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Art Review: Art from Bulgaria brings a blessing

Religious icon sends a healing message to artist's aunt in Clairton

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Zornitza Kozarova is a young artist from Bulgaria, but her biggest fan lives in Clairton:

Artist Zornitza Kozarova, originally from Sofia, Bulgaria, shows her icon painting of Jesus Christ that will be part of an exhibit at the Bulgaria Macedonian Center in West Homestead. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

If you go...


    Saturday: 1 to 4 p.m.
    Sunday: 4 to 6 p.m.
    Nov. 29: 6 to 8 p.m.
    Nov. 30 and Dec. 14: 9 a.m. to noon.
    Dec. 1: 2 to 4 p.m.

Where: The Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center, 449-451 W. Eighth Ave. in West Homestead.

Admission: Free. (Most of the work is for sale.)

Information: 412-461-6188.

Her "aunt," Irene Jacob.

The two women's Macedonian roots connect through Jacob's mother, a sister to Kozarova's grandfather. Jacob followed her own sisters and immigrated to Pittsburgh in 1957.

From her home in Sofia, Kozarova tracked down her American relatives about three years ago, and they got to know each other via the Internet. When the e-mails suddenly stopped, Kozarova wondered why and learned that Jacob was fighting colon cancer.

Kozarova turned to what you could call her healing art.

"I made a beautiful icon for her so she could be calm and pass through this difficult time in her life," recounts the now 28-year-old artist. Her paintings will be part of an exhibit of Bulgarian art opening Friday at the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center in West Homestead.

Her specialty is ceramics, but after art school, she began painting icons, religious images rendered in painstaking detail and brilliant colors on small panels of wood. For many Christians, especially in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, these paintings are much more than art. They are objects of devotion.

Jacob, a very spiritual woman, was moved by the icon Kozarova mailed her depicting Mary holding Jesus in a classic pose called "Tenderness." She hung it on her bedroom wall. She prayed to it.

She told Kozarova that Mary's eyes seemed to follow her. As she put it, "She's with me all the time."

That's what Kozarova intended.

Even better, her aunt got well.

Even when telling the story, Kozarova says, "It is unbelievable."

Though not so much, when you know how strongly her aunt believes. Jacob knows she was helped by her medical care, including the surgery she had just before the icon arrived. But that "precious" icon helped her focus her faith -- and continues to help her still.

"That's my blessing," says Jacob, who's health is so good that she's back to work part time at a mall department store.

Jacob says Kozarova is her blessing, too. She came to stay with the Jacobs nearly eight months ago and will be here for at least four months more. A family friend told her about the Bulgarian center, where for years, president Pat "Penka" French had been wanting to do an exhibition of Bulgarian art.

This first show consists mostly of works from the personal collection of former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, H. Kenneth Hill, and his wife, Yvonne, now living in Gettysburg. French also received pieces from a Connecticut man who represents Bulgarian artists, and other pieces were mailed directly from Bulgaria.

"My name is on every damn john wall in that country," French said, joking about all the connections she's made over the years.

"I'm doing [this exhibit] because I think Bulgarian artists are very good, and they're hardly ever shown." She's starting it this weekend because members of the Bulgarian Studies Association are in Pittsburgh for a convention. She'll host a private wine-and-cheese reception for them Saturday night.

"Memories From a Fairy Tale," an acrylic painting by Bulgarian artist Margarita Voinova, will be on display from Saturday until Dec. 1 at the Bulgarian Macedonian Center.

The art, mounted in the entrance and lobby and all around the center's dance floor, ranges widely, from a painted wooden sculpture to several types of paintings and lithographs, plus photographs by two other Bulgarians living in Pittsburgh: Garbis Tchakarian and Smilen A. Savov.

Kozarova plans to be present when the exhibit opens to help translate the work for visitors.

She's been painting during her Pittsburgh stay -- on a light-filled porch room at her aunt and uncle's. She'll have two portraits and three pastel landscapes in the show, scenes inspired by outings with her uncle, George Jacob, including one to Cucumber Falls near Ohiopyle.

But she's getting used to receiving the most positive reaction to her icons. The five in this show are two different depictions of Mary and Jesus, one of Jesus, one of St. John the Baptist and one of the Holy Trinity. They range in price from $100 to $400.

"When I do [an icon], I prefer to know who's going to have it," she says, explaining how that inspires her to work with positive thoughts and prayers.

She says the colors and the eyes are what make these Baroque-style Bulgarian icons so lively.

She paints them the traditional way, coating pieces of oak in many layers of primer before applying the tempera paint and the gold-tone leaf for the ornaments and halos. Then she coats the entire piece with shellac.

She also depicts the subjects in traditional poses and gestures, once useful for teaching the Bible to people who could not read or speak the priests' language. "Everything has some meaning."

The brushes she uses are so small -- made with just a few hairs -- and her strokes are so fine that, "They say you write an icon. It's like writing."

Only much more difficult to do.

"Desire is not enough," she says. "You need to have the patience and the hand and, really, God. You have to carry God in you."

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.

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