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They say when life gives you lemons to make lemonade. Problem is I’ve never been given a lemon, and though I like lemonade, it’s not enough of an incentive for me to buy lemons. Plus, you have to buy sugar, and spend time mixing it when the whole time, there was perfectly good water just waiting to be drunk. My point in this inflated example? That I’m not now, nor have I ever been interested in chasing products/objects that don’t provide additional benefits to the basic ones.
I apologize for the lengthy intro paragraph, and if you’re still reading, great! My reasoning for that intro is a sort of representation for my past year, current plans, and mindset regarding most things. I left the US and a well-paying job because though it paid well, it provided me no further benefit. I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing, where I lived, nor the limited interaction that I had with others. I felt that I was surely wasting my time and there wasn’t a reasonable explanation as to why. That job was my lemonade. Sure, I could buy what I wanted and I lived relatively well, but I didn’t need that specific job to live. I wouldn’t die without it, surely. It’s been over two and a half years now, every day I find out that some still don’t quite understand my reasons for leaving. They can’t grasp it, or perhaps just think I’m on an extended vacation. Something that infuriates me, if I’m being 100% honest. So, this post is about why. Why I left, why I came to Europe, and why I’m doing what I’m doing rather than returning to the States. I can no longer leave so many questions unanswered and people left to imagining scenarios that simply aren’t accurate.
When I was living in Indianapolis, I worked night shifts as a pharmacy technician in a chemotherapy compounding lab. It was depressing and lonely, and though it paid well, I worked 7 nights at a time at 11 hours each. For me, it mutilated my daytime schedule anyways, so I was often picking up extra shifts. Many times, up to 50 hours a pay period extra, and sometimes working close to 20 hours nonstop. As a result, I had some pretty nice paychecks and would spend the off-weeks that I wasn’t working trying to travel and really experience the country that I lived in. To see places that I had read about or seen online and in books. To find out about the people that call our country home and the diversity that exists. Unfortunately, this just made me dread the weeks that I worked even more and soon I planned to leave.
You see, while I was working at the hospital, my grandfather had a stroke. Right around the time that I had planned to go and visit him and my grandmother for one of my off-weeks. Prior to that visit, he and I had been speaking on the phone. As he’s also an artist, he had told me some great stories about his past and deeply encouraged what I was doing with art in my downtime. But after his stroke, he forgot that. His hands didn’t work well enough to write much less draw, and his memory made it difficult to remember what we had been speaking about. Not to mention that many times, he thought I was my father or someone else entirely. Another time, he stopped speaking English and went on a several hour span of speaking only Serbian. It scared me, that I had wasted the time I had and hadn’t tried to learn more from him while I could. The doctors also weren’t sure if he would improve back to anything close to what he had been previously, so I might not have another chance. This was a man who had lived life his own way and had instilled in me a pride in being myself without much care about what others thought of me. A man who I had looked up to as a skilled artist since I was little and who had taught me quite a lot of what I know. Anyway, the entire scenario gave me a push from my mundane life to wanting something more. We had spoken as his recovery improved, and from what he said about the difficulties of getting his work to the right people, it forced me to confront the reality that I don’t have those difficulties. The internet exists and with it, platforms that allow billions of people to see what I am capable of.
After that realization, my overtime hours were no longer just paying for long-distance travel on my weeks off, but were contributing to a savings that would allow me to leave my life behind and do what I really wanted to. I wanted to travel the world, see new and interesting people and hear their stories, work on my artwork, and learn about the cultures that contributed to me coming to exist in the first place. I had been to a decent number of the states, but never to another country. I didn’t even have a passport. As for the cultural portion, I had been working on my family’s genealogy for years, but wanted to learn more; straight from the horse’s mouth. What kind of life does my family in Belgium live and I especially wanted to know more about the Serbian side of my family. The records were inconclusive due to what I assumed were language barriers/lacking digital copies and without coming to the Balkans, I wasn’t finding anything out.
So, I left. I saved for a year, boxed up what belongings I hadn’t sold or given away, and then left. If you want to know what I did for the first few months, you can read about it in past posts. I don’t need to cover that so much. But the time after is what got interesting. I lived in a country that didn’t resemble my own in most ways, but I loved it. There was an honesty, a simplicity about it. People worked for what they wanted, and lived life the best that they could. That’s not to say that it’s the best life possible, but they kind of had a “fuck it” mentality about it all, and I latched onto that. Within a year of being here in Serbia, I had painted my first ever large-scale painting, and within a year and a half, was working towards a career as a painter. It wasn’t a vacation, contrary to what many may think. You see, the wages here are low, so if you’re living off of savings, there’s not much money around to replenish that balance. For a while, I just did freelance web design, followed by managing a hostel here for what can only be described as pennies. Neither of which was a simple job, and with both being extremely time-consuming, I was only allotted a small amount of time which I dedicated to drawing and learning what more I could about my own family history. Mind you the hostel job took up nearly all of my time with me being a live-in employee and as such, the work literally never ended. Finally, early last year, I had enough of that and I quit so I could fully pursue painting. It was obvious that although I initially took the job to meet people and have time to work on my art, that wasn’t happening and I wasn’t about to continue working a job that paid for a month close to what I made in the US in a couple of days. It just didn’t make sense.
In February of 2018, I painted my second real mural at a hostel in Bar, Montenegro and a couple of weeks after, a third. With these, I updated my portfolio and sent it out to find more places to paint/opportunities. I went to Spain where I lived for a month and a half and worked on teaching myself linocut printing while working on a mural there. When I came back, my paintings just took off. Over the course of the last year, I painted more than 15 murals, some being over 20 feet tall! This is where I want to clarify my work for those who don’t understand. I was barely sleeping and in order to paint these massive murals, I needed to plan out what the subject was and coordinate when I would do what/where. Many of these were for free besides travel expenses/food, and I also had to do some paying work in between so I could continue my practice (and stay alive). It was a full-time job, and though you only see photos from the various places I travelled, it was by no means a vacation. Around the same time that I started focusing heavily on my painting, my girlfriend Zeren started an initiative, iksvy art, to focus on the arts in Eastern Europe. The point was to connect not only the artists with each other, but to provide a means by which we could help each other. There’s not much info online about how to do what we do, and so many are left feeling like they’re going through this alone and without any reference material. Additionally, the focus of iksvy art was to create an online database that will aid in others finding the artists in the region, but also an archive for the future. A living history, if you will.
In July, this bloomed into a secondary project. A podcast that would interview some of the artists that we meet and would be available for others worldwide. We wanted to do this in audio and video formats, to create options for everyone, and starting in September, we began recording with the use of borrowed recorders from friends. Keep in mind, this is all while both of us are working full-time on our own jobs. After months of balancing this lifestyle and researching the equipment necessary, we launched a Kickstarter campaign to aid in the funding of the podcast, while also providing a means for some of the artists here to been seen internationally. The artists created artwork for the rewards (for which they will be compensated when the campaign finishes), I created my own artworks for this as well as worked on the editing of the episodes/video content, social media/public relations, continued painting, and worked on my own project, which is a carpentry workshop here in Belgrade. Sleep has been limited and stress high, with several months of work being done without compensation, but only an optimism of everything being okay soon.
I’ve reached out to organizations, individuals, past professors, and other artists per word of mouth. Hundreds of messages and emails have been sent to friends, family, and acquaintances who I felt would be interested in the premise of the project, both for support and to ask them to share with their friends who may also be interested. More people than I could have imagined have responded with promises of doing just that, but ultimately did a disappointing lot of nothing. I can’t stress enough how demoralizing this has been, following years now of their verbal “I’m so proud” style support and wishes that there was “some way I could help support what you do”. Yet, when the time came that I personally asked them to help, they made false promises and then did nothing. I understand that many don’t have extra money, which is why I not only offered to give free drawings away to friends who helped out, but also asked that people simply share the link.
Currently, there is less than a day’s worth of hours remaining in the campaign, and though we’ve reached our initial goal that allows us to get a recorder, hard drive, and hosting for the podcast, we’re still nearly $9,000 short of the funds necessary to finish renovating the studio space to actually do the recording in, to get a computer that will be able to handle the processing as mine is currently not doing the best due to years of being in my backpack while hiking, and to be able to live off of this. Till then, we’ll both be continuing working on freelance jobs while juggling this, my painting career, and keeping our sanity. I recently got my residency here for the next year, am continuing to learn Serbian, and working on getting legal status for the initiative so we can work with other countries in Eastern Europe to provide opportunities for others in the arts, and am working to be the best me that I can be. My life is no vacation, but is a constant string of unknowns. That said, I love what I do and if I hadn’t made this choice, I would be regretting it without a doubt in my mind. I appreciate everyone who genuinely supports me in what I do, both emotionally and otherwise.
I wanted to say more about why I’m not interested in returning home any time soon, but I think I’ll leave that for another post rather than shortening it to something simplified. Maybe it’s already clear from this post and I don’t need to say more. Either way, I hope this helps to clarify some things and for those who have taken the time to read it, thank you.
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