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In the Studio: Stanka Kordic

by Allison Malafronte

Stanka Kordic in her Ohio studio

Just as in life some lead with their heads and others with their hearts, in art painters can tend toward either a technical, cerebral approach or one based more on intuition and emotion. Ohio artist Stanka Kordic certainly falls in the latter category, and she uses the skills she attained early in her career as a professional illustrator as a springboard for experimentation, expression, and exploration. 

A Memory of Water, 2014, oil on panel, 14 x 11 in., private collection Lying somewhere between the visual equivalent of an Enya record—with their ethereal, otherworldly lucidity and evanescence—and descriptive portraiture, Kordic’s paintings straddle not only the realms of the seen and unseen but also realism and abstraction. She embraces this gray territory confidently and seems most at ease and in her element in areas of ambiguity. Accepting the unforeseen is key to Kordic’s creative process: nothing is forced, contrived, or preconceived. When she paints, she stays flexible enough to respond to developments unfolding in front of her moment to moment. Sometimes that means leading the painting in a desired direction and other times that requires following the painting to an unknown destination. 

In this Q+A, Kordic talks more about that daily dance with the canvas—and also shares her thoughts on the dialogue between her paintings and viewers, the verbal explanation of the visual world, her participation with Patreon, the group exhibition "Disrupted Realism" (on view at Stanek Gallery), and almost giving up on a painting that is now one of her personal favorites. 

AM: I know that you feel the visual dialogue between you/your painting and the viewer needs to be felt more than explained. Do you think some of the ambiguity and open-endedness of visual interpretation is lost in verbal explanation? Can it also sometimes enhance and inform someone’s experience of the piece?  

Alchemy, 2016, oil on birch panel, 30 x 24 in., private collection

SK: Absolutely. Furthermore, I don’t believe it’s our place as visual artists to dictate to others how to respond, what to see, how to feel, etc. Keeping it open-ended allows viewers to create their own private interpretations of it, which they can share with others or not. It makes owning art that much more special, because you see yourself or your story in it.

AM: In one of your videos you talked about not rushing through the painting process and trying to get to the next day or next stage, but to give every step equal value and importance. Do you think that can be a tendency in life too? What do you think we can miss as people or painters if we are trying to control the creative process too much or not take the necessary care and time for each step? 

SK: Yes! Controlling our lives, our process, creates this one-dimensional life. We are always in our heads, striving for this non-existent painting, and disappointed when it doesn’t happen as we contrived mentally. That is exhausting and completely self-defeating to me. In the past, when I worked straight-up traditionally, I was always rushing through those underpainting layers so that I can get to the ‘juice’ of painterly painting. I completely missed the tapestry of building a piece slowly and appreciating those foundational marks that inform the next layer.

And Then There Was Light, 2019, charcoal, gouache, and pastel on museum board, 22 x 30 in., available from the artist

AM: I noticed that you are on Patreon, which several artists are using to get their work and instructional process out to a wider audience (with some also experiencing great financial success). What has your experience with the Patreon audience been like, and how does it compare to other modes of teaching or sharing you have either experienced as a consumer or as a content creator? 

Breathe, 2019, oil on panel, 18 x 14 in., available from the artist SK: For me, what I share on Patreon is the best way to get my personal process across. In-person workshops are a wonderful way to connect with people one-on-one, and help them with their practice first hand. So it depends.

How I work is not linear, and not easily explained or demonstrated in a few days. By showing videos and discussing what I go through at the easel via Patreon, it becomes a truer picture of the challenges and successes involved with my way of working. I like it because I talk to myself anyway—might as well turn the camera on and make a few bucks at the same time!

AM: I know connection is a principal reason for why you paint and share your vision with others. What is one story that someone shared with you about how he or she connected to your paintings that took you by great surprise? 

SK: I will always remember a woman who came to my solo show in 2013 and literally wept seeing the work in person. She had been following me for a long time, and expressed how much my writing and painting helped get her through some difficult times. I can’t imagine a better response.

AM: You are part of a group exhibition currently on view on Stanek Gallery in Philadelphia titled "Disrupted Realism: Painting for a Distracted World," curated by John Seed. It’s an interesting concept to connect the stylistic dualities inherent in each exhibiting artist’s work with the frequency of our distracted, digitalized generation. What are your thoughts on this show and your place in it? 

SK: I find the timing of all of it extraordinarily moving, given the age we live in now. The show is about more than “swishing some paint around” or mimicking someone else’s marks. It truly is about the conversations we all have with the world, via our personal practices in paint. The fact that much of it is universal is so uplifting to me. I am incredibly honored to have my work included.

Surge, 2017, oil on birch panel, 30 x 30 in., available from Stanek Gallery (Philadelphia) 

AM: Carrying both realistic and abstract elements, your work also offers a place for pause and contemplation. The realism gives people an entré in to the realm of the recognizable/familiar while the more abstracted and ethereal qualities create a place of peace and mystery. What is your opinion on the language of realism as a communication tool in our current fast-paced, technology driven culture? 

SK: In many ways, the realism makes it relatable—that little hint of a person or whatever real things help people jump in and move around, and work for that narrative. It can also serve as a touchstone of sorts, when things get wacky and disjointed: come back to what you know.

<em>Bridges Turn # 1</em>, 2017, oil on birch panel, 36 x 48 in., available from Stanek Gallery (Philadelphia)

AM: What was a recent painting you did that pleasantly surprised you with the ease in which the idea or composition/story took shape? What was the last painting that gave you great challenge but rewarded you for your patience and perseverance in the end?  

SK: The painting that came together rather quickly was Bridges Turn #1. I was minding my own business enjoying time with my goddaughter as she was trying on wedding dresses, simply snapping pictures on my phone. I had no thought of a “bride” painting or anything. But, when I revisited the images, I immediately had the thought to put her in a body of water—and so I did. The story evolved from that first spark, which is typically how it goes with me. I never sit down and plan a painting or body of work. I have triggers of inspiration, and the rest is fluid.

A difficult piece is harder to choose, because they all seem to go through an almost demonic stage. Surge comes to mind as being memorable though. I struggled with it, and was giving up the fight. I actually started pouring solvent over the whole thing and proceeded to wipe it down, when I saw something and stopped. I let it dry, and spent maybe another hour with it to finish. It’s a special piece for me.

Moving Turn, 2015, mixed media study on wood panel, 12 x 18 in., private collection

AM: If you could take one painting that you made in the last five or so years with you to a conference of people from many different countries, cultures, and belief systems as a conversation piece, which would it be and why? 

Still Point, 2018, oil on wood panel, 48 x 36 x 1.5  in., available from Stanek Gallery (Philadelphia)SK: Oh boy that’s a big question, and I’m not sure I have one that fits that bill. But I would likely go back to Surge again. My model was a young preteen in that awkward, fragile age, trying to fit in. I purposely exaggerated the size of her hands and feet, squeezed her into the square. I think a lot of people can relate to her vulnerability, and the potential she has once she gathers the courage to come into her own and stand up.

AM: I know the natural world and also serenity and tranquility are a part of your life and art process. What if any are your practices for connecting to the natural world, and cultivating peace, reflection, and gratitude? 

SK: For me, a strong body and flexible mind are important to my process. It takes a great deal of stamina to continue with this career for the long-term, mentally and physically. So, five to six mornings a week I do a physical practice of either yoga, HIIT [high intensity interval training] or resistance training, no longer than 30 minutes (to make it sustainable). I end with a short meditation. During my work day, I also make sure I take a break and either just stare out the window (no gadgets), sit outside, or walk in the park later in the afternoon.  

AM: Please share some of the motivation behind the “Between Worlds” series that you worked on throughout 2019. Is it both about the stylistic straddling of two worlds and also the bridging of the emotional/psychological dichotomies inherent in the human experience?  

SK: To be honest, my work is basically ongoing, and I file them in to different collections after the fact. My work in the last few years has definitely encompassed what you are describing, but it was never pre-conceived. I am just as intrigued by the direction the work takes as anyone else. At times it feels as if I’m not even painting them, but simply following some inner directive. For the first time in my life, I feel free to just respond—not overthink, not follow someone else’s direction. I truly can’t believe how fortunate I am to be doing this, and never take this gift of living an Art Life for granted.

<em>Windows and Doors</em>, 2019, oil on cradled wood panel, 24 x 36 in., available from Stanek Gallery (Philadelphia)