“I paint girls in terrible situations as strong heroines”

ELLE learns from people who do it. They roll up their sleeves and create pearls from objects that are somewhere between art and craft. This time: painter-slash-pilot Laura Limbourg, for whom the sky – literally – is the limit.

She was born in Edegem, grew up in Mladá Boleslav in the Czech Republic (where the ŠKODA cars also come from), and currently lives in the heart of Harlem, New York. In a house she shares with a group of artist friends. It should be clear: Laura Limbourg (26) is anything but stable. London beckons. And Antwerp is again a real contender. “I feel like I missed a part of my childhood in Antwerp, so it would be nice to stay there for a while and maybe take some classes at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.”

Laura has just come from another art academy. The one in Prague, where she studied for six years under Martin Mainer and Josef Bolf, two heavyweights of the Czech art scene. During her second year at the Academy, she came to the realization that she didn’t want to do more than that. Her passion grew into a kind of urge, an inevitability. Study days of more than ten hours of non-stop painting became the norm. A rhythm that she carefully maintains to this day. Paint, draw, repeat. “It sounds worse than it really is,” Laura clarifies. “I give myself a day off every now and then, but when I have an idea in my head, I have to get it out first. Fortunately, I work quickly. I usually spend a few days on a canvas that measures two by two meters. I’m a quiet person by nature, but in the studio I like things to move forward. Then I’m impatient, a little hasty even. I paint everything at once, so you can almost see every brushstroke.” Laura’s positive pace immediately explains why she no longer starts with a sketch on paper. It slowed down her work process and took away a lot of spontaneity. “Eight out of ten paintings I do now are bad and I don’t show them to anyone. But I will definitely settle for two good ones!” (laughs)

‘Torture Snake Paradise’, 2021

Palm trees and prostitution

During her third year at the academy, Laura traveled to Southeast Asia, still with a sketchbook. She saw prostitution on every street corner. Young women, sometimes children, who sell their bodies to support the rest of the family. “It was shocking to see with my own eyes how easy it is to get girls, especially in the big cities. Back in Prague I felt completely empty and defeated, but at the same time I had so much energy. I wanted to portray the stories of all those girls and portray them as strong heroines in a terrible situation, not just as victims.”

Eight out of ten paintings I do are bad and I don’t show them to anyone

Although Laura’s paintings are full of bare breasts and other intimate body parts, they are never vulgar. The colors she uses are soft, the lines blurred. “Prostitution is a form of modern slavery. It’s a heavy subject, so I try to paint it as lightly as possible. I don’t use gesso, but apply the acrylic paint directly to the canvas. And first I mix the paint with a lot of water, then the result looks like a watercolor. I love the washed look, where one image flows into the next.” The girls in Laura Limbourg’s art are often accompanied by traditional symbols typical of Asian culture. Tigers as protectors of the girls, dolphins as a reference to the childhood that was taken from them, the sunrise as a sign of better times, palm trees as a symbol of earthly paradise… And porcelain vases. Lots of porcelain vases. “In Yingge, the ceramic capital of Taiwan, I saw the most beautiful painted vases. Its delicate character and sensual, feminine forms fascinate me. How is it that in a country with such a beautiful culture, where you are hardly allowed to enter sacred buildings with exposed ankle or tattoo, and where there is so much respect for craftsmanship and tradition, girls are sold on the street like that?! I want to denounce that contradiction in my work.”

Laura Limbourg, painter, girls, vases
Left: ‘Jungle Joy’, 2021. Right: ‘Purple Vase’, 2020.

Last year, Laura decided that it wasn’t the satisfaction she had hoped to paint over it. So she turned to Afesip, a Cambodian NGO that works against abuse and sexual exploitation. Laura returned to Cambodia and for a while gave art therapy to children between the ages of 3 and 15, one by one rescued from a life on the streets. “We made two large paintings together. They loved being creative and making a mess all day long. Just do what kids do. The paintings were afterwards part of my graduation project, and if I ever sell them, the proceeds will go to Afesip and the girls. I get to tell their story, so that’s the least I can give back.”

Every jab or remark, no matter how annoying, is important to your growth

Booby trap

Incidentally, it would not have mattered if Laura Limbourg had never studied painting. At least she claims “for fun”. At 16, she began to soar in Mladá Boleslav’s Aeroklub, where her Czech grandfather also learned to fly in the army as a teenager. “A year after I got my driver’s license, I switched to motorized aircraft. My backup plan if my art dream came to nothing. (laughs) Did you know that the titles of my paintings often refer to aviation? During World War II, pilots always painted something on the nose of their planes. Usually a pin-up girl or words with an ambiguous meaning. ‘Booby trap’ or ‘hump in honey’ for example. Because my paintings also have a sexual connotation, I copy an old name every now and then, provided it is not too dirty…”

For now, Laura is doing well as an artist. She has already exhibited solo twice in Prague and was also allowed to participate in a number of group exhibitions, among others at Yiri Arts in Taiwan, Suppan in Vienna, IRL in New York and also at the renowned HOFA Gallery in London, where she is one of the best artists. Art connoisseurs and collectors praise her hazy and somewhat naive style, and in 2020 she was awarded the 13th Art Critic Award for Young Painting while still a student. Still, the young artist feels the necessary resistance, especially from fellow students who label her art as ‘too commercial’. “Selling is apparently no longer an artist’s goal. (laughs) But if I didn’t earn anything at all, I wouldn’t be able to send money or paint materials to the organizations I work with. And that is precisely the point of what I want to achieve.” Does it affect her, the negative criticism? “Of course it affects me, but I don’t let it distract me. I’m even grateful for it. Because every poke or comment, no matter how annoying, is important to your growth. After all, without frustration you can never improve or get above average.”

From big to small

Take a look at her Instagram page and you’ll immediately understand that Laura Limbourg’s repertoire is anything but average. The dimensions of her paintings alone… Who can hang a three by two meter canvas on the wall at home? “Almost no one, I’m aware of that. So far my clients are mainly art collectors from the Czech Republic, Taiwan, France and the USA. But the general public is also gradually finding its way to the art world, I feel that, even among people my age. Times are changing and money is worth almost nothing in your bank account.” Will she ever fold and work on a smaller scale to please the public? “I’m already folding! (laughs) Not because I do it specifically to please, but rather for practical reasons. Here in New York, I simply don’t have the space I had before. I struggle with it daily because a smaller frame limits me. Just because I usually draw the girls full size, they really seem to come to life.”

Laura’s work ‘Day Misson’ at HOFA in London, a gallery with a keen eye for young and rare talent.

Speaking of life-size works: scroll a little further on her Instagram page and you’ll see Laura on a ladder next to a giant concrete vase. She made three in total, which she then painted by hand. It is her dream – in addition to a solo exhibition in the White Cube Gallery – to create even more sculptures that, like her paintings, seek out the space. “Only I will think twice about the size from now on. These vases grew way over my head.” (laughs)

In May 2023, you can admire Laura Limbourg’s work at the Ballon Rouge Collective in Brussels.

Even more painting talent? Also read the interview with Geert Koekoeckx.

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