An artist forges a meaningful vision from his dramatic past
The paintings tell the story of one man’s life exposed on canvas—his past, his passions, his very soul written in each brushstroke. First are the paintings of his homeland, the Netherlands, or Holland. Reminiscent of the Old Masters, they capture another world—windmills against a blue sky, tall stucco buildings lining the canals, and a bearded old man smoking a pipe in the square. Then the images shift, becoming dark, disturbing—graphic paintings of skulls and bombs, of Death on horseback. Still later, they change again, spilling forth a wide range of styles and visions—palette knife portraits, floral still lifes, the warship Ranger under full sail, and finally, stylized paintings in black and white. That this is the work of one man is remarkable, but then, this man’s life has been extraordinary.
A Life Shaped by War
Jules Weyers of Eliot, Maine, grew up in Sittard, Holland. Sittard in the 1930s was a small village. Windmills and farms dotted the horizon, and in season, boats laden with tulips drifted down the canals. From the beginning, Weyers yearned to express what he saw. Although he had no formal art training, a local artist tutored him, and from age 12 on, he was never without a brush at hand.
Sittard sat on the German border, and many of Weyers’s friends were German. Families from both countries intermarried and lived companionably—a situation that would prove heartbreaking in 1940, when the Germans invaded Holland. All of his boyhood friends were drafted into the German Army, and all died there.
After the Germans invaded, Weyers was forced to work in Holland’s coal mines, which the Reich had taken over. He was 14 and knew he needed to escape or risk enslavement for the duration of the war. He managed to get away and hid in the countryside. Eventually, he reached a train station and was preparing to board when the heavy hand of the Gestapo landed on his shoulder. He was arrested and ordered to sign papers indicating that he was working for the Germans voluntarily. He refused. “The officer said, ‘By refusing, you’ve just signed your own death sentence,’” Weyers recalls. “I knew, but I would not sign.” He and a group of other young boys were taken to a troop factory in Essen, Germany, that made munitions. As in many concentration camps, the sign over the gate read, “Work Will Set You Free.”
In August 1943, Weyers happened to be outside when bombers came in force. He dove into a sewage pipe. His comrades were locked in the bunker, which took a direct hit. When he emerged from the pipe, he saw that the factory and the city were destroyed. “You see a city like that, and it doesn’t matter if it is the city of the enemy, you are horrified,” he says, still seeing the carnage. “All I could think was ‘those poor people.’”
With the guards gone, Weyers escaped, hiding by day and traveling by night across Germany. He foraged late summer fruit and vegetables in the fields and finally returned to Sittard. At 8 p.m. one night, he knocked on his family’s door, only to have his mother faint at the sight of him. “They knew the Gestapo had taken me, and they never heard another thing,” he says. “I was assumed to be dead.”
Weyers’s home visit was brief; it was only a matter of time before the Gestapo would find him. His uncle, a priest, was a leader of the Dutch Underground, and Weyers decided to join. For the next three months, he hid in a cloister that was also a shelter for mentally disabled patients. Then, he was transferred to the Klop Ploeg, or KP, the fighting arm of the Underground. “We spread out all over the region, living with different families who risked their lives to shelter us,” Weyers says. “To reduce the risk, the Klop Ploeg came together only to plan and carry out missions. We also hid in the swamps as the Germans didn’t like to go in there.”
After D-Day, the Allies battled their way across Europe until finally, they were three miles from Sittard, where the Dutch Resistance was already entrenched. Sittard was liberated, but Weyers’s war did not end. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, then joined Allied forces being shipped to the Dutch Indies. War still raged in the Pacific, and Weyers was ready to fight. But, shortly after he arrived, the atomic bombs were dropped, and the war ended. It was time to go home.
A Diverse and Powerful Legacy
In Holland, Weyers worked as a painter. Each day, he bicycled past a shop where pretty Jeannie Hoofwÿk worked. One day, he said, “Hello,” and soon after, romance blossomed. The two wed in 1949 and in 1951 immigrated to the United States.
The war had not prevented Weyers from painting, and with peace at hand, his creativity flowed. “All through the war I had a brush with me; whenever I could get paint, I painted on anything I could find—walls, buildings, anything. I painted all over Europe,” he says. “Now, I was determined to live as an artist. I gave lessons, painted murals, did faux painting, put gold leaf on frames, and worked on my own art.”
“He painted all day for others, worked on our house, then stayed up until two in the morning creating his paintings,” Jeannie marvels. “He just needed to paint. Every day, I came down to a new painting.”
Weyers’s compelling paintings drew wide acclaim, and his work was featured in local and regional art magazines. He exhibited at the Portland Museum of Art, where he was honored with awards, and was featured at The Gallery in Ogunquit, Maine, where his work hung alongside Picasso, Gauguin, Rodin, and Matisse.
In his career, he explored every medium. A large semi-abstract, conveying the look of tile, shows a ram being attacked by an eagle; another is reminiscent of the French cave paintings at Lascaux; and yet another is a palette-knife sculpted self-portrait. At first glance it appears to be nothing but the semblance of a face covered with blobs of paint, but step back and it resolves into a stunning image of Weyers as a young man. On another wall hangs the agonized face of Christ on the Cross. Weyers also sculpted, creating plaster masks of his face and Jeannie’s, then painting them in 24-karat gold. “That was not fun,” Jeannie says. “You had to have your eyes sealed, your nose blocked, and breathe through a straw for 15 minutes while the plaster set!” Still, the results are stunning.
The Vietnam War and the advent of the turbulent sixties brought Weyers’s horrific war memories to the forefront, and his paintings conveyed his despair. In one, reminiscent of the death camps, a gaunt woman, her mouth a round “O” of anguish, cradles her starving child; in another, an atomic clock counts down to doomsday; while still another shows a skeleton on horseback fleeing a burning town. “After seeing 70,000 people killed by bombs, the thought of another war, of more bombing, was more than I could bear,” he says. His paintings also captured the sixties’ drug culture, the passing of Martin Luther King Jr., the violence of the race riots, and the University of Texas clock tower shooting.
“People have said I’m provocative,” Weyers says. “But they don’t understand. I put my life on canvas. If you ask me what my style is, tomorrow will tell. I paint what I feel. I have to have a certain feeling in order to create a particular painting. I couldn’t recreate today the paintings I did in the sixties when those emotions were so raw. When things happen in the world or in life, I comment on them through my painting. I have to paint.”
Soul of an Artist
Weyers recently celebrated his 87th birthday. He still heads to the studio every day. The sunlit workspace overlooks his beloved gardens. His hands are crippled by arthritis, but he can fit a brush into his fingers, and art still flows from his hands. On his work table rests an African head he crafted; another painting sits on an easel. Macular degeneration is slowly taking his eyesight, already robbing him of his sense of color. He now works in black and white, creating graceful, graphic paintings of figures that are part floral, part human, and mystically beautiful. Off to one side sits the piece that perhaps best sums up the man and the artist: done in charcoal, it is a weeping eye set within a window frame. In front of the window is a table covered with art supplies. On the back of the drawing, he wrote in Dutch, “This is my last painting, my eyesight is going, going, and I can only paint in black and white now.” Yet he does paint every day—defying limitations and capturing life as he sees it.
The Artist at Home
To understand the artist, you must visit Weyers at home, for he and Jeannie crafted every inch of the house and grounds. The house dates from 1838 and, when purchased by the Weyerses, had no bathroom, no heat, and no lights; it was covered in layers of rubbish and animal leavings and had a basement full of water. The foundation needed redoing, walls torn down, supports built. The two of them did all this largely by hand.
Today, the house blends American architecture and European design. “Jules drew every room, planning exactly how things would fit together,” Jeannie says. “He then built everything to fit.”
When they bought the house, the yard was literally a dump. Now, more than 300 hostas surround the crushed stone drive and walkways. Pear, plum, peach, and apple trees, raised by Weyers from pits and seeds, dot the yard. Gardens wrap around the house and shape various living areas—the screen house, patio, and a chicken coop, which matches the main home. Weyers plays with color and shape. Succulents grow side by side with lamb’s ears, sunflowers, and daisies, and unique plants such as Dutchman’s pipe capture the gaze.
The early life of Jules Weyers was surrounded by death. Yet, when you look at the gardens, you see that he ultimately created a haven that celebrates life.