As part of the Blue Group show that I am curating and organizing for my artist network later in the year in Kingston, all the participating artists (including yours truly) are being interviewed sharing their inspiration, their influences, their journeys as an artist and their aspirations.
Here is my interview as done by the fabulously talented London artist and printmaker Ellen Von Wiegand.
A Conversation With Vera Blagev, London Abstract Artist Inspired by Nature
Discussing nature influences in artwork, inspiration for paintings, and favourite travels.
Ellen: In your artist statement, you mention the importance of marrying old and new techniques, methods, and materials in your art. Can you talk more about why this is significant to you?
Vera: It goes back to the very first time that I went to Asia, specifically Japan, when I was 18. What I loved about Japan and what I found absolutely fascinating is exactly this mix of old and new. The fact that there are temples, which have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years right next to skyscrapers and modern buildings, which are incredibly new… That’s part of what I found so mind-blowing about the country. And that’s part of what I find exciting about my own part in the overall art landscape – combining something that’s traditional and with something that’s new. I’ve been to many museums and galleries and looked at the old masters. I appreciate them for what they are. At the same time, I don’t think there’s a point in trying to copy them or completely embrace just the old techniques. At the same time I also have a lot of respect for some contemporary artists who do strictly contemporary artwork in a very modern way. But that’s just not me. As a person and as an artist, my personality is very much combining a bit of the old and a bit of the new and hopefully creating something that is slightly different and unusual.
Ellen: That’s interesting as well because your work revolves around the landscape, and mostly the natural landscape. But when you talk about the actual physical landscape being this mixture of old and new and then the materials reflecting that as well, it seems to tie in.
Ellen: Speaking of which, you say that your work has been inspired by the natural landscape of the more than 50 countries that you have visited. What have been some of the landscapes that have most inspired you?
Vera: It’s the very dramatic wild ones where you don’t see people. The Southwest coast of Ireland is fascinating – the raw cliffs, the scenery. The water there is so open and expansive. And I’m really interested by the fact that there is a long history of people leaving that country going to a new country. And there are other landscapes like the Southwest of the USA, where I’ve visited quite a lot. Oddly enough before I came to London, I lived in New Mexico for three months… as you do! New Mexico is known as the “land of enchantment” and I can completely see why. The scenery there is just spectacular and it feels very foreign but in an amazing way. And there are landscapes like those in Iceland. I’ve been to Iceland only once and I’d love to go again. What really draws me in is the starkness of the landscape and the bareness of the land itself, the big dramatic sky… It’s all about dramatic landscapes and seascapes. When there is a natural scene where there’s movement in the sky and the water, or the rocks or the cliffs, or the meadows, that’s what I find the most interesting.
Ellen: Tell me a bit about your personal connection to nature.
Vera: It feels a bit silly to answer this question, because many people love nature and many artists are inspired by nature. I’m afraid I’m repeating what other people. Growing up, I was hugely fascinated by plants, rocks, stones, and even sand. When I was young I had this sand collection from all the different places I’ve been.
Ellen: Do you still have that sand collection?
Vera: I do. My parents are upset by it because it takes up space in their garage in Minnesota. I also have this habit of picking up stones wherever I go. It doesn’t matter what kind of stone or from where it is, but it’s just connecting to that physical landscape. Having a memory of a specific place, or a specific beach. And some of the stones I collect are visually full of texture. I love that even today when we’re so consumed with technology, there’s that physical landscape that has been there forever and it will continue to be there forever… It might change, it might transform. The rocks that used to be part of a cliff might fall into water and get washed away. Their edges might become smoother by the effects of water and time, but it’s still a presence that will be there for hundreds and thousands of years, if not millions of years. That has always been really inspiring. And even just walking in the countryside. When I lived in Washington DC for four years, pretty much every weekend I’d take the car and go hiking in the Shenandoah Valley (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shenandoah_Valley) or go down south to the water. I just find being in nature so inspiring. It reminds you of how small you are. Which can sound a bit depressing, but it’s a reminder that no matter what you’re dealing with, no matter what you’re struggling with, it doesn’t matter. Because there are bigger things that have always been here that will continue to always be here. It’s a reminder that some of these things that you think are such a big deal and so difficult to overcome for you personally, in a few years’ time might just be a faint memory. Being in nature is almost like a therapy process. You are reminded to your connection with the world and the fact that you are just much smaller than you might think that you are and it’s a calming reminder, at least it is for me.
Ellen: What about a landscape do you hope to capture when you’re painting?
Vera: The way it made me feel. Almost all of my paintings are not meant to be a specific place. They’re not meant to represent a specific beach, cliff, or forest. They’re meant to depict a mood. A presence… A feeling… A combination of all sorts of memories and experiences that I’ve had going to these different landscapes and just the sheer awe of nature. Some of the inspiration and the calmness. And the connection to the animal part of who we are. When I create my paintings, and particularly the landscapes and the seascapes, they are meant to be sharing the feeling of just sitting there looking at the water and being in awe of the majesty of the waves and how the sky develops. And how, even now with technology and Photoshop, that there are some things that the natural world can just do the best and you just sit there with your mouth open and be amazed and be grateful that you’re there to witness that.
Ellen: When you are painting do you think back to a specific place or is it more of a melding of places? You answered this already, but could you elaborate a bit?
Vera: Sometimes, there’s a subconscious connection. I think about what I want a particular painting to look like, specifically the skies. If I want the skies to be stormy, or show a sunset, or a sunrise. Other times, it comes out that there must have been an element of my trip to Iceland that has incorporated itself into the painting without me realizing it, because the sky in a particular painting looks like the Northern Lights. As much as my paintings are not meant to be a specific place, I’m sure that specific places embed themselves in my memory and in my paintings. Without me trying to do that. Like a specific shape, or composition, or colour palate that people can really connect to that one place even if I didn’t consciously mean to do so.
Ellen: So do some of these places all meld together?
Vera: Yes, very much so. Even in terms of the composition of the painting, the way I draw the cliffs or the landscape or specifically where you position different element of the paintings. I have ideas of places I’ve been and sketches I’ve done but creating an artwork is much more organic. Sometimes, after I create the artwork, I pick up on something that must have been there. Some particular inspiration from a specific trip that must have been there. And other times, other people see that in paintings that I don’t. Which is always interesting.
Ellen: But when they say they see specific places in your paintings even if you didn’t mean your paintings to depict specific places, do you understand what they’re talking about? Or is it just a completely different view point that you don’t relate to that must come from their own memory or experiences.
Vera: It’s both. One of the best things about abstract art is that everybody sees what they want in it. And even in my work, which is not purely abstract because there are elements of the landscape that do look like a landscape, and the flower does look like a flower. At the end of the day, it is abstract artwork so definitely people can project a lot of their own feelings and emotion into the painting. For example, I have this landscape series called “On the Plain” (https://www.veraveraonthewall.com/collections/on-the-plain-series-original-landscape-acrylic-and-ink-paintings). In it, the composition centres on five trees on a bare landscape with really dramatic skies. But multiple people told me that they thought that actually the composition is five people walking along a desert. Somebody said that they thought that that was the ruins of some dead trees after an apocalyptic nuclear disaster… and I can see what they’re saying. It’s not necessarily how I meant it, but it’s not to say that it’s wrong.
Discussing work with other media (ceramics, pastel, pencil), early years in USA, and crisis of artistic expression.
Ellen: You say that over the years, you have worked with many different media including ceramic, pastels, and textile art. How did you arrive at your current way of working?
Vera: The only formal artistic training I’ve ever had is a semester in university doing ceramics. My love of ceramics relates to my love of rocks and the stones and partly the tactile nature of ceramics. That you’re touching the material… You’re feeling it… you feel it change. For a few months, I focused on ceramics, more as an exploration rather than a serious pursuit. But that’s when I first realized that maybe I have something a bit more interesting to say with art in general. That experience sparked the idea that more than just doing an art class at school, maybe I wanted to something more serious with it. For a variety of reasons, including the fact that ceramics is fragile and heavy to transport across countries, I moved on to exploring pastels and pencils. For a while, that was my focus. Again, what I loved about pastels is the tactile nature of working with them. You apply the pastels with your fingers. There’s no brush. It’s literally you, the pastel, and the paper. I love that way of working. But what bothered me about pastels their fragile nature. No matter how much fixative you use, pastel is a very fragile medium. Transporting pastel artworks to different countries would have been a big challenge. Particularly when I was still very much in a place where I was looking around for different adventures and very much with my eyes on the horizon in terms of where I wanted to live or what city and state I wanted to explore. When I was in the USA, I created artworks using pastel and coloured pencil for a while in NYC and Washington DC. I sold a few of those paintings and I showed a few of them at galleries and other venues, but things didn’t progress as quickly as I hoped… Or expected. Like many artists, I came to a point when I thought “what am I doing? Is this what I want to do? Is this different enough? Is this unique enough? Do I even have anything interesting to say any more?” So I took a break. And then I moved to London. For my first few years in London, I didn’t actively paint. I just sketched, did photos, and that type of casual creative output, but really I was exploring what life would be like without creating.
Ellen: Because you felt a crisis about it. You weren’t sure.
Vera: Exactly! I wasn’t sure that I could make a proper career being an artist. All those voices that you hear from everybody saying “oh, you can’t be an artist, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you have to have a proper job”, all those voices got to me. I thought “okay, maybe art is just a hobby, and that’s all that it’s meant to do”. But in my case, I didn’t want it to be a hobby, so I just stopped creating at all. I just said, “if I’m not going to do it, I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to touch it, I don’t want to look at it…”
Ellen: I can definitely relate to that.
Vera: At that point, I also went through a period, when I said “okay, I’ll do reviews of museum shows, and gallery shows and I’ll write about art”. That was fine, but it was just really frustrating. And then about 6 years ago once I found my feet in London a little bit more, I started painting again. I told myself that I needed a new medium and I wanted that medium to fundamentally last a very long time, unlike pastel. I just wanted it to be not so fragile. And not have that tendency for softness of colour and mood and almost daintiness that pastel has. I wanted this new medium that I would work with to be big, bold, and colourful with longevity that meant the artworks would look great for many years. That’s how I started exploring calligraphy ink, which has a ton of history behind it. There are calligraphy paintings from hundreds of years ago which still look amazing today. Through that exploration of calligraphy ink, I went into liquid acrylic ink, which that has been my focus for the past 4-5 years. Slowly, I’ve been introducing other elements in my work over the past year, including metal leaf, specifically gold leaf and silver leaf. Most recently, I’ve been going into actual acrylic paint on canvas, instead of the liquid acrylic ink variety of acrylic paint. Which is slightly ironic because for many artists, acrylic paint on canvas is their starting point. For me, I didn’t get there until I thought that I had something different to say in that medium.
Ellen: It was important to you to find a little bit of your own path and part of that was maybe the medium itself that you were working with.
Vera: For sure! I’ve always told myself that if there’s anything unique about me as an artist, it’s the way that I use colour and texture. Because I haven’t been formally trained, I don’t necessarily have to follow certain rules about the way that you’re supposed to use a certain medium or not. I thought for a long time that by using media which are underused, like calligraphy ink in particularly in combination with liquid acrylic ink, that by definition, the end result would be different from what other artists. Because not many people are using those media. But at some point I thought that this might be just me being lazy. Maybe it’s time to tackle a medium that lots of people use, but to see if I can still carve out a different way of doing something and showing something. That’s how I began exploring acrylic on canvas. And I certainly hope I’ve found my own unique take on the medium. Which is not what I could say six or seven years ago when I played around with different media as well.
Ellen: I think a lot of people can relate to that journey. Does this experience with different media influence the way you work now?
Vera: For sure it does. Even the acrylic paint… Many artists use acrylic paint because you can mix it with water and it creates certain effects and washes. In the new series that I’m working on, I don’t use water at all. It’s literally just the acrylic paint and just layers and layers of it on the canvas. There’s a similarity to the way that I have worked with calligraphy ink with liquid acrylic ink. When I was using the media in a way that they were not meant to be used. And through that, I was achieving something that looked different and unique. For example, calligraphy ink has been used for thousands of years in Asia and increasingly in Europe and North America. But predominantly it’s used either for actual calligraphy or if it’s used for painting, it’s used as the sole medium on paper. You almost never see calligraphy ink combined with other media. For whatever reason, it’s just not done. Or the liquid acrylic ink, for example. That medium is normally used by lots of illustrators who use it for really detailed intricate work. Whereas in my case, I created huge paintings with really flowy showy colours. Because of that previous experience of finding out different ways to use those two media, I’m pushing myself to now use acrylic paint it a way less standard.
Discussing lightbulb moment in artistic journey, approach to artwork, and working in series.
Ellen: Did you have a lightbulb moment in your journey as an artist that sparked your commitment to pursue art more seriously?
Vera: I did. I’ve had several lightbulb moments, but one in specific stands out. It was during the time after I had graduated from university and I went to New York City to pursue a “proper” career in finance. As much as I love art, for a long time, I didn’t think that I could make living as an artist, so when I was in New York, I worked near Wall Street for two years. That was during 2001 / 2002 and during 9/11, which was obviously a whole experience in its own way. It was a horrible experience that deserves its own story, but what I remember most about that time was that it was very much an eye opener. It really reminded me that life is short. And that if you want something you should do it. Because you never know how much time you have. That put me in a mind-set to say “okay, life is short, I’m not enjoying this job in investment banking, I do have other creative ambitions and talents that I want to explore”. Around that time, my parents, sister and I went to Austria and Germany for a winter holiday. We went to Vienna and specifically the Albertina museum (http://www.albertina.at/en), which had an exhibition by Marc Chagall (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Chagall). As much as I knew about him, I didn’t really know about him. To this day, that exhibition was the most amazing exhibition I’ve ever seen in my life. His whole story was fascinating and his images and his use of colour in a way that I hadn’t seen before. In one painting, you had multiple stories. He wasn’t concerned about creating a certain scene that had the right perspective or relationship between foreground and background. It didn’t matter. For example, in the upper right hand corner, there’s a flower, on the lower right hand corner there’s a house, which is totally out of proportion with a tree and a horse in another part of the painting. I loved the idea that you could combine so many different story lines into one painting and not worry about perspective, not worry about size or scale… just put it all out there on the canvas with a ton of amazing colour. That was hugely inspiring. So then I went back to NYC, and I started drawing and painting, with graphite and charcoal and ultimately pastel. And at that time, I lived right by Lincoln Centre (http://www.lincolncenter.org/), which has two giant paintings at the front of the building by Chagall. I don’t really believe in signs, but I took it as a sign. That was really the trigger when I said “okay, let me draw and paint every single day, let me actively try to pursue this dream that apparently I have that I thought I could push down, but I didn’t want to push down any more”. And that was my lightbulb moment. And everything after that has been an evolution.
Ellen: Was this after you had taken a break from art?
Vera: No, that was before. When I started exploring pastel and pencils but before I moved to London.
Ellen: So you still had a bit of a journey to go through even after your lightbulb moment.
Ellen: How do you generally begin a work? Do you do any planning beforehand or is it more of an organic unfolding?
Vera: There’s a bit of both. I tend to work in series. Maybe I’m slightly an obsessive personality. I’m the type of person who listens to a song on repeat for days and weeks. Literally one song. So, I tend to work in series because of that. I pick a certain topic or a certain scene and I just go to town on it for weeks and weeks and months and months, exploring different colour combinations, different textures, but always within that one scene. When I start the series, I do have a clear idea of what I want the general mood to be, the overall aesthetic experience. I know what medium I will or won’t use. And I have a clear idea if the fundamental feel of the artworks in that series and the subject matter. But when it gets down to creating a specific painting, it’s much more organic. There are some elements of the painting that are predetermined by the fact that it’s a painting within that series, that I’ve already defined what the series will be. But in terms of colour combinations or different elements or details, it’s much more free flowing. And that’s where some of those influences or inspirations that we talked about earlier enter the painting process again. If there’s an art show that I’ve seen recently that has somehow affected me without me realizing. Or I’ve been somewhere and seen some textile or some landscape that I thought looked really cool. Or I’ve seen some amazing movie. All sorts of things that without me being aware of them enter the creation of the painting itself. Sometimes, I have very clear ideas about the colour palate of the specific painting. Other times, I just say, “well let’s see how this and that will look together”. I’m also very aware that I don’t want to literally be doing the same painting over and over again in just slightly different permutations. So I push myself and say “ok, you’ve done a lot of blue, let’s do a bit of red.” Or “okay, you’ve done a lot of dahlias, let’s do some chrysanthemums.”
Ellen: What are some of your series that you work in? Tell me about some of those.
Vera: I’ve worked on five series over the past few years, but the ones that stand out are my On the Plain series (https://www.veraveraonthewall.com/collections/on-the-plain-series-original-landscape-acrylic-and-ink-paintings) and my Seascape series (https://www.veraveraonthewall.com/collections/seascape-original-abstract-waterscape-acrylic-and-ink-paintings). My On the Plain series are stark landscapes with dramatic skies. The Seascape series is all about water and sea. The blue sky, the blue water, and a shimmering golden horizon. That’s where my current fascination with blue kicked in when I was doing those paintings. I did about 15 paintings in that Seascape series. And objectively, all those paintings are literally just blue and metallic. That’s the only colour palate. Because of the different movement and the texture of the sky and the water and the horizon, they all look different. But it was that expansive blue that I thought was really fantastic. Most recently, this year, there have been two new series, that I’ve worked on where I’ve been introducing new media into my work. First is my Gold Lust series (https://www.veraveraonthewall.com/collections/gold-lust ) where my focus was to introduce metal leaf, gold leaf and silver leaf, into my work. I also wanted to introduce a collage element to my artworks – it was quite interesting to see whether I can create still a landscape or a floral but in a collage form while still using some of my traditional techniques working with ink.
Ellen: Because you’re cutting up paintings that you’ve made to make these new Gold Lust artworks.
Vera: Exactly! The first few times I cut up paintings for the Gold Lust series (https://www.veraveraonthewall.com/collections/gold-lust) , I almost “recycling” old paintings. Part of working with water based media means that you don’t have full control over what happens to the paint and the artwork. Sometimes, you do, but often times you don’t. I had some paintings in my studio, where for example the right hand side of the painting looked great, but the left hand side didn’t look good. As a whole painting it didn’t quite work, but there are elements of it, which were good and usable. And I really wanted to be able to use that good part of them to create something else. To give them a new life.
Ellen: Do you toss out a lot of paintings that you start that don’t quite work?
Vera: I don’t toss anything. But I don’t exhibit everything that I make. For those paintings I mentioned before, I thought “isn’t it silly that I have all these paintings, elements of which do look, so is there any way I can essentially upcycle them”. That’s how I started looking into this idea of cutting up paintings and making collages out of them to create new artwork. Ironically, the feedback on that series was so positive that I ended up making brand new paintings in order to cut them up. Which was a very odd feeling…
Ellen: Do you ever feel like “oh, I wish I could keep this, rather than cut it up”?
Vera: I have, definitely! I kept a few paintings that I had originally created with the sole purpose of cutting them up. Because they came out much better than I expected and I didn’t have the heart to cut them up. They deserved to have a life of their own. I worked on that series of artworks at the beginning of this year. When I was focused on exploring different media and collage-based incorporating metal leaf.
Ellen: Can you elaborate more about how you first thought of adding gold leaf to your paintings in the Gold Lust series and you think this adds to your work?
Vera: I’ve been thinking for gold leaf for a very long time. Part of the reason is my Bulgarian heritage. I was born in Bulgaria and I lived there for the first ten years of my life. A large part of the artistic tradition that is prevalent in Bulgaria and countries around that region is religious icons. The images with the icons of the Virgin Mary and other saints are often covered with really dense rich colours and gold – the gold halo… the gold background… Once I had enough time to remove myself from the predominance of that artistic tradition, I started appreciating it more. And it really made me want to add some gold touches to my work. As much as you can use gold point, and I do, it’s not nothing compared to actual metal. The lustre and shine of real metal is different from paint. And because it is a different material, it plays with the light in a way that just gold paint can’t. I found that really fascinating and I think it adds a certain opulence and richness, and warmth to the composition. And maybe a bit of decadence… Why not! Artwork should be an escape or inspiration and certainly having a bit of gold leaf was a good way to achieve that.
Discussing the role of colour.
Ellen: And what’s the role of colour in your work?
Vera: It’s difficult for an artist to be self-aware. But if we are trying to think about what we do well, what we don’t do well, our strengths and our weaknesses, then I have been told that the use of colour is one of my strengths. And I agree with that.
Ellen: I think so!
Vera: There are a few things. One is the mood that you’re trying to create with a colour combination. Whether it’s happy or sad or melancholy or uplifting… There are colour combinations that are relevant for any mood. I take issue with some of these traditional theories about what colours are complementary on the colour wheel, what colours look good together, what colours don’t look good together… I find a lot of that traditional teaching very outdated and very European and North American centric. There are two colour combinations I can think of in specific that a lot of traditional teaching tells you that you should never combine. One of these combinations is red and pink. People say that red and pink clash because they’re too close to each other and you shouldn’t use them together alone. But in South Asia, in Indian saris, for example, that’s a very standard colour combination, because it works. Same thing with blue and green. Again, that’s completely wrong because you have the northern lights, which are blue and green and look amazing. You also have fashion and textiles in certain parts of the world like Asia, where blue and green is a standard colour combination. Part of my travelling to other places means that when it comes to colour, I’m more open to combinations where maybe other people are less so. I really recognize the importance of colour. What we wear… What we look at… Colour definitely changes your mood. Whether it’s saturated colour, whether it’s pale colour… Whether it’s light or dark or opulent or rich colour… It’s such a massively important part of life and it’s the dominant element of the paintings that I make. The colour. I try to always introduce an element of gradient in my paintings. If you look closely at my paintings most of them have a gradient or evolution of colour – for example, from left to right, the colour goes from lighter blue to darker blue. Or from top to bottom, it goes from mint green to emerald green to more of a sap forest green. There’s always this gradient where even within a certain combination of colours, there’s still an evolution of the colour and a movement of the painting and it forces your eye to move along and explore all the different shades and colours.
Ellen: It’s interesting how you talk about this very Western idea of colours having rules for their use around something that is so subjective and personal and emotional such as art.
Vera: It’s true. The one element of art education that always stuck out as being the most irrelevant was the standard colour theory and what colour you should pair with what other colour. And what looks good and what doesn’t look good…. It’s short-sighted and if you look at the bigger world and the artistic tradition in other countries, a lot of that methodology is irrelevant and it’s very limiting.
Discussing childhood in Bulgaria, years spent in USA, moving to London, and travels abroad.
Ellen: You are born in Bulgaria and you’ve lived in the USA and the UK. You’ve also visited over 50 countries. Can you tell me a bit more about your international background and how it has shaped you as an artist?
Vera: As you mention, I was born in Bulgaria and I spent the first ten years of my life there. Then, my family and I moved to the USA. In the US, I’ve lived in lots of different places including Seattle, Florida, Philadelphia, New York, Washington DC and Minnesota, where my parents are still based. They’re technically based in Wisconsin now as they moved five minutes from the state border a few years ago, but I still refer to is at Minnesota. My parents and my sister and her family are based in the USA, but I moved to London almost nine years now. The experience of moving to the USA as a child really sparked a wanderlust to see the wider world. I’ve always had this desire to see what life is like in other countries. Just to experience the nature, the scenery, the culture, the food, the music, the art… It’s always been a huge driving force. Whether it’s been for personal reasons, or for art inspiration, or as part of my day jobs, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to lots of different places. It’s always been fascinating to see other countries and meet different people. It’s just such a big world! Some of the scenery that I’ve seen is so specific to a country or a place and can’t be replicated anywhere else. Like in Vietnam for example, in Halong Bay (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%E1%BA%A1_Long_Bay). Anybody who’s been there on a boat or a kayak and experienced those rock formations knows that it’s a mind-blowing experience. There’s some nature and some history and ancient civilizations that you just have to go outside of your own country to see. It’s that sense of exploration that’s ultimately led me to living in London. Before I moved to London, I was in a point in my life where I could have just stayed in Washington DC for 50-60 years living a comfortable life. Or, I could see what else is out there. And that’s what I did. I came to London to see what else is out there. I didn’t have a plan to stay long term, but I’ve been here ever since. I love the fact that London is logistically so connected to many countries. You can take a two-hour train ride and you’re in Paris for the weekend. A couple hours on the plane and you’re in Vienna. It’s so connected to the rest of the world and you’re so much more aware of whatever other people are doing. Travel destinations that in the US feel exotic, like India or like parts of Africa, are very accessible here. It’s almost embarrassing if you haven’t been there, because it feels like everybody’s been. It’s that sense of possibility and connectedness to other countries that I really appreciate living in London.
Ellen: Is there any place that most feels like home?
Vera: That’s an impossible question to answer. I’m very divided. Because I met my husband in London, we live in London, our life is in London. However, I didn’t grow up here, I didn’t go to school here, and I don’t have many family members here. My parents have lived in Minnesota or Wisconsin for nearly thirty years, so that feels like home because that’s where they’re based and where I’ve gone to visit them for summers and Christmas for a long time. But I’ve only lived there for less than two years, so that’s clearly not home either. And before moving to London, I was based in Washington DC for four years and I still have some friends, there but it’s been a long time and it’s certainly not home. And Bulgaria feels very far removed…
Ellen: You don’t really identify with that country so much anymore?
Vera: No. Honestly, I don’t necessarily think Bulgarian, I don’t sound Bulgarian. I speak Bulgarian with an American accent even though Bulgarian was the first language I knew. Even though it’s where I was born and it’s a big part of my heritage, I haven’t lived there for such a long time. So that’s definitely not home. So if I had to pick one place in the world that most feels like home, I’d say London.
Discussing Vera’s current series of artwork (Blue Reverie - acrylic on canvas), and joining Wimbledon Art Studios.
Ellen: What are you currently working on?
Vera: The current series that I’m developing further is the “Blue Reverie” (https://www.veraveraonthewall.com/collections/artwork-blue-reverie-series) acrylic on canvas series. I underestimated how much fun it was going to be to do those paintings. I was scared that if I go into a more traditional painting style, traditional in the sense that more artists work with acrylic on canvas, that somehow I would be compromising my artistic vision or my unique voice. But it’s been really fun and the results have been better than what I hoped for. That's what I’m currently working on and what I’ll be working on for the next few months as I repeat the song over and over again.
Ellen: When did you start work on that series?
Vera: Just about a month and a half ago so it’s really new. Basically, I had two art shows at the exact same time. And I had to split my work into two separate locations and suddenly I had some empty white wall space that I normally don’t have. I’ve been thinking about moving towards acrylic on canvas for a while and experimenting here and there, but for the first time, I thought that this was my chance to create some new paintings. To fill that white wall space.
Ellen: So your problem of white wall space became a new opportunity.
Ellen: Tell me about joining the Wimbledon Art Studios. Has being surrounded by other artists inspired any changes or new ways of working in your art?
Vera: It’s been transformative. I don’t take that word lightly, but it’s true. I’ve always worked at home previously. For a long time, I thought that this suited me because if I had to commute to an external studio, that would mean less time to create artwork. I believed that having an external studio would be really damaging to my ability to create artwork on a consistent basis. But after thinking about it for a while last year, at the beginning of this year, on my birthday I told my husband, “right, we’re going to Wimbledon Art Studios”.
Ellen: Was it an open studio event?
Vera: It wasn’t. I had a called a few weeks in advance and asked if they have any studios. They said no but to keep on checking back, because things change all the time. So on my actual birthday in the dead of January cold, we went to Wimbledon Art Studios and I had decided that I’m taking a studio. And I did. My husband put it very well… he said that it’s more of a statement of intent than anything else. And I agree. It’s a statement about your seriousness, your focus, your ambition. The studio rent is after all a few hundred pounds every month that you could otherwise not spend or spend on something else. But it’s a statement of intent. That this is where you’re going and this is important to you. Now I realize that I previously underestimated how much more efficient you are when you’re in the studio, because there are no distractions. There’s no TV, there’s no comfortable couch, it’s not a nice cosy environment like if you’re at home… It’s literally a white box. Okay, I’ve added some plants and a chair, but still, it’s not a comfortable environment. Sometimes, it’s cold. You go there to do work, and then go home. The other aspect of having an external studio that I massively underestimated is the freedom of making a mess. When I used to work at home previously, I was constantly very mindful of creating a mess. You’re constantly terrorized that you’ll stain the couch, or ruin the carpet, or splatter the walls… But in the studio, it doesn’t matter. The floor looks like a big abstract painting because of all the paint that I’ve dripped on it and that’s fine. Nobody cares. I lock the door when I’m done and I go home and it’s great, it’s amazing. Even working with acrylic paint, gold leaf, varnishes, or some other media is better because so many of those media need a few days to cure or dry. Or there are some smells and you need to make sure that windows are open, which you just can’t do a home. Working in an external studio opens up a whole new world of possibilities. And just the scale of how you work. Now, I work much bigger than I was able to at home, no doubt. The other aspect of the studio experience is getting to know other artists, many of whom are artists full time. Being in that atmosphere of artists who are working, who are optimistic, who are achieving things, who are progressing their career…. It feels that you’re a part of that successful club as well.
Ellen: It makes a different to your way of thinking.
Vera: It does, absolutely! Even when you know that art is a difficult career to choose. But you see artists who are pursing it successfully and it pushes you to progress with your own artistic career. That definitely has been an amazing experience to look at other artists interact with them, and think that could be me in 5 years or 2 years or 10 years. That’s been hugely inspirational.
Discussing Vera’s artist network - the London Professional Artists Network.
Ellen: You seem to be really active in the London art scene. You are the founder of the London Professional Artists Network. What inspired you to create the group?
Vera: The Wimbledon Art Studios experience. Understanding for the first time how important it is to have a network of artists that you can talk to who understand you in way that other people can’t, because they share your struggles and your joys and pains because they themselves experience them. And really trying to deepen that artist network experience. In retrospect, I was hungry to belong to a network of other artists. You look back at history and so many of the artists who have been able to have successful careers have surrounded themselves with other successful artists. Having that network, that camaraderie is really helpful. As much as I’m part of the Wimbledon Art Studios network, I just wanted more. At the end of February of this year, I looked around to see if there are other networks that solely focused on professional artists who are ambitious and I didn’t really see relevant ones. A lot of the networks are about just exploring creativity, which wasn’t focused enough. There’s also a lot of groups which focus on practicing life drawing or exploring a different medium. Which is great for fun, but it’s not really as relevant if you’re committed to being a serious artist. It’s a different mind-set focused on professional development. It’s less about really trying to find your voice as an artist, which you already have, but it’s more about trying to polish how you present yourself and your work and artistic vision. Through Wimbledon Art Studios and a couple of other networks that I’m a part of , I met other artists who struggled with the same things that I struggle with – applying to different prizes, trying to make connections with people, and developing their art career. And I thought that maybe I can play an active role in moving all of us forward. So I founded the network, not really knowing what to expect.
Ellen: It seems brave to me… To shoulder the responsibility of bringing everyone together every time and organizing.
Vera: I underestimated how much time and effort it would take. Definitely! I was very ambitious about what I wanted to achieve with the network. At first I wanted to focus on social monthly networking drinks. Then, I decided that this wasn’t enough and that it didn’t enable artists to get to know each other and collaborate and improve various parts of their art career. I then decided to lead monthly peer review workshops, which are a huge amount of work. Of course in the modern day, you need to have a presence on social media, so I set up and run a social media presence on four of the main social media platforms. At some point, I thought that it would be amazing to do a group show because we have so many talented artists so now we’re having our inaugural group show in December in Kingston Cass Art. It’s all been amazing, but there’s definitely moments when it feels like a big commitment. But it’s worth it.
Ellen: Where do you see the group going?
Vera: I hope it continues to develop and grow its membership. I’m trying to be very careful about making sure that the members of the group get the best that they can out of the group. Because the only way that the group will exist and get better is if people who are part of the group get some value out of it. If not, then there’s no point. I hope that the group will continue to grow with people who are ambitious and committed to moving their art career forward and people who are active in their own art career, but also with the network to try to make the monthly meetings and develop relationships further. I’d love to do another group show. Let’s see how this one goes and what the feedback is. But if we can ultimately do a group show every few months, that would be really good result.
Discussing professional plans for the next few years.
Ellen: What do you hope to accomplish individually in the few years? And where do you see your work developing in the next 5-10 years?
Vera: In terms of where I see my work developing, I have to say it’s impossible to tell. Last year, I had a much clearer vision of what my work is and that fundamentally it’s water-based.
Ellen: And you didn’t have any intention of branching out into other media at the time?
Vera: No, not really. AT that time, I thought that working exclusively in water-based media like inks was enough. But this year, I’ve opened the floodgates with trying different media and enjoying it and getting really good feedback from it. Now, I can’t say with certainty where my work will go over the next few years. There are so many different media that I love… I do think that regardless of what I create, there will be some common threads through the artwork. Colour will continue to be a dominant focus. The inspiration by nature will continue to be a strong element. And the texture, the different textural elements will also be very important. In terms of what media I will incorporate or not, who knows! What I’ll be working on in five years’ time, I don’t know but I do think those three elements will still be there. In terms of me professionally, I have huge aspirations. In three years’ time, I’d love to be a big part of the London art scene as an artist, and collaborator, curator and writer. There’s so many different ways in which you can be involved in art!
Ellen: So you want to have your hand in a bunch of different areas.
Vera: Yes, there are a lot of things that I enjoy doing that other artists don’t like to do… Like writing. I like writing about my art and about other people’s art. It would be enjoyable to incorporate those elements into my work somehow. I would love to be fully connected to the London art scene so that it’s not just about me creating my own work in my studio and sharing my voice through my art, but it’s much more about having a conversation with people and with a wider audience and collaborating on different projects. It’s about being an active participant in moving the London art scene forward to an even more exciting and inclusive space.
Discussing upcoming events.
Ellen: Where can people learn more about you?
Vera: I have a website (https://www.veraveraonthewall.com/) and blog (https://www.veraveraonthewall.com/blogs/news). I’m also on various social media channels - www.facebook.com/veravera.onthewall/, www.instagram.com/veraveraonthewall/ , www.twitter.com/VeraVeraOTWall , www.pinterest.com/veraveraotwall/ , and www.linkedin.com/in/vera-blagev-87818810b.
In terms of seeing my work in person for those that are in or around London, I am part of the Wimbledon Art Studios November 10 – 13 open studios show (https://www.facebook.com/events/168538416939219/). I’m in studio 406 on the second floor in the Blue Building. I’ll also be having a Christmas Artist Open House event in my home in Southfields the first weekend in December (https://www.facebook.com/events/192307211211917/). And I’m participating in the inaugural group show for the London Professional Artists Network (https://www.facebook.com/events/718899114931982/) focusing on the theme blue that will be on for a month in Kingston starting December 14th . Details for all those events are on my website and on Facebook.