Jan Yoors was born in Antwerp on April 18th, 1922 to Eugeen Yoors and Magda Peeters. Eugeen was a prolific stained glass artist and painter, having studied under the French symbolist painter Gustave Moreau. In Eugeen's Studio, Yoors spent hours sketching and painting on scraps of paper and watching his father work. In this space Eugeen would also recount his experiences with the Roma in Spain, heroic tales of knights and dragons, as well as stories from Indian sacred texts, all of which would live in Yoors's consciousness and live on in Yoors's own oeuvre. It was not only Eugeen's colourful tales that stayed with Yoors, but the very colors that went into his stained glass designs, which Yoors later recalled as resembling 'oversized precious and semiprecious stones. Vibrant vermillion, flaming sun-like orange, intense ultra marine blues, royal purple, luminous golden yellow, radiant reds, and vivid green.' All of these colours and tales stayed with Yoors, who wrote how they 'woke in me a paradisiac nostalgia ever since, and which many years later would bring me back to colour and make of me an artist, after for a while rejecting art as an escape.'Read More
In 1934, a twelve year-old Yoors wandered into the world of a Roma Kumpania, or camp, near to his home, on the outskirts of Antwerp. Yoors befriended several of the Roma boys and by the next day he was traveling with them across borders, becoming integrated into the kumpania as he grasped their language and customs, eventually becoming an adopted family member. Yoors traveled with and lived among this group of Lowara gypsies on and off for ten years, dividing his time between his adoptive Roma family and his parents back in Antwerp, whom he would live with during the cold winter months. Yoors's experience was unique in that Gaje, or outsiders, are very seldom assimilated so completely into the Roma community as for centuries they have armored themselves against the hostility and abuse of the unwelcoming world through which they travel. The ease with which Yoors was able to assimilate into other cultures and groups of people would serve him well in all aspects of his life, most immediately during the Second World War.
In 1940 en route to the United Kingdom after leaving his Roma family as the result of turning down a marriage proposal, the French Resistance recruited Yoors. They had learned of his connection to the Roma and hoped to utilise their skills in active resistance against the Germans. Yoors agreed and together he and the Roma smuggled food and arms into occupied France, Belgium, and Holland. In 1943 Yoors was arrested by the Gestapo and tortured for six months at La Santé Prison in Paris. After his release he collaborated with the Allies disguised as an SS officer and escorted allied soldiers from behind enemy lines. However, he was captured again and held at the Miranda de Ebro concentration camp in northern Spain. He managed to escape over the Pyrenees in 1944 and joined up once more with Allied Belgian forces in the United Kingdom.
In 1946 Jan returned to Belgium to wed Annebert van Wettum, with whom he had been corresponding since they were eleven. Together they moved to London where Yoors set up a studio. After becoming enamored with the medium of tapestry upon seeing an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Yoors and Annebert taught themselves weaving, constructed a loom, and began producing tapestries. Not soon after the couple learned that Marianne Citroen, a childhood friend of Annebert had also moved to London from Antwerp. Marianne soon moved in with them, and together the three wove the first of the Yoors tapestries for which the three began gaining recognition from galleries and through public exhibitions.
In 1950 Yoors traveled to New York at the suggestion of a family friend. Although his passport labeled him as a journalist on a temporary visa, Yoors fell in love with the city and decided to stay, setting up a studio space and constructing and setting up fifteen-foot vertical loom. Annebert and Marianne joined him the following year and together the three continued producing tapestries, from which they had since decided to make a living. Yoors would design the tapestries, producing the large-scale cartoons from which Marianne and Annebert would weave the final design on the loom. In the studio, Yoors continued producing work in other media including painting, sculpture, and gouaches.
In 1957 Yoors received a 35mm Pentax camera, adding street and abstract photography to media in which he worked. In 1961, in collaboration with French filmmaker Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau Yoors took up the cinema camera for the documentary Only One New York. A book with the same title followed, comprising Yoors's still photographs of the communities in the film. Another project in 1967 took Yoors around the world photographing postwar religious architecture for the First International Congress on Religion, Architecture, and the Visual Arts during which he had the opportunity to add to his own photographic oeuvre and garner further inspiration for his work in other media.
In New York, Yoors also formed relationships with a number of abstract expressionist artists, immersing himself in the vibrancy of New York's art world. Although Yoors did not work through a dealer he had no issue getting shows and exhibitions, forming a roster of collectors, including private individuals, museums, corporations, and religious institutions.
Three children were born to Yoors in New York; his first, a daughter, Lyuba in 1963, his first son Vanya in 1965, and his youngest son Kore in 1968. Yoors died of a heart attack after at the age of 55 after a long struggle with diabetes, contracted from poor nutrition during the war years, on Thanksgiving Day. He left behind hundreds of designs for unwoven tapestries, which his partners, Annebert and Marianne, continued realizing for years after his death.
Text courtesy Gallery Fifty One.