I met the ultimate cool girl. Isabel Miquel Arques. You know the type. Has no idea she’s the most desirable woman in the room. And not because she’s the most beautiful, but because she is the most interested. In everyone else and in everything. Of course, she has a great story and great style. Not surprisingly, she an artist.
While most of her work involves a camera, calling Isabel a photographer seems so limiting. She rarely prints editions. Her portraits capture more than just the face of her sitter. She prefers to take pictures in the subject’s home where they live their most real life. She experiments with paper. She sometimes prints on newspaper so her art ages as its owner does. She hangs photos in box frames with folds and waves creating three dimensional photographic sculptures.
Her unconventionality can be traced back to her childhood. She grew up in the Catalan city of Lleida. Her parents separated when she was young. Shocking in Catholic Spain. Money was tight. She describes it as “a Spartan way of living in a very rich cultural environment.” Photography was a diversion and a shared activity with her father. She still has her first Kodak Instamatic, though now she works with digital film. “There are so many things you can do with it”.
Yet her first formal training was as an apprentice to a pinhole camera photographer in Amsterdam. On her last day, at the Café Luxembourg before heading home to Spain a man came up to her and started chatting. They hit it off, she gave him her number in Spain. He called. He visited. In 12 months, they were married. Four kids and almost 25 years later they still are. They even work together. Another of her hats… she does all the decor for his burgeoning coffee houses business. The interior aesthetic is influenced by their home. Training someone else to take over the visuals of the business is her next challenge. Though she loves working with Jan, it is a full-time job that takes her away from her art.
As a mom of young kids Isabel took tons of photos… who doesn’t? It wasn’t until the family moved from Amsterdam to London to Amsterdam to Antwerp in 2005 that she decided to try her hand at being a professional. The city inspired her. It is small, but highly cultural. “Culture is close to you” she explained to me. “The people spend… on food, on clothing, on ART! They have a joie de vivre”.
“The Belgians are Catholic. They are very romantic in the way they look at art, less practical that the Dutch.” Who happen to be more Protestant.
She had sold a few portraits when she decided to tackle a bigger project. A portrait of Belgium through celebrities… with their favorite foods. She asked the Antwerp based, Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. He had just had a solo show at the Tate. He said yes. And liked the results. Word spread. The result was her first solo exhibition and her first book. 47 pictures, the who’s who of creative Belgium. Writers, designers, art critic, actors, painters revealing more about themselves than they ever would have expected through their choice of food and how they were willing to be presented with it. She’s been a successful photographer ever since.
I met Isabel in Greece. I gave her my camera for an afternoon. While I thought the sea would make a nice photo, she chose an old rusting can. Mine is a bit twee, hers is thought provoking. I feel fortunate to have these snaps. Her photos do not come cheap. Her books, luckily, are easily affordable. A coffee in one of her interiors for the Vascobelo Cafes in The Hague or Amsterdam or a visit to the Ingrid Deuss Gallery in Antwerp to see her work is a must on any visit to the Lowlands.