A modern-day alchemist melds senses of sight, smell

Dutchman Maurice Joosten explores aroma design, art


On the back of Maurice Joosten’s business card, a silvered phrase floats across the otherwise blank expanse: “Solve et Coagula” (“Dissolve and Unite”). For Joosten, 48, this ancient dictum of alchemy provides a motto linking his work as an artist, aroma designer and yoga instructor.

His sculptures flow with an illusion of nonbeing, aquae-vitae transmogrified into insubstantial solid; his aroma designs are engendered by sense, metamorphosing image and instinct to guide his creativity; his body relaxes into space, enfolding away matter as a teacher of Kashmir yoga.

Joosten may not be able to transmute metal to gold, but he is a modern-day alchemist-philosopher.

“I do now three different fields — art, aroma space design and yoga — but there is something that connects them: a search for the ephemeral,” he says. “The dissolving of boundaries is what somehow seems to return again and again in my work.”

Joosten’s first brush with reworking boundaries came when he was 18 years old. “I grew up in a small, provincial town, not so far from Amsterdam. My family did not have an artistic background, so for me, becoming an artist was not really in the picture.”

His university, the Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam, melded the practical with the arts, a school both for training art and for producing art teachers. “It was a really special climate at this school in the ’80s, because before, I felt oppressed, full of rebellion and destruction with nowhere to channel this surge of energy, but then I discovered the passion and the beauty of the art world.”

Joosten moved naturally toward sculpture, as his father owned a steel construction company and his grandfather was a blacksmith. “I was very familiar with artisans, and I always liked the physicality of things.”

Abandoning his practical idea to be a teacher, Joosten worked hard as an artist and after graduation in 1986 was awarded a research fellowship-artist in residency at the Royal Academy of Visual Arts.

“It was not like a school with a curriculum; you get a studio for yourself and you work there the whole week, and teachers come, some who are well known or even famous artists, to advise.”

Joosten’s boundaries expanded, and two years later, with his residency at an end, he resolved to be a working artist.

“In the beginning it was difficult, even in Holland where there was a lot of state support for the arts with subsidies. I managed to survive with various side jobs.”

Joosten rented a small studio in the east part of the harbor in Amsterdam’s Havens Oost.

Four years later, his art again reshaped his limits: Joosten was awarded the Charlotte Kohler Prize for promising young artists and architects in the Netherlands in 1993.

“When I got the money, it was not so much, but I knew I wouldn’t get such an opportunity again soon,” he said, recalling how he put the money into stock investments. By converting his art award into more money, Joosten was able to create more art, buying himself time away from side jobs to focus completely on sculpture for the next few years.

By 1997, he was ready for yet another transformation: “I always had an attraction toward the South and Mediterranean culture, maybe as a Northern European from a rather Calvinistic culture. Not only the beauty of the art, but the whole culture, the naturalness and ease in everything.”

Although Joosten had been considering one of the classical cities, like Rome, after visiting friends in Turin he decided to move to northern Italy. “There was a lot of space available, much cheaper than in Amsterdam. My friend, an architect, had his own studio on the docks from the railway, built a hundred years ago. I looked at a huge space, a loft of 300 sq. meters, 20 windows on the second floor. It was the dream of every artist.”

Joosten lived in Turin six years, and the intensity of living and breathing only his art forced another morphing of boundaries, this time from within. “I don’t know what exactly triggered it, but I went through a sort of transformation. First I changed the way I was eating, becoming vegetarian, paying attention to foods — then I started taking yoga classes.”

His yoga teacher “introduced me to the whole world of nonduality,” he says. “It was a kind of treasure, to read the works of (French author and philosopher) Jean Klein, I thought, this is simply truth. It is not about religion, but someone who described reality in the purest way.”

His reality, now bordered with financial success as an artist, morphed once again. “In Italy there are many private art collectors compared with Holland, where art is more supported by the government, so I made contacts with lots of people in Italy who loved art and bought art — not just for work, but because they loved it. I could make a good living out of it.”

Soon after his arrival in Turin, Joosten started a collaboration with Studio Trisorio, a gallery in Naples, and in 1998 received the first prize in a nationwide contest called “Art and Design Competition, Light and Shadows.” Joosten traveled to various art shows with Studio Trisorio, and it was at ARCO, in Madrid where five minutes of Joosten’s time engendered another transformation.

“The fair was almost finished, and my gallerist had already gone back to the hotel. People were packing up as it was almost closing time. I was alone in the booth, when suddenly a Japanese man came in to look at my work. He said, ‘I really like your work, and I think the Japanese people would really appreciate it, your sensitivity.’ “

Joosten had no special interest in Japan or Japanese art at the time, but Fumio Nanjo, then an independent art curator who is now the director of Mori Art Museum, recognized something in Joosten’s work. “Now I understand, but at that time it showed me the universality of art, that there was something in my work that could resonate in Japan, although I had no conscious links to the country.”

Joosten’s five minutes with Nanjo led to a contract with Panasonic to create a sculpture for Matsushita Electric Works in Tokyo. First arriving in Japan in November 2002 to begin work on the sculpture, Joosten met his future wife, Mamiko, an expert in macrobiotic cooking, within a month.

Something again reformed: “I had worked for six years every day in the studio, and somehow I wanted a change. I was not inspired anymore. I had already decided to close the studio and move somewhere else in Italy when the opportunity in Japan came.”

Joosten’s successful first commission for Panasonic led quickly to two more, and with his relationship with Mamiko becoming serious, he decided by 2004 to stay in Japan.

With so many life changes, Joosten momentarily dissolved his bonds to sculpture. “It almost seems another story of my life, how to overcome all the barriers in speaking in another tongue. It has been always a major thing in my life. The apparent difficulty in understanding and making myself understood abroad has probably forced me to rely more on other forms of communication like through my art and fragrance design.”

Finding other ways to communicate, Joosten focused on teaching yoga and adjusting to his new life. He and his wife moved from Tokyo to Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, “searching for more green,” and through a connection with a Zen monk in Hayama began teaching yoga every week.

Searching for a different outlet for his creativity, an opportunity emerged. “A friend of my wife’s was the manager of an aroma company, and they were looking for someone with experience in the visual field to make original fragrances for clients. Often you need to integrate the visual design of the interior or the architecture or even the brand image with the images that evoke a scent.”

Although Joosten had long been sensitive to scents and used essential oils himself, he was unsure. “I started with a few small commissions, and I learned a lot about the process, and became more and more fascinated. I like very much the connection between these two senses, reinforcing each other. You don’t see it, there is no physical matter, yet scent has such an impact on our being.”

Joosten started collaborating with @aroma, a company specializing in space design using scent, creating original fragrances, in 2006. Some of his clients include Honda, Sony, the Fujiya Hotel in Hakone, and apparel company SHIPS. In addition to concocting original scents — Joosten designed a line of native Japanese essential oils using indigenous scents such as yuzu (citron), hinoki (cypress) or hiba (cypress leaf) — he also creates aroma stones for use with the oils, and regularly checks the quality and availability of oils worldwide.

Returning to sculpture in 2005, Joosten’s work now flows between his small studio in Kamakura, his creations with scent, and yoga in Hayama. For Joosten, everything unites and dissolves through the senses into awareness and simply being.

“It may sound somewhat abstract or even mystic, but I think we all have similar experiences in our daily life. Standing in front of an endless wide-open landscape, lying in the arms of your lover, admiring a beautiful artwork or watching a lively dance performance: As if you as a person dissolve and become one with the experience itself.”

For more information, see www.mauricejoosten.com or www.at-aroma.com