Romania Magazine – view over the top, no. 7, July 2007

Crenguţa Ţolea

Q: Tell us about the world of “The High Land”, the world of Northern Moldavia where you were born?

A: Zvoristea, my native place is a village by Siret riverbanks where the Moruzescu boyards had a big and prosperous estate. In my childhood, boyards were merely fairytales characters. The beautiful mansions, the only evidence for far gone times, together with the marvelous nature of the Siret low plane and the straightforward peasants were not denying but improving the fairytale. There, in Zvoristea, people work with passion and seriousness. They have the cult of well-done job. They gave me the first life lesson. My parents were and still are icons of love and rightness. I think nothing is left to the hazard, everything has an explanation known only by the Lord of “The Highest Country” whilst we could only guess or simply do not have. We scould not be upset by this. The native place with its history, religion and customs opens or closes certain gates for you. Gates of soul, of mind.

Q: What about the story of your artistic road?

A: I went to grammar school in the village where my school mistress, an incredible person, wife of father Costinescu, noticed me. She encouraged me to follow the classes of an art school. I went to Botosani for secondary school, to Iasi for high school, to Bucharest for the university, then I got a specialization as mural restoring painter in Italy. I had a whole array of wonderful professors so it would have been outrageous not to multiply my gifts! I had my first show during high school. With caricature and self-caricature… Then the shows of graphics followed. In this period’s works I was speaking to the world about my weaknesses, rebellions and dark sides. Showing I had a problem. Not knowing to define it. Later I understood it was a spiritual problem. I was painting as if heaven was empty, without God. Going to other painters’ shows I was watching mostly, as the poet said, “other masks, the same play”, and I felt as if on stage in an absurd theatre that was my very life. I was not satisfied with my work, I could not find myself in it. Little by little, I gave up this road. Discovering the icon opened my true road, a road of soft light going to the east. I am climbing this road, hopefully, for over 15 years and I feel so good!

Q: How did this transformation happen?

A: First of all, through my transformation. After a childhood spent close to the church, I became estranged from God as a teenager, due to the extremely aggressive communist propaganda of the time and the extravagant nature specific to my age and the artistic environment I was shaping myself in. It was not easy to return home. When painting the parable of the prodigal son, I reckon this episode has autobiographical characteristics. When I returned, after long years, I brought with me the laic artistic converted in an icon painter too. During university, studying monumental art and restoration, I started to get closer to the world of Byzantine and post-Byzantine art. As a restoration painter, trying to know and understand my patients, the mural paintings in the churches, I came closer to the church too. Little by little I realized and felt that the works of art I was restoring were in fact icons, and the monuments of architecture where they lived were churches. I am among people who got closer to God through the icon. My profession got me closer to the sacred. Not rather the reverse. I got to the icon through art and the icon got me closer to faith. Working in churches with heritage paintings, the years spent in churches and the fruitful encounters with improved people taught me to see differently, to pray, to be transformed.

Q: How do you manage to harmonize your work as an icon painter with that a restoration painter?

A: The mural restoration painter’s work is a very harsh one…If you are a lazy parson and want an easy life, this trade means suicide…But if you are not scared by extreme sports, since, mural painting restoration is somehow an extreme sport, you can survive having often a smile on your face. Truly, this trade has a certain harshness, especially being practiced by a woman. During the first stage of interventions, the tools of restoration painter are the trowel, the chisel and hammer. We benefit of the comfort of more friendly instruments such as brushes, colors and palette only in the end. This trade really has enough burden, such as the cold, moist, toxic environment, working in high places, far from home, but satisfaction you get give you the power to carry your burden cheerfully. When the church black as a chimney gets back its original painted clothing, getting back its life, the restoration painters forget the hardship and feels only the happiness. They soar! As for harmonization the two vocations, there’s no need for any extra effort. They complete each other. The year has for me two seasons: in Summer I am a restoration painter and in Winter, an icon painter. In Summer I gather material and longing for painting for the period I will spend in front of the easel and in Winter I restore my strength and paint having the nostalgia of the restoration site and of the arched roofs with angel wings.

Q: What is the icon?

A: To me, the icon is an opportunity to serve God, and occasion for meditation, a confession of faith a work coming out fro longing for eternity and serenity of soul. It is the piece of resistance of plastic art. Horia Bernea used to call it super-art. The icon is my prayer, my state of well-being. It is what I am not giving to Caesar. Since I am giving Caesar too much. It is my window of honesty and communication. God made humans creators, in his own image and likeness. Through the plastic arts, the human artist tries to imitate the act of creation, to hypostatize in colors and forms the seen and unseen world. One can only find redemption in their art is constructive for themselves and for the others. It’s impossible otherwise. There is a lot of prejudice connected with icons and icon painters. For example, it is said that icon leaves no room for creativity, or that the icon painters must be monks. Despite the appearance, the icon space is a space where creativity can wonder freely. There is no interdiction to stop laics, either men or women, painting icons. Prayer can be said outside the walls of the convents. The same for fasting. As for temptations, neither outside world nor convents are exempt. We are all frail.

Q: What does the painting of an icon involve?

A: The icon needs a continuous exercise of awareness. The theme needs to be practiced, polished, purified, since icons appeal to the essence. Reasons that motivate me to start working could be multifarious : the mystery of a face in an old icon that haunts me, a certain meaningful event of the a saint’s life, a collocation that fascinate me or an order I resonate to. To be able to paint I need having something in my heart, a feeling difficult to define. I cannot paint an icon if I a not challenged by something connected with the subject. When my thoughts are ripe, I clothe them with the pattern, polishing it, trying not to fall into the stereotype of the religious gesture. From this point of view, I act like an artist.

Q: You renovate, paint, are having a full professional activity. When do you find time for your family?

A: I manage to grow professionally because of my family. The family increases my motivation and helps me. I could say my children are my friends, my in-laws are my parents and my husband my other half sent by God. With such a support you can turn mountains upside down!

Q: What about the icons that will follow?

A: With God’s help, I hope to finish first of all an icon that waits on the easel for a few years. The icon of the Brancoveanu saints. It will be followed by other few hagiographic icons, such as the icon of Saint Andrew, Saint Gregory from Decapolis, Devout Parascheva and Saint John from Hozev. I want to paint the icons of a few Romanian saints or saints whose relics arrived in our country, saints with a powerful influence on our nation.