As a young girl, I dreamed of becoming an artist. Maybe because art came so naturally to me. Or maybe because that's the only thing I felt I was good at. Since we had very few means, not being able to afford new pencils and paper, let alone paints, I drew on anything and everything I found-inside of food boxes, grocery paper wraps, dad's newspaper, even on our old wallpaper.
My school notebooks were doodled on to my teachers’ amusement, if not annoyance. My brother, on the other hand, was good at everything. He was popular, voted class president several times, and academically excelled at everything but art. He had straight As throughout his primary and middle school years. But when his art teacher decided to break his golden streak, he asked me to draw for him. Which I did, bringing his grade to an A, and with the recognition of being the best drawing in class.
My obsession with art was an escape from my childhood pains. Being the youngest and the poorest child in my class, labeled as a country tomboy in the capital did not have anyone flocking my way. I was sick so often that it impaired my ability to keep up academically. So, art was my medicine I applied to my broken spirit.
When my dad realized that my love for art was not just a teenager phase, he sat me down to have a serious talk. He told me that the streets of Belgrade were filled with artists struggling to pay their next bill. And if I was smart, I would choose to study science, something that not only pays bills, but brings status (and pride for him as a parent to be sure). “And if you love art, you can always doodle on the side” was his dismissal of my passion. Wanting to make my father proud, I did not choose art as my career, but I continued to use it as my way of coping with my challenges.
When I found myself in a new country as a seventeen-year-old, going to college with boys and girls whose language I did not speak, I would make my own personalized birthday cards and notebooks. And since I arrived with only a few hundred dollars in my pockets, I did not have much money to spare. I still remember collecting these beautiful fall Virginia leaves, they were simply perfect.
Every color you could imagine, all from the same tree! I would press them on a notebook-sized piece of paper, go to our library and laminate them for 50 cents. Then I would glue it to the cover of the blank notebook and gift it to my friends on their birthdays. Oh, how I wish that I would’ve kept just one. But alas, I gave every single one away.
The next proud moment in my art expression was when I started attending my graduate level math class - differential equations. I was only one of two girls in the entire class. This was at Virginia Tech, and to this day, my favorite university! I remember our first take-home midterm test. Not only did I complete all the problems correctly, but I used my calligraphy like handwriting and added pictures to each problem. I drew pictures of swinging pendulums, force of objects, and even trees. I’ll never forget when my professor, who would later become my thesis advisor, called my name and showed my work to the whole class. But, he did not stop there, he went on and showed it to the whole VT math department!
If we fast forward a few years into my Ph.D. program, I am now a mother of a two-year-old, Sasha, married to my grad fellow colleague, Emery. We took turns taking care of our little boy who shared my obsession for art. I remember teaching Sasha how to draw Elmo's face by staring with his big eyeballs. He watched me intently, picked up two pencils, one in each hand, and then without any effort, simultaneously drew two perfect circles! Excitedly, I asked his daycare art teacher: “At what point do kids start drawing perfect circles?” She said that she had observed this at around the age of three.
One night Emery brought Sasha to our math department's commons room, a room with four big whiteboards, a projector, and tables and chairs for grad students to gather for meals and colloquiums. The room was quite lively during the day but equally hushed at night. Therefore, I preferred the evenings, I had the room to myself and when I got tired from math I would turn to the whiteboard and start doodling. When Sasha would visit, he would request characters from Finding Nemo. He loved Dori and Bruce the shark! So I bought special dry markers of every color for this reason. The joy on his face when I was done made me beam with pride! Then after all that effort, and not having cameras (this was the era of flip phones) to capture the image, I would erase it all and go home.
One evening I drew this blue butterfly and I forgot to erase it. The next day, I walked in the room during a talk, and to my surprise, my butterfly had been spared erasure and was encircled with a sign warning: “don’t erase!” And this was not a little butterfly hidden in a corner. This was a two foot drawing in the middle of four large whiteboards! So, for the next few weeks, the butterfly was surrounded by many complex mathematical formulas and ideas being squeezed around it.
One day I got tired of it and erased it, and started drawing other subjects that again ended up being protected and guarded by the grad students and faculty. No one knew who the mystery artist was, and I was not going to tell them. Until late one night, I was just putting the finishing touches on my eagle, when the door suddenly opened. It was my grad colleague Golnar. To my surprise she did not look happy, in fact, she was angry! "Oh no!" She yelled. "It's you!" I said, “Sorry to disappoint you (I interrupted with a smile), Who were you expecting?” Then she went on telling me how she has been in love with the mystery artist for months now, imagining to be one of the handsome fellow grad male students. I don't know why, but I felt bad about the whole episode and stopped drawing.
But, now that the secret was out, one of the math professors was so saddened by not being greeted by the butterfly that he asked me to recreate it as gifts for his daughters. In my later days, when I was sitting on different boards of directors, I would draw intricate drawings and make gigantic collages, and develop black and white photos, only to donate them for charity auctions.
I have not made a penny from any of them, but I know, they brought smiles to their recipients. And the only three collages I have ever produced have gone to the Crown Princess Katherine of Serbia, actor George Clooney, and the famous Houston cardiologist Dr. OH Bud Frazier.
But, nothing I've created so far has made me feel as good or as proud as the drawings I did for my little Sasha and young Miki, especially Miki's lunch napkins. When my younger son Miki was having a hard time adjusting and fitting into his new school in Boston, I decided to cheer him up with special lunch napkins. I would draw his favorite cartoon characters from different stages of his life and write uplifting messages next to them.
It worked. Not only did they become the highlight of his day, but of his classmates too! The napkins were such a hit with his new classmates, that he quickly had many of them surround him at lunch just to see what his next lunch napkin was going to say! And even though I was not present for the daily opening of his lunch box, I knew the impact those little expressions of love would have on him. His happiness would show on his face hours afterward and even years at the remembrance of them. Even now, I find myself drawing from time-to-time. For instance, tonight I drew his favorite skin, the Renegate, from the popular video game Fortnite.
It was my way of wishing him good luck on his test at school. I can't wait to see his face when he comes home and tells me all about it! I may not have become a famous artist, especially not the rich and famous, but the few creations that I have made were always gifts, intended to cheer up others; sparking joy in others and thereby in me as well!