Marko Velk, Artist
8.30.15 Callicoon Center, NY
"Those feelings of absence and alienation must have come, in part, from the fact that, for the first time, I could not go back to the country of my soul and from knowing that tons of people were killing each other, even though only a year before they were sitting and drinking coffee together. This was incomprehensible to me."
Interview & Photos: Kate Orne
KO: Not long after you met your wife Missy (Rayder) you spent an entire winter together up here. What was that like?
MV: Luka had just been born at end of July and we stayed upstate from September to May. Of course it was a very special time for us and I really loved it. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere.
I found time to work in the barn and that was a great — even without heat. When I draw, I move a lot, covered in layers of winter clothes, I managed to do some really good pieces!
Opening the barn door and seeing trees all around is a wonderful feeling! Walking across the snow… hearing the birds chirping... I once had a similar experience living outside of Paris but this is different: we are really in the midst of the countryside and the air here is so much better than in the city.
KO: What went through your mind when you saw the barn for the first time?
MV: I saw that empty barn and realized that not only had I probably met my future wife but she had also just introduced me to this magical place. I thought that maybe, one day, I could work there but that was a dream – that ended up coming true.
KO: Besides helping you discover your handyman talents, has living upstate proved to be a significant influence on your work?
MV: The work is within me. Perhaps nature can bring a greater sense of calm or more introspection but I didn’t wait to find myself dropped into nature to start the work. So, let’s see how it evolves up here in this barn … I don’t know...
If there happens to be a change due to the proximity of nature it will probably take some time for me to realize it. It is difficult to say if my work would have changed if I had stayed where I was or if it will change due to my current context in the countryside.
It probably is influenced but to know how much is hard to answer because one is only in one place when one creates.
I think that greater change occurs for artists when they are searching for ideas and themes within close proximity to social and cultural environments that are not specifically linked to image creation.
In my case, I combine imagination and memory. While I’m using the first, the second one draws, wherever I am.
KO: Who are these people in the collage and what do they represent?
MV: Those photos were selected from the many I found and collected from my family. Some are very old and were kept throughout different generations. All the images come from Yugoslavia, the country where I was born, a country that divided into six different republics during the '90s.
Today, instead of talking about my Yugoslavian background, I must specify my Serbian, Croatian and Montenegrin origins...which makes me the perfect example of what that country produced. But the country of my birth does not exist anymore.
KO: Many of your family members lived through the Yugoslav war. Did the cultural divide manifest itself within your family and friends?How did living closely connected to conflict affect you and your work?
MV: Well, within the circle of my family and friends there were, of course, discussions and debates and at times some would feel more on one side than the other because they were more Serbian or more Croatian. This led to a few surprising events and it showed me the true nature of the people around us – and the inability to avoid nationalism. I only knew that I was from a single nation and was speaking one language called Serbo-Croatian. At the time I didn’t even understand why it wasn’t called ‘Yugoslavian’. Then the war came and I got the explanations with their contradictions.
As I had grown up in France, I was not directly hit by the war but some of my family was and, ultimately, every single person who had a connection to that country was affected. Families, friends, schoolmates, colleagues, everybody was pushed into having to decide who they were and then had to stand behind their statement – even if they had to go against their family. For those who were of mixed heritage making a choice became unbearable.
At 21 years of age one doesn’t really understand much about politics, the ruling of nations, and how it affects a person. But reading about it in different newspapers every day, in French, Serbian, Croatian and English, accelerated my understanding and I slowly started realizing the hypocrisy of the world I was living in – and it profoundly disappointed me. I learned to read between the lines and was aware that an article in a newspaper could completely change one’s angle of perception. The problem was that this war was very complicated and to be objective was very hard. The rest of the world and their respective media, depending on their historical relationship with Yugoslavia before the war, had different interpretations about the conflicts and, of course, this made it more of a mess.
Today, twenty years later, some of the countries in the Balkans are still paying for it and I don’t have to mention the United States’ role in this whole affair: always playing double games and searching for interest and profit in order to get what it wants. Did you know that the biggest NATO base in Europe is now located on Serbia’s border? It is called Camp Bondsteel.
KO: Absence, separation, physical and emotional alienation: they all have a strong presence throughout your work. Can you talk about the sources of these themes?
MV: They obviously came from things that I hadn’t yet processed while I was doing the work. Those feelings of absence and alienation must have come, in part, from the fact that for the first time I could not go back to the country of my soul and from knowing that tons of people were killing each other, even though only a year before they were sitting and drinking coffee together. This was incomprehensible to me.
The work has evolved since then but I have to say that perhaps half of it is because of the war. It is a very strange feeling to have a ‘normal’ life while all of this is happening. It makes one angry, powerless, almost like one doesn’t have the right to a normal life – but this is a very common feeling. It just doesn’t hit you until it’s about your own people because then you can actually feel it and picture it very clearly. And of course the literal war of which I speak also reflects the internal war within one’s self.
KO: Your father, Vladimir Velickovic, is a well-known artist in Europe. Of all the things that you learned from him about being an artist, what has remained with you most strongly?
MV: With an artist father, one can smell the oil paint, see the canvases, the images... one can even give their opinion. So, for me it was a totally natural environment. I would visit him in his studio and go to his exhibitions and witness all the intellectual debates and talks that followed. It was very interesting. But I think what I liked most was to see the images appear. Without any doubt this had an influence. It’s about the possibility of creating one’s own world.
KO: How did you discover Karl Kemov?
MV: Well, Karl Kemov was a fictional character that I created to explain a series of drawings that I made. We have many stories wrestling within us and this is a character that I wanted to explore. Most of all, it is my anagram: Karl Kemov is Marko Velk.
KO: Ha! Reading the intro led me to believe that the series was based on a real person.
KO: You work exclusively with charcoal, what is there about it that stimulates you?
MV: Having studied etching and printmaking, I started using charcoal after graduating. I was doing a lot of work with black and white and the different techniques I had learned directed my work towards drawing, which I had always practiced, but ink and pencils came first and then charcoal.
Charcoal is such a sensitive tool and it’s incredibly rich in the possibilities that it offers yet, at the same time, it is extremely simple. I discovered it some twenty years ago and I am still finding different ways to use it. My idea was to always choose a traditional medium and then try to give it a different appearance, one that goes beyond its traditional use during the last two centuries.
KO: Can you define the relationships between a diving hood and a lady with a slight overbite? (Nine II and IV).
MV: The series you are speaking of is called Nine. It is made of nine different ‘portraits’: human, animals, helmets.... I think they all represent one person. We carry within ourselves different aspects of personality so it is a way to examine them. In its symbolic meaning the number 9 is highly intuitive and spiritual. It is a utopic number that has a lot of interpretations. For the Aztecs nine is the number that represents terrestrial and nocturnal elements. In some way this work is a self-portrait.
KO: What influences your work?
MV: There are so many elements it is difficult to choose.
Although there are definitely common threads in my work, I am not fully conscious of how they work. In the early phase of a drawing I try to follow my instincts. Inspirational thoughts and ideas often seem to have a life of their own and what appears in the work emerges slowly over a series of efforts.
The meaning and links within a piece are constantly presenting themselves and I try to adjust them or, I should say, understand their intrinsic values through the process of the work.
Common threads take time to appear and some are stronger than others. The dominant ones carry and deliver the messages and can take on multiple forms. I’m influenced by; historical figures, pre-Colombian art, war documents, dreams, Renaissance painting, architecture – and the never-ending mess around us that’s becoming increasingly violent.