'I ride my bike through town and see new things constantly'
interview with Dick Bruna (creator of Miffy)

photo: Ferry André de la Porte

When somebody asked a well-known advaita master what he was driving at when he mentioned ‘naturalness’, he was answered: don’t eat your soup with a fork. How simple can it be to be simple? Amigo talks to Dick Bruna, graphic designer, draftsman and writer, about his life, his career, his love and the simplicity of everyday life.

As an individual in society you have to live up to certain expectations and you are very easily pushed into some sort of profession. Do you recognize that, and how did that occur to you in your life?

That external pressure is a fact, yes. My father really wanted me to follow his footsteps in the publishing. My grandfather asked me, ‘Boy, when are you actually starting a real job?’ That was when I was already in my forties. Only when my work started to pay off, they became more interested. I draw and write stories as a profession. And it’s also my hobby. From the age of four I have been drawing farms, while other children went outside to play soccer. And I just kept on with it that. Even now at the age of 81. And the nice thing is that it all worked out fine. I am very thankful for being able to ride my bike to my studio and do what I do there. I maintain that seven days a week; I’m constantly busy. And I am still making up new stories, even after having written almost 120 books.

Where does that rapture come from?

I always want myself to do better. Tomorrow needs to exceed yesterday. Miffy remains a very difficult task. I work with a paint-brush and poster paint and every Miffy I draw is different from the one before. I am also very precise and can spend a whole day on one drawing. You have to be the best you can. Everything that leaves these four walls has to display a hundred percent of what I’m capable of doing.

Do you see yourself as a blessed person?

I realize I am a very lucky man. And honestly, I am unable to do any different. It is such a gift to be able to do this and provide for my family at the same time. What more does a person want? I have never felt the need for a bigger house or a boat or other things like that. I am happy with my bike, and going out to dinner every now and then. I ride my bike through town every day and see new things constantly. A door handle, a small fence, a school building – every single thing inspires me to write new stories. I perceive intensely, I notice that everything around me is always fresh and exciting. It involves a lot of experiencing. When I was little and watched the ocean I already noticed how it changed colour. The first second it looked brown, when the next it had turned grey and bluish. The view remained the same, but it was also different over and over again. Also the city goes through similar changes as the evening grows dark. And also I love riding through the forest and sniffing up the all different atmospheres. This is something you cannot teach people, it’s something you feel. Maybe that’s what is called ‘astonishment’? Well, at least it’s never boring and the concept of routine doesn’t exist for me.

Do you need some sort of special talent to be like this?

Talent? Everyone has talent. There are people out there who draw way better than I do. But I am a self-willed whole-hogger. And I absolutely do not find my pursuits a ‘job’. Of course I do work – I have been busy from early morning ‘til late at night. But it’s a great blessing to have the ability to maintain one’s own time schedule. When I look at all those people with their nine-to-five’s… I talk to youngsters sometimes and always encourage them to hang on, in spite of the outcome of their effort. At least, when they’re passionate. When it’s in them, they shouldn’t doubt themselves.

Do you feel like it’s all plain sailing with you?

People sometimes say to me, ‘It must be absolutely delightful to work like this and have a job like you have’? But that’s somebody else’s perspective. To me, this is a very serious occupation. And sometimes it’s also very gloomy, for example when I’m sketching away endlessly and realise it’s just not working. I still have a job to do.

Do you think a lot?

Yes, I think about work a lot. It keeps me awake at night. Also on my bicycle my mind keeps spinning. And even during holidays. Sometimes I park my car somewhere to write down a little plan.

Do you think about life a lot?

Philosophically I don’t go too deep. Most of the time they’re such complex stories, I don’t really care. Annie Schmidt once told me, ‘I’ve never grown older than eight’. I have a similar thing. I have remained four years old my whole life and have a very childish outlook on the world. I don’t know anything about finances, juridical matters and investments. I leave that to my kids. I enjoy the small, daily things. A child that jumps over a tile on the schoolyard.

In Zen tradition, the simplicity of every day life is pretty much considered as the highest good. Are you into Zen?

I know Rients Ritskes, a Zen teacher from Utrecht, whom I met at the place where I regularly have my coffees. It was a period in my life when I felt extremely uptight. He advised me to take a few minutes in the morning to meditate. And I did so. When I arrive at my studio, I turn off my phone and I sit still with my eyes closed. Here, I count my breathing. I notice it makes me very tranquil. About ten minutes later my egg-timer rings and I get back to work.

In all her simplicity, Miffy is also a bit ‘Zen’.

Art is leaving everything that’s unnecessary behind. Two dots and a cross, those are the only three tools to reflect Miffy’s mood. And that is very exciting. I also create a lot of space around my characters, just like I did on the posters I used to design. People need to be touched. A man who missed his train and had to wait for a long time once sent me a letter. He did not mind at all, he wrote, because he was sitting opposite one of Bruna’s posters. The covers for ‘Zwarte Beertjes’ were always as simple as I could possible make them, too. The final poster even had no words whatsoever. You have to try to say as much as you can with the least amount of words. It gives space for people to create their own fantasies.

What is it you live for?

You have a duty to unravel your talent, and with this in mind you have to give your all to achieve the best results. That stands for me, too. And it’s a road filled with highs and lows. Sometimes I look up to the sky while riding my bike and mumble ‘thank you’, or ‘damn it’. Maybe that’s a very childish thing to do. It probably has something to do with the Remonstrant (Dutch protestant) education I’ve had, haha!

Lastly, what is it like to be Dick Bruna?

Just fun. I have an occupation that I like, my children are doing well and I haven’t had any health problems – yet. Let’s knock on wood for that. These are things I really appreciate.

[by Vincent Peeters]

website: www.miffy.com