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Dragana Crnjak|Youngstown State University

Updated: May 13, 2018

This Associate Professor at Youngstown State University teaches painting and drawing, and approaches her own painting with philosophical depth.

Born in 1977 in former Yugoslavia, Dragana Crnjak received her M.F.A. in Painting and Printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. She is an interdisciplinary artist whose work is primarily based in the medium of painting and processes of drawing. She is a recipient of Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards in visual art for 2008, 2011, 2015, Research Professorship from Youngstown State University, and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Professional Fellowship in drawing. She had taught art at University of Virginia and The Cleveland Institute of Art. She is currently Associate Professor at Youngstown State University, Ohio, teaching painting and drawing.

KS: This is Karen Schubert and I’m talking today with Dragana Crnjak and I’m in Dragana’s lovely studio, which is above the A&C Beverage, and this was an old credit union, or something, I think? That they stored stuff up here? But I love how open the studio is with all the windows and the really interesting angles and things like that. And so I’m seeing your work on the wall and it’s the stunning, very abstract, non-objective, these beautiful blurred shapes with really sharp, very bright lines interrupting those patterns. Talk about your work. You’re generally working with large canvases and talk about your materials and maybe how you plan and execute a large painting.

DC: Sure. Thanks for coming. Great to have you here. It’s so quiet today, in here.

KS: It is quiet. Because last time I saw you here, you brought your students’ work up here, which is still up here, too. I love those openings that you have. There’s a lovely ambiance.

DC: It’s quite different with no one up here. And it’s so quiet, like no sound from the streets. You can’t really see–  I love this space because you can’t see the city. You actually don’t know where you are. I can imagine–

KS: Right. You just see up in the treetops, like a treehouse or something. Exactly. So let me interrupt your train of thought and ask you a question before the question. Is it difficult for artists to find studio space in Youngstown?

DC: That’s a good question because you would think in Youngstown, I was thinking years ago when I was looking for studio space, it would be very easy to find cheap, old space that I could just come in and work. But there are a lot of buildings that are up for rent, but not really a lot of available functioning buildings. A lot of them require some major renovation: no A/C, no heat, or maybe not restrooms—so this was really an amazing find. It used to be an architecture company, so it’s in good shape. It has everything I need. It’s close to the university, we can have these openings. Students can come, visitors easily can come. It really does contribute to the downtown scene, but it feels like it’s so far from everything. Once you’re up here, I really love it.

KS: So now, what is the work that you’re doing here?

DC: The work—yeah. I’ve been working on these large paintings now, well I do work pretty consistently throughout the semester. Of course that gets chopped because of teaching.

KS: You’re teaching painting at YSU?

DC: I teach painting and drawing, mainly painting courses. It is hard to find consistent time to come, keep continuity in the studio. But it is close, and even for one hour, I’ll come in and always have something going on in the studio. Now I’m working on these paintings for, it’s a three-person show that’s planned for Akron Art Museum.

KS: Congratulations! That’s thrilling.

DC: I’m really excited about that. It’s pretty amazing because the show will be up during, I mean it’s a large big topic and I don’t want to go too much with that, but it will be up during the Front Triennial that goes up in Cleveland, which is a pretty big deal for us here in Northeast Ohio. It’s happening for the first time, big international exhibition, the whole city will participate, and Akron Art Museum is one of their venues. So I’m excited.

But these paintings. I don’t want to say I’m working for that. I just– I’m painting and then things get finished and will go where they need to go. If they go. And these paintings, you’re right that there is always some kind of dichotomy between hand-made and kind of precise geometry that might imply machine or digital kind of presence. So pattern and geometry intersect and work together.

Painting is, I feel like you know, this really interesting state now, I do have very kind of, maybe it sounds romantic, but I really have this big belief in painting. I think it’s in a new, interesting stage right now, in relation to everything else, how we visually perceive other parts of the world, and how we interact with one another. So digital technology, communication, moving image. We are so used to everything shifting quite quickly all the time. So if, to me, painting has this stubborn singularity about it. It’s still one image. It’s basically one object sitting in front of you and somehow–

KS: To create some kind of meditative space?

DC: Yeah! Or like pretends to be important. [laughter]. I always go back and forth. Why would this be important? Why would anyone care? I do like to think, then, of course, I’m here daily working on it, getting into it. Maybe it’s partially just this need. I come to the studio and it does feel like an escape, but it honestly feels always like a return. This is normal, where I should be, painting as a kind of mental activity and physical activity and this challenge of placement and thinking it’s singular but somehow it can imply movement, it can imply history, it can imply and trigger thoughts and emotions—it becomes suddenly this huge, important, potential.

And it’s always potential. I don’t like to make claims or think this stands for that, this is it—but I—love to believe in it. And I’m really interested on how painting operates visually. It is a visual process that becomes, opens up other processes—intellectual, emotional. It depends who looks at it and how we look at it, with different backgrounds or different understanding. But it is a visual field and visual, the perceptual shifts, at times that I find really interesting, how we perceive things, how we see this object and how it works.

KS: That is really interesting. Can you unpack that a little? So if I look at a painting, what’s going on?

DC: There is always awareness. I do think of one person look at it. So that’s what you just ask, it’s exactly– I never think of “audience.” I never think of a big group or critics or someone who—that somehow comes on its own, if it comes, but it doesn’t motivate me. What motivates me is one person standing in front of it. And there’s this intimate relationship because it really does require that you will, somehow, have to look at it. It can be five seconds— I do believe they say eight seconds is the attention span we have today with most images that we encounter. But also, you know what happens if you come to it from twenty or thirty feet, if you’re entering the space and you see this object and how it changes or what happens as you come closer and how it opens up.

I do think that the paintings open up. And they do offer more, like the more you look at them. If you don’t spend time, you know, I think, definitely, a lot is missed. And I’m interested in that subtlety, that they are not screaming at you. They sort of demand attention. I love contrast and I do like bold lines and sometimes color will pop and kind of call for attention but it’s always kind of a soft process. And slow opening of the space. And sort of spatial, this absurdity of depth too. So I also find that interesting.

You look at from Renaissance to today, there is interest in modern, contemporary painting, flatness is still impossible to ignore. But I love to think of Renaissance, this window into reality that there’s some kind of illusion, still possible. Again, this potential. It’s never fully revealed but I’m interested in that dynamic, between painting as a surface and painting as an image. It opens up and gives some sort of space for you to enter and travel through.

KS: And as I enter and travel through it, I’m bringing my own frames of reference and those connotative connections I’m making.

DC: That’s something not how to place, not to be too specific, but these last paintings, which is new in my work, I’m starting with these really small scale hand embroideries from Serbia, some patterns I found when I travel there a couple of years ago. And they’re very common and very familiar for most women who do them, just mundane little craft activities. So I documented a lot of those. I look online and I look in some historical books and find patterns I respond to. And they’re intimate and decorative. They don’t have big interpretations other than being decorative elements for clothing items or tablecloths or something like that. So basically, enlargening those on a scale that’s 6×5’ or 7×6’, they do transform and they become these landscapes in the process of painting.

So some paint is applied and I wash it off and kind of the add-and-subtract process transforms the pattern into, really, a landscape that’s abstracted and invites the viewer to come in, step in and now it’s intersected with these geometric lines and elements. So those become architectural, too. I’m really, just drawn to it right now, and I feel I always work without fully understanding. If I did know exactly what it is, I would totally be done with it. It wouldn’t be something new. But that dichotomy, the contrast of small-scale become something architectural—

KS: It’s so intriguingly disorienting, I think. There’s a kind of dreamscape quality, and also, not a real 3-D anchoring. You don’t really know where you know where you are in space. And this light-dark contrast. They’re interestingly complex.

DC: Good. I’m glad—dreamlike— it sounds, again, like some sort of escape. But I don’t think really that’s the final— to just leave whatever you have on your mind, or worry, and now you can just escape into the painting. But I’m hoping, it’s my hope to have paintings that look like something is kind of forming in front of you. So there is softness of the shapes, in the background, or dissolving or being built or destroyed. The lines are coming in, these geometric lines to me have sound to them, right? I think of them as poles, or music, or scanning, like zzzzzzz, like opposite sort of—figuring out of something. So we do have technology today for everything to understand. Everything you want to learn, it’s so quickly available to go on. It pops up and you read it and learn about it.

KS: Time and space dynamic that’s more defined than the other aspects.

DC: Time and space. That’s exactly where I am very much, like the speed of something is slow and maybe historical, kind of slow. Like these embroidery, come from centuries ago, they are not—and then there’s these pretty, kind of fast geometrical elements that fly through and scan and try to understand the history.

KS: That is really interesting. So your family, you were refugees from the war. How old were you when your family came over? Let’s talk a little bit about what happened to you.

DC: Yeah, sure. I—I— Where to start—? I was fifteen when the war started. I lived in Bosnia during the war years. That was my high school time. I attended, I actually started high art school in Sarajevo but because of the war I had to go back to the small town where I’m from. And the only option there to study— most high schools are specialized, so you can choose—medical, art, economics—so the choice I had, I chose medical. My dad was a doctor, my mom was a nurse. I really did not have any interest in medicine. So I finished high school and, you know, if I go back to Bosnia, I can be a nurse. [Laughter] You know, those were war years. It was very much interrupted by, everything was chaos. But you know, as a fifteen-year-old, we still had fun and friends. It was a quite absurd time. I think back now, it scares me more than I was scared at the time.

KS: It’s amazing what we can internalize as normal.

DC: Exactly. Life becomes, you find this new way of living and managing everything like food—yeah. You just adopt to it. So when I was twenty, my family decided to follow my uncle who was in the United States. He sent papers, and we came when I was twenty. At that time, in Belgrade, I was about to start to study in the Academy of Fine Arts. I was very eager to just be in college, university.

KS: Belgrade is a really top school?

DC: It was really top school in Serbia. Very hard to get in. We don’t have a lot of choices there for students, to really attend. I think only two or three cities in the whole country. So the competition is quite tough and I finally get accepted; to me, that was my goal was reached. And you know, as I was thinking, I did have a choice to stay there by myself or come with the family, so I did decide in the end to come, and I really don’t regret that a bit. Because here, everything opened up. Everything followed so spontaneously, after all those years of hardship and everything was hard and difficult, a it just became normal, it was just how we lived. Here, on the other hand, being a refugee, it’s amazing what we were offered, we could study, just as other students, we could work as American citizens, anywhere to apply—

KS: But, I’m so glad to hear that something went well, but it’s also amazing what you lost. Your biography begins that you were born in the former Yugoslavia. The place where you came from doesn’t exist anymore. That’s a tremendous loss. I can hear you talk about the traditions of the textures that you grew up around and probably assumed that it was part of the fabric of your whole life, as you— how long had your family been in that area, forever? So now, even if there’s a happy ending, it’s not so simple.

DC: No, of course. I definitely don’t—it’s not simple because it’s still going on. You realize after leaving that this kind of political tensions and issues are kind of happening all around the world. And there are traditions that, you know, are to some degree, lost and people have to readjust and we migrate. We live in a world of migration, right? Something that would define us today, maybe is what  really is one of the biggest difference of fifty years ago or one hundred years ago, clearly would be the migration.

KS: Right.

DC: The idea of globalization is interesting to me, to think—it is always this opposite force. So I’m glad you are asking that, and recognizing that. I look at it as a very positive opportunity that we came and finally, everything, not that things sort of were all fixed and life was all of a sudden easy. It wasn’t that, but you know, you could invest your time and energy into something that will kind of come back, not just be lost. So I feel like that’s what we have here in the United States, the opportunities that require individual investment, you can put your time into something and it will pay off to some degree. At least the law operates to some degree. With war situations—

KS: Those institutions break down.

DC: Globalization, itself, is quite complicating, complicated for me to think about because we think as the world is more— in flux and migration is sort of happening daily, like in a massive migrations, people moving through Europe, and United States constantly, all these cultures are getting mixed.

KS: Climate change, and resource exploitation, and all of those wars, that the large countries like the United State are fueling by selling both sides weapons.

DC: Manipulation on all levels, right? In the end, people who move, somehow you would think, the first thing natural would be to adopt and somehow be sane. That that’s the positive outcome. But, you know, we see what really is, at least in my opinion, there is a real value in those, in the differences. I don’t want you to be sane completely, and adopt—

KS: Right. I think about this all the time. Because my focus is language. And when I hear people say everyone should speak English—yes, we should have a way of communicating but think of all the languages we’ve  had in this country since the beginning. We could all speak so many languages. We could all have all of those newspapers and poetry and we could be reading Swedish novels because so many of us already speak Swedish. So I think we really miss an opportunity when we focus so narrowly on what the kind of cultural hegemony, homogeneity really means.

DC: There’s always positive, like adopting, and being able to learn, but it is always that smaller cultures are expected, or maybe even do it themselves, without being, of course, forced, but you somehow you also want to adjust to larger, more dominant language or cultural traditions.

KS: That makes sense. Talk about the texture of arts and culture in Serbia. I know you travel back to see relatives, and so you go there, and how is—do you feel that arts and culture is more on the surface there? I know your father wrote poetry when he was a young man, and you talk about the texture of the fabrics. Do you feel— dance and music—

DC: You know, it is unbelievable. We still talk about my father wanted to be a poet. That was his passion. He wanted to write, and he really loved literature. That was what he truly enjoyed. His dad, my grandfather, did not approve of that. He wanted him to be a doctor. That was what would pay off. So he did become a doctor; he was a good doctor. But he also continued to write and he published a few books. He was always around writers and artists. Growing up, I do remember evenings, sitting and drinking, not heavily, but just having these very poetic—

KS: Salons—?

DC: Experiences. I would say it’s so incredible to look back in the arts are in every aspect of living. The people there, it’s interesting that with no economic market, that art really was this essential. My grandfather, in a small village, actually made violins. You couldn’t buy a violin, and I would give everything to have one of those. They were not the best, but they were full-functioning instruments. When he got married, he played the violin, on one of his own handmade violins. So I just think of the time and investment into something that will enrich your daily life. Like working, and then having some time that will feed your inner needs. It’s social, cultural kind of—the biggest difference now, when we travel back—differences are not as major. Now we have museums and galleries and these art schools that produce really amazing artists. But I think, what we have here in the United States are the opportunities for all different levels, artists to apply and get grants and also market. I think that would be the biggest difference, at least art that we see as established is very market-driven. I don’t know, good or bad, but definitely—

KS: It both opens doors and closes doors. Is that what you’re saying?

DC: Exactly. For some high, blue chip artist, established, you’ll see them everywhere in a short period of time, same names, it’s a pretty small world. But on the other hand, we’ve never had so many opportunities here, like today. And I hope that will stay, we will worry about budgets now in the arts may become compromised. But still, we have a lot of opportunities. If someone really wants to invest time and give effort to find ways to produce and make art, you will find them. I think there is a lot of amazing opportunities to look around. That’s different. In Eastern Europe, especially in Serbia, Bosnia, those who make art, they make art. With almost no expectation. You just don’t have big expectations that it will sustain your living. Market is very—

KS: But what percentage of artists in this country make their whole living just making art? It’s a small percentage, is that true? And so most people here don’t have that expectation here, either, right? They’re teaching or working some other thing to keep the lights on

DC: That is true, to just paint and live off of that.

KS: But if a person wants to compete and really do well financially and make their work known, there is an avenue that you can try for.

DC: Well, find some jobs that will be art-related, that will pay off. Teaching art is also not something that’s available to everybody, and still there’s quite a bit of competition in the teaching field.

KS: Few and fewer, right?

DC: But there are At least, art-related jobs, way more than in Eastern Europe. Just saying in Eastern Europe, mostly the people who make art, there is that kind of existentialist approach to making art.

KS: I see what you mean.

DC: Just because you have to do it, there is no other expectation to live off of it.

KS: And maybe also drawing from traditions, because that lineage is so accessible, in a way, here, I think the families who have held onto their cultural lineage have had to work really hard to do that, because it isn’t naturally everywhere.

DC: Exactly.

KS: I think some of our cultural organizations, the Polish organization, and Italian Americans, right? I speculate they’re scrambling to engage young people and that at some point the young people won’t know in what ways they identify themselves as Polish or Italian and they’ll be half something else, anyway.

DC: You bring out something that, that experience of, just experience, itself, of a culture. And your identity, how it’s formed, how you see yourself, how you build yourself in relation to the world or others, how similar or different. Just questions of identity. I think that experience is essential. That was my reason, when you mention that I traveled back, and we do go back and forth. We still have family there, and friends, so there is, every few years we go visit, and we keep in touch with people there.

But this one sabbatical leave was very specifically traveling to medieval monasteries that are functioning monasteries. They all from 13th, 14th, 15th century, old, female or male monasteries with a culture that’s just kind of frozen in a history that pulsates. It’s hard to explain that, but my need was to just go and be in the places. It sounds so simple, but I really didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to go and visit and just spend some time and accumulate that experience, and I knew something will come out of it.

The documentation I brought, but there also, time of day, monasteries are very dark. The specific smells and sounds, and people at we met, these direct experiences I think is what is essential how I work. And for everything to happen in the studio has to come from that physical experience of a place.

It was Iceland in 2012, just a need to travel to a place I knew nothing about, that was my main goal, to just be in a space that’s overwhelmingly harsh and beautiful at the same time. The geology is unstable, and all of that was very intriguing and kind of attractive to me.

KS: I can imagine. I speculate that they are deliberate about fostering arts and culture, but in a different way from Serbia.

DC: In Iceland? Especially in places where I went, away from Reykjavik, the capital, it was smaller villages, in really middle of nowhere, going away from the city and there is one road that goes around. Yeah, it was more like natural landscape geology that I was really drawn to.

KS: It’s dramatic.

DC: It does look so beautiful and—

KS: And Dangerous.

DC: Yeah but it’s very dramatic, and constantly changing and moving, sort of like land and shaping. There were other things that I discovered being there, in comparison— I actually realized being in Iceland that I need to go to Serbia next time. Because Iceland was so away from anything that I could identify with, I felt like I really need to go, actually, and visit in the same way, Serbia, and see what that experience would be with something that I connect. And maybe is part of my heritage and history.

KS: So even if you were maybe forced to leave the place you came form, setting that question aside, how important do you think it is for artists to leave their own familiar landscape?

DC: I think it’s really essential to go. Come back if that’s important. Because leaving makes you really learn more about your own place. And it’s, you know, with teaching and students, I always encourage everyone to leave and it sounds always like something is wrong with where we are. It’s not that. You just have to go outside of Ohio. Go to graduate school in Texas, on the West Coast—

KS: We can see our own place better once we leave it, too. That’s the paradox. I’ve always thought so, too.

DC: We reconnect, in a way, to zoom out, and then be able to zoom in, back to what your place was really about. That’s essential.

KS: Well, Dragana, thank you so very much for taking the time to talk to me today.

DC: Thank you for thoughtful questions. I really appreciate it.