Just as there are certain types of marble you cannot get anymore, Ben Lai received a type of training that is now technically impossible to come by. He was part of the last class to learn decorative painting at the Van der Kelen school under Monsieur Van der Kelen himself, who sadly fell ill the following year and later passed away.
In Core77's final interview with Lai, he provides us with a rare look inside the school and its training methods of the time and recounts a shattering, if ultimately formative, experience that many creatives will recognize.
Core77: So where we left off in Part 3: That morning in 1994 you woke up in Brussels not knowing if you'd be admitted to the Van der Kelen School. Now it's later that same morning, you've been selected, and you're officially a student wearing a white smock.
Benjamin Lai: Yeah. And classes began that same morning, so the group of us that were selected went into the studio space and started right up.
Can you describe the studio space?
It was a huge, dark, cavernous, loft-like space. It felt a little like a laboratory, or like some lost room in a castle. It also felt kind of like going to a mechanic's garage, like going to get the oil changed in your car: Dark and dreary and dirty and cold, just like that. I have some photos I took with ISO 3200 film so you can actually see the space. In reality it appeared a lot darker than what you see in the photos.
The room was crowded with these huge, hulking easels, maybe seven or eight feet high, placed all throughout. The area was divided into four sections and you were placed in your section alphabetically, kind of military-style. There were two sides to every easel so there was a person on each side. On the easel was a piece of paper with the curriculum and each easel had a box in front of it, this kit full of brushes and tools. Basically we were supposed to guard this kit with our lives. I'd seen it before because I'd met some former Van der Kelen students at Nels' and they carried it, but I didn't know what any of the stuff inside it was for. [Ed: There's a photo of the box at the top of Part 2.]
And then you got right to work?
Yes. For the first lesson the Monsieur walked in, went up to his demonstration wall and just started drawing these little checkmarks, I remember, with a certain brush.
A little swoosh, like a Nike symbol. It was just some brown color, it wasn't anything special. And then he just left the room. Everybody was completely perplexed as to what was going on, but you got the idea that we were supposed to take out the same type of brush and do exactly what he did in his demonstration. So we basically spent the first week just doing those checkmarks. Eventually we moved into other techniques like marbleizing, wood graining, trompe l'oeil and what have you.
And what was his teaching style like?
He would enter the studio first thing in the morning—with no fanfare or announcement—and silently give a twenty to thirty minute demonstration by painting on a piece of paper on the wall. Then he'd leave the room and everybody scrambled back to their easels and tried to mimic what he did for the rest of the day.
He didn't speak at all throughout the demonstration?
No, never, not a word. He would just come in, paint and leave. And then it was up to all of the students to determine what he did and to mimic exactly what he did. During the demo it was up to you to make sure you got your own view of what he was doing. And that meant climbing on top of whatever you could climb on top of, climbing over people and just kind of shoving your way in to get a view. The room was divided into four sections and while we were not allowed to switch to a different section, we started rotating our positions within the sections so different people had better views on different days.
Some things required several steps, so sometimes the Monsieur would do step one on a panel one day and a couple of weeks later, he would go back to that panel and do step two. There was never a rhyme or reason to what he did for the day, almost like he woke up and decided what to do. In the first half of the season, it was hard to figure out what was going on.
Was there any talking between you guys? Were you sharing ideas?
Talking was not permitted, and helping one another was extremely looked down upon. The Madame and an assistant were watching out.
Would the Monsieur ever come back into the room after the demos?
Sometimes, not all the time. He might walk through and see the work that everybody was doing. He was like a drill sergeant; he would make lots of negative comments—like everybody sucked, everybody did terrible work—and then leave.
And this was all in French?
Yes. And before my vocabulary was good enough to understand the specific words, I mean, he made it known if he didn't like anything; you would get what he would say by the tone.
Later when my French was better, I remember him telling me "I know your French is not that good, but don't worry because we don't ever need to speak to each other, ever. I prefer not speaking to you. I prefer if you don't speak to me. Just do what I show you. And that's it."
To me it was great. I mean I came from a broken home, so this was like concrete guidance from a father figure I never had. He was like "Do what I tell you to do, shut up, don't talk back and that's it." Everybody thought he was harsh, but I adored it. I thought it was great and I thrived on that type of personality.
In the 'States, nobody would ever just flat-out tell you that something sucked; people would say "You could do better" or "It's pretty good." In the 'States it's not about completely demoralizing people. But Monsieur Van der Kelen had no problem demoralizing people. And there was a sincerity to it, the way he stripped everyone of their confidence and tried to make everyone work extra hard. I found it refreshing that someone could teach in a manner totally opposite to what I was used to. So, I thought it was great and something that I needed. And you weren't allowed to talk back to him.
Did you ever see anyone lose it and give him lip?
Yeah, and he would get angry. I'd also heard he'd shoved people into their paintings before, kicked people's bags down the aisles, and in the past, punched students out. He was crazy. I think he'd spent time in the military, although he grew up in the studios; that was his life. His father just brought him up in that building.
What were the class hours like?
9am sharp until 5pm in the evening, six days a week, plus homework and Sunday assignments.
And when I say 9am sharp, I mean sharp. That gate closes at 9am. It happened to me once that I was late. I was running down the street towards the school. He peeked out of the doorway when I was about a hundred feet away, saw me, then ducked his head back in and I heard the gate slam shut.
I kept running and the Madame let me in, I guess she took pity on me. But once I got inside the Monsieur kept reaming me the whole time, saying to the Madame "Why are you letting this dirtbag into my school? He doesn't belong here" and to me, "If you're not going to be here on time then get out of here."
Did school end at 5pm on the dot, too?
Yes, at exactly 5pm the gates opened and you were allowed to go out.
And I guess some students stayed behind, to—
No, everybody wanted to leave. Nobody wanted to stay behind. Because all during class, you're not supposed to sit—
Wait, for the whole eight-hour stretch you're not sitting?
There's an hour lunch break, but during class there is no sitting. You can see in the pictures, there are no seats. Sometimes you would sneak sitting down, because they can't see you at all times. So, you would try to sneak a little rest, and everybody just kind of alerted each other when the Madame or Monsieur was walking down the aisles. People near you would quietly clear their throats or whatever.
And then in the evenings you had homework, about four hours on average.
Between that and the no sitting, I see why people didn't linger.
Yeah. The physical conditions were harsh, intentionally.
Tell us about that.
The studio smelled terrible, like turpentine and linseed oil. And it was cold, a lot of people wore their coats. There was a wood-burning furnace in the back of the studio, but it wasn't sufficient to heat the entire space. The third and fourth sections got a little heat.
There were some overhead hanging lamps but most of the light came from a large skylight on the ceiling that was really dark and dirty. It seemed like it had 30 years of dust and dirt on top of it. On a sunny day the lighting was decent and on a rainy or cloudy day it was pretty dark. The photos may not reflect that because I used 3200 film.
I'd think in a studio they'd want consistent lighting, no?
I think he liked it the way it was, the Monsieur. I think he liked having a very hardcore working environment. He always said that if you could do your work in a Van der Kelen environment, then you can do your work anywhere. And he was pretty much right. We got used to it, or most of us did. Some people complained—privately—more than others. But it didn't bother me.
How long was the course, total?
Six months, six days a week.
And in that six months, how many weeks does it take before you start to feel like "Hey, I'm making progress?"
I think that you always feel like you're making progress because he loads you with so much work, you're definitely learning a lot. But I guess you mean whether you are actually getting good at doing it or not? I felt very confident in my abilities, so from the start I never felt like I was struggling.
So much happens and it goes by so fast that it is hard to really sit back and break it down. You really had to approach it without emotion and not think too much about it. You had to go to the school every day and just let it happen. I remember one time when the Monsieur said to me "I hate artists, I hate artists, I hate artists. They think too much, they think they know what they are doing. I just need people to do what I tell them to do. No questions asked. Just do it." Because he had already told me that "just do it" part in the beginning, I already had that mindset. I knew that I should just let go and follow the instructions.
Which is kind of liberating.
It was great. I think for many people it was difficult to let go and let another person control your daily regimen, but to me it was great. It was liberating, and a learning experience that I had never had before. At that time I really lacked that type of discipline in my life, and the Monsieur instilled it.
So amidst all these seemingly random lessons and the rigor, was there any point where you started to feel like you were "getting it?"
After a couple of months I began to figure it out. At some point you start to figure out how the dots connected. The techniques—there were certain marbles that were a lot more difficult for me than others, but there wasn't anything I felt like I didn't get it. Maybe I was lucky in that respect because I know not everybody felt the same way.
Did anybody flunk out?
Nobody officially flunked out, but people gave up and left the school. All throughout the term. And when people give up they actually invite a straggler to come to take the spot. That replacement would miss out on whatever instruction came earlier in the course, but people were so eager to get into the school that they didn't care.
Do you remember the Monsieur ever saying a kind word to you?
He was actually rather kind to me compared to everyone else. And I started to feel like I might have been his favorite. There's a twist to that which I'll get to in a minute. But based on my work and my personal relationship with him—there were times when he would congratulate only me and there were times where he actually said, "Everybody in the studio sucks except for Benjamin."
Was that awkward for you?
It was very awkward. I'd get a lot of looks and stares and there was quite a bit of animosity. But here's the thing: I know that the Monsieur was known for like, breaking people down and messing with them, so I couldn't take it at face value. I couldn't sit there like "He said I'm great so maybe I am great." I would push that aside and just continue working. I didn't know if he was being real or not.
What do you mean, like you weren't sure if his praise was sincere or not?
Here's an example: I tended to work pretty fast. I was fast and I didn't think too much. There were students who took four hours to mimic a 20 minute demonstration by him and I'd do it in 30, 40 minutes. I would just remember what he did, then I'd do it.
He would come by and say, "You are finished already? Erase it and do it all over again." And then I would erase everything and I would just do it all over again in like 30, 40 minutes. And then he would always say, "You work too damn fast, that's why you are never going to be good. You better take your time and really understand the stuff." He said this all the time.
Another day he said something like "Everybody sucks here. You are all too slow. The only one who is going to be successful here is Ben because he is the only one that can work fast." So it was like, mind games. One day he would tell me I'm good, the next day he would tell me I sucked. Like my being fast was bad, except when it could be used as a tool to motivate the other students, in which case it was good.
So you didn't know which to believe.
But either way, the experience of training there changed my life. It changed how I approach things and how quickly I was able to pick things up. After graduating I've learned a bunch of techniques I didn't learn there, but I credit that training with teaching me how to learn it.
Another thing is, before Van der Kelen, my life was so unstructured. All I wanted to do was party and have fun; I lacked discipline. I lacked a sense of responsibility and suffered from insecurity. Growing up, my family didn't provide any direction or push me to excel at school, or at anything. But going to Van der Kelen and having this military-style educator, who just really kicked me in the butt and taught me to wake up on time, show up to class on time, do everything I was supposed to do, and also to be able to excel at something with that type of discipline being pushed onto me, gave me a lot of confidence. At that time I felt probably the most secure than I had yet. That I had these skills, that I was gaining this knowledge, that I could do these things.
A pretty formative experience. And what's the twist you were referring to earlier?
Well, fast-forward to the end of the school year. They hand out gold, silver and bronze medals to the top three students. Everybody thought, and I was almost sure, that I was going to get a golden medal, top honors. I honestly felt like my work was better, and at the end of the term a lot of people were congratulating me, saying I was probably going to win it.
There was a Finals day at the school where you're given five assignments, to create certain things on your own, without demonstrations. They brought in external judges, people that had connections to the school. When I met the judges on that day they shook my hand and said things like, "Oh, we are so glad to finally meet you; we have heard a lot about you."
It made me feel great, and I felt very secure that I was the top student that year. And the way they do it is, several months after you graduate, you get the diploma in the mail and it indicates what honors you got.
After graduation I spent a few months hanging out in Europe with friends. By the end of the summer I was back in the 'States and the diploma finally came.
Well, I didn't get any honors and I got a very menial grade.
It actually rocked my world. It completely crushed me because I felt like I'd been duped. Like I was a pawn, or some kind of tool used to motivate the other students, in the way I described before. It made me question everything I was about. I just thought, man, I suck at this. Why did I ever think I was good? Why do I want to go on with this career? Why am I doing this?
I didn't know what to think, so I actually went back to the school on a trip back to Europe. The Madame was there but said the Monsieur was unavailable, he may have been sick already, I'm not sure. But I asked the Madame for an explanation of my grade and she was like, "Well, you know, you are erratic, what you do does not make sense. And you have no notes." Everyone was required to hand in their notes at the end of the year. You had this book that you were supposed to jot down all the notes as to what the Monsieur did, a kind of diary. And some people had great diaries of what they did. My diary was crap. It was just outlines; I didn't write anything down. I just jotted down like A, B, C, D of what to do. It was very simplistic. So going by the diary it looked like I did no work at all.
I was just like, this is BS, this is complete BS. And then the Madame even questioned how I was able to make it as far as I did without notes. She had a hard time believing that I could go about doing things without writing them down.
So, there was no closure. I didn't know what I was looking for but I didn't get it. Our conversation ended on that negative note.
It was devastating because I'd enrolled in the school looking for an identity. And I thought I had an identity when I was done. But then this identity was stripped from me again. So I felt like I was starting from the moment that I quit SVA, starting all over again.
At the time I still knew Nels and several people that I could work for, but I didn't call anyone because I was so devastated. But slowly people started calling me because they knew I was back, asking me to work with them.
I didn't want to go back to work, but I needed the money. So after a couple weeks I went back to work with Nels and a couple of other people that I had worked with in the past. That was kind of the next phase of my life, and at first I approached every job with a lack of confidence. Because always in the back of my mind I thought Am I good or am I not good? I just didn't know.
Regardless, what the Monsieur had instilled in me was to just do what you are supposed to do and not think about anything else. That was in me now. So when I went back to work, that's what I did. I approached every job without emotion and just did it. I didn't think about it, I just let my skills take over.
As it turns out, going back to work was probably the best thing for me, because as I started working, I started to regain the confidence. Somewhere along the way I did a bunch of challenging jobs, and it just clicked in me so I could say with confidence Damn, I am good. It was like my confidence woke up again. Like it had been in a coma and I managed to resuscitate it.
That was years ago. Today I realize that I am as good as I thought I was. Why I didn't get what I thought I deserved no longer bothers me. When I go to a job and I have to do something, I never feel worried that I can't accomplish it; whatever has been put in front of me I've always been able to accomplish with flying colors. I've had some demanding things asked of me and I've never felt scared of a job or as if I couldn't do the job. I now know I can do any job you put in front of me.
Aside from getting your creative confidence back independently, did you ever speak to the Monsieur or get any closure from him?
No. Monsieur was pretty sick the year after I graduated and passed away a couple of years after. Due to his illness he wasn't able to complete his teaching of that next year's course, so my year was the last full year of the Monsieur teaching it, the real Van der Kelen training. I feel really lucky to have received that training.
I know that the Madame took over and is now running the school. She's modernized everything: Now there is lighting everywhere, an air filter, she cleaned the skylight, she painted the studio all white. She made it nice. And she put in toilets, because back then it was just a hole in the ground, outside in the courtyard. But sadly the talent, the Van der Kelen bloodline is gone. The Monsieur's son was supposed to be really good and the Monsieur was once grooming his son to take over, but the son died in his twenties in a car accident. So it stopped there.
As for the closure, well, there was this rumor I'd heard. A guy who'd studied at Van der Kelen the same year I was there became a close friend. He lived in Paris and one day he met another student from Van der Kelen, someone who'd studied there after we had. They connected since they were both alumni and the student asked what year he had studied there. After my friend told him the student asked, "Do you know Benjamin Lai, in the US?" He said yes. And apparently the student said, "Oh, because they talk about him at the school all the time, and he is supposed to be really good. We were curious about working for him in the US."
That's what my friend told me, but honestly, I don't know if it actually happened or if he was trying to make me feel better. But when he told me this, I was already at peace with what I was. He told me that years ago and we never discussed it again. With my current mindset, I don't want to ask him about the incident again, because I don't need to know if it's true anymore. I no longer need to justify what I can or cannot do. Because now I know.