Vania Bouwmeester Pentcheva is a Bulgarian painter currently living and working in the Netherlands. She is moved and inspired by her many travels, both in natural and urban landscapes, as well as her emotions, memories and philosophical thoughts. While textures and colors spontaneously arrive on her canvases, she nonetheless carefully thinks about structured layering. We spent some time with this dynamic artist to find out more about her background and the inspiration behind her works.
How does your hometown inform your art?
I was born in a picturesque little place called Aprilovo – just outside of Sofia, Bulgaria. Now that I think about it, I guess the place where I was born left a permanent influence on my color sensitivity as well as my love for nature. I have many memories from those surrounding pretty hills and their changing looks as the seasons passed; I never got bored of them. As a child I often played outside or drew something with pens or pencils: animals, portraits, houses.
How did this passion lead you to a career in art?
My love of drawing and painting led me to art schools – first a high school for Fine Arts in Sofia where I learnt the craft of painting, drawing and composing; sculpting, perspective, anatomy… and of course the beautiful history of art. I continued my education at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia, graduating with a Master of Scenography. Throughout my scenography studies I experimented with many techniques, imitating different surfaces and materials. My love for textures and observing different materials is still present today in my “New materials” series. I like the play of light in the theatre, and enjoy spotting an accent in my paintings just like I would do if I were building a stage.
I suppose eventually my love for painting was bigger than my love for scenography. While I did some work for a puppet play in the Pretoria State Theatre, South Africa and in the Johannesburg Youth Theatre, I continued painting and exhibiting all the while, and realized that was what I wanted to do more than anything else.
What led you away from Bulgaria? Was there a specific turning point in your life?
Throughout all those years of study, I always dreamed of one day seeing all of the cultural treasures and paintings of the masters abroad. I left Bulgaria curious to discover the rest of the world, thirsty to travel and see the things I’d been reading about for so long. I also felt a need to move on, experience other cultures, and look for new inspiration and opportunities. I grew up in a country where traveling outside the borders didn’t happen particularly easily or regularly, due to political and economical reasons. So after working in Bulgaria for a few years after graduating, I decided to move on and follow my dreams.
I spent a few years in South Africa living and working, and meeting— for the first time— people and artists belonging to a culture so different from mine. These years impacted my work just as my upbringing in Bulgaria did. The nature in sunny Southern Africa is unbelievable. The Art of the San (Bushmen), in Botswana made a huge impression on me. These people live a primitive life and are so gifted and unique in their artistic languages. The art of the Zulu people in South Africa also made an impression on me; as a young artist I was fascinated by the shapes and bright colours they used for their art and houses.
What’s your favorite thing about Bulgaria, or Bulgarian art?
Bulgaria has a very old history. The first Bulgarian Empire was founded in 681, and there are many ruins, tombs and treasures to visit. The folklore traditions are very colorful and are reflected in the old architecture and local arts. Murals in old monasteries have always been interesting to me. They preserved Bulgarian culture and identity throughout 500 years of Ottoman invasion and occupation.
I like revisiting these old places. I also like the nature and climate, with its four dramatically different seasons. Then there’s the folklore traditions, music and food… I go back to Bulgaria a few times every year to visit my parents and meet old friends, and each time I always take a trip to the countryside: to climb Vitosha or the 7 Rilla lakes with their height and stunning crystal clear views, or to go to the Black sea.
One of my favorite Bulgarian artists and inspirations of mine is Vladimir Dimitrov: “The Master”. I am also very proud of Christo Javacheff, Christo and Jeanne Claude Art. The size of their art has no borders or limits. Their messages are so powerful and the sites are so surprising, unexpected and beautiful. I wish Christo good health and many, many more creative years.
Do you have any particularly artistic memories or moments of inspiration from your many travels?
My travels always inspire my work. While I was living in South Africa, my paintings began to get richer in color, then later I followed by husband back to where his roots are, in the Netherlands. I like being back in the European art scene. I love the size of Gouda – the old medieval town center. I often take walks through the narrow old streets and stone cathedrals. I watch the walls and the water in the perfectly manipulated regulated canals. I like the morning mist in the low lands.
Working in the Netherlands has made me look deeper into layers and transparency. I am more interested now in observing materials and often conduct a shoot with a camera in my hand at sunset or dusk.
Many paintings are named after the places I have visited, and I wonder if other people see these places a bit like how I see them in my paintings.
Where do you call ‘home’ now? How has living in the Netherlands changed your artistic expression, if at all?
To be honest I feel at home here in the Netherlands. I’ve been here for a very long time now, since 2000. It has certainly changed my artistic expression. I’ve been experimenting a lot, trying to find the technique that can best bring me closer to achieving the results I’m after or to express the emotions I feel. I’ve been closely studying some of the artists who’ve inspired me throughout my life: Van Gogh, Mondrian and many great contemporary artists. The Netherlands is a tiny country with an enormous number of world famous artists.
Any must-visit art addresses you can recommend in Bulgaria and the Netherlands?
In my opinion the most valuable things to see in Bulgaria are the really old heritage sites, such as the beautiful Alexander Nevski cathedral and its permanent collection of Icons. There’s also the National Art Gallery and The Ancient Serdica. World Heritage Site Boyana Church is famous for its frescos: portraits of Sebastocratot Kaloyan and his wife Desislava from 13th century. And to see the oldest golden treasures in the world, you should see the Thracian treasure kept in the National Archaeological Museum in Sofia. I could go on forever, there’s so much to see!