An architect by trade, an artist at heart, and a poet of the blank canvas, Dragan Šekarić has unified all of his talents through his work, in the best possible way. I spoke with the artist at this year’s ArtExpo exhibit in New York, where two years earlier he had received first place as a solo artist.
SAN: In your work there is an immediately recognizable sense of memory and attention to detail, elements which are extremely important for an artist.
My first memories are from when I wasn’t even three years old. We were visiting my uncle at a work action (radna akcija) in at Tjentište. I remember everything very clearly: the sponge cake which we were prepared for the trip, the bus, the macadamized roads, and someone loudly exclaimed that we were passing by the grave of Sava Kovačević. Perhaps those could all be memories pieced together from later stories, but one thing could not have been conveyed with words, and my uncle confirmed this for me many years later. On the way to his tent, which was on a plateau that was arrived at by way of a well-trodden path, there was a fat, at that time for me, an unsurpassable, tree root. That type of memory is an exceptional gift, but, whenever God gifts you with anything, just wait for the receipt, it will usually be brought by malicious people in your life.
SAN: Did people try to use you?
They did, but not in terms of my art. People who truly understand art wouldn’t do that. They used the nature of a man who grew up in a neighbourhood where people’s gardens were always open, and where travellers and passersby were always welcome. I grew up surrounded by people of many different nationalities and faiths, among them were peasants and Gypsies, who were fed by my grandfather and grandmother. Early in my life I understood the importance of giving and that it always comes back to you in some way, and for me, it really did, in the periods of my life when I needed it most, like when I was a refugee in Italy. People are imperfect beings, and when they realize the extent of your acceptance and tolerance they nestle themselves into your life, and take as much advantage of you as they can. People never forgive you when you demonstrate a God-given selflessness. I always set out with positive intentions, yet I still lose. I don’t underestimate people. When you find someone, who is free of psychological complexes and is happy to merely be your friend, cherish them like you would a diamond. They are a true kindred, and one who has surpassed those childish afflictions.
SAN: You have an exceptional gift to be able to paint in three different techniques at once.
I work with abstract, sfumato (magical realism), and figurative paintings. In the same day I transition from sfumato to abstract in my paintings, or I work on some object in a figurative one.
SAN: Your figurative paintings are distinguished by their depiction of dreaming, female figures that resemble mermaids, and figures of melancholic children, whose exact age and gender are impossible to discern.
I paint children from the ages of 11 to 14, during the period in which their self-consciousness develops, yet also a period in which they still have a childish naiveté. Those are the most beautiful beings. And anyone would wish to always be surrounded by them. They are charming and melancholy figures, depicted alone, but very certain of their own existence and their own future. They are both audacious and charming at once, gazing at the viewer from the other side of the canvas. You see, I use the canvas to delineate two different dimensions. As lively as the dimension is having been seen from outside, it is just as lively, or livelier, on the other side, frozen inside a single moment, yet full of life. At the exhibit in New York, a woman saw a canvas depicting a lone girl, and she wept, recognizing her own childhood. The children in my pictures are alone, unless they are with their mothers. Sometimes I paint those children’s faces on the first try, but sometimes I search for the qualities that make up a person’s character for a little longer, and those qualities are often found in the eyes, and after that the facial proportions. It is necessary to materially and graphically attain a state where the face truly reflects the inner being. When I have achieved that, I know the painting is finished.
SAN: How do you envision the role of the artist in the world today?
What is necessary for an artist on the global level is talent, education, and a lot of work in order to develop an individual style. And when all of that comes together, you need to be able to present yourself well, to fascinate people with your answers when they ask about your work, especially pieces which are of an abstract quality. Only then will people approach you like an artist.
SAN: You left your homeland a long time ago. How would you describe your life as an immigrant?
For me, immigration has the elements of a very serious illness, including its different phases: from contagion, to a period of incubation, and even the clinical stages of a disease which can end so catastrophically. I believe that a large number of immigrants are in the catastrophe stage. They are uprooted, seeking without having found, unhappy. Remember that the famous actor, Josip Pejakovic said (paraphrase): When they robbed the Bosnians of metaphor, they killed us. My metaphor for emigration relates back to a period when I was observing the paving of the road to Foca (in Bosnia and Herzegovina). I was marveling at the big machines, the powerful excavators which shattered the rocks and pushed them towards the Drina River; it was at that time that I encountered a tree which survived, miserably, between the rocks, broken, twisted, with no chance of growing as it had before. But, it survived, and was still fighting despite not being itself. Well, that is immigration.
SAN: In your sfumato paintings I see both reality and fantasy – dreaming and waking at once. One critic noted that magical realism is shared by both you and Gabriel García Márquez, that what you do through painting what Márquez does through his literature.
My sfumato technique originated in Rome, during a period when I had lost a lot of friends. Caravaggio introduced light into painting, Leonardo introduced perspective. I do not measure myself against their talents, but through the sfumato technique I introduced time. In that context, the canvas is a present moment, and the figures which are closest to the viewer represent the near past. Those are friends and family, that have departed recently, whether they have died or otherwise left my life. Behind those figures are ones that belong to even earlier days, but soon, even they are lost. Behind them are the multitude of figures that we cannot see in the painting. I do not paint them, so as not to overburden the canvas, but I know that they are there. The colours in the shadows reflect the presence of characters, in whatever way I remember them.
SAN: What do umbrellas and train stations symbolize, and where do their meanings come from?
An umbrella represents protection. In those paintings I depict friends, children, parents, an occasional lone figure passes through, but also mothers with their children – that is what they mostly represent. My grandfather was a railway operator who lived and worked at a station that was seven kilometres from Goražda. My uncles also lived on that station. There, no one waited for the train in the cold when it was winter, but in their house. They were the only Serbian family in the Mravinjac region, the others were all Muslim. My grandmother was a midwife who assisted all the Muslim women in that village with giving birth. Those kinds of friendship are exceptionally strong, it was there that I learnt how one should behave with other people. When we, as children, would go to that train station, it would be heaven for us. The station had two tracks. Wagons were left on the second of those tracks so that they could be filled with sand. A column of horses with wooden baskets hung off of each side by a rope carried sand from the Drina, which seeped down their flanks, and when they opened those baskets sand would fall out and the horses would return to the Drina to fill those same baskets again. Thus, we had mounds of sand in which to play. When it was fruit season, villagers from all around would bring apples and pears for my grandfather to store, although nobody there would have stolen anything, those were honest people. Sometimes they would give some fruit to the children as a pleasant surprise. Those same people, who respected each other so much during my childhood, would kill each other just a few decades later. When we weren’t swimming in the Drina, we children would have been at the station watching the trains that came through and the faces of the people that came out of them. Even when we were seeing a friend or family member off we would certainly still observe the other faces and the collisions of emotion on those platforms. I think that train platforms are the most powerful places on the planet, emotionally – with all those people coming together, and coming apart, and waving until whoever you’re waving to completely disappears from view. At the station, there is the machine which moves and the fragile human body which remains still. When the machine stops moving, it is the people who start to move. The people stop, and the machine begins moving again.
SAN: There is a strong symbol: the house, which is carried close to one’s heart, on a hat, as a balloon, or as a button on a jacket.
Houses are lives. We carry them everywhere with ourselves, we cannot free ourselves from them. The symbolism is so clear that it immediately captivates and captures the heart. When you have an old, family home, as I once had, you read your own house into these symbols. But in Rome I was on the streets, completely alone. I was always happiest in the mornings, because I had a few hours without any cares in the world. When night began to fall, I was caught by a panic. I would be similarly happy in on train trips, but only as long as the station was not approaching. That was when an uneasy feeling developed inside me, because I didn’t know where I would go. But that was also when I noticed that there was no end to my capabilities, that I could offer myself to people in exchange for their protection, in order to save myself, but never in order to exploit someone else. I try to do the same for others, since, when you help people, it is important to not immediately ask for something in return. Merely in the act of giving you will develop something inside yourself that people will recognize and, when it becomes necessary, they will save you. The paintings, reminiscences of that period, did not originate in it. A maturation process needed to occur. The fruits which grew out of those experiences only came later, and that was when the symbol of the house found its way onto the canvas.
SAN: You have lived in Bosnia, Italy, and Canada.
In Italy I completely learnt and adopted a new culture over time, but then I put Italy to the side and I came to Montreal, meeting French culture and a people who were highly sophisticated. When I arrived in Toronto in 2000, it was Montreal that was put to the side. Those were all new incarnations of the same life. Life in Toronto with my wife was very significant for my painting, since nothing drew me away from my work. From morning until evening, I wouldn’t say a single word, I would create all day, and I paint best during the winter when all is quiet. I always paint in one spot, I don’t carry my easel and I don’t talk about painting, except at galleries. Paintings are my mirrors.
SAN: It is said that the buyer seeks their own painting and the painting seeks its own buyer.
Yes, although the painter needs to create the thing that will be bought. When someone at ArtExpo in New York buys your painting among 14 thousand other painters, that is an unreal experience.
SAN: Tell us something about your abstract paintings.
It is most difficult to work without a reference. Anyone can improvise, but only great painters can compose something out of nothing, to create harmony. But then everyone thought that they could do it and devalued the movement. I work on a painting that I don’t see, I can’t control the canvas, I work on it by feeling alone. When I explained that once to an admirer of my paintings, he exclaimed: Well, that’s exactly how Jazz is played! Harmony, rhythm, and balance, notes and plans nowhere to be found, just pure instinct.