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Meet the Artist: Lidija Tkalcevic

Updated: May 6

How did your journey as an artist begin?

From an early age, I was interested in fashion, drawing, puppetry, and building models of houses. I knew I wanted to do something with art. But growing up in Croatia--Yugoslavia at the time--my parents wanted me to have a stable future to provide for myself and that was something that art could not secure. So, after applying for a prestigious architecture school, which I didn’t get into but was on the waiting list, I went on to study economics, which had nothing to do with my desires.

Moving to the US in 1981 and meeting the sculptor Pola were the determining factors in developing my love for clay. Foothill college had an amazing ceramics lab at the time and wonderful art instructors. Starting in 1985, I was taking all the different art classes, not just ceramics. A turning point happened when a person borrowed a ceramic mold I had created, took my idea for the teapot we discussed in a group, made the teapot, entered the competition and won! I felt cheated, but at the same time I realized “Hey, I can do this”. I made the decision to start sculpting heads that progressed into a full body, developing my own technique along the way.

Can you elaborate on the different approach that you take for your work?

Usually, sculptures are built by shaping the outer shape, carving out the interior, then assembling the pieces together over supporting structures. With my sculpting technique, I work only with the fairly dry slab of clay that can support the weight of a layer or two, about 3-6” in height and by pushing and pulling and, starting from bottom up, I build the sculpture over 2-3 days. The object doesn’t have any inner structure to support it.

What is the most difficult thing that you find about sculpting with clay?

Timing is everything. You just can’t walk away and leave it. It dries very quickly. The last layer you add has to stay pliable enough so you can continue building. Clay has a very seductive quality, not much different from touching a human body, even the color of the clay is similar to that of the skin. For me, the most difficult part is that I may get excited about a piece while I’m working on it, only to be disappointed when it is done. Sometimes I can fix the problem areas. Sometimes it is just too late. When the piece has been fired and I just don’t like the way it turned out, the only way to remedy the problem is to destroy the piece.

I noticed that the facial features in your work are very distinctive. Where do they come from?

Before I started building the full figures, I had built probably thousands of faces. I like to give the piece an expression, a character. My favorite past time is watching people and their interactions. That is something I love to try to portray in my sculptures. I’m not really attracted to beauty but rather to imperfections, distinctiveness and differences.

What else inspires you?

I travel a lot and get inspiration anywhere I go. I’m a curious traveler who likes to educate myself on culture, social, political and environmental issues, so there is no coincidence when those issues are found in my work.

Can you give me some examples of social issues that you have tackled?

One of the latest examples is “Birds”, which represents immigration.

“Obamacare” was created in times when Obamacare was threatened to be dismantled.

“Consumerism” is about spending and collecting.

“Politicians” are three monkeys that don’t see, don’t hear and don’t speak.

“Elephants” for the dismantling of women's reproductive rights.

“Juggling viruses” for the pandemic depiction.

How do you continue to develop and improve your artistic skills?

By visiting exhibitions, entering competitions, doing workshops, listening to my customers, and doing many commission projects. These activities push me into different directions, help me develop new themes and allow me to try different approaches. New challenges are always good challenges.

What is your favorite part of being an artist?

It’s fantastic when you get in the creative zone and loose yourself. It’s very rewarding when you feel people's appreciation for your work, when people “get” you, when your ideas are starting conversations. Not everybody is going to like my sculptures but they will be noticed.

What don’t you like most being an artist?

Well, for making a living, it’s not easy. You have to be computer savvy, you have to promote yourself, you have to be creative. Basically, you have to wear different hats. This days, most young people don’t know how things are made, what is involved and have little or no appreciations for one-of-a-kind handmade items.

How do you promote your work and yourself as an artist?

I first joined Gallery 9 in 1990 and in the same year I joined Gallery House. I gained further exposure for my works by joining art shows, or being juried into the art shows. My style is unique and distinctive enough to be recognized and sought out. The galleries have come to me, so I was spared the intimidating task of talking about my own work. I’m really shy about selling myself and have no skills or affection for the internet.

Do you consider yourself successful at making a living with your art?

Going back in time 10 years or even 20 years, I had more than 30 galleries carrying my works throughout United States and Europe. That gave me a sense of accomplishment. I really felt good that I could earn some decent living with my art. But it’s a really hard living. I used to work night and day.

If your granddaughter or grandson wanted to be an artist, what’s your advice?

It might be the same as my parent’s advice <laugh>. Well, I would always encourage them to follow their calling. If that’s what they want to do, they should be doing it. Things have a tendency to work out somehow, but you absolutely have to love it. I’m actually enjoying watching my two and four years old grandkids play with clay.

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