since then. Their friendship also led to Van Wyk learning through Platter about a kiln that was available for purchase.
“I was like, ‘You know what, I think I know somebody who’s got a kiln that they’d like to sell,”’ Platter said. “So I tried to get in contact with the seller, with that kiln for that matter. And sure enough, they still had it, they wanted to sell it. So, I started talking with Jake and said, ‘Hey, I think we could find you a kiln.”’
The kiln proved to be too large for Van Wyk’s purposes, but he agreed to purchase it anyways and exchange it for Dordt’s current kiln, which Van Wyk has operated in previous years. COVID-19 has made kilns increasingly expensive and hard to find, so both are glad that they met when they did and were able to agree upon a deal.