IF ALL GOES according to plan, as this issue hits stands artist Kiril Jeliazkov and a small crew will be hard at work installing over 120 twenty-foot-tall canvas abstract paintings in Forsyth Park. When complete, it will not only be one of the largest, but one of the most daring art exhibitions the city has seen.
Collectively titled “The Orange Step,” Jeliazkov’s project is part of the Historic Savannah Foundation gala celebration the evening of Oct. 20. But the public can enjoy the vast display anytime it wants from Oct. 19-23.
The entire composition will comprise about 2500 square yards of the park’s space, with the individual pieces situated within the trees and natural environment.
This will actually be the second time “The Orange Step” -- named after Jeliazkov’s signature, an orange footprint -- has been displayed. The first was in Jeliazkov’s native country of Bulgaria in Sept. 2006, in the public gardens of his hometown of Yambul, an event attended by the president of Bulgaria himself.
We spoke to Jeliazkov last week.
Why Savannah? Why now?
Kiril Jeliazkov: The first city in the U.S. I came to was Savannah. In March 1999 I started at SCAD on a full presidential scholarship. That was the main reason I came to the U.S. Then after living in Savannah it sort of became my second home. Not even my second home, really, just my home. So I’ve been in Savannah the past eight years. I came when I was 21, and now I’m 30. From time to time I go back to Bulgaria for a couple of weeks, though.
I guess you’ve figured out Savannah’s not the typical American city.
Kiril Jeliazkov: Through the years I’ve traveled a lot in America. I lived for four months in Manhattan, I’ve traveled in Miami. I’ve never been to the west coast, though. I have gotten an idea that Savannah is not really like any other city in the U.S.
It immediately reminded me of home because it’s very historical. Everything, specifically downtown, is kept the way it’s been through the years. It’s got small, square parks, lots of nature. You don’t see much concrete, you see wooden buildings, beautiful architecture.
Personally I think it’s a more relaxed place to create art. It’s certainly more open to contemporary artists. In Bulgaria people don’t really even think about art. Mostly they don’t have the money to think about it. Here people are more into art.
How is Bulgaria coping with the whole move to the European Union?
Kiril Jeliazkov: Mostly positive, of course. They’ve been in the EU since Jan. 1. I’d say for the young generation it’s good, but my dad’s generation is struggling. It’s hard for them because it’s not like the old days -- they have boundaries open, you can go to richer countries to work, to explore, to study in a university. But for the younger generation it’s great. The law system is much better. The corruption level has decreased a lot.
How is the art world different in America?
Kiril Jeliazkov: Well, first of all I come from a traditional background. I went to a fine art academy in Bulgaria, learning all the old masters, technique, mainly drawing, painting, nude figures, landscapes, still lifes. Then I realized I’m not satisfied at all with that. You get tired of it.
I saw that when people graduated from fine arts academies in Bulgaria they became really good technique-wise, but that doesn’t mean they’re artists. I saw that most of them had no future after they graduate. So they start doing something else, not art, because of money problems.
Here I’ve been able to free myself from the boundaries of tradition -- but I still appreciate that I had that kind of background to build from.
Tell us about the idea for this project.
Kiril Jeliazkov: The idea was born three years ago when I envisioned this humongous painting. Then because of restrictions sizewise, I realized you can’t have a roll that’s 20 feet wide by 440 yards long. So I split it into parts, and it happened to be 128 20-by-10 pieces.
I wanted to start painting outside of traditional galleries. Then I looked at nature, and I thought what a beautiful way to expose a contemporary abstract piece, outside in nature. It’s unlimited basically. So that’s how it happened for the project to be installed in parks and gardens.
Another idea is, why not have paintings outside in your yard? If you have a really big piece, most people go, where am I going to put this? I don’t have a 30-foot ceiling. Well, why not put it in your garden next to your swimming pool?
Also, moving out of traditional gallery spaces was born out of me in a way being sick and tired of being dependent on galleries. You know, you go submit a portfolio, and you wait around for them to say yes, we’ll accept your work.
But this way, the world becomes my gallery. I can install my project in an empty field, where I don’t need any permits. And put it back in my yard.
So at that point we said, ‘OK, people have to come and see it.’ So what would be a good location? And we thought, parks and downtowns in different cities. The exhibition had already been in a public park in Bulgaria. It was the perfect test to have the exhibit there.
What if it rains?
Kiril Jeliazkov: Everything is waterproof. The guys that invented this paint for me did tons of tests before I even started painting.
Are the pieces for sale?
Kiril Jeliazkov: Yes, each individual piece is for sale. People can buy as many as they want. They can buy the whole project if they want!
But money’s not my main reason for doing this. The main reason is I’m a believer. I believe in God, the Christian God. That’s my constant motivation. First always comes my faith in God. I’m declaring that with no worries.
This work reflects my own understanding of the Bible -- that we’re all one in the body of Christ, basically. I have a constant conversation with God. This is what I love doing, and this is a way to glorify Him through my paintings.
Most Bulgarians come from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Is that your faith?
Kiril Jeliazkov: Not really. My family is not religious. I had to come to the U.S. before I really accepted the faith seriously. Here is where I developed it through friends, but I guess that’s another story.
The whole thing is much more developed here than back home. You know, coming from a communist background, it was tough to even have a Bible in your house or to go to church.
How about overnight security for the project?
Kiril Jeliazkov: We’re having officers 24 hours a day. That’s taken care of. We’re still working on lighting the project. Without that, at ten o’clock at night there’s not enough light to really get the effect.
Who’s dealing with permits?
Kiril Jeliazkov: Historic Savannah Foundation is helping with permits. But I think it’s very important to mention that the person helping me bring the project into the U.S., the one taking care of the security, is Alex Grikitis. He’s the one taking care of much of this financially. The whole thing’s quite expensive.
Our plan is to invite all the public schools. It’s a great thing for a field trip. That’s what happened in Bulgaria.
I know this is serious art, but it does strike me that children will particularly be gratified by it.
Kiril Jeliazkov: Oh, sure. It’s a very spontaneous abstract work. There’s nothing representational in it – of course there are elements you can connect with realistic objects, but it’s mainly free abstract.
How long does it take to install all 128 paintings?
Kiril Jeliazkov: It will take three days to install. Basically on Thursday, Oct. 18, if everything goes OK we should have it all up by noon.
I think at first a lot of people didn’t have a clue as to how it might look. Some people thought it might be a problem for other events in the park. But believe me, it will enhance the effect of the other event. Imagine having a wedding in the park among those paintings!
‘The Orange Step’ will be on display in Forsyth Park Oct. 19-23. To comment e-mail us at email@example.com
What's HSF got to do with it?
So why is the thoroughly traditional Historic Savannah Foundation sponsoring a thoroughly modern art project smack in the middle of its annual gala?
“The whole idea of it is to counter one of the misconceptions about the Historic Savannah Foundation, that we’re against modern things,” says Tricia Huddas, the organization’s special events coordinator.
“We believe you can’t have the old without the new, it’s just that it has to be in scale,” she says. “We really wanted to show how modern ideas can fit within a historic setting. That’s a point [Executive Director] Mark McDonald’s always trying to get across.”
Over 500 invitation-only guests will participate in the gala event Saturday, Oct. 20, in Forsyth Park.
“We’ve got this really modern structure tent coming, and it will sit in the middle of this historic park. So we’ve got the whole modern/historic thing going,” Huddas says.
Each year the Historic Savannah Foundation gala highlights a different portion of downtown, “and this year it’s Forsyth Park,” she says.
Historic Savannah has worked closely with city government, including the Leisure Services Bureau and the Park and Tree Commission.