In September 2008, Neil Klassen travelled with his family to visit Friesland, the Paraguayan Mennonite colony where his grandfather settled in 1937. While there, the Toronto-based artist (www.neilklassen.com) was inspired by Mennonites’ relationship with the land. He began to explore this theme in a series of paintings, using a traditional motif of oil on canvas to symbolize the conventional values of the Mennonites.
“Throughout their history, Mennonites have applied their utilitarianism to build families and communities on unsettled land,” he says. “My relatives carried a strong sense of duty to tend to the land, while also recognizing the importance of leisurely interactions with it.”
In 1958, Klassen’s grandparents moved to Canada, bringing with them the culture of Friesland. Born and raised in Port Rowan, Ont., Neil later moved to Toronto to study at the Ontario College of Art and Design. He feels that his Project Friesland paintings are a way to give back and honour his grandparents through his work. Three of the paintings were exhibited at the Global Church Art Exhibit at the Mennonite World Conference in Paraguay in July.
Road to Friesland, he says, “is based on a scene from the road my Oma walked to school every day. I walked it one morning while I was visiting and passed these cattle grazing. It seemed a timeless moment, for it could have been something my Oma would have seen herself some 65 years ago.”
Of Sunset at Loma Park, Klassen recalls, “Our family gathered for a picnic at a fantastic park just outside Friesland. After a great hearty meal, like only the Mennonites in Paraguay can throw, this incredible sunset hit the sky like fire. I have never seen a sky like that. It was beautiful and inspiring!”