A Love for Painting: Vanja Popek

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The first thing I’ve seen when I entered Vanja’s house was a red painting covering an entire living room wall. I didn’t pay much attention to it at first, because we were busy talking. Weeks later, I did cat sitting for

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The first thing I’ve seen when I entered Vanja’s house was a red painting covering an entire living room wall. I didn’t pay much attention to it at first, because we were busy talking. Weeks later, I did cat sitting for the two cats that her family adopted, and at some point I found myself having a quiet moment, on the couch, looking at the red painting. And I kept looking and looking. The more I looked, the more I discovered about this painting, which seemed just a splash of red paint at first. There were scratchings, textures, text, nuances and emotions revealing themselves from the large painting. It hypnotised me. There’s a similar purple painting on another wall, but the red one remains my favourite. 

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Vanja also paints portraits on wooden boxes, and they are spread all around her house — little people with big personalities, looking at you from different angles. When you ask her about painting, she radiates joy, like a child showing you his favourite toys. I met her for the interview at her place, last summer; it was the best place to take photos that illustrate her life. She showed me a big part of her paintings collection and I watched her painting while talking to me, explaining how the act of creating a painting is, for her, comparable to composing a piece of music. I left her house wishing my apartment would be filled with canvases, and brushes and paint, just like hers, and I suppose she influenced my decision to take a painting class later this year. 

You can see Vanja’s work on her Instagram account and contact her if you are interested in buying something.

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Thanks for agreeing to this interview! I would like to start by asking about your artistic background. When did you start painting?

I was classically educated, only not really as a painter, that came a bit later. It started with the high school for Applied Arts in my hometown. That lead me to apply for the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb (Croatia), where I got my master’s degree in Graphic Arts. But I was always painting, I was expressing in the medium of paint and canvas even though my signature was mostly graphical. Lines, strong, deep and very dominant lines were always very pronounced in my work. I would scratch my canvas, leaving deep marks in the paint, very textural, very plastic, so, I guess my graphic background left a strong mark on my painting.

When did you know that painting is what you want to do the rest of your life? Did you have something like a revelatory moment?

I don’t think there was a moment I can single out. It was a path that started when I was a child. Many of my mother’s friends were artists, and I spent a lot of time with them, watching them work, they even included me in their work. So that is where it all probably started, the artists, their art and their way of life influenced me a lot. There was never any doubt that I would end up in arts, there was nothing else I wanted to do.

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Do you ever regret your choice?

Being an artist can be challenging, and I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t had that moment when they thought: “Why do I do this?!” But, no, I don’t regret it, this is who I am, this is not just a profession it’s a part of my personality and I don’t see myself wanting to be someone else.

What inspires you? How do you choose what to paint when you start with a new blank canvas?

In my abstract work, it’s the work itself. Inspiration is overrated, you have to create and apply yourself. It’s like any other job – you show up, you put in an effort to get the job done the best you can. You run in to problems, you solve the problems. There is a great difference in doing arts as a hobby and doing it as a professional.

With my figurative work, especially the portraits I’ve been doing lately, I get inspired by people I see around me, people I interact with. I like to paint women with a strong character, with an attitude. So, that’s who inspires my work, the women I see when I’m in the park, when I have my coffee, women I talk to, even you 🙂

Aww… thank you!

I know that you moved to the Netherlands a few years ago. How did this change impacted your artistic life and your inspiration?

We (my husband, our son and me) moved to the Netherlands four years ago, and part of the motivation to make that move was the art. I wanted to be closer to the art world. It absolutely impacts my work to be in Amsterdam, a city that has so much to offer when it comes to arts and culture. I couldn’t point it out, though, it’s just another layer that was added to my life and my work.

Are you working on a certain project right now?

Most of my recent work are the portraits. It has been a very long time since I last did figurative work, and I find it so refreshing, I really enjoy it. I’ve produced dozens of portraits in the past year, and lately I started to share it online and people are responding well to it, they see themselves or the people they know in those portraits, so there’s this instant familiarity that happens with the characters.

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What is the next step, will there be an exhibition of the portraits that we can visit?

Probably not very soon. I had a lot of exhibitions in the past, and I feel is the wrong way to present your art to the public. Because of the way people respond to the portraits, a gallery wall seems like the wrong place to display them. I’m hitting the markets (laughs), you might see my work on the stalls in one of the Sunday markets or something like that.

How often do you paint and do you ever get an artist’s block?

I paint almost every day of the week, but the weekends are reserved for my family. I get stuck sometimes, just like any other person, artist or not. A walk in the park and a cup of coffee with a friend usually helps 🙂

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Vanja Popek, artist

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