While many people find some type of inspiration or reason for becoming an artist, Henri van Bentum believes art is his destiny.
The 87 year old has been creating art for the better half of his life, as evidenced by the dozens of colourful abstract paintings methodically placed along the white walls of his Victoria home.
“It’s not a question of inspiration, it’s destiny,” said van Bentum, who recently released a new children’s book.
Van Bentum started creating art several decades ago, not because he wanted to, but because he had to.
Originally born in the Netherlands in 1929, van Bentum faced a severe bout of tuberculosis, an infectious disease that affects the lungs and causes chronic coughing, fever, night sweats and weight loss, and was admitted to a sanatorium in 1952 at the age of 23. In order to get his mind off the disease, doctors suggested van Bentum take up painting.
He started with small crafts and sketching with pencil, then turned to painting with pastels and water colours. Art quickly became an enjoyable way for van Bentum to pass the time while he recovered.
After he was released from the sanatorium at the age of 26, he immigrated to Canada and worked at several restaurants in Toronto, where he continued to paint, and began making a name for himself as an artist. He put on a number of solo and group exhibitions in Paris, Mexico City, Vancouver, Banff, Montreal, New York and Vancouver over the years.
“Inspiration comes from nature and from within — intuition. It’s not long before I starting working from intuition. I had much more fun doing that,” van Bentum said.
“I can change that lemon to purple. I made the sky orange and yellow and I really enjoyed that. After that, the sky was the limit. I didn’t have to look at things, I wasn’t enslaved to what I was looking at.”
After several years of travelling to places such as Italy, Peru, Mexico and India, where he met his wife Natasha, he received a rare opportunity to combine his love of art and passion for travelling.
In 1974, he was selected to teach art classes on a four-and-a-half-month-long world cruise with the Royal Viking Line. For two hours a day, van Bentum would teach art to passengers, while sailing around the world — a dream come true for the artist.
For the next 15 years, van Bentum and Natasha circumvented the world several times on roughly 30 different cruises.
It was on one of those cruises in which van Bentum met a couple from the United States. The woman, he said, had previous experience as an artist. From there, they became friends and continued to keep in contact in the years following the cruise.
He eventually settled in Victoria in 2014. The following year van Bentum’s health took a turn for the worse and was diagnosed with bladder cancer, which came as a shock to the then-85-year-old.
But during his battle with cancer, van Bentum received an email that lifted his spirits.
PJ Heyliger, the friend he had met on the cruise years ago, wanted van Bentum to write a children’s book, which she would illusrate. While he’d never written a children’s book before, he jumped at the chance to write fables, not only for the young, but to re-kindle the youngster in everyone.
Twenty minutes later, he had written King Neptune’s Jewels with Tails and Fins, about a whimsical visit to the realm of tropical fish in a coral reef. Now, five months later, the artist-turned-author isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
Following treatment for cancer, van Bentum recently finished his second book, Nimbert and Tirwinkle in an Enchanted Flower Garden, about a garden gnome and his fiancee and their adventures with different flowers from around the world.
“Fables reflect evergreen archetypes of the human family,” van Bentum said. “If some dictator came along and ordered all the existing fairy tales be destroyed, they’d soon re-appear, since their themes are eternal and universal.”
Both of van Bentum’s books can be found on Amazon.