Interview with Mirjana Ugrinov: Art as Poetry as Art

Held Up By Night
Held Up By Night. Courtesy of Mirjana Ugrinov.

This one is called Held Up By Night. It's kind of like a kite, so I used real string. It's like a sleepless night, and you feel like you're suspended up there. It's kind of emotionless. I have its sister, using the same dimensions and materials. This is called simply Balancing. To me it's like a tight rope, a person balancing.

Balancing
Balancing. Courtesy of the artist.

Born in Subotica in former Yugoslavia, near the Hungarian border, Mirjana Ugrinov created her first “gallery” at age 7; her future husband, also 7, bought two drawings from her. During her childhood, she continued to create art and appeared in operettas as a child actor. After secondary school, she moved to the U.S. and married her childhood sweetheart. For two years in Cleveland, she worked in a toupee shop, owned by a Czechoslovakian couple, and went to school to study English. She attended Ohio State for two years, transferred to Kent State, where she earned a degree in studio art with an emphasis in painting, and studied art history at Case Western Reserve. In the late 1970s, she opened Coventry Art Gallery in Cleveland while partnering with her husband at Ugrinov Associates, a corporate interior design business. The couple established a second residence and a studio in Chicago in 2001. Mirjana continues to work as a painter and fiber artist, and maintains a position as Design Director at Ugrinov Associates.

ArtStyle: Why did you decide to move from Cleveland to Chicago?

Mirjana Ugrinov (MU): In 2001, I had still been waiting for the Cleveland renaissance people kept talking about in Ohio, but it didn't happen, so we came to Chicago. The art scene here is much more vibrant. I have met great people here, including artists and poets. I also met people at the ARC Gallery, which is one of the oldest co-ops in the country. Currently, I serve on their board of advisors, and we're celebrating our 35th anniversary next year.

ArtStyle: How are you involved with ARC?

MU: All of my adult life I have been involved with nonprofits and art organizations. I became a member of ARC in Chicago as soon as I moved here. For several years, as a member, I co-chaired the Exhibition Committee, chaired the PR committee, designed postcards and brochures, chaired the Paris in Chicago international exchange, and worked on other activities. I enjoy working with groups, and ARC is an organization I respect and support. Last year, I was asked to serve on the Advisory Board.

Currently, I'm involved with a very interesting project that originated with ARC. It's called Poetic Dialogue. One of my friends, Beth Shadur, curated this show several years ago. It involved women artists who turned poems written by national poets into art forms. We had poetry readings, and the show traveled and was very well received. The following year, we reversed it. The poets selected women artists and used the art work for their inspiration, and it's an ongoing thing. That show went to various universities.

Through Poetic Dialogue, I met Robin Behn, who is also a national poet. In February, I'm going to have a solo show at ARC. I'm working on a collaboration with Robin using her poetry. She did a poem for my painting called Surfacing.

Surfacing
Surfacing. Courtesy of the artist.

    Surfacing

    This is when the front of the mind,
    on fire with archaic fire.

    And torn by that. But opening.
    As snow splays before flame.

    Whoever is not inside by now.
    Whoever in their travels has not

    outrun or been outrun.
    Crushed or been crushed.

    Noticed or been noticed.
    Shall square off, lung to lung.

    There being nothing left
    to lift, coddle, eat.

    Home, an apparition of elders, alders.
    And green, gone finally dumb.

    What-you-hath-done is nigh.
    Peat, smoke, heat-in-the-floor

    rising to some pane
    where endlessness ravishes a brain.

    Divide thee into ranks.
    And sit.

    One bench
    seen. One un-.

    — Robin Behn (Published with permission)

ArtStyle: Could you talk about Surfacing? What did you have in mind when you painted it?

MU: I don't have literal stories or narratives in mind when I paint. The bottom part of the painting reminded me of some kind of water that could be healing or the exact opposite of it. And I remember Margaret Atwood's book, one of her earlier works called Surfacing. It's about a woman discovering her spirituality through water while camping in Canada. Margaret Atwood has a strange way of presenting you with an extremely spiritual outcome from a story told in a completely rational way. So I called the painting Surfacing and Robin found other things in it. There's a part in her poem where she says lung to lung, and in the painting it does look like two red lungs. Some of this is scratched wax over acrylic, and I used other mediums, crayons, and pencils. And Robin also did a poem for this painting here I call Tucson.

Tucson
Tucson. Courtesy of the artist.

    Once

    was an oak with a wet oak heart
    was hewn and dried was brought to a space

    was handy for chopping up
    some-ones which-ones

    Once was doing was the smell
    of doing and being done to

    was eye of why not
    was ye of why us

    was red-rimmed remedied
    clung-to cumbersome Once

    sealed in chambers There are places on earth
    perfectly safe the

    cordonings holding the extra blue tears
    siphoned off to a cool pool

    Once the past pokes through became
    a place the guide-ones guide one's

    way through they say Once say
    this and thus say way way

    back say mind the say time to say back
    like a rib say well we don't

    know but this strap once this cell once
    this ring-in-the-wall once these

    words once scratched here

    — Robin Behn (Published with permission)

ArtStyle: What kind of paints do you use and how do you use them?

MU: I use mediums with acrylics, and sometimes I use straight paint. If I wasn't allergic to oils, I would be painting with oil. I like the business of glazing. In some areas (of the painting), you can almost see the canvas. I use acrylic mediums — matte and gloss — mixed with the paint to give it body. I work fast, and I know where to stop so it blends. If I want a blended area, I will do this immediately because the paint dries so fast. In certain areas, there is more than the eye can see — fibers and sand-like mediums applied to the paint

ArtStyle: Tell me about your colors in your art. Your colors are very vibrant, full of energy, and very bright and lively.

MU: Color is the vehicle of my expression and everything that I do wants to be very colorful, which is at times an obstacle, so sometimes I have to do these things to kind of subdue it. But I just love how colors vibrate together and what they do. And I'm always afraid that I'm walking the line between something serious and decorative. I also think with color because I love color. Usually I don't do art work for self therapy. If I'm not happy, I'm not here (in the studio). I have to center myself elsewhere, and then I come to my art work, and I feel that I'm more in touch with what matters. So that's why they're happy.

Green Moon
Green Moon. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: What paintings are you working on now?

MU: Green Moon is my latest painting. I do a lot of paintings that have autumn in them. This is a meditation of an island in Croatia where we're going to be in a few weeks. It's about harvest time after the wine season is over. It's the Adriatic colors — of the sea and sky — and how they connect at the end of the day. We have a little stone house there where my husband's uncle lives. He's a fisherman and an ex-diplomat. All of this, to me, is a symbol of harvest that's finished and dry branches waiting for a new season, and I just love the textures on the painting (I worked hard on creating this texture). I used a piece of paper that I covered with medium and put the paper on the pre-painted surface, and then I peeled it off to create that look.

Esma
Esma. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Could you talk about your paper art and digital art?

MU: In addition to painting, I'm also a fiber artist. For the paper art, I use acrylic and manipulated paper. I wrinkle butcher block paper, spray it, manipulate it, dip it into acrylic, and move the paint around. There is a movie out about gypsies released this year, called Gypsy Caravan. In it is a Macedonian gypsy called Esma Redepova, who I knew of when I was a child, and I loved her music. She had the voice of Diana Ross, singing these fluid, moving, sassy, totally melodic gypsy songs. She's an incredible woman, adopting 47 children from different countries and raised and educated them. Some of them are even musicians in her band. This piece is called Esma, and it's about 3 years old. I remember her when she was a young tiny girl in this beautiful gypsy embroidered costume. The colors are about how I hear her music.

Shadow Dance
Shadow Dance. Digital Art. Courtesy of the artist.

My digital art is an extension of my medium. All of my digital pieces are done with Painter software. I use a stylus and tablet so the creative process is very much like drawing or painting. The difference is in the palette, which is digital as opposed to “real” paints. Most of my existing pieces are simple high-resolution digital drawings and paintings, and they are printed on archival watercolor paper using archival ink. My new work is comprised of photographs I took and then manipulated. Soon, a series called Island Doors will be posted on my new web site, now in progress.

ArtStyle: You mentioned collaborating with Robin Behn for an ARC project in February 2008. What are you planning for that project?

MU: I'm using Robin's poetry in a different way. Instead of responding to it in an emotional way through color and paint, which is what we've been doing and that's part of a project that we'll probably continue for a while, I decided to take the poem and make it a crucial, a necessary part of the art. The art would not exist without the poem, and the poem would not visually exist without being projected this way. This is an experimental piece but I'm happy where it's going.

The ones that will be hanging from the ceiling will be on fish line and I'm going to look for invisible little clips. I just want them attached in two or three spots and then have them hang. I'm thinking very minimalist, so the poem is the main thing. Imagine 6 or 7 of these hanging from the ceiling and maybe some small ones on the wall. But each piece will be a poem. In a way, it's a celebration of her poetry, and I love how Robin writes. I just like the idea of two people collaborating in a very specific way, completely fused, two art forms fused and existing together. To me, this is honoring her poem more than having it printed 8 1/2” x 11” next to a 5-foot painting.

Mirjana Ugrinov’s Experimental Piece Using Robin Behn’s Poetry

I'm going to do another piece with a poem. It will be a Victorian blouse framed almost museum style. But the poem is going to be very nasty and very tough, and it will speak with a kind of universal voice of angry women, oppression, and psychological and physical pain that women experienced through millennia, and then it would be juxtaposed with this pristine beautiful remnant of the Victorian blouse.

Blouse on Canvas
Victorian Blouse on Canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: What do you want to say with this work?

MU: What I want to speak to is a larger picture of women as perceived in history and women as they are. I think that for millennia, women hid their strength, their anger, and their helplessness under these pristine, beautiful garments, and they played a game being a wonderful decorative flower in somebody's garden. To talk about blood and childbirth and menopause and abuse was out of the question. The reason I like the blouse is that it's handmade. Imagine the meditation that went into every one of these little stitches. These women are to me unsung heroes of crafts and art. My grandmother did it. My husband's grandmother did it. Their mothers did it. It was just a given that that's what you busied yourself with after you washed the linens by hand and ironed and tended 7 babies and dealt with your husband, then you were supposed to do this. I think there was a purpose for it. It was a meditation, a kind of a seclusion in a room just to think.

For more of Mirjana Ugrinov's artwork, click here ArtStyle Blog Gallery.

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