Chips Ahoy with otto de Bruijne: An Interview with the Creator of the Canvas Chapel

Elise Arsenault | Reporter

On the 3rd of October, I had the delightful opportunity to speak with Dutch artist Otto De Bruijne and his wife Renée over tea and cookies. Sporting a grey beret and a cheeky smile, de Bruijne answered all my questions with the utmost warmth and sincerity. Certain answers he shouted, others he whispered and many he accompanied with song (until his wife gave him a playful nudge and some Dutch chastising).

 I am therefore honoured to share with you a selection of the wisdom this man offered with a sharpened wit and golden heart.

Otto with his wife, Renee.

Otto with his wife, Renee.

: Is one of your paintings, or a certain group of them, closest to your heart?

 Otto de Bruijne: In 1992, I had a burnout. I was about 41 or 42, and I had worked for twenty years in missions in Africa. But then I was home and so tired, and it took me one and a half years to come out of that.

 That is when I first began drawing and eventually painting. I made fourteen paintings, all 80 by 80 centimetres, of the symbols in the Church. They were my first works in painting, and I did them in nine weeks! It’s crazy because they’re all 80 by 80 centimetres! All acrylic, in a kind of graphic design, all very fresh and strong. It was then that I knew I was an artist.

  : Did you ever intend to pursue the arts before 1992?

 Otto de Bruijne: No! No! I must say that it was the Lord that guided me. It may sound strange, but I thought that missions alone was what I was supposed to do. Then the Lord said to me, “Many people can do this, but there’s only one who can use your unique gifts.”

 Of course it was good to do all these amazing things, but was it the best for me? Sometimes the good is the enemy of the best, you see? My call is a creative call, and the Lord had to show me that.

 In effect, I worked for 20 years in a relief and development agency to help the poor. Now, I am 20 years further, and I am doing arts. Both are commissions given by the Lord. Both are equally valid. Both are equally in the heart of the Lord. There’s no discrepancy, there’s no contradiction between the two. It’s the same Lord; it’s the same call. And what is the basis of this all? It is communication. He called me as a communicator. Maybe in 10 years time I’ll be communicating in a different way!

  : So what was the defining moment that turned your heart from missions to art?

 Otto de Bruijne: As you know, I was in a burnout and depressed. What was the turning point? I was driving along the rivers in my country when I saw a very old church, which was from the 10th century and built in the classic Roman style. I saw it on the border of the river, with trees all around it in spring. I thought, “I have to draw this,” so I went to a bookshop and bought a drawing pad and pencil, and I sat there for a full day. Morning, to afternoon, to six o’clock, I drew this church. The next day I came back, then the third day, then the fourth day, then the fifth day – the same church – for six days!

 I realized that in difficult times, you are inward-looking. Of course you have to do that for a while, but then you must become outward-looking. I had to look outward to see and to draw the church and the trees. I was concentrated not on myself but on the objects. That is what took me out of myself. When I drew it, I rediscovered again that drawing and painting are my gifts. That is when I made the fourteen paintings. First it was a therapy, then it became a calling.

: You evidently have such joy in the Lord! Have you always?

Otto de Bruijne: When I came to Christ I relativized myself. I started laughing at myself because I saw that I am just this little man! We come by for eighty years or so and then we are a leaf in the wind. It was then that I found humour, for humour is the ability to relativize ourselves, to reduce ourselves to the right proportions. We must find this humour, because today all of man is either puffing himself up, or talking himself down.

 So when people ask how I became a Christian, I say it is because of joy. I still remember when I came to youth group as a teenager and there was a song, it was a revived hymn sung with a trumpet. Oh, I’ll never forget that trumpet! The trumpet brought me to Christ!

: What would you say to someone caught between their heart’s desire and what might seem more practical?

Otto de Bruijne: It depends very much on your age, for first you have to experiment and make mistakes. You have to discover, over many years, how to discern between the good and the best.

 We were foster parents for five children when we were married at 21 or 22 years old. We wanted to serve the Lord and do something good, but we were not good in it at all! So after two years we had to stop, but we did try.

There’s a certain time of your life that you have to serve in an environment that you have not created yourself. You must walk a path where others are with you and you are not the chief; first you have to learn.

 Then you develop and create your own path, this is the difference between a pupil and a teacher. A teacher has found his own path. Somewhere, uphill, you will make a path for your own uniqueness, but people want to do that too early. They become arrogant, but you have to have a period of being taught where you are first shaped and moulded.

  : What is one last thought you’d like to leave with Redeemer students?

Otto de Bruijne: For the students, I would say this. If you lay your ear on the heart of the Father, the Father will tell you that you are His dream. He will say that He wants your life to blossom to the fullness of what He has in mind for you. So please, hear His voice.