Little Life Stories

16. The Story of Sofia and Todor. The Painter and the Singer (Occasionally Also a Painter). 

They are from the generation born in 1950 in Uzdin. They have known each other since childhood. She was in class A, he in class B. They graduated 8 classes. 

Long heavy break in conversation. 

Christine asks Todor if he ever wanted to leave the village. 

The answer: I couldn’t leave the village because I had parents here, I don’t know, PAUSE. Five of my brothers died when I was young. My parents were already old when I was born. I had a life here, what can I say, I stayed. (In a low voice, there is talk in the village that Todor’s parents were so terrified of the idea of yet another failure, that after birth, they took him out, put him on a pillow and left him in the street. But life wanted it so that he was brought back to his parents and he remained with them, Costa and Floarea). 

Many things happen in life. 

Sofia brought a plate of boiled corn to the table, and the moment was gone. 

Sofia painted thousands of works. They are scattered all over the world. The previous day, Sofia was surprised to discover in her mobile phone the phone number of actress Cezara Dafinescu. They had met sometime. It was August 4th, Cezara Dafinescu’s birthday, when Sofia found her phone number in her address book. 

Sofia was, and still is a married woman, with duties, a household, animals, chores that can’t wait. That’s why almost everything she painted during her 50 years as a painter, she painted at night. She cooks, takes care of the animals, takes care of the children, there is no time for brush and colours during the day. But when everyone in the house had gone to sleep, from goat and cow, cat and dog, to husband and children, that’s when Sofia painted. She needed peace and quiet. 

Once there were 10 painters in Uzdin. Sofia was the 11th, the youngest. Now she is the oldest. They were all happy when it rained and they didn’t have to go to the field, those days were for painting. Sofia was about 12 or 13 at the time. And she was good at painting. At least her drawing teacher claimed so. Nearly 60 years ago he called her in front of her house, gave her a paper bag with paints and some brushes and a ready-made canvas, and gave her homework to paint a picture of whatever she wanted, and when it was ready, to bring it to the teacher’s lounge. 

She painted an autumn landscape with a horse-drawn cart going to the field. When the teacher saw her painting, he said: paint, just keep painting. Adam Doclean was his name.  It wasn’t that simple. She also had to sew costumes, especially since that’s what her mother did, and later her mother-in-law, after she got married. It’s not like the family hugs you for joy that you know how to hold a paintbrush. Village life has different rules. The traditional costume of Uzdin is entirely covered in hand sewn decoration.

1972, that was the decisive year for Sofia and her painting. 

The painters of Uzdin were invited to Belgrade for an exhibition because the astronauts who has been to the MOON on the APOLLO mission were coming over with their wives. A European tour had been organised for them, with stops in Belgrade, Zagreb and then Slovenia. They all wore traditional costumes from Uzdin, and Sofia, as the youngest of them, had the richest, best decorated one. Youth is directly reflected in the richness of the dress which becomes black towards old age. Just so you know! So, the story of Uzdin reached the MOON with Apollo 15. Carefully, Sofia pulls out the photo with the astronauts and shows it to me. From that moment on, Sofia got serious about painting. She was 22 years old and wanted to establish herself as an artist among the other established women painters in the village. There was already talk at the community centre that a young girl had taken up painting and was expected at the gallery with her works.

And so the exhibitions and tours began. Sundays was village dance, many people came and that’s how they found out about the painters in Uzdin. Foreign cars came bringing ambassadors, paintings were bought, Sofia’s ledger filled with signatures and impressions. But she still loved the Sunday dance, the horă. She danced until it got dark, then the night would become enriched by another one of Sofia’s paintings. When she had the canvas in front of her, she always knew what she was going to paint. She never needed to make pencil sketches. 

Sofia was lucky, she was about 10 or 11 years old in the 60s, when the women of Uzdin took up painting. I wondered how come, where it had started from. Sofia explained it to me. How lucky I am to be able to learn about such a tradition from a living person. She said this: …there was poverty in those days, and women didn’t have many blouses. If they did, they only had one and it was one colour only. Then one of them, who was smarter than the rest, got hold of some colours in oil and used them to paint flowers and leaves on the bouse and went like that to the dance. 

The others saw her, where does she have that, they found out, and one thing led to another. Then the drawing teacher, Adam Doclean, met the woman who had drawn on her blouse and asked her if she wanted to paint on canvas. So the teacher goes to town, buys her all the paint and canvas, teaches her how to prepare the paints, how to work, and the information spreads from one woman to another, from one friend to another, and here they are, painters! A group of six Romanian women. The first painter was Anoica Măran. 

One of the many versions. Beautiful, really! 

Todor Ionașcu, who has been silent for a while, listening to Sofia, says: 

Every year, in Belgrade, there were painting exhibitions and tourism fairs, many of the painters from the south of Banat would come, from the Slovak and Serbian communities, from Covăcița and Padina, not only the Romanians from Uzdin. And because the costume from Uzdin is richer, more colourful and lively, a lot of attention was paid to Sofia, she also sold some of her paintings and that’s how the jealousy started and they rejected her. 

Sofia was proud of her craft and of being from Uzdin. She would not accept to be presented as being from Covăcița. Yes, I’m Serbian, but I’m also Romanian from Uzdin. With or without official invitations, guests still came to her house, she still painted and sold a lot. A lot. She painted day and night. She was invited to Vienna, to Cannes, to Côte d’Azur, to the Black Sea coast, her painting travelled far and wide. Her last visit to Romania was in 2007. In Belgrade she had 3 solo exhibitions in a row, in ’84, ’85 and ’86. She wanted an exhibition of her work at the National Museum in Belgrade. 

She wrote them a letter, a postcard. She had found the address in a newspaper. She said she was interested in having an exhibition there, if possible. She received a reply that the whole year was booked, and they redirected her to the Cultural Centre in Belgrade. She sent another letter. It was winter. She was accepted to exhibit in the summer of 1984. She painted, prepared the works, she also sold some, but there had to be 40 paintings for the show. She stayed up at night and painted, she would started 3 at a time, some smaller, some bigger, and many of them were sold. 

I wanted to ask: 

Do you remember when you sold the first painting you made?

In Brazil and I didn’t even want to sell the painting. That’s where my first painting has gone. I have a photo of my first painting. It was called Chatting. Now Sofia doesn’t have time to stay and chat anymore. It was a big painting. The gentleman left only with the painting, he made it into a scroll and put it in a trunk. I was left with the frame. I put another canvas and made another painting, this one here. 

I asked Sofia if she had a manager, someone to represent her. She told me that one day she found a representative of the Academy of the Serbian Army looking for her in Uzdin. They didn’t know which house she lived in. In 10 years, I’m not lying, over 100 of my paintings went to them. When the military retired, they received a medal and a gift, a painting of mine. I had a lot of orders and Todor, my husband, he started to help me. He didn’t make paintings of the traditional dress, but of sunflowers. And they were much appreciated. A former general was very pleased with Todor’s painting because he had painted the sunflower very big.

Photo credit: Ionuț Suciu

English translation: Cristina Chira