Art is a powerful tool of communication, cultural change and societal protest, bringing people together over shared passions, collective agonies and universal truths, but it can also be a catalyst for more intimate connections. For Serbian husband and wife artist duo Aleksandar and Jelena Paunkovic, who met and fell in love during their art school studies in Belgrade, art’s life-altering power is uncontested. Having both grown up in close contact with nature, art not only enabled them to express their belief in nature’s healing power and voice their concern for its precarious future in a consumption-led, human-dominated world, it also connected them on a more personal level. Compelled by a desire to live sustainably and wishing to convey nature’s value through their art, they moved their studio to a rural area where they launched “Life”, an ongoing series of hyper-realistic paintings of plants.
Featuring intricate compositions of lush greenery loosely based on photographs that Aleksandar and Jelena have taken on their hikes, the large-format paintings instantly enliven any space they are displayed in by introducing a vivid slice of nature. Laboriously painted in exquisite detail during months-long sessions, their artworks are both viscerally overwhelming and deeply calming. Yatzer recently caught up with the couple to discuss “Life”, their studio dynamic, and living close to nature.
(Answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Where did your fascination with plants come from?
Growing up, our lives were coloured by the green hues of nature that surrounded us. As children, we loved to plant and grow plants, vegetables and fruit with our parents. Our connection with nature became an inseparable part of our personality.
What inspired you to create the “Life” painting series? What are you seeking to convey through this work?
“Life” was preceded by a series of paintings that Jelena created during her studies depicting large amounts of waste in response to the modern way of life. Overwhelmed by information about landfills, environmental disasters and man-made changes, we wondered: "Will people in the future see plants and nature only through photographs, the same way we now look at extinct animal species?” As we talked about this, we came to the idea that instead of just criticising how society works, it might be healthier to change our own bad habits and encourage others to consider the consequences of our modern way of life. This is when the series was born along with a new chapter in our lives.
We moved our studio from the big city to a rural area near the Kosmaj Mountain where we started producing paintings. At the same time, we planted our own small garden and started composting organic waste. We also replaced plastic bags with canvas bags which we made and still use today. When we harvested our first crop of fruit after two months, there was no end to our happiness. For a moment we went back to our childhood, remembering beautiful moments growing up. It’s such a privilege to feel like a kid again.
Jelena has a background in graphic design and Aleksandar in electrical engineering, and yet you were both eventually drawn to art. What drove you to pursue a career as artists? How do you account for the convergence of your individual paths? Chance or karma?
We can confidently say that what connected the two of us was art. Everyone is looking for ways to express themselves, to leave a mark or draw attention to contemporary problems. Some express themselves through film or music, some are good speakers and writers. We found a way to express ourselves through painting and art. Our experience in graphic design and electronics certainly inform who we are, but our love for painting has changed our paths in how we express ourselves. No one remains indifferent when standing in front of our artworks, most of which are painted in large format. Everyone looks at the paintings carefully, and then starts asking questions they’ve never thought about before.
You met at art school. Did your professional and personal connection develop in tandem? How does your relationship influence you as artists?
That’s actually a very interesting question that we haven't thought about much. Although everything happened naturally, thinking about it now our professional and personal relationship definitely also evolved in tandem. During his studies at the Faculty of Arts, Aleksandar mostly painted portraits of people, while I dealt with environmental issues in my paintings. We talked a lot about the connection between us humans, and the problems we have that divert our attention from nature. We wondered how we as artists could influence and help which sparked the idea for the “Life” series.
Talk us through your studio dynamic. Do you both work on the same painting or does each of you paint their own paintings separately? How do you differ as painters? Doe each of you bring a different set of skills or point of view to the table?
We tried to work on the same painting once, but it didn't work. Our painting styles, colour selection and painting process are different. So, we each paint our own individual paintings now. But that doesn’t mean we don’t correct or influence each other. Since we work on a single painting for a long time, every piece of advice and support is welcome. In this sense, it’s a good exercise to put the personal ego aside and listen to the opinion of another person.
Your paintings are a marvel of hyper-realism. How laborious and time-consuming is the creative process for each artwork? How long does it take you to complete a large painting?
The process of working on one large format painting can take from 3 to 6 months. We usually spend 9 hours a day in our studio, which may sound like hard work but it isn’t as art is simply an inseparable part of our personality.
Are the Life paintings exact replicas of plants you’ve come across or do you also use your imagination? Do you rely on photographs, plant specimens or memory?
We find ideas during our hiking tours. We usually take a camera with us to capture interesting shots and details. Later on in our studio we use photographs as a reference for a new painting idea. We create one composition from several photos. We never rely entirely on photographs, we change a lot during the painting process, such as colours, direction of plant movement, contrast, etc.
The paintings burst with rich greenery featuring a variety of plants but seldom depict flowers. Why is that? Do you wish to focus more on a green colour palette and if so, why?
We love simplicity. Yes, there are a lot of green hues in all of our paintings, but they come in so many different shades. It's a real pleasure to combine all those shades to create one painting.
Beyond your art, what role does nature play in your life?
Nature gives us water, food, air - if we remove only one segment of nature from our lives, we cannot exist. For us, nature means “Life”.
What are you working on right now? What plans do you have for the future?
Jelena is currently working on a larger format painting for one of our collectors in Belgrade while Aleksandar is working on a painting that is very different to anything else we have ever created in our studio. It will be soon available on our website along with a video capturing the creative process. Some of our future plans include building an art studio from completely natural materials like earth, wood, straw and stone, in collaboration with experts who will help us bring such a construction technique closer to people.