CREATIVE DNA: Michael Van Hout’s wire sculptures on display with sister Brooks Koff’s stained-glass mosaics
Some siblings remain entangled in rivalry throughout their lives and scramble to escape invisible shadows by one-upping every achievement. Then there are siblings who form sincere friendships, and encourage one another to expand their horizons and evolve into their full potential. The latter describes the relationship between brother and sister Michael Van Hout and Brooks Koff, two local artists who are displaying their works for the first time together in an exhibit called “Sibs,” which will open at Art in Bloom Gallery on Friday, Apr. 21.
“The reason we called the show ‘Sibs’ is because we’re from a very large family with nine siblings,” Van Hout explains. “Brooks is my younger sister, and we were always sort of paired up together. We have that tie of being connected at the hip as siblings.”
Van Hout is an extremely versatile artist, skilled in the arts of sculpture, painting, print-making, mobiles, and mixed-media. Prior to college, however, becoming an artist wasn’t in his plans.
“I never really considered that I might be inclined to art,” Van Hout admits. “I was working for a ground crew, and started fabricating sculptures in a sort of folk-art style with the materials I found on location.”
Always one to appreciate a project completed with his own two hands, Van Hout embraced his newfound hobby of manipulating wire, copper and steel-tie wire. He continued to develop his craft throughout his 20s. Eventually, he got his own space at ACME Art Studios in downtown Wilmington as a full-time artist. Many of his pieces currently embellish local attractions, such as Airlie Gardens Bottle Chapel, a project that also incorporated Koff’s work. His work can be seen at the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher and Greenfield Lake Park. “My work is naturalistic,” Van Hout states. “I’m working from the study of life, such as animals or human figures.”
Van Hout takes the authenticity of his subjects very seriously. He studies them in their natural form from library sources beforehand and interprets the shape into wire. “The sculptural aspect of the process comes into play after I depart from the informational side of my subject,” Van Hout explains.
For “Sibs,” Van Hout chose to display only his wire sculptures. Folks will see humans and animals portrayed. “The most unifying aspect about them is the fact that they’re made of wire,” Van Hout tells. The complexity of his work suggests a need for heavy power tools or machinery. “What makes my work different from others’ is that I use simple hand tools such as pliers, or even nose pliers,” Van Hout says. “There’s no welding side to it at all.”
Van Hout is a regular exhibiting artist at the Art in Bloom. When the time came for a new show, he got the idea to combine his wire sculptures with his sister’s glass mosaic creations. He calls it some of the best stained-glass work he has seen.
“I was talking to Amy Grant at the Art in Bloom Gallery about doing a pop-up show and showed her Brooks’ work,” he tells, “so that’s how the idea of the show came about.”
Like her brother, Koff’s original life plans didn’t involve becoming an artist but rather a nurse. She was exposed to crafting at an early age, as she helped her mother with various projects during youth. Koff revisited the idea of crafting while she was pregnant with her first child. So she took a stained-glass class.
“I dropped stained glass for a while once my children were born, since working with glass around children isn’t a very good idea,” Koff explains. “About 20 years ago, I tried my hand at it again, and discovered glass mosaic on glass.”
While traditional stained glass involves meticulous precision in cutting the glass itself, as well as the incorporation of copper foil and lead, the process for glass mosaic is more lenient. It allows Koff a bit more freedom without the rigidity of becoming a perfectionist, as stained glass mandates. “Every piece has to line up perfectly, which really didn’t suit me personality wise,” she says. “Mosaics allow for a lot of freedom and expression.”
Koff prefers to start with the glass itself when beginning a new project. She simply cuts it into tiny pieces, and sees no need for patterns or tracing. Then she’ll move onto the frame.
“The frame I choose will sort of dictate what image I can use within it,” Koff elaborates. “If I already have an image in mind, I’ll select the frame that can hold the image. If all else, I’ll just start with what glass I have on hand.”
The color of the glass is arguably the most important aspect to her designs. “I have an eye for color, which is what truly inspires to create new work,” Koff says. “For example, if I have cobalt blue glass I’ll make irises, or if I have iridescent glass, I might make a crab.”
Each piece of glass is glued onto the surface to bring forth her desired image. She first finds the focal point. “Then, I’ll focus on the background and the different colors that enhance the main image,” Koff explains. “Afterward, the spaces between each piece of glass are filled with grout.”
The opening reception for “Sibs” takes place on Friday, Apr. 21 from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. at Art in Bloom Gallery in downtown Wilmington. Guests will enjoy light refreshments, while singer and guitarist Rebekah Todd will provide the musical ambiance. Admission to the reception is free to the general public and all works of art are for sale. The exhibit will remain on display until May 27.