Experiencing Elka Nowicka’s paintings in her studio after seeing them online is like laying a hand on a lover’s cheek after gazing at a photograph.
The colours have an extra vibrancy, the shadows play across the canvases, but above everything else is the magnificent texture. Sculpted lilies and antique roses stretch their petals, looking as though you could pluck them from the canvas. Her landscapes roll and swell over hills and under clouds. The pieces are unanimously gorgeous, utter beauty in the flowing lines and rich tones, and just so real.
They seem a celebration of creativity, of joyful abandon into a glory of colour and shape, which comes as a surprise to some, according to Elka.
“What surprises people is my paintings are happy paintings,” she says. “I’m happy, but I’m a serious Eastern European Polish person. My partner is the optimist. He always says the glass is half full, and I say ‘what glass?’”
Though immediately fascinating and wonderfully warm, she admittedly does not come across as ebullient as her paintings. Having grown up in Poland under a powerful Soviet shadow amid deep political and civil unrest, Elka has something about her not often seen in Canadians. A wariness, or a cautiousness, perhaps?
“I always grew up knowing I’d live through war,” she says. “We had to stand in line for hours for bread or shoes. I never thought it would change.”
It was an environment that necessitated practicality in many avenues, so although the Polish government subsidized and supported art and art education (as long as nothing oppositional was expressed against the government), Elka never thought art was a viable career choice.
“I never considered myself talented as a kid,” she says (which is shocking, given the depth of her creativity). “I came from a poor family and I was good in physics and math, so I had to pick something practical.”
She became a civil engineer, but continued to dabble with drawing and painting on furniture or linens. Eventually, the turbulent nature of the country became too threatening, and Elka and her family escaped.
“I didn’t want to live through it, and I didn’t want it for my son,” she says.
They left Poland in ’89, stayed in Germany for a couple years, then came to Canada, first to Winnipeg, and finally to Victoria in 1992. And it was here she started experimenting with her current process, pulling from her construction experiences.
Elka shows me a selection of smaller, nearly raw pieces, their jagged white streaks on black backgrounds, drying in front of the fireplace in her studio. The raised mixture reminds me of my drywalling days when I worked in renovations, and for good reason. It’s a mixed bag of plaster, drywall mud, pumice, marble dust and modelling paste. It’s strong enough to adhere indefinitely to the canvas, but flexible enough not to crack with the subtle movements of the piece. Glazes and acrylic liquids and gels are then painted over top, sometimes with bits scraped off in between layers to reveal the plaster mixture again.
“I put on layers and layers of colours and glazes. I work until I see the light flows the right way, the colours are right. Until it reflects my intended emotions,” she says, adding, “To live in a place which is happy, safe, peaceful — that comes through in my painting. Being in Canada, no week goes by I don’t think how lucky I am.”
Recently her work has shifted focus to a calmer, more monochromatic palette, evoking a classic feel in her pieces. It could be a result of some recent upheaval. Elka and her partner have gone through two moves and two renovations in the last two years, after selling their Oak Bay home and relocating first to Rockland for a short while, and now to their oceanfront downtown condo.
“I usually work as general contractor when I renovate,” she says as we chat about the design of the new home.
Asked if the renovation and moving chaos is why she’s been gravitating to calmer colours in her work, she laughs outright. “Probably!”
As well as her new monochromatic direction, Elka’s also excited for several new avenues: painting on clear plexiglass to experiment with shadow and light, and going back to Europe to source antique and faded linen tablecloths to use as canvases. It’s also a chance to go back and enjoy Poland as a modern and liberated country.
She gets to walk through old shops she frequented with her mother, visit her university, see her sister and old friends.
“When I go back, I love seeing the changes. It’s a sophisticated country,” she says. “It grounds me, and gives me ideas to paint. I need to go there once in a while.”
Back at home, her studio takes up the bottom floor of their condo, the biggest work space she’s ever had, full of art books, stacked canvases, sealed containers of mud, rows of pigments. A handful of in-progress pieces are scattered around, leaning on the walls. Having just moved in last June, she’s only recently gotten the space to a workable level.
“I feel calmer and I can sleep again,” she says with a bit of a grin. “I get stressed if I don’t paint for a long time.”
“Even on days I’m not painting,” she adds, “I spend an hour or an hour and a half drawing hands or faces or bodies, so that when I go to do that, I don’t have to think about it. The practice is very important. At the end of the day, you have to go to your studio and work your butt off.”
To see some of Elka’s work and for information on upcoming shows, visit westendgalleryltd.com.
– Story by Angela Cowan