An American in Hungary; my journey as an artist
By Patricia Gould
This article was published in the Summer 2007 issue of the SAQA Journal
Oh no! How do we get the correct bus back to Forras Fogado? I know it’s the bus that reads “Felsöörs-Csopak” but not the one that reads “Felsöörs” or the one that reads “Csopak.” If we take the wrong bus, we’ll wind up walking several miles back to the guesthouse, lugging heavy bags loaded with frames and art supplies, but with the help of friendly locals with whom we couldn’t communicate through words, Robin and I finally boarded the right bus and made it back to our guesthouse. I had survived another Alice in Wonderland adventure in Hungary. Challenges such as this made the Csopak residency far from ho-hum.
Having never applied for a residency before, I was hesitant when I first read the announcement in Artdeadlines.com, since it seemed primarily geared toward painters, film makers, and writers. Had I known the pool of applicants totaled more than 500, I might not have applied, but my ignorance with those odds led me to be chosen as one of the 24 artists.
The residency is superbly organized by Hungarian-born, world-renowned painter Beata Szechy, founder/director of the Hungarian Multicultural Center (HMC) in Dallas. During the summer, two or three groups of 12 artists spend four weeks at a guesthouse near Balatonfured, Hungary, a beautiful resort town on Lake Balaton, a few hours west of Budapest. The HMC web site, hungarian-multicultural-center.com, explains the overall objective of the residency: “the opportunity to reside and work as a resident artist in an atmosphere designed to stimulate personal vision and encourage new and exciting artistic expressions.”
The residency’s objective is multi-faceted. First and foremost, artists gain a deeper knowledge of the rich culture and wonderful spirit of the Hungarian people while acting as ambassadors for their own countries. Second, artists are brought together from different countries and backgrounds, with different media and styles, to encourage new dialogues. Art transcends political boundaries, and although each culture has developed its own unique forms of expression, the basic nature of humanity is common to us all. Exploration of new surroundings and one another was just as important as the exploration of our personal artistic avenues.
Once my travel arrangements were confirmed, my next task was arranging for a sewing machine. The thought of hauling my 20-pound Bernina all the way to Central Europe made me nervous, so finding an alternative became my next priority. I emailed the Bernina dealer, Varrogepcentrum, in Budapest, explaining my situation with the residency in Balatonfured and that I would like to rent or purchase an inexpensive machine for four weeks. I was amazed at the reply from Katalin, the store manager who spoke excellent English, that the shop would lend me a machine at no cost. All they asked was that I advertise their shop as much as possible. In the months prior to departure, I continued to research Hungary and to plan what to bring. Extensive travel on six continents has taught me the importance of learning to say “please,” “thank you,” “hello,” “goodbye,” “how are you?” “yes,” and “no” in several local languages. Few Hungarians speak English, but most speak German as a second language, which proved helpful to me. My French, Spanish, and Italian were no use but I have picked up enough German from past travels that I was able to read menus, bus schedules, and buy supplies in German. Although I am very good at reading maps and figuring out transit systems, there were times when street construction and mass transit made it difficult to decipher the detour instructions. Time and again locals would walk out of their way for several blocks to direct me to the right place.
While living in Europe in 1968, my parents instilled in me an appreciation for antiquities. One site I had to see was the partly restored Roman Aquincum, just north of Budapest. Spending the morning immersed in this ancient city, I was completely mesmerized by fragments of a civilization built two millennia ago. Several rooms had been reincarnated by restoring the wall frescoes and furnishing the rooms with everyday items such as wicker furniture, baskets, fruit, and flowers. A long storage shed filled with pieces of what was once a thriving civilization contained hundreds of stone column chunks and other architectural elements, exquisitely embellished with flora, fauna, and abstract designs. What many people regard as a pile of old rocks and discarded stuff, I see as a connection to other artists who shared the same hopes and dreams as modern artists. Hundreds of photos I took there will provide inspiration for future quilt series focusing on the simple lines and textures of the decorations.
After several days of individual exploration around Budapest, we were met by Beata and traveled by van to Csopak for the residency. Although the residency is international, our group was comprised of 11 Americans. There were eight women and three men, ranging in age from 23 to 66, all incredibly talented, driven to create, and open to this extraordinary opportunity to discover new insights into themselves and their artistic paths. Our adventurous crew would make our home together at Forras Fogado, a spacious guesthouse surrounded by vineyards and sunflowers in Csopak, a little village on the outskirts of Balatonfured. We were two to a room in large rooms, each with a great view of Lake Balaton. An inside studio/family room housed shared painting supplies and we sometimes gathered there to view one another’s artwork. Most of the painters worked on the huge covered patio.
Beata resides with the artists during every residency and is as passionate about the artists as she is at getting exposure for artists and the program. She is a very warm and caring woman who is never without her beloved beagle Max, who was a joy to us all.
On the first official day of the residency, each artist presented a 30-minute slide lecture about their artwork and intended focus during their tenure. That really helped us get to know each other as artists and individuals. When I presented my quilts, the other artists, who were mainly painters, were quite surprised that my artworks were created from fabric, thread, and sometimes a little paint. They had not been exposed to art quilts before and were very anxious to learn about my techniques. During the next four weeks, several artists would come into my room and watch my creations take shape with enthusiasm. Although we didn’t have any official critiques, several of us offered critiques of each other’s artwork, something I miss from my days at art school. Being surrounded by artists for 24 hours a day is one of the things I cherish about the residency. By day we would venture out for our own explorations and that made for exciting conversations each evening, when we could gather to share a little local wine and reflect on challenges and newfound treasures in this strange new world.
On my walks to town, meandering through old neighborhoods, I shot photos of the unique architecture of the homes and the spectacular gardens in the yards. One day, I hopped on a bus to Veszprem, a medieval town about 20 miles away, with Robin Walker, a painter from Dallas. We discovered a British version of Super Wal-Mart and also a huge home improvement store. Those were our best choices for cheap food, picture frames, and other art supplies. That was when we encountered the problem of figuring out which bus to take back to our home base.
Once I knew the trick to getting the right bus, I went back to Veszprem by myself to visit the 1,000-year-old castle, one of the oldest in Hungary. I spent the day wandering around the hilly, narrow, and cobbled medieval streets, all part of the walled city built on a hill overlooking a large gorge. It was fascinating to walk through the restored buildings, many now used as shops for artisans and the ancient village square. This was part of the complex tapestry of Hungary. The castles, the flowers, the wine, and the people and their language are all woven together in patterns that make this place unique. What wonderful inspiration for me to take back to my fabrics to begin cutting and collaging!
Before I began the residency, I had decided that I wouldn’t go with a plan for my art journey and would just let the beauty of the landscape and Hungarian culture speak to me. I would let my artwork evolve from that. Since my work is primarily landscapes, I brought fabrics along that I could use for that purpose: textures, flowery fabrics, leafy patterns, rocks, batiks, and a good selection of fabric paints, markers, and threads. After visiting every fabric store I passed, I quickly discovered that fabric choices were limited by our standards. Readily available fabrics consisted of wovens, tweeds, and silks, but very few types of cotton and no batiks. Very often I use silks and decorator fabrics in my landscapes, so I wasn’t averse to buying them. On my first trip to Veszprem, I had purchased a grey tweed fabric, perfect for castle walls in Veszprem Castle Gate. I worked best by spending an entire day wandering around shooting digital photos, then creating artwork for the next day or so, working from the images on my laptop. I had also purchased a large drawing pad and plenty of drafting supplies at the discount store in Veszprem.
My first day of working was a warm-up exercise, using my fabric paints to create a close up of the sunflowers and the colorful hills around our guesthouse. I framed this and presented it to the Bernina shop in Budapest as a thank-you gift. I was so fascinated by the architecture and the beautiful flora of the area, I naturally gravitated to working in that direction. Woven fabrics I purchased locally were perfect for portraying ancient castles and masonry of the homes. Decorative stitches on the 440 machine, coupled with variegated threads I brought from home, lent themselves to embellishing the architecture with lush vegetation. For one piece in particular, Shadows & Light, I didn’t have the right fabrics, so I painted most of the scene, using just a bit of fabric. My co-artists admired how well I could render the scene with a combination of paint and fabrics. Since I hadn’t painted much in the 30 years since college, this was a real boost to my confidence. Paint was also a main element in Breezy Morning, inspired by a sheer curtain blowing out from an open window.
In four weeks at Csopak, I completed eight fiber landscapes and have several hundred photos for future quilts. I have ideas for several series from just simple architectural elements.
This residency effectively provides peaceful, unfettered time and space for artists to pursue their art, uninterrupted by phone calls, visitors, and chores. Whether by bus, bicycle, or on foot, we could go into town to check our e-mail at an Internet café. With no phone in the guesthouse, most of us walked to the local market and used pre-paid phone cards to call home now and then. I so enjoyed rising at around six in the morning and having a quiet breakfast on the patio, soaking in the beauty of the gardens that surrounded the house. I shot photos of the crumbling stucco, the weathered windows and doors, and the exotic flowers. At mid-day, a local restaurant brought our catered lunch in the European tradition where lunch is a large, hot meal. It was a great opportunity for us to exchange our thoughts about everything from the challenge of getting on the right bus to finding coffee creamer at the market. It also made us feel like a family and furthered the bonds we were forming. For dinner, we were on our own to either cook in the communal kitchen or go out for an inexpensive meal. I shared some wonderful dinners with my fellow artists at a local restaurant, where a gourmet meal with wine was served amidst beautiful gardens on the patio for less than $10. The discussions that ensued were priceless.
A requirement of the residency is that each artist donates one artwork to the Health Union, which owns the guesthouse in Budapest and Forras Fogado in Csopak. Another artwork is chosen to exhibit at HMC-sponsored shows; Beata organizes an exhibition each year at the end of the summer sessions. Two nights before our residency ended, the first exhibition opened at the Congress Center in Balatonfured. In addition, Beata Szechy worked with the HMC and the U.S. embassy in Budapest to organize an exhibition including artworks from the 1996-2006 residencies at the Central European Cultural Institute in Budapest. A catalogue of that exhibit will be available in 2007.
On my final day, everyone gathered to bid me farewell and I was truly sad to leave. I had made new friends, gained confidence in my ability to work under challenging conditions, and discovered new focus for my visions. During the four weeks at Balatonfured, we 11 artists shared our discoveries, our fears and insecurities, our support, and most of all, our joy. Some of us took baby steps, some made giant leaps. My steps were somewhere in the middle. I didn’t come home with a completely new road map, but I had taken a few short journeys outside of my comfort zone and found some new avenues to explore. I have vowed to return someday, as there is much more I would like to see, and I felt warmly welcomed by the wonderful people of Hungary.
For more information about the HMC and the residencies, go to hungarian-multicultural-center.com. The residency I attended was in July-August 2005 and the cost was $980, which included housing and two meals each day, plus transportation. Since HMC is non-profit, the organization has no funding to provide the artists, though artists can apply for grants from other sources to help offset the cost. I highly recommend this residency for artists with an adventurous spirit.