Words and drawings by Matt Cotten


I lived in Rotterdam for a few years and given the confluence of canals and rivers I made many sketches involving boats. Here are a few. 

I recently returned to Rotterdam for a short visit and I tried to walk each morning. Here is a route I often took, past canals, houseboats, a very busy highway interchange, and an intriguing graffiti tunnel. There was also a friendly donkey in a field, an abandoned factory, and many small gardens. Although urban, with the automobile dominant, the landscape was well-ordered and tidy and somehow peaceful.

Another view of my walking route. There was much to see. 

Concerning pollarded willows, the practice of trimming back willows to force new growth is common around Rotterdam. Earlier it yielded branches for baskets and fences and firewood, now I suspect it is just a nice tradition. In any case the pollarded trees along canals are pleasant to see, so common you almost forget to notice them. 

The River Rotte runs a very short distance from the polder north of Rotterdam through a series of small lakes, the Rottemeren, into the city and then disappearing underground in the city. On warm Sundays you would find many small boats exploring the water. I liked the idea of following a river through its entire course and I am proud to say we cycled the entire distance of the Rotte (between the two red dots in the map in the bottom right panel).

There is a lock connecting the Schie and the Maas rivers (the Parksluiz) close to the lab where I worked. Considering that some of the land around Rotterdam is below sea level, the locks and all the pumping stations ensure that things stay dry. I would sometimes take my lunch and walk over to watch barges passing through the lock. The lockkeeper’s house and associated buildings were constructed from handsome dark brown brick. Once I saw a barge with a small very happy dog patrolling the deck, he seemed to have a good life travelling the canals and rivers. There was a drawbridge and much excitement before the bridge was raised to let a boat pass: lights flashing, sirens, red and white striped barriers lowering.

The barge “Hero” passing through the Parksluiz.

I had just started drawing with a Japanese blue ink (Sailor Sei-Boku). The color goes well with all the Dutch water. You can almost match the ink color with a mixture of French ultramarine and Indian red.

There is a taxi boat service running between Hotel New York and other stations on the Nieuwe Maas. My daughter had a Saturday morning circus class in a converted dockside warehouse. We would cycle to class, I would watch the class for a while and then walk along the river to draw barges and taxi boats and cormorants. There were two categories of taxi boats, the majority were new, slightly tubby, plastic boats, not terribly elegant but with efficient capacity and probably low maintenance. The rarer taxi boats were sleek wooden craft with elegant varnished mahogany decks. They all seemed to have brave captains who liked to carve sweeping curves around the barge traffic. The wake plumes from the boats were impressive. With a Jan Hammer soundtrack it could be a Dutch Miami Vice.

Zandvoort, May 2015

I spent an early May holiday at the Dutch seaside with my daughter. She was a little girl then, losing her baby teeth. It was a quiet time before the weather warmed and the beach filled with people. The weather was dramatic, big clouds moving across the sky. The air and light were lovely, the company fine. Here are a few sketches from the trip. 

We stayed in a little house just over the first range of dunes and had to trudge through the sand to get to the beach. I was reading Kobo Abe’s Woman of the Dunes which seemed appropriate for the landscape. The terrace looked out on the Amsterdamse Waterleidingsduinen which is a special dune reserve for collecting water. We had no automobile so we would walk into the village each day to buy supplies for our meals.

Actually there are no such curves in the Netherlands coast.

There were empty guesthouses along the beach. And picket fences to control the blowing sand, like in Iowa except it was sand and not snow. In many places the sand was winning. When the sun was shining it was very strong and clear, throwing striped shadows from the pickets.

You can appreciate the low altitude of the region, standing on the beach you can just make out the peaks of the house roofs beyond the dunes. The May sunshine was surprisingly strong but there was a fresh wind off of the North Sea that made us glad we had warm jackets.

One morning we woke to complete fog. The view out the back terrace to the dune reserve was like some vast empty wilderness. Occasionally deer would wander into focus, we saw two stags with large antlers facing off to battle and then the fog grew thicker and they disappeared.

I am a virologist and biochemist with a long interest in painting and how ink and pigments  interact with paper and water. I have been lucky to have lived and worked in a variety of locations and I have kept a drawing diary of what I have seen through the years. See more at Ebolatent.

Categories: art, featured, memoir

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