The Empress Interview:
The Slavic Heart & Soul of Artist Ranka Lazarevic

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Spring 2005

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Art in Canada today is very much a melting pot of cultural and ethnic influences. Historically this has always been true, and continues as immigrants from far-off lands settle here and bring with them their own rich and diverse artistic talents. These new Canadians, even after many years of producing art in this country, will incorporate often beautiful folk art elements present in their ethnic natures into more mainstream and contemporary Western styles to great and sometimes spectacular effects. Ranka Lazarevic’s art exemplifies the simple purity of her European heritage. She paints the landscape, the cat, the nude, with a Slavic eye. The brush stroke shows her style -- a little bold, a little shy, much colour and feeling, much passion always. She is the European heart and soul in her paintings. Before the Empress Interview, Ranka shares a little of her life in her own words.

OCEAN VIEW (acrylic, 24" x 40"):
This seascape is filled with sensations. A breath of wind off the ocean brings gentle waves in to lap at the shoreline and flutters the poppy petals hither and thither around the flower centres. Multiple contrasts keep the interest piqued, with the opposites of strong primary colours, as well as the sharp-edged sea rocks played against by the sheer softness of the flowers. There is a blended beauty in the immense sea and the tiny flower. An absolutely gorgeous work of interplay and surprising equals.

I was born in 1966 and grew up in Yugoslavia. After graduating High school and armed with a diploma as an agricultural technician, I couldn’t get a job anywhere. I had always wanted to study art, but in the old country going to art school was 200 km far away and meant living and studying away from home, and my mother just couldn’t afford that. Today in Canada, such a distance is nothing. Where I live right now the nearest big centre, Fort Nelson, British Columbia, is 400 miles away.

My passion for art was discovered a long time ago, when my fourth grade art teacher told me, “Tell your mom to send you to art school.” Well, no one paid attention to that remark, so I didn’t do anything about that until I was older and enrolled myself in an “art group.” The artists I met there were just like me, and the first thing they told me was, “You do not need canvas and oils yet, you need to practice on paper first.” I laughed, and told them, “If you needed to do that, it doesn’t mean I need it too,” and so I started to create my way. One after another, searching for something, I painted canvases, ones that now hang in my mother’s house. They are there instead of me, since I am so far away.

My dearest painting I did when I was 20 years old, of the virgin Mary and Jesus. The original was artwork done by a priest, and I interpreted it my way; in the end it came out as an almost exact representation, but with a different background.. I submitted the painting to a competition of local artists which was juried by a well known area art critic. I knew I had painted well, but the only thing he had to say about it was, “You know how to paint, you just shouldn’t sign it.” I didn’t really understand his comment, and assumed he had made it because it wasn’t a truly original art work of mine being based and inspired by the priest’s painting.

Besides doing art work, I specialized in tailoring and sewing. I could make any style of clothing one wanted, and again was self-taught. I suppose I am stubborn by the nature, and have always chosen the hardest path of learning until I mastered it. I have always been my own teacher. No diploma but my fashions could be seen on people wearing it, and that was success to me. So, from the earliest years, I was self-employed and liked it that way. I knew somehow that I would never work as an agricultural technician, but liked gardening. That became another passion of mine.

IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER (sculpted mixed media, 18" x 24"):
The backlighting and the "all-seeing eye" gives this highly textured work a surreal overtone. Whether the tree-form is wholly vegetable or animal is besides the point. Colourful, emphatic and mysterious, it's a fantasy that would like to tell us a story. As well, however, in this epic work it appears that Ranka has created an anthropomorphic entity that is asking us the questions....

At this point in my life, with all my interests, I began to feel like a little bee going from flower to flower to collect nectar. In my case I was collecting knowledge ,and once I had learned enough to satisfy a current passion, I looked for something else. This process is still on-going, and even now I’m still learning as I paint, learning how to make jewellery, use tools, but I’d have to say that my passion for creating paintings is the one craft that has held onto me the longest, and I’m quite sure that I’ll never get tired of that.

To paint makes me feel alive. I can feel energy, an adrenalin rush while creating a painting. Immediately after I complete one, the same energy and rush grabs me and I’m absorbed into creating my next painting. While working on one painting I’m frequently thinking about ideas for that next one.

I started selling my art on eBay in 2003. I’d come across a cat painting and thought, “I can do that.” It had never occurred to me before that moment that I could actually sell my artwork. Up until then, my art usually ended up as gifts.

I was already familiar with eBay, since I had been into the adventure of selling wedding gowns since 1998. I knew how to sell in an auction format, and so listed some of my paintings. At first none of my art sold, but I didn’t give up. I knew deep down in my heart that being an artist and producing art was what I was meant to do and I wanted to become successful. I’m the type of person who won’t stop until I reach my goal, and I hoped that one day people might hear about me and recognize my talent. My path of becoming an artist was slow, but all the experiences have made marks on me, which are reflected in my style and theme changes. (Anyway, I think if I were to paint in one theme or medium all the time, I’d get bored.)

My life as an artist now is anything but boring. My family has gotten used to seeing me paint in my pajamas. I almost do not have any outfit that is not messed with paint, but that doesn’t bother me. As God’s kid, he gave me a gift to share, which I do with lots of joy. Of course my husband and daughter come before anything else now (which wasn’t always the case), and my time is theirs first. I’m grateful, though, that my husband is supportive, hard working and makes enough money so that I can explore my artistic passions. And, in my heart and soul, I know there is more art to come.

VENICE SELLER (acrylic, 16" x 20"):
It's one of those days along the canals in Venice. Grey-blue tones suggest an overcast sky, and a possibility for rain. The tourists are either taking quick gondola rides, sipping expresso in the cafes, or haven't yet arrived. The Venice merchant nonetheless faithfully prepares his hot dog stand for customers. One can imagine the seller quipping in Italian patois to his only customers so far -- the numerous pidgeons pecking at crumbs at his feet. Rich and liberal textures and wetly-blended tones give a humid feel and glimmery cast to the scene, all perfect for the highlights, scents and imagery of Venice.

Describe your experience of creating your very first painting as an adult, after having not painted for so many years. You mentioned seeing paintings on eBay and thought you could paint a cat.

The first painting I did in Canada was a landscape. I did it for a friend, but since it was 10 years ago, I can’t quite recall the impressions I had. I rather remember it as a turning point. Then one day by accident I came across a cat painting on eBay. What struck me was the amount of money the seller was getting for it -- a few hundred dollars for a tiny “mini” cat painting. It was naive folk art, which appeared easy to do, so I thought I could do that, too. When I started to paint, suddenly I found I couldn't let it go, I just couldn't stop. Everything suffered, including housework, my kid, my husband, even myself. Everyone was left out, until I came to my senses and realized that it shouldn’t be that way, that I need to take a control over this, whatever it is. Some call it “passion,” I call it addiction. I was inspired with so many things; the days were always too short for what I wanted to paint. It seemed I had released a beast from the cave and it took me over. But in a good sense, it didn't let me go for more than a year, and what I learned about painting and how I feel about painting, I can see these are things that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

As an artist how do you give “life” to your paintings? Does it depend on style? Or do you have a special trick?

It really depends on what I’m painting. Sometimes I like light colour, sometimes I feel I need to paint with thick paint. Or I’ll change mediums; when I’ve had enough of watercolor, then I switch to acrylic or oil. I love using different shades of one colour, and I find that technique gives life to a painting. I switch from abstract to realism often, but prefer realism. I also like to see reflections of actual objects in a landscape or whatever I’m working on. I like to see it the way I interpreted it, so I’m not for pure realism. I like a bit of change, so I always alter something slightly from the actual. I guess it’s in my nature to add something new....

DAFFODILS (acrylic, 16" x 20"):
This still life of daffodils is replete with creamy yellows, bright highlights of lemon and yellow-gold, nudging the viewer to lament, "Oh that Spring were eternal!" The rich bright glow of red wall complements the slightly pregnant earthenware vase, and together with deeper shadows behind the floral arrangement, it appears that the daffodils have awoken to a brilliant early morning light.

Is there a best time of day for you to paint? When does inspiration come best to you, or can it happen at any time? Was there ever a painting you did where one thought came into mind and then it all came out onto canvas like a true dream?

If I could, I’d paint 24 hours a day. I paint when I have the time, usually either in the morning or at night. I rarely end up finishing only one painting, usually it’s three. Sometimes the inspirations don’t transfer perfectly from my mind to canvas. I often feel I’ve made a painting that I’m happy with and think everyone will see that it’s good, but after looking at it longer, I suddenly see I could have done it better. So I’m never 100 % happy except for the very moment I’ve finished a painting and look at it for the very first time. I guess that is a good thing in a way, because it makes me a better painter by sharpening what and how I observe. Still, I do my best in the moment of creating.

What subjects do you like to paint best, ones you feel comfortable painting – or perhaps you experience an ease to paint them.

I love portraits, mainly female, faces, nudes, then landscapes and flowers, animals. I’m exploring abstract, but am not into that as much.

Do you prefer to paint from actual subjects, nature or models, or do you prefer to create from photos when the inspiration is not directly from your mind?

I prefer a photo, but it’s not a must. I doubt that I would like to go out into nature and do it. I think I like my chair and my table rather than sitting or standing in a field or forest. But I wouldn’t mind painting on a balcony that has a view to the ocean -- that’s actually my dream house. I’d love to paint in front of an ocean or lake, and I feel that I would be encouraged by the energies of the water. Lately I’m making paintings from my mind, which is kind of interesting for me too, and I plan to do more work from my imagination in the future.

Have you experienced making a “difficult” painting – one that you feel just didn't turn out no matter what you did to it? Do you paint these over or keep/throw them away?

HER RED HAIR (oil 8" x 10"):
Ranka has chosen to make the model's red hair the subject of this realistic portrait, and expressionist elements suggest mystery and emotion behind the woman's enigmatic blue eyes. Sharp use of light and shadow are appealing and enhance the overall mood. As for the mysterious woman's name? There is a hint of a smile, and perhaps Mona Lisa has been born into this day and age....

In the past year I had only one painting that I didn’t like. I over-painted it. I never throw a painting away.

Has what you learned about painting affected your life in other ways? Has being an artist helped you in designing wedding gowns or in decorating your home/office?

I don’t design gowns anymore, and have actually lost interest in doing it. I learned how to do that, and now I’ve done with it. All my energy now is concentrated on creating art. I like to use color everywhere on my walls and in my decor,

If you had the chance to meet and study under one artist past or present, who would that be and why?

I’m not sure. Before I was never very interested in the old masters and was always more concerned in art and how-to without any true knowledge or background. Now I want to learn the craftsmanship of the old masters, which is pure realism. I’m eager to learn of their techniques down the road. My one regret is that I didn't go to art school; so now I take art classes online. If I could now attend a school or be tutored, I’d hope that I’d have something in common in terms of style with my teacher, and in that way I would find connection with the teacher.

Is there any subject, portrait or landscape, etc., that you'd really like to paint, but at the moment you feel is either too challenging or you're too short on time.

If there is something I like to paint, I will do it. I always like challenge.

You have described yourself an a North American artist with a European heart and soul. Do you think there are definite European and North American/other “styles?” If so, how can you explain it – is it a matter of culture or ethnic influences?

Yes, “Canadian artist with European heart and soul.” To explain that, I mean that this is someone like myself who was born and raised in a completely different life style, someone who is connected to something that is far away. I definitely think that I have inside of me art that hasn't come out yet, to be inspired by that way of a different culture. The country of Jugoslavia where I was raised is a beautiful place, with gorgeous landscapes, houses, so many interesting things to paint, and I think there is a definite difference in style in which I’ll ultimately paint such subjects.

DUO (acrylic, 24" x 40"):
A fine impressionist study of a duo -- horse and tree -- standing as lone subjects in an idyllic landscape. Ranka employs rich contrasting tones, with the ground feeling warm, and the upper panorama a cool mix of blues. An early morning mist hovering above the ochre-green earth, covers the horse's legs and balances the opposite tones to impart a peaceful feeling to the painting.

How might this distinct European style affect sales of your paintings?

It’s hard for me to say. I mainly sell on eBay. Being isolated I can’t go to other places. In town a shop carries my work, and they also offer other artists who paint quite differently from me; their works are mainly wildlife and snow, which are reflections of the area we live in. So, my visions are quite different from theirs, I do not even like to paint snow! On eBay you can paint and put up for sale what you like to create. It may be more commercially oriented, but at least you have the freedom to be the artist you want to be.

You've also done some assemblage. What are the inspirations for these creations?

It’s interesting to work with wood and other found materials. I liked implementing all kind of objects in creating art. I stopped because it was time consuming and I could never get a return on the true worth when selling my creations, so I stopped. Inspiration came from anything, really.

How do you feel about the art world in general, and how do you feel about your own art? What artists do you think are talented? How would you describe your own talent?

Art is a beautiful thing, it is everywhere. It’s just matter of taste whether we like it or not. About my art, I like to paint nice things; it’s a reflection of my inner being. Being very spiritual, I think it shows in my paintings. Talent is a gift of God. As for my gift, I am just blessed to have it, and I love it, and I always remember that everyone has some kind of gift. Above all, I am very glad that I finally discovered that painting is what I want to do, and I’m looking forward to my life and future now more than ever, and of many more paintings that I will create, hoping that my art will be better every time I pick up my paintbrush.

Any other thoughts about anything?

Life is beautiful. God is graceful. Love one another as you would love yourself. He who doesn’t love himself cannot love anyone. Give and you shall receive. I think that is what life is about. And it’s even more. We are all one....

POPPYLAND (acrylic, 24" x 40"):
Captured with all the freshness of an early summer day, field poppies in various stages of bloom sparkle in rich reds under a cloud-whisked sky. Ranka's talent for relaying her European soul to canvas, in this case a memory of a poppy-filled landscape in her home country of Jugoslavia, is evident in this floral impressionist work.
All artwork images Copyright © 2005: Ranka Lazarevic

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