Kamila Volčanšek

In mid-November 2012, Cankarjev dom hosted the 10th Slovenian Biennial of Illustration, an event which gives special pleasure to visitors. Illustrations are an important part of Slovenian artistic creativity and have a long tradition of the highest quality. And a good illustration delights everyone, from children to adults.

The winner of the 10th SBI Lifetime Achievement Award

Kamila Volčanšek. Photo: Personal archives

An exhibition at the biennial of illustrations is a precious contribution to the popularity of illustration. If we consider that all generations grow up with picture books and various illustrated stories, then the importance of this artistic genre is evident. The biennial of illustrations, first organised in 1993 by Association of the Slovene Fine Artists Societies and Cankarjev dom’s exhibition programme, was originally intended to introduce creative achievements in fine arts and ensure illustration a regular gallery presentation. Today, the biennial of illustrations enables the presentation of established illustrators, as well as those who have just begun to establish themselves. The Hinko Smrekar awards are presented at the biennial, and this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award was given unanimously by the expert jury to the academic painter, Kamila Volčanšek.

‘We are presented with the result of persistent efforts by the artist to add new paradigms to the genre she has so skilfully mastered, by means of which the most simple and sometimes very short literary creation can be turned into a complex and consistent artistic organism in a humorous and playful manner full of attractive inventions,’ wrote Brane Kovič, the president of the expert jury, in the explanation of why it was decided to award the highest prize to Volčanšek. According to the expert jury, the lines, colours, narratives, and decorative and design elements coexist harmoniously in her illustrations. 

An illustrator and painter

Photo: Personal archives

Rather than an illustrator, Kamila Volčanšek is a painter, although she began illustrating during her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana. ‘It was actually the late Professor Brumen who lectured on composition and encouraged me to illustrate.’ As I child, she liked reading fairytales and admired illustrations and soon took up illustrating. ‘I liked the personification of various objects and animals, particularly insects. I created my own fantasy world, which later also helped me with illustration. I often used memories from my childhood, which was spent in a huge house with a big dusty attic and dark cellars full of spider webs. Behind the house, there was an endless garden (at least it seemed endless then), which contained everything – vegetable patches, fruit trees, a deep fountain and even a plot of actual woodland with various trees. Even more fairytale-like and scarier, of course, were the holidays spent with my great uncle in Boka Kotorska. There, we lived in a mansion, where he had a museum filled with memories of the times when he was a captain’, explains Volčanšek.

She used to illustrate more, but now she hardly works in this genre at all. When she did it so more frequently, she was able to select texts independently. ‘After selecting the text, I have already created an artistic image, and I do not need to cooperate with the authors,’ she replies, when I ask her how illustrations are created. She has illustrated many folk tales and classic fairytales. She begins by first reading the text several times. Doing so, she creates a visual and emotional world on which she then builds. ‘If the text requires, I also study as much pictorial material as possible. I first think thoroughly, then I draw, and then I think again and correct time and time again until I achieve a satisfactory result.’

And while it used to be possible to make a normal living from illustrating, it is no longer so. The crisis has also made deep cuts in the cultural and artistic fields, and artists ‘have to do all sorts to make a living’. Volčanšek also adds that ‘Slovenian illustration has always been and still is very good, which you can see at this year’s biennial. It is especially to be commended for being very original and not falling under the influence of various trends.’

Critics describe her art as comprehensive and harmonious. And what does Kamila Volčanšek strive for when creating, I wondered? ‘Enjoyment at work’, she replies. Her work includes not only illustrations; she is not involved in illustrations so much anymore and now mostly dedicates herself to painting. Her artistic creations have been exhibited at numerous independent and group exhibitions and she has received several awards for her work. She does not speak about her art.

And what are her favourite motifs?

‘Since I have started dedicating my time primarily to painting, the main motif in my work is the female figure,’ she says. Her ‘fine ladies’ simply enchanted me, because they were so non-stereotypical, special and likable. One can easily identify with them and be released from all the shackles which modern Western society puts on women. 

And what does Ms Volčanšek say about these ladies? ‘I do not speak about my paintings. I can only say that the ladies are ample and round, like ballet dancers or synchronised swimmers floating in the air. They came about spontaneously, from fun, and then they just stayed.’

Text by Polona Prešeren, M.Sc, Sinfo, December 2012 

Photo: Personal archives