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On the moors of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights lavender hills, or resting in the foggy forests of Grimm’s fables, is where you would expect to find Nona Limmen’s haunting protagonists. Her photographs recall enigmatic woodland spirits, eerily enchanted deities, goddesses that hold the power of the universe in their bewitched fingers. Nona was kind enough to give us a piece of her time for Issue 017 of beautiful.bizarre, and to pull back the curtain on her gorgeously seductive world.

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Nona Limmen

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Your photographs often remind me of lost or forgotten places and events. There is a time-bending aspect to your work that feels very ancient-narrative oriented. Where did you grow up? What was the first artistic experience you can remember? How do you feel your past has shaped your present, and how is your present shaping your future?

I was born and raised in Beverwijk, a small coastal village close to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. When I look back on my childhood, my nostalgic mind evokes heartwarming and wonderful memories spent with my sweet parents, brother and friends. Childhood was the place where my earliest forms of art were to take place and it still has an impact on the art I make today. I recollect seeing movies and reading books repeatedly about fairy tales, mystical creatures, pirates and everything else from the magical world.

A fundamental aspect of my childhood was that I always enjoyed creating a different world for myself and the people around me. I was the biggest daydreamer, and my eyes were always drawn to little moments and details that someone else might not pay attention to. I would spend endless amounts of time turning my room into a pirate ship or haunted mansion, recreating treasure maps, making up fantasy games for my friends and immersing myself in a world from my favorite books and movies. All of these moments still resonate with me and the memories are all so vivid. I believe my subconscious still pulls from these emotions and memories when I’m planning new projects and ideas. I wonder how it would be to spend a day with my 10 year old self, so I could observe the imagination and impulses that I held back then in order to understand my natural artistic leanings and process.

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I always had this endless thirst to feed my imagination. Reading storybooks and watching movies was a convenient way of shaping my curiosity, understanding and expressing my feelings and discovering a world that was new to me. I was making space for broad interpretation and constantly pushing boundaries, eventually resulting in opening up the frontier to the darker spectrum of fantasy. I became fascinated with the ancient worlds, the unattainable, mythology and ominous tales from older times. These stories were shrouded in mystery and immediately captured my imagination, like analyzing a sinister dream.

Sometimes there were pieces missing from a certain text or book that forced me into putting the pictures together in my mind and filling in the gaps myself. When I was about 14, I got caught up in the frenzy of archeology and ancient civilizations. I loved to spend hours watching archeological discoveries mostly taped in the darkness of burial grounds, pyramids and temples. Like in the books, your imagination opens up, because you start projecting what you see into the darkness.  It was a great way to satisfy that endless thirst of mine.

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I visited Amsterdam once and absolutely loved it. I have a theory that cultures/societies that are surrounded with water, be it oceans or rivers, tend to be very in touch with empathy and emotional intelligence. Do you feel that Amsterdam is a part of your artistic make-up, and what is it about that city that you love?

Living and growing up in a village close to the sea and surrounded by some of the most beautiful nature reserves in the Netherlands, laid the foundation for my unbridled passion for nature and the ocean. The ocean is in a way very similar to the mysterious stories I was obsessing over as a kid. Dynamic, unpredictable and to most people an unknown frontier. It’s the idea of seeing but not knowing, the feeling you get when you are looking at something which you can’t possibly know everything about, again filling in the blanks with unconscious associations. The ocean is an intimidating force of nature that covers the majority of the planet’s surface and lots of people dare not enter this blue abyss.

Most would believe that people who live near the ocean are more appreciative of nature and its ruthless power, especially when a large part of our country is situated below sea level, but the Dutch are quite the wayward folk.

The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. Private life and work are carefully planned and nothing is left to the unexpected. Most Dutch people live a safe life in comfortable houses, obtain status and respect through study and streamlined work. We have a strong Calvinistic background and a disapproval of extremes. We have a saying called “Doe normaal, dan doe je al gek genoeg”, which means: “Just act normal, it’s already crazy enough”. A saying that gives me chills in the worst way possible.  There is no room for peculiarity.

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We are pragmatic people when it comes to many things in life, but I feel most of us are caught in hectic schedules and a fast-paced environment, leaving a thick haze over our individualistic, subconscious behavior and emotions, completely engulfing them over time. We are being forced into making life decisions that fit into what’s considered ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. But the older I get, the more deviant I react against these oppressive rules of conduct. I say, screw the rules, have confidence in your peculiar self and embrace your uniqueness!

For the last six years, I’ve been working and living in Amsterdam and I have to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with this city. Since I moved to Amsterdam, I’ve seen this already overcrowded city being invaded by an increasing flow of tourists and I feel the city’s charm is slowly fading. Often I find myself longing for the woods, the quietness and the roaring ocean. Spending moments in solitude helps me to mentally recharge from a day spent in this overwhelming city. I thrive best in an environment that’s untouched or abandoned by humans. Places that evoke a sense of being alone in the world. Still I couldn’t think of any other place to live other than Amsterdam. I adore its architecture, museums and its unique appearance. This city is drenched in history and character. That glorious feeling I get while biking my way through Amsterdam during the night hours and soaking up the silence and nocturnal atmosphere makes it all worth it.

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Much of your work seems allegorical or metaphorical. How does your process flow from idea to finished photo? What is your life philosophy and how do you think it translates into your work? 

I’ve always been interested in finding a sense of beauty and mystery in everyday life. I tend to see the world in a very whimsical way when I’m looking beyond all of the roughness of reality. It’s important to my mental health to reap excitement and awe from things that others might pass by without a second look. Finding beauty in the details and delicate corners of this world is what gives me inspiration and what makes me happy.

I like the ability to stop time and create my own version of reality. To convey something that can’t be easily conveyed. Photography gives me the power of freezing a subject in the stillness of a single moment. I try to capture that moment in which the subject seems unaware of the camera. I mostly do photo shoots with female models, as if I’m capturing them in their daily routine. The feminine form has always had predominance as the muse for the artist. Now we live in a male-centric world and women generally are oppressed and objectified, be it in art of daily life. I want to create a world where femininity reclaims its space, portraying my models as strong, independent and powerful individuals.

My artistic process is not linear. I mostly work on multiple types of projects at the same time. Once I have an idea of what I’d like to capture, I write down snippets of quotes and concept ideas in my notebook first as the conceptual part of the process.  During this process, I’m dredging the depths of my own psyche. It excites me to be able to scour the insides of my imagination, learning about myself through my creativity. I also barely retouch any of my photos; all of the elements need to overlap each other in a natural way. I think it’s important to embrace the unexpected and not striving for constant perfection, especially while working with film. I want my photography to always be intuitive, making art for whatever it is in myself that resonates, and not doing something that the audience wants to see from me. Photography is probably the only way I know how to properly express myself.

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Your photographs often remind me of Goya paintings, or mystical films in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby or The Seventh Seal. Where do you go for inspiration? What artists, writers or the like, inspire you? What do you do when you’re dealing with artist’s block?

I’m very much drawn to the imagery that has a painting feeling about it. I love to be delicate with the palette of pale colours and soft light. During my shoots, I predominantly use natural light in a natural environment. Landscapes have naturally come to be something I can rely on in my photographs. It leaves a certain amount of timelessness in my images to achieve that otherworldly feeling. Photography is the art of drawing with light; you can create many different feelings in an image by just understanding shadow and light. Inspiration comes to me from everywhere, but I only choose the ones that haunt me or stick with me. I mostly get inspiration in moments of solitude and tranquility. It never shuts up and it gets particular active when I should be asleep, haha. My ideas are primarily from my readings and pure observations about society and my surroundings, yet also heavily influenced by books and music.

An inspiring artist in my opinion creates work that in a way provokes the same experience for the viewer that inspired the artist to make the work in the first place. Many good artists, photographers and illustrators whom I deeply admire create work that has a sense of authenticity and connection to both the world around us and our inner worlds, their work changes my perception. It’s the confluence of several key elements in a pristine moment that reveals a deeper truth.

Creative blocks are oftentimes an inevitable pitfall of the artistic process. In my case, it’s sometimes hard to combine photo projects next to my part-time job helping and guiding people with mental disorders. It sometimes confuses my organization and ability to fully focus on photography. It’s hard for me to stay focused. Being the biggest daydreamer it is easy to become distracted when working on my own work at my own pace. I have always been a slow maker and I only work intuitively. The important thing is to set aside time every day to work on my art.

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What does the future hold for you? What projects, collaborations, or gallery shows are on the horizon?

Well, I’m currently working on a long term project very close to the heart, mainly focused on the darker spectrum of Dutch folklore. I’ll turn this series into my first photo book that will be published by the beginning of next year. I am also planning on having my first solo exhibition next year in Reykjavik, a city that feels like my second home to me. It makes me really anxious yet excited to work on these future plans. I enjoy collaborations and projects that are demanding, that trigger me to do something new, combined with a little of what I already know. I’ve got some exciting shoots lined up for the next few months that will keep me busy!

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