By Barbara E. Berger
Collage artist Koka Filipovic layers found objects and cut paper in a process that is as meditative as the product.
– Sarah Fagan, guest art editor, VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices and visions, Summer 2014 issue
Gazing at the landscape of North Plains, Oregon, through her living room’s picture windows, Koka Filipovic rearranges her face and limbs into a liquid, serene repose. She is deeply inspired by nature and shares that special heart place with us through her art. The Summer 2014 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & vision introduced Koka with two multi-media collages from her garden series: Garden Gate and Purple Shade in the Garden.
Koka’s life and art present an authentic, seamless, organic whole. Like the artist herself, the creations charm with elegant simplicity and balance that reveal depth, complexity and intelligence upon closer observation; they fascinate in this way.
With that closer observation, I can detect a sliver of the exotic – a sometimes-crispness to her speech; an unconscious, confident note in her carriage – adding to Koka’s personal charm. Her roots in Zagreb, Croatia (formerly Yugoslavia), with a youthful exposure to art – including day trips across the Adriatic Sea to museums in Italy – inform her humility and straightforwardness today with a deeper and worldly foundation.
Koka had pencil in hand even in her early teens – drafting interior room layouts, sketching fashions or designing fabrics “the old-fashioned way, with ink,” she recalls. She developed her own look, inspired by the 1920s, the ancient Greek, or harlequins. “I was always playing with ideas, designing something, playing with scraps of paper.“ She designed shoes and purses, including detailed measurements.
“Back then, the Zagreb retail stores were limited. It was cheaper to have a local cobbler make fashionable shoes from scratch from my own designs than to travel to London to buy a ready-made pair.” By 1973, she was living in Portland, Oregon with her husband – a Portland State University student she met during his studies in Zagreb – and their son, but she still sewed many of her own clothes to get exactly what she wanted.
Twenty-five years later, Koka joined her second husband, Robert Theiss, in the countryside outside of Eugene – where nature and a creek running through her property provided solace and inspired her to create fine art. Robert, a master artisan of custom-made wood furniture himself, asked her if it wasn’t time to exit her career as an interior designer and devote herself to art-making. “If not now, when will you get to it?”
She became a full-time artist; but, she did not share her work with others until just a few years ago. Then, each gallery and juried show she applied to immediately signed her on, to only her surprise. “Soon, people would approach me first, and ask me to show.” Moving back to the Portland area in 2009, she repeated the experience and again found warm reception with new local galleries.
She learned that there is no point in trying to second guess what galleries want; that won’t work. “Your joy is what attracts people; that joy is what people want in art.” Nature is what brings Koka joy, and nature is the basis for her art. Her process is intentionally meditative rather than intellectual. She allows projects to percolate organically. “I’m always working on a number of projects at the same time, sometimes a dozen different ones,” explains Koka. She collects elements for each project in a tray: plastic, bamboo or, mostly, wooden office trays from Goodwill.
Each starts with a description of what the project will be: maybe a collage, a framed piece of art, a commercial stationery line, or part of her journal offerings. Her gratitude and travel journals are adorned with pieces of art and include inspirational quotes. She’ll collect pebbles, leaves, fabrics, color palettes she’s attracted to, and add sketches. She seldom scans information electronically, preferring to handle the originals. “I want the texture in my hands. It’s more alive then; I’m more inspired if it’s 3-D. It’s more spontaneous for me.”
Koka’s 3-D collages are greater than the sum of their parts, which often are natural substances that she personally collects in the field. She sorts through her finds, selecting and preserving natural treasures with the care of a perfectionist. Koka will collect hundreds of leaves to find one or two that are worthy of a place in her art. She uses the finest papers, museum-quality glass, and frames custom-made by her husband. Her shadow box techniques float the elements and create layers and depth in her work.
To arrange the elements, Koka listens to them. “How do they want to be arranged? What needs to be added? How will they be balanced?” She spreads pressed leaves, other parts on a table. “They tell me the story of how to put them together: what colors to use, the composition, the movement, everything. The story evolves.” Koka waits until things are just right and does not hurry them. She works without a predetermined deadline, allowing the projects to marinate over time in their trays.
Koka says she is not trying to make any political, social, or even gender statement. It’s more about her connection with nature. “My pieces are often about an intimate presence in the moment. I’m looking for a balance or serenity, for the feeling I get from being in nature. It’s personal, and can be vulnerable because they will show where I was – or wasn’t – when I was creating the piece. It’s not about technique, or the spiritual. It’s about coming from wherever art comes from for the individual.”
“I’m looking for the balance,” Koka explains, “between male and female, between heart and mind. How do I come to the peaceful, centered place? Nature helps me to breathe, helps me to look at things from that place, the place that does not require any of those. You can sit by a creek, or ocean or a tree and take a deep breath and think ‘Who am I’? What do I want? What do I want to focus on, literally and technically?”
I have seen people respond to Koka and her art with respect, appreciation and a quiet reverence. Her authentic self – with its joy and serenity – finds expression in her art, and attracts the hearts of others. Ironically, her artlessness is what creates her best art, as she sits by the creek in the woods, listening quietly to hear direction from her elements.
Kosjenka “Koka” Filipovic is a member of the board of directors of the Valley Art Association, Forest Grove, Oregon. She founded the RoseSprings Center art gallery in Hillsboro, Oregon, which she curated for the last four years. You can view more of her art on her website, as well as see a list of her upcoming events: Sanctuary Designs.
This profile first appeared in VoiceCatcher, August 18, 2014.