Young Belgian artist Miguel Delie gives tossed-away toys a second chance at life by creating wonderful collages. While his work subtly hints at the ills of our consumer soci ety, it is first and foremost about joy, color and happiness. A walk down memory lane to those carefree childhood days we all knew.
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Miguel, can you tell us a bit more about yourself? Like: where are you from, what did you and what do you do?
I’m from Torhout, a town near Bruges, in Belgium. Actually, I often just say I’m from Bruges, as no one has ever heard of Torhout. I was 10 years old when I discovered I had an artistic talent. I started drawing and painting and by the age of 15, I decided to study art at the Bruges Art Academy.
I was an average student. I was good at drawing and painting, but so was everyone else there. I remained average because, at the academy, I felt I was constantly pushed into a single direction, which didn’t appeal to me at all. Hence, I got a bit worn out and my passion for art somewhat faded.
I searched for something new and started to be interested in fashion. The designers, the colors, the forms. It eventually made me become a stylist. It came with a lot of guidelines, but still I had more freedom there than I ever had at the academy.
So I had to make a choice: continue my studies or become a stylist. After several intense years being a stylist, my passion for art started getting the upper hand again. One day I got entranced by the shapes and colors of toys. And that same day I started experimenting.
You create these wonderfully colorful collages made out of toys. An exercise in bringing back sweet memories?
Absolutely. You know, I have a lot of difficulties with a lot of things on this earth. Too many to name. But when I do my art I feel a kind of happiness and wonder. That’s the feeling I want to share with the audience. My work has to take people back to good times, to times without pain, to times when they thought the world was one big party. I want to bring back a bit of that time and make people happy. A toy itself is something very common, but it’s made with very good intentions. Look at it like Disneyland. This great dream world, where everyone is happy, even though it’s not true. But it allows you to leave reality behind for a moment and you forget your worries. That’s all I want to achieve.
Is it also a comment on ourplastic, consumer society?
Definitely. We live in a society where trash is produced all the time and everywhere. Take textiles. People stand in line in front of Primark to buy 100 kilos of trash and throw it away six months later just to go stand in line again! You don’t want to know how many toys get tossed away every year. I don’t want to convince anyone to become a ‘green’ person, but I definitely try to invest in good things, in beauty, especially in beauty. I think it’s important to support beauty and creativity. But, to be honest, I keep such comments to myself. My work is above all based on happiness.
How do you get all those toys to create your work? Lots of kids in the family?
Ha, ha, no fortunately not. Children make me a bit nervous. I visit a lot of flea markets, spend a lot of time on eBay and every week I visit some charity shops to buy secondhand stuff other people don’t want anymore.
And once you have the ingredients, how does it go from there?
Most people think that it’s a very chaotic process, that I just randomly take toys and start. That’s not the case. I think about each piece I put in place. Each color, each form needs to be in balance and perfectly divided, so it becomes a whole. Once all the pieces are in place, I finish it with paint. Here again I keep each color perfectly balanced. When the work’s completed, I keep it in my studio for a while. After a week, I look at it again, checking every inch, to see if it’s perfect. Because if you’ve been working at a piece for weeks, it becomes difficult to see mistakes. Sometimes even a small mistake makes the entire work feel wrong. So I have to do it again. Perfection makes the difference.
Would you say you had a happy childhood?
Yes, no doubt. I was very happy. I had everything I needed: good parents, a lot of friends and no worries. I was allowed to do what I always wanted, which is art. As an artist, I sometimes feel ashamed I’ve had it this good.
What were your favorite toys?
My favorite toy was Playmobil. It’s the only thing I ever asked for. But I never built the things that were shown on the box – much to my brother’s frustration.
What were your favorite shows on TV?
The same shows most kids liked, I guess: The Smurfs, Power Rangers, Loony Tunes. But I never really watched much TV. If I did, it was to see a movie. I’ve always been interested in movies. Still am. If I’m ever in front of a television, it’s to watch a movie.
What do you want to be when you grew up?
An impresario at the fair. When I was little, it always felt like some kind of magic. The most important day of the year! I was fascinated by the colors, the drawings, the music, the lights. When I got a bit older, I wanted to be an actor.
You already mentioned you studied at the Bruges Art Academy. Did it not teach you anything at all?
Not really. It was merely a place to develop yourself as an artist, which is very important. I could do whatever I liked, which gave me the opportunity to grow as an artist. But art, I think, isn’t really something people can teach you. It’s something you’re born with. The academy, I think, pushes you in a particular direction, which is something that restrained me.
Also, I didn’t get all the information you need as an artist. For example, how a gallery works. When I graduated I had hardly heard of an art gallery, while that’s very important for an artist today. On the other hand, the experience taught me to keep going, no matter how long and hard the road is. To keep working and working, to fail and to start again. You may have as much talent as you like, but if you can’t give yourself 100%, you may as well quit.
Have you always created art? When did you feel confident enough to fully focus on your art?
Yes. The only exception is when I just graduated. After my graduation I didn’t do anything involving art for three years. And then from one day to the next I started again. Out of the blue. I suddenly realized that art was what I had to do. I completely changed my focus. The only problem was that I worked full-time as a stylist, so I had to interrupt my flow all the time. And quitting my job wasn’t an option, because I needed the money to buy equipment and to finance my failures.
So, I worked during the day, then ate very fast to start working in the evening. Sometimes I spent entire nights working at my art, especially when I had just started. I always found it hard to stop when I was in my "flow". When I’m in my flow, I can’t think about anything else, not even about food. You work only on adrenaline with your eyes set on your goal. I worked for three years, before I finally showed my work in public. I had some small successes, but I never really sold anything. This went on for another two years. After that I finally came across a gallery that believed in me. Then the number one DJ in the country bought a piece and soon after a second gallery followed. That was the first time I felt it was going to be okay.
As a stylist, what did you do?
I used to work for Tommy Hilfiger. I dressed the models for photoshoots, which were used for magazines and Tommy Hilfiger stores. I also did the styling for numerous boutiques. I had to make sure that image and story were exactly right. It’s a bit like the same thing I do with my art: making sure all pieces and colors fit perfectly together.
Do you still do other jobs or are you now solely an artist?
I spend a lot of time being an artist, but I also work as a stylist. It makes me feel a lot safer. I haven’t reached the phase yet where, as an artist, I can confidently say that I don’t worry by the end of the month. But my goal is to be a full-time artist within the next three years.
What would you advise young aspiring artists struggling between art and doing jobs to make ends meet?
If your situation allows it, fully commit to your art. Give yourself a certain amount of time to achieve your goal. If you have to, take some extra jobs, but make sure you’re always focused on your art. As an artist you should be able to separate yourself from everything else going on in your life. Your head has to be completely clear.
In my case, to be able to do my art, I needed a job. But in the end an artist has to be an artist and nothing else. Hard work is of course required. A good artist is occupied with his art, day and night. Ambition and full commitment are necessary. Never lose sight of your goals. You’ll never get there by only working on Saturday afternoon. Oh, and a tip, choose a girlfriend or boyfriend who gets what you do.
Finally, if you were to be an animated character or toy, what would it be?
That’s a difficult one. I think I’d go for Patrick Star, Spongebob’s best friend. He spends his days eating and doing nothing.
INTERVIEWED BY: PATRICIA SPROUSE