Little Life Stories

17. Todor and the Sunflower

When Sofia was working on her painting and wasn’t by the stove, I started painting too. Then she forced me [to continue] and I carried on. But I couldn’t do the costume. She knew the costume, I didn’t. I couldn’t. It was different then. It’s all going down the hill now. 

Todor became pensive, he sighed and thought of the grimness of today. The corn has dried, there aren’t many pigs left for sale in the village and suddenly Sofia says: …he kept using up all my white, he wanted to paint a winter landscape and he used it all up. Unbelievable. 

Todor: In ’74 I bought 24 piglets… 

Sofia: I was 24 when we made the house. We weren’t more capable then than we are now.

Now you have to keep only what you need for your own household because there’s no one to sell to anymore. The entire spring Todor has been looking for three piglets for us to raise, one for the autumn and two for Christmas, to give to our children. Very few do that anymore. In the past, every week someone was selling something. 

We get to the children, the two boys. One enjoyed school very much, the other one anything but school. The younger one, obviously. Eventually he studied electrical engineering. They came out engineers, from a painter mother and a singer father. Parents who struggled and strived to give their children more. They succeeded. 

The youngest seems to inherit his mother’s legacy, he’s a painter of walls, he prepares paints. He also works in churches, he’s sought and very much appreciated. He loves colour and painting walls. It’s true that they both painted as children, but they had another path. I tried to get back on topic and talk more about naive painting. 

If you are still reading these lines, let me introduce you to a name, Zuzana Halupova, a naive painter of Slovak origin from Covăcița. Very famous. As the name suggests, naive painting is direct, it doesn’t take into account the rules of academic painting, there is no near or far plane, it resembles children’s drawings. The current is present all over the world, it has inspired many painters, but let me not digress. If you take a short drive to Covăcița, you’ll find several art galleries and you’ll understand. As for Zuzana, always look for the little girl dressed in pink in her paintings. I asked Sofia if they knew each other, if they appreciated each other, what the relationship between Romanian and Slovak painters in Serbia, Vojvodina, was. I say Romanian or Slovak, but we are in Serbia. 

What she tells me: … in 2001 there was a collective exhibition of us, female painters, and we met on several occasions, this was in the good old days, but we each had her own ideas. She came to one of my exhibitions, I didn’t know it, I found her writing in the exhibition notebook, she wrote that it’s a pride to be from Banat … but, that’s kind of our relationship. In short, from a distance. 

I naively thought that they met often, that they told each other stories, that they gave each other advice, that they presented their work to each other. But it wasn’t like that. It was everybody for themselves. Silence set in. 

My question followed: what would Sofia like from the future in relation to her painting? To continue this tradition, obviously. But how? Who will paint the Uzdin costumes and customs anymore, when they are only celebrated on special occasions, everything is kept in the dowry chest and only taken out when there are guests or special events. 

I wish someone else would start painting like I did. From 2008 to 2010, for 2 years I had 6 girls from Uzdin come to my house to paint with their parents’ permission. I gave them a small canvas, colours and I told them: paint whatever you want, just paint, that’s what I told them. They came twice a week. But how would they know what the traditional costume looks like? How could they imagine what it was like going to the dance back in the day? They didn’t know any of these things. The first year was relatively decent, but phones and the internet, they would listen to music, they wouldn’t do as I said. I also went to the school, I tried showing them, explaining to them, but they skipped class, they went and played in the schoolyard.

And I realize, I also discussed this with the teacher, if students have a D in drawing, they are not interested in drawing, but everything starts from the teacher. Even if there are just two talented children in class, even if they do one painting per year, from first grade to eighth grade, you get 16 paintings in a generation. You explain to them, you help the children, you exhibit the paintings at the community centre. That’s what our teacher used to do with us, thirty paintings were exhibited, all made by us, the students. It’s true, they might have resembled each other, the other students might have copied my paintings, but I was trying to teach them. If someone painted spring, another did winter and so on. 

Look, Mrs. Sofia, if painters in Timisoara, trained or not, wanted to come, would you welcome them into your home for a few hours to work alongside you, if they really liked to paint?

Yes, why not. 

So sincere is her answer, that I see that the desire and eagerness to work is still alive in Sofia. Her husband is more reluctant, her age no longer allows her to do what she once did, she is also away in Novi Sad some of the time. 

Her husband no longer paints either, he has concluded that chapter. 

An idea from the present. Mircea suggests to Sofia. 

Why don’t you make a painting inspired by the present. With us, how we sit with our phones to our ears, how we’re dressed, how we are today, sitting in your room. 

The traditional dress and painting have been abandoned. I think about how it used to be, but it’s all changed now. It’s hard for them to hope. It all starts with school. If someone’s good at drawing, someone has to cultivate that talent. It could be done, but you have to take a break from the Internet and start painting. 

We, the people in the room, wanted to listen to Todor sing. Which we did, with Sofia all shy and excited about her husband singing lyrics written in her honor and of his love for her. Even when he went to festivals, he didn’t need a microphone, for he had a strong voice and love of singing. Sofia always told him to bring back a diploma and he did. 

My love for you grows, my dear, 

When I see how good you look, 

With your traditional skirt and vest,

Just like you like them. 

Your skirt has flowers stitched on it,

Flowers made by your own hand

For your mother taught you well 

How to make yourself look nice. 

Be nice to me, my wife,

And love only me. (Sofia sighs) 

Beloved tender flower

Know how dear you are to me. 

Everyone wanted to shake Todor’s hand after he sang. 

They want to see their older boy married. He’s forty-three years old. I told them it was harder now. 

How many things a man has to work out in life for everything to be all right. 

I built my own house, I raised pigs, I had 24 pigs back then and money to get by. Now, I barely managed to find 3 pigs to raise for myself. Todor’s problems. 

Sofia comes back into the room with her phone, a song playing on YouTube performed by Todor Ionașcu, her husband. She dances a little and smiles. Todor’s costume is sewn by Sofia. She shows it to me, he wore it while performing a doina on national television.  It’s been in the closet for years now. Memories kept on the coat rack. That only leaves you and me to knock on the door from time to time, right? 

To get back to the paintings, because that’s where I started the story, I find out that one of Sofia’s paintings was stolen at an exhibition. The large painting had simply disappeared. Todor went to the person’s house and didn’t leave until they returned Sofia’s painting. It was a very painstakingly crafted winter landscape set in the village, with children on sleighs, now sitting on the wall of their house, waiting for the grandchildren to inherit it. A beautiful legacy.

Photo credit: Ionuț Suciu

English translation: Cristina Chira