Creating paintings which transcend the mundane, Natalia Rak carves her own vibrant and colourful path within the realm of visual arts. The Polish native excels in a variety of media, from paper and canvas to brick and concrete, and with a body of work ripe with symbolism, allegories and a profound love for Nature, she invites us to her own world of glowing colours which evades reality.
Interview by Carolina Brose
Introduce Natalia Rak with one phrase.
Creator of large scale paintings.
Occasionally, the size of your murals finds you working on quite high buildings. What are your thoughts on the process?
Every time I create an image, I am nervous concerning how I will master such a massive space. It is difficult to grasp in one thought all the details and processes behind such a project, but from a young age, adrenaline has been a constant source of energy which I knew well how to utilise.
“Rome & Juliet”
(detail while in progress)
Slowly, step by step, hour after hour and day by day, the mural progresses and details begin to appear. The feeling of uneasiness vanishes when half of the work is done.
I often realize how dangerous and difficult the work in various weather situations can become. In the first days I feel the fear of heights in the back of my head, but by the end of the process it weakens and I get used to it.
Has any piece of work developed in a way that you did not expect?
To my own surprise the “Legend of the Giants” has taken on a life on its own. It is a mural in Białystok [ed. in north-eastern Poland] which has been placed under protection of the city. In February 2014, the mural was included in the series “Sztuka ulicy – Street Art” issued by the Polish Post.
What is more, it has been acknowledged by the Italian philatelic magazine “L’Arte del Francobollo”as the most original stamp of the series. This image has not only won the heart of the polish population, but it was been embraced by people across the border too.
A time lapse animation has also been made, displaying the tree in front the the mural being watered.
Has there been a decisive moment, when you decided you want to enter the field of murals or did it happen gradually?
My journey started when I met my fiancé. He placed spray cans into my hands and motivated me to start my first experiments. I have always been very open about new styles and techniques. When I was studying I trained in screen printing, drypoint and linocut. I also worked as well in the comic and illustration field, creating packages and posters. I always loved painting and therefore found myself working on walls quite quickly, never mind the different technique.
Are there particular artists that have shaped you, and where do you draw inspiration from?
The love for books I have inherited from my mother, this is why you can find the shelves in the bookcases in my home filled with heavy albums with the works of Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, Vania Zouravliov, Joseph Clement Coll, Robert E. McGinnis, Alfons Mucha and tomes about masterpieces of Russian painting.
Museum visits and technique analyses by my professors fueled me with creativity. I also have albums of colleagues, whom I have met in person, such as James Jean or Andrew Hem. The discovery of art through the various art movements in history, the directions in symbolism or the contemporary work of illustrators, raises the bar and makes me improve myself.
To which extend has the Polish landscape, natural or urban, affected you as an artist?
I was raised in the country side and I haven’t really found myself in big cities, or even small ones. Nevertheless, I have come to love cities like Barcelona and New York.
“Waiting for Tomorrow”
Currently, I live in a typical polish town, but I feel like a bird in a cage. There is no interesting architecture, or beautiful and relaxing places. Reality is grey and it weighs heavy on the mind. I dream of a house in a the wilderness and rough territory.
Of course, we do enjoy wonderful views in Poland, mountains like the Tatry [ed. in the western Carpathians between Slovakia and Poland] and even large lakes in the Masurian Lake District, [ed. region in north Poland with 2,000 lakes]. Maybe someday I will be able to live my dream.
In your images you often focus on women, can you explain about this preference?
I am a woman and I think I do understand women, even though we are complicated creatures. It is easier to portray affection through a subtle female body and face, than through a male. A sensitive man in polish society is often stereotyped as a homosexual. However, when I paint children there are no such issues when selecting gender. Children are little people without resistance, not trapped into patterns. I am more on the search for interesting faces, often androgynous, where the gender is of no importance but the expression and form of the face.
Do you have a a favourite piece from your work so far?
There is no singular piece that I favour more than the others. I am proud of my works equally, but “Lovers in Red Pond”, “BeDevil”, the mural “Waiting for Tomorrow” or “Predators”. Those works probably reflect me the most, my world full of strong color contrasts, where violet and pink repeat.
“Lovers in Red Pond”
I have started working on “Lovers in red pond” right after being in Hawaii, so I had my paradise on earth all the time in my head. “BeDevil” is my next after the “Frenzy of Exultations –Szal uniesien”, a reference to old masters , in this case to Mechofers “Strange garden”.
I can only remind myself of the quote ‘hope dies last’ and it is worth to be waiting for a better day. In the mural “Predators” I put emphasis on the way humans treat nature. We tend to forget that we are her creatures too and we should take care of her. In the last 40 years half of the wildlife population have vanished from earth (according to a WWF study). I speak of all populations and not only the ones classified as endangered. Murals often carry my philosophical and psychological perspective of my surrounding world.
What is the process of selecting suitable locations to paint, is there a pattern behind your decision? Do you choose the location, or would you say the location chooses you?
I choose places where I have never been to. I dream to go as far as I can. I always wait for an invitation with a paid plane ticket and hotel. I wouldn’t be able to afford these long trips like New Zealand or the USA. Of course, it is also very important to have creative freedom in my project and for the wall to have the right proportions and size. My paintings are very descriptive and I would not like structural elements, such as pipes or windows to prevent me from adding fine details. The organization of the location is very important and throughout the process, many situations arise and generally the atmosphere is charged since we are chasing deadlines. Because of this, I prefer small festivals where there are no more than 5 artists.
Certain of your pieces enter in a dialogue with their immediate surroundings, as in the case of “Legend of Giants”. How important is this interplay in your art and do you plan it ahead or does it happen spontaneously?
In these situation the interactions is rather spontaneous, it is only a matter of moment. Most important is to be on the spot and see the wall. Unfortunately even if you often have an idea for a wall, you often do not have the license (for painting). Or the ones that you are allowed to paint upon are totally boring and there is no incentive to relate to. Street art is often very demanding, you do not only have to demonstrate your technical skill and work diligence, but also surprising and fresh ideas. I focus on this, to give to each place a unique original large format painting.
You have also created a very impressive pop-up book for your thesis, would you like to share your feelings about it and the procedure? Would you like to work more in this field?)
As a child I had owned pop-up books in a very simple form and I remember the cribs with Jesus in this kind of style too. The school where I did my diploma was very open to new things, and I could not afford anything other than product packaging. In the same year I have made the cover for a trilogy of Tim Burton’s movies (Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and there I used simple pop-up tricks.
I did not manage to find a guide for pop-up books in the polish language, so all the instructions I could find were from the Internet. To a large extent, I have followed my intuition. From childhood, I have loved the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and therefore he was my choice. Following the example of DC Super Heroes pop-up book, I wanted to reproduce a few techniques in the creation of my pop-up book.
Unfortunately technical issues, the endurance of paper and the elasticity of the glue have subdued me. I chose the simplest solutions, designing only two items. Illustrating, colouring, printing cutting and glueing have been done by myself, this is why I made only two copies of the book. It has been a very labour intensive adventure, who has pushed my imagination and demanded the understanding of spatial logic.
Probably it would have been much easier for me if I had any instruction. Unfortunately, I could not find any publishers to continue and finish the entire book, perhaps this is why my pop-up adventure is done for now.
Your art has brought you to a number of countries and has been exhibited in various events.How does these travel shape you and your style?
I have always been an open person and enjoyed contact with another one. Thanks to all the travels, I have become more tolerant and had the change to practice my english more, and the travels have reinforced my self-confidence. Positive comments, thumbs up and applause while working on the walls gives me lots of energy. It is nice to to think that I am the first Polish creating a mural in this place or even country.
During my stays in other countries, I often observe how, after all, we are the same. We all have the same problems and hopes. I may not be patriotic and I could live anywhere, but after these many journeys, I came to appreciate my home country more. Even with all the abundant wonderful memories which I try to remember as long as possible, I sleep the best in my own bed.
Is there a specific building/city you would like to have your art featured?)
I would like to create in new places and new continents. To visit Asia and both Americas, I love the weather on the islands. I have been in the Azores and Hawaii. The size of buildings does not matter to me, but the realization of my own ideas to 100%.
How much time can a piece take, from drafts etc to the actual painting? What is the largest painting you have made?)
With murals it can be all different. Usually I can manage to complete a mural within a week, working every day from 8am to 8 pm. Of course, there have been murals where I have worked for 3 days and some where I worked for 10 days. Everything depends on the weather, the oraganisation, the intricacy of the design, the quality of the paints and the substrates, if there will be an overhead projectior or I will have to sketch on my own.
The painting is in my head the moment I see the proportions of the wall. Then, I create a photomontage in Photoshop, where I decide on colors. The biggest mural I have created up till now is “Ophelia” and is has been made at No Limit festival in Borås [ed. south Sweden], taking up to 7 levels of a building.
Do you like collaborating with other artists or do you believe your images lose character because of compromising your own vision?
Unfortunately, I do not have a lot of experience when it comes to collaborations. I have painted three canvases with Mateusz Gapskim , who is also my life partner. We did fight a lot, but that has been an interesting experience for the time being. The only common wall has been done in New York city, within the framework of the ArtBattles festival. I has been my first and until now, sadly last time in that wonderful place. There, I met three artists with whom I have worked together; Don Rimix, Max 220 Mega, Chor Boogie. It is hard to measure such collaborations, I rather perceive it as fun.
It terms of art I believe it is difficult to collaborate with me, my colors are aggressive and not everybody fits, and above all, I have my vision.
You can still convince me, if you have enough good arguments, because I primarily care for consistency and I think collaborations can be likened to a relationship. It is the best when people know each other well, have worked already together and if they are heading for the same direction. As a result, it is sometimes good to swallow your pride and reach a compromise. However, I personally prefer and value individuality in its pure form.
The presence of Nature permeates your work, with both flora and fauna becoming integral parts of your paintings. Do you use them as symbols or are they chosen due to their aesthetic and visual value?
The elements of Nature have always had a deeper meaning for me. I seek inspiration in mythology, religious symbols and dictionary of allegory. Not everyone is interested in such details, but I have always been intrigued by such. This is why the species of plants and animals are never a random choice like the “Romeo and Julia” mural, created in Caserta [ed. near Naples, Italy] . Romeo is holding a blooming branch of oleander in his hand, a plant which has been used in the past to extract poison. Of course, I do not know which kind of poison Romeo used to end his life; it was rather my own invention.
Which you moment so far would you consider to be the most memorable in your career?
Everything started with an invitation from Seth for the festival of Flery-Les-Aubrais, near Orleans in France. Though I had only one, not that large, mural on my blog, he believed and had trust in me. Due to this trip, I stopped working as a graphic designer and begun painting murals and paintings.
The next breaking point was my work done for the Folk on the Street festival in Bialystok. The “Legend of Giants”(what most know as“Girl with the Watering Can”) has become my dearest, and at the same time, most cursed work. I had not imagined that it would spark such an interest. It was awarded with second place, right after Banksy.
This mural has somehow confined me in specific areas, which I can not free myself from. Everyone would like to have a little girl on the wall, but I do not want to paint cute little children for the rest of my life.