TO SOMEONE like myself, who never met Julie Van Duren, the details of her life strike you with their tragedy. She died on 6 October 1981, aged 44. Her husband Geoff had died only six years earlier in a canoeing accident, and it seems that she never really recovered from that shocking loss, despite the words of hope in some of her later letters. The main source of information on Julie’s life is a booklet published as part of a memorial held in 1982. I include here extracts from her writings and some poems. I want Julie’s own special voice to come through to you in the same way it did to me.
Julie was a sculptor. In her late twenties she set up a foundry with her husband in Strood in Kent and learnt metal casting skills. The local marshes provided inspiration for Julie’s semi-abstract aluminium sculptures, and also provided the clay for her terracotta pieces. She strongly defended her need to work in different media: ‘My work has been criticised for its lack of consistency, the lack of a “theme” but since when has spirit been consistent? I revel in the variety of spirit, from the trivial to the profound, and this variety calls for a corresponding variety in technical interpretation, sometimes requiring this media, another time that, so that some of my work is cast in bronze, some in direct aluminium, some in a terracotta technique I have perfected, some in resin and chalk, some in ceramic’.
After participating in mixed shows (1966-68), Julie’s first one-woman exhibition was in May 1970 at the Woodstock Gallery, London. She continued to exhibit, and sold her work through Harrods. She was reviewed in Studio International, The Freethinker and Arts Review; in October 1971 she and her husband were the subject of a television documentary called ‘Art Centre'; in December 1971 Julie was featured in ‘Personally Speaking’ on BBC Radio Medway. She had mixed feelings about the clash between public and private life: ‘Maybe I have something important to contribute to the world and I shouldn’t be so self-effacing. I must examine all this. As long as I make enough money to live. To sculpt. Sculpture. The psychological impact of this art form is tremendous, and I am Mistress of it. I am going through a crucial period in my life; that I am out of the limelight protects me. I am an undercover agent’.
Julie found it extremely difficult to adjust to her husband’s death after a decade spent together. She moved into a pair of cottages in Faversham, and converted them into a studio and exhibition gallery. Four years later she opened the Faversham Studio with a show of her own work past and present, and her husband’s paintings, thus fulfilling a long-term ambition. Some say there was a new sense of optimism about Julie’s new work shown at what must have been an exciting moment in her life, but sadly the following year she died of cancer. Above are some of the poems she wrote while too ill to work anymore on her sculpture.
From a Life
of being oblivious of my body
I am hurled
The Body is All
and will be
Out of Existence?
That’s how I did it before
When the clay refused to budge
I punched it and mentally kicked it
It stood whole
A new day