by Diane Van Cort
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Lunchtime in Serbia
Serbian Farm House at Paganovo
American show in Valjevo
Artist Diane Van Cort traveled to Serbia last summer. Here is the first part of her journal. The rest is to be in future issues.
Last summer I went to Yugoslavia. I was curating a group show of American Artists Works on Paper. I met an artist and gallery owner, Mica Trnavac, through my exSerbian (ex)roommate, Vera, and her husband, Dusan. Mica, a well known (at least in Serbia) Serbian artist was here making a half million dollar deal on the sale of his house in Westchester.
During the heydays of the 80's he and his wife had run a successful gallery in Soho and amassed some momey for real estate and enabled them to put their daughter through American college.
Mica came to my studio and persuaded me to put together a group of American artists for his gallery in Valjevo (pronounced Va lay vo), which is a small rural city outside of Belgrade. As he is a still handsome in a Dr. Weill masculine sort of way at age 52 with shocking white hair and beard , large but not overly overweight, and very flattering, he was able to appeal to my ego and my desire to do something exotic like go to a country for which no one writes any tourist books, and the LONELY PLANET warns against landmines and other related problems.
It was an enormous amount of work to suddenly put together an exhibition of a half dozen artists and their work in the space of three weeks while still teaching at a summer camp.
I did all the paperwork for the customs and the catalog.
One artist had me near nervous break down. Getting a resume and a biography from him was impossible. I almost gave up. I got another artist whose work Mica turned out to hate for no good reason. But he went into the show and the art did get catalogued and hung. Then this artist hated the quality of the reproductions (which in fact were good). Perhaps he sensed the strife underneath.
August 4th (?) I arrived in Prague in the afternoon after flying overnight and not sleeping much. The flight was seamless, the mature Czech crew was very reassuring in their elder-statesmanlike manner (there wasn’t a one of them under 50 and I couldn't imagine them partying and drugging on their ground time). I was again put to further travel by another flight to Belgrade and then by car to the city of Valjevo where the exhibit was to be.
My escorts were Mira and Batta. Mira was the gallery's female manager and Batta, a male looked somewhat like a farmer or a laborer was on the gallery's board of directors. Mira was friendly and animated, fortyish, slim , vaguely chic with short dyed reddish-maroon hair, fashionably dark-rimmed glasses, slightly homely with a bump on her nose and space between her front teeth, she spoke basic English willingly. Batta on the otherhand seemed taciturn, a short stocky man with dark hair and peasant features, he looked a little harried over having to pick me up and drive me to Valjevo, a three hour journey for him.
Dushita, Mica's kindly wife helped me to go through customs with the portfolio. Once in Belgade before we took off for Valjevo which had been almost overlooked and probably would have been better so. As doing it the right way caused endless problems later for the others. In every city everything is checked out by police again and again. Every traveler must register everytime he or she moves anywhere for any period of time.
August 6th(?): finally once in Valjevo I could collapse in a studio over the gallery that Mica had built as an apartment-studio, in simple modern and European in decor. And collapse I did in this strange stone hexagonally shaped building that had once sold cows. Even now it was situated in the middle of an acre of field grass. Though it a stone lined road ran around and a fountain splashed. The domed roof of the building had a star-shaped opening through which the light poured in the morning as it did from all the windows that circled the structure.
The gallery downstairs itself had incandescent light and spots were used for the art. Wall space was not bothered with windows. It was the appartment upstairs where I slept that the light poured in and did not allow late risings.
I was awakened the next morning by Mira and Batta standing over me staring like I was some alien discovery. They were ready to work. The opening of the show was two weeks away and the gallery staff immediately set about getting the catalogue ready. First off all they had to translate English into Serbian. In doing so they screwed up a lot of the English,and my bio was especially hard hit.
The whole time I could have proofread had I but known. The manager, Mira and the secretary, Violetta, had taken it upon themselves to do this translation. I didn't think to ask about editing or proofing. I had no idea they would have difficulty copying English and that they would in fact change the spelling of so many words making them almost incomprehensible, especially in my case. They were perhaps intimidated by a live American artist?
For several days I was taken out to coffee, meals, and walks in the town which had a wide stoney river and cafes lining it, little shops and old official buildings. The residential area varied from almost farm like to modern medditerean looking appartment houses. Almost all of this was tiled with red terra cotta and painted white or mustard. People kept chickens, goats, and pigs running around in their yards. This was the outskirts of Valjevo. Small old cars with exhaust problems were everywhere, noisy and smelly. Men sat at cafes and women looked slim and fashionable. The people in general were tall and white and always always smoking. English was not widely spoken except by the young.
The small city had a few hills and some distant vistas which I could say were countrylike and pretty. Soft rolling hills and farm land, very little industry and what had been industry were now I saw sadly later, bomb craters.
Like Americans, Serbians drop paper and debris in their streets and roads: litterbugs like us. Probably not quite as bad, but I am always disappointed and amazed when I see this carelessness.
The next part of the trip was going to an artist residency. Mira and Batta put me on a bus the next evening to go Belgrade again to make the trip by train to Dimitragrad where the monastery and the art colony were. Mica had managed to wrangle an invitation for me as part of the bribe to bring me over. Another meeting with Dushitsa and this time a night in her apartment on the couch before getting up at the crack of dawm to hit the train station and be taken by a couple, two aging, fashionably hip looking Serbian Artists who were going to the same colony. He had a beard and full head of long grey hair and eyes of an extremely astoundingly pale blue color while she also had long very full head of dark curly hair and sexy figure that she displayed through the use of tight figure-flattering clothes. She used strange large sunglasses that hid a good part of her face which though attractive was after all not that of a twenty-five-year old. She wore them relentlessly (the travails of aging beauties). They did not seem to be prescription but perhaps they were?
We settled into a separate car with their lanky ten- year-old daughter or as I found out later his daughter, a girl who luckily spoke good English whereas they spoke almost none. Thus we had a fairly pleasant comfortable ride. The seat unfolded and I stretched out and slept part of the seven hours it took.
The train ran through corn field after corn field somewhat rolling or alternatively flat with the usual little tiled rooved houses or villages. The house were build largely of stucco and straw and some were quite dilapadated. Most of the countryside seemed open, not that many trees. One wondered if the forests had all been cut down long ago.
Thus we arrived in Dimitragrad in the late afternoon, a small pretty rural city surrounded by green hills and yellow fields and mountains. The most country I'd seen unitl the monastery itself 15 minutes away by car in the mountains. Here we disembarked in relatively cool air, Belgrade and Valjevo had been hot and sticky. We were met by the director of the colony, Peter, who walked us across the street to the Cultural Center and from there after what seemed another interminable time we went to a restaurant where we waited again for the remainder of our party of artists to join us. It seemed endless but once they all showed up and we sat down to a table laden with food and began drinking pivo (Serbian for beer) time and travelings weariness immediately melted.
We were an international crowd, two men from Bulgaria: the greatest drinkers, one man from Greece who taught art at the Athens University, two Serbian women (one who taught and one who lived with her parents and only had art shows and were both heavy smokers and not much for drinking) a male Serb(another teacher of art and constant smoker and wisecracker) and my other Serb traveling companions (he actually made a living as a painter) and myself from the States as well as a young Englishman from London who worked for some sort of business and drank a great deal with the Bulgarians who encouraged him.
All of us looked forward to the ten days in the country, painting, eating ,drinking and relaxing. An escape in August from the ordinary toils.
After eating our fill of what turned out to be the national dishes of Serbia and Bulgaria : tomato and cucumber salad topped with white cheese and much broiled meat of one kind and another, and drinking beer, wine, and slivovitz (plumb brandy) we began introducing ourselves; picture taking we headed off for the night. The men were put up at the ancient monastary and we women went to a farm house a mile and half away on the side of a hill looking towards near mountains and a small river running close to the road.
Copyright © 2003 Diane Van Cort