Something Lost, Something New: Interview with Painter Maya Kulenovic

Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.
~ Michel de Montaigne

Maya Kulenovic

Little Man | oil on canvas | 34″ x 28″ | Maya Kulenovic

We’re all of us haunted and haunting.”
~ Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby


ypically with contemporary art, we have come to expect work that challenges conventional attitudes and ideas. Strong lines and color that awaken us from our lethargy, incite us to question, even attack traditional ways of seeing. But art that makes us think and feel deeply can also work a different kind of enchantment. Consider the paintings of Maya Kulenovic, which seem to float towards and around us like black mist, seeping into our pores and into all those long-forgotten crevices of our minds where memories wait, lurking, biding their time…just when we think we’ve forgotten…

iInsomniac | 2005 | 24 x 24 | Maya Kulenovi

Insomniac  | 24 x 24 | Maya Kulenovic


Toronto, Canada ~

Maya Kulenovic

Maya Kulenovic

Deanna Phoenix Selene: You were born in Sarajevo, in 1975. How old were you when you left?

Maya Kulenovic: I had just turned seventeen when I left in ’92.

Salt | 2007 | 28 x 36 | Maya Kulenovic

Salt | 28 x 36 | Maya Kulenovic

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Your most precious memories?

Ophelia | 2008 | 38 x 26 | Maya Kulenovic

Ophelia | 38 x 26 | Maya Kulenovic

Maya Kulenovic: The best memories I have of my childhood are of nature and its smells: the Croatian seaside with its aromas of pine, lavender, and saltwater on my face…

Fragrance | 2009 | 32 x 32 | Maya Kulenovic

Fragrance  | 32 x 32 | Maya Kulenovic

Gathering | 2010 | 23 x 33 | Maya Kulenovic

Gathering  | 23 x 33 | Maya Kulenovic

Maya Kulenovic: My aunt’s cobblestone garden in Old Sarajevo, hidden behind its huge wooden gate (I always used to arrive there at sunset, when the scent of roses was in the air)…

Grasslands Brink | 2007 | 26 x 26 | Maya Kulenovic

Grasslands Brink  | 26 x 26 | Maya Kulenovic

Maya Kulenovic: …My grandparents’ cottage, with the smell of smoke and earth where I used to hunt for lizards, snails, and stag beetles and draw them before letting them go; the smell of juniper in the mist on a mountain trail; my first time outside after being very ill for several weeks…

Lithium | 2011- 2012 | 20" x 22" | Maya Kulenovic

Lithium | 20″ x 22″ | Maya Kulenovic

Deanna Phoenix Selene: The attack on your city was said to be the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, with nearly every building damaged. But then a period of great reconstruction followed, after which nearly no traces of even bullet holes remained. I see a similar layering, tension, in your paintings, Maya. Would you like to speak a bit about this?

Maya Kulenovic: This is how history unfolds, after destruction some things are forever lost, and some can be rebuilt. The result is something new, founded on the lifeline of what was before.

As for my paintings, there are similarities, I agree, primarily in the sense that my process involves phases of construction and destruction. My paintings are created through many translucent layers, some of which define the subject, and others whose primary role is to destroy the previous layer and introduce an element of chaos. Here I use solvents, rags, wire brush, sandpaper. This chaos adds a certain primal energy to the image as if the medium breaks free from both the subject and the artist. The result is a fertile ground from which I can continue working.

Brimstone | 2012 | 26" x 24" | Maya Kulenovic

Brimstone | 26″ x 24″ | Maya Kulenovicic

Maya Kulenovic: [But] I have never tried to illustrate anything related to that particular war. I draw inspiration from intense moments that reveal something about human nature, and these moments may be from life, documentary films, photographs, memory, and some of these inevitably include various human tragedies. Of course, having a personal connection to a place like Sarajevo forever changes the way one looks at documentary footage of war and disaster in the sense that the people and places don’t seem so distant and foreign anymore, regardless of who, when and where. Their expressions are the same, and so are the ruins.

Agrarian | 2010 | 24 x 18 | Maya Kulenovic

Agrarian  | 24 x 18 | Maya Kulenovic

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Can you tell me about Mirage? Is the tension of dark versus light, despair versus the press of rebirth, or hope built upon illusion?

Mirage | Maya Kulenovic

Mirage  | 30″ x 30″ | Maya Kulenovic

Maya Kulenovic: Darkness is not necessarily a ‘threat,’ nor light ‘salvation’; it can be seen the other way around, too. I’m not telling the viewer how to feel about this image; it is open and familiar enough so that, like a mirror, it can reflect some of the viewer’s own mind. Hope may be in the resilient presence of the figure, which still persists even when it seems to be fading, pulled apart by both light and shadow. It may be in the moment of recognition and empathy that the viewer may feel.

Solitaire | Maya Kulenovic

Solitaire  | 37.5″ x 33.5 | Maya Kulenovic

Deanna Phoenix Selene: You’ve described your paintings as containing “aspects of everything that I know and have experienced,” and then listed these states: “life and death, trance and wakefulness, sanity and madness.” As an artist, does this sensitivity to the precariousness of humanity assist you? Or provide struggle?

Sanitarium | 2008 | 48x36 | Maya Kulenovic

Sanitarium | 2008 | 48×36 | Maya Kulenovic

Maya Kulenovic: It depends. Sometimes what feeds the art can hurt. For me, art usually happens much later after an event or experience which inspired it, and so it doesn’t help much in the moment. Perhaps this is because the events have to sink into memory for me to be able to create art from them.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: In an era of increased cynicism, is there still room for awe?

Whisper | Maya Kulenovic

Whisper | 38″ x 28″ | Maya Kulenovic

Maya Kulenovic: Awe is a natural capacity of humans. It’s what we feel when we find ourselves face to face with something infinitely more magnificent than ourselves, and yet with which we feel an innate affiliation or even a sense of belonging. This feeling has been abused by various organizations throughout human history, religious and secular alike, and cynicism, I think, is a reaction to that. As a tool for stripping certain stale ideas and exposing some attempts at manipulating people’s emotions and beliefs, cynicism can expose the truth by destroying a lie. However, it has become just another fashionable mode of relating to reality, and a very limiting one at that. Cynicism is reactive by its nature, and it is corrosive. It is not proactive, it does not offer a solution, an alternative, a fundamental change. These things require energy. Awe is a fundamental expression of this energy that propels us towards creativity, curiosity, empathy, that feeds our thirst for knowledge and diminishes the fear of death. It is what pushes the limits of art as well as science, and acts as a beacon from the unknown as we take great risks.

Narcoleptic | 2008 | 32 x 24 | Maya Kulenovic

Narcoleptic  | 32 x 24 | Maya Kulenovic

Deanna Phoenix Selene: How do you open yourself up to be surprised as a painter? Is it difficult to give up control?

Breathe | 2009 | 30 x 30 | Maya Kulenovic

Breathe | 30 x 30 | Maya Kulenovic

Maya Kulenovic: I have to be surprised at least a bit with every painting. If a painting does not surprise me, it disappoints. So, with every painting I have to give up some control, and ultimately let it tell me what it wants to be. I don’t necessarily always enjoy this aspect of uncertainty, but it is usually exciting and necessary to achieve the result I want. The point of painting for me is this transformation, from the original idea to its final incarnation, and I have to let the technique dictate this process. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have to paint, I could just look at the image in my mind and be happy with that.

Sleepwalker | 2005 | 26 x 22 | Maya Kulenovic

Sleepwalker | 26 x 22 | Maya Kulenovic

Maya Kulenovic: This doesn’t mean that I don’t have a clear plan for a painting ~ on the contrary. I usually analyze in detail many different versions of my preparatory images beforehand, so as I paint, I have a very good idea where I would like to take the painting. Yet during the process, certain unpredictable things happen, and, intentionally, as my technique allows for these surprising elements. Some of them I remove or paint over, and some I keep and build upon. To me personally, my own paintings are more valuable if they have some elements in them that cannot be repeated even by myself.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Have you found that painting affects the way you take in life around you? For instance, does it give you greater patience for others and even yourself, knowing you will be able to express all that you’ve taken in, eventually in your art?

Maya Kulenovic: Not really. I suppose it does on some philosophical level, but not in the moment. We are a frustrating species.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Where would you like to take your work next? Or do you even like to think that far ahead?

Maya Kulenovic: I don’t. But it will be interesting.

Petra | 2006 | 36 x 36 | Maya Kulenovic

Petra | 36 x 36 | Maya Kulenovic

Further Notes

Maya Kulenovic, born March 1, 1975, in Sarajevo, now lives and works in Toronto, Canada. She has been exhibiting nationally and internationally since 1993. She studied at Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto, Canada; Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul, Turkey; and Chelsea College of Art and Design (University of the Arts London) in London, England.

A book about the work of Maya Kulenovic by Edward Lucie-Smith in Dutch and English was published by d’jonge Hond in the Netherlands.

For more of her work and to connect with the artist, please visit her website.

maya_kulenovic_narcoleptic2  _NARCOLEPTIC I 2008 32_ x 24_ Maya Kulenovic 600
Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.


  1. Réjean Desrosiers on April 12, 2014 at 7:15 am

    Les soins de la lumière
    Me font taire des mots de trop
    De tendresse
    De questions
    De réel qui reste vrai
    Même après
    Même avant
    Le silence m’adresse la parole
    Pas contre
    Mais pour la vérité
    Pour ses valeurs
    Dans la douceur de la peur
    Je retiens un fond de lieu
    Un peu plus loin
    Derrière les visages
    Ces vagues sans milieu
    Distance ces creux et ces hauts
    Comme des saisons
    Je juxtapose l’ensemble
    Le lieu et la visage
    Le mirage et l’apparition

    Réjean Desrosiers © 2014 04 12

  2. Craig Banholzer on April 12, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    Another Big Head painter. I love big paintings, but I genuinely wish more artists could either use the entire human figure to express their thoughts, or else content themselves with working smaller.

  3. Jennifer on December 5, 2014 at 8:01 am

    I really enjoyed seeing Maya’s work and reading her words about it. I can feel the emotion and passion laid down in her process. I really appreciate the play between destruction and production. It is something I try to achieve in my own work. Thank you Maya for sharing your beautiful work with the world.

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