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When she got the bad newsthe news that would change her lifesculptor Edina Seleskovic thought she would soon be back in Yugoslavia. Her bags had been packed for days. America hadn’t really worked out. It was time to head home to Tuzla.
It was 1991, and the precocious 17-year-old had completed a high school exchange program in Aston, Pa., one that she had begun with grand preconceptions. America meant “the best and the biggest,” she believed. “My attitude was, Either I get to go, or I’m going to jump off a bridge.”
But life in little Astona town dominated by a BP oil refinerywasn’t quite what Seleskovic had imagined. All the houses looked the same: “It took me forever to figure out where I lived.” School underwhelmed her, too: In Tito’s proud Yugoslavia, she had started studying physics in fifth grade. Before she was a high school senior, she’d plowed her way through much of Dostoevski. But at Aston High School, she learned about Cliffs Notes. In her history class, “My neighbor would poke me and ask stuff like, ‘So what is it with this Pearl Harbor Day, anyway?’”
In a country where she’d imagined “you could do anything you dreamed,” this self-described “little alternative kid with long hair and Chuck Taylor sneakers” was sorely disappointed to find that a big Saturday night was spent cruising the parking lot at the Kmart. “I just couldn’t find myself there,” she says ruefully.
So when the date on her plane ticket rolled aroundJune 30, 1992she was ready to head for the airport.
That’s when her parents called. Even before she’d left the previous fall, Croatia had seceded from Yugoslavia and been attacked by the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav army. But the war had not yet widenedcertainly not as far as Tuzla, in Bosnia. At least that’s what her family had been telling her.
But as it became obvious that things were getting worse, not better, they had to tell her the truth. Serbs from largely Muslim Tuzla had been joining the Serb forces, which now ringed the city. She learned that her old high school physics teacher, a mentor, “had ended up on a hillside shooting at his own town.” Her family was Muslim; two of her aunts from suburban Tuzla had been “ethnically cleansed”driven from their homes at gunpoint, forced to flee with only the clothes on their backs. Along the road from the airport, burning houses lit the night sky.
Stunned by the news, a frantic Seleskovic asked her parents, “What am I supposed to do?”
Their answer: “Stay.”
A couple of weeks ago, Seleskovic, a strikingly tall woman with a big, brassy voice, was in her studio at the Corcoran School of Art, preparing for a show of sculpture she’s opening at the Embassy of Bosnia this week. She’s been exhibiting her work at commercial galleries for some time now; her show last fall at the 505 Gallery largely sold out.
Around the Corcoran, they call her the Plaster Lady, probably because her arms, jeans, and beat-up clogs are spattered and dusted with the stuff, as is almost every surface in her studio. Fragments of white forms lie drying on the floor: She works in a busy white blizzard. “She’s certainly more focused than the average artist heading out into the world,” remarks Annie L. Adjchavanich, who taught Seleskovic at the Corcoran. “She’s more focused than anybody else [in the class].”
Plaster, Seleskovic says, represents the dilemmas of her life and art. “Plaster is Bosnian,” she says, by which she means that it represents her Bosnian side. “Bosnia gave me this great soul, to feel thingsto take to heart what happens to me,” she says. Groping the air, she adds: “Plaster has this rough energy.” But the material has its faults, too: “If you drop it, it shatters into a million pieces,” she says. “It’s unreliable.”
Unreliable, like so much else in her life. Even her identity. When she first arrived in the U.S., she had to figure out why everybody else went to church on Sunday, but she didn’t. Then Yugoslavia, the country to which she referred back for her sense of self, disintegrated. “I felt like my past was lostwas fake, almost,” she says.
Her family was living in a city under siege, 4,000 miles away. Soon, the phone lines in Tuzla would go downand stay down for two years. She could talk to her parentsand know for sure that they were still aliveonly two or three times a year, by ham radio. She had nightmares every night. During the days, she cried.
Two things saved her: One was that her host family’s daughter insisted that she come to live indefinitely with her, her husband, and their two young boys in Herndon. The other was art.
Seleskovic had drawn since she was a child. But her parents are professionalsher mother a doctor, her father the manager of a transport companyso she had put aside her dreams of art school to prepare for a professional career. But here, to keep her sanity, she says, the drawings poured forth again. Toxic echoes of her nightmares. Dreadful scenes from Bosnia on the evening news. “I would draw ghosts and flames,” she says. “Cities on fire. Or I’d cut up photographs and make these great chaotic collages.” The war, she was sure, couldn’t last more than a few months. She was wrong.
Her artwork has changed materiallyshe still draws, but most of her recent work is sculptural. Spiritually, it has grown, maintaining constant themes: the loneliness of exile, deep alienation from the self.
“When Ifirst got to know Edina,” recalls Kendall Buster, her adviser at the Corcoran, “I would visit her studio, and she would have all her photos spread outall of these places in Bosnia that she knew, but which were no longer as she remembered them, because of the destruction. She had a deep will to go on.”
Her newest work, propped against the studio wall, jumps out from the surrounding whiteness. The sculpture shows the same expressive human fragments that lie on the floor, but they’ve been painted a fiery, passionate red, the color of maraschino cherries. And onto each undulating bodily form, as though it were a canvas, Seleskovic has painted the same figure: a gray woman in a long black dress. Sometimes the woman’s arms hang limply at her sides; sometimes they gesture imploringly. But always, her head hangs down or turns away from the viewer.
Her painted image superimposed on the deep, irregular folds of the red plasteras Seleskovic puts it, “the 2-D/3-D thing”is like a movie being dimly projected onto the shifting folds of a body, or a landscape. That’s the point. The new pieces, she says, “are about trying to get things to go together that don’t really go together.”
At a certain point, of course, she recognized that she wouldn’t be going home anytime soon. She took some community college classeshalf in the sciences, half in artand also began volunteering with a D.C.-based nonprofit outfit that brought Bosnians wounded in the war to the United States for medical treatment. Before long, she dropped her classes, moved into Washington, and began working full-time for the relief group. Improbably, she began running the placea 20-year-old Bosnian woman, with only a high school diploma and no previous work experience, arranging for both pro bono medical care and new homes for scores of Bosnians at hospitals across the country.
Sometimes she raged at the U.S.she blamed this country and the United Nations for letting the war go on. Still, at other times her work gave her reason to feel deeply grateful: “It was amazing that some American family in Columbus, Ohio, would take in an injured Bosnian they’d never seen before.”
But when the program lost its funding, she decided to take a new leap: She applied to the Corcoran. “The math, the science, they’d just become unimportant,” she says. She got in, took 18 credits a semester, worked 45 hours a week as a waitress, and slept little. (She’s still known to occasionally bed down on a chair in her studio.)
Finally, after the peace accords were signed in 1995, she was able to return to Croatia (though not to Bosnia), where she was reunited with her parents for the first time in almost five years. And last year, she went back to Tuzlafor an exhibit of her work. It was a very different place: With the fragile peace, Serbs who had left the city during the war were returning, and an atmosphere of wariness hung over the city. “You didn’t know what people had done during the war,” she says. “And you didn’t want to ask.”
All of her immediate family had made it through the siege. “‘Don’t ask me what we ate,’” she quotes her father as saying. But there were other losses. Her best friend, who was like a sister to her, is a Serban insignificant fact before the war. But now, her friend has moved to a Serbian enclave outside of Tuzla. “We won’t see each other again,” Seleskovic says.
Her greatest fear was how Tuzlans who’d lived through the siege would judge her workthe products of a Bosnian who’d spent the war abroad. But many Tuzlans found that her art resonated strongly with them. “One man stopped me in the street to tell me that the work really caught what he himself had felt during the long siegethe loneliness, the alienation from the outside.”
And though her work’s forms”the whole 2-D/3-D thing”puzzled some Bosnians, others found a source of hope in its fragmentation. “For them, that my work is not a literal representation of the war meant that it rose above the war,” Seleskovic says. “There was a glimpse of hope in the fact that the work was instead dealing with the emotions aroused by the warmoving ahead, moving beyond it.”
Her reunion with her parents, she says, was emotionally difficult. They’d like her to return home. “They had sort of come to idolize the picture of me when I leftthe skinny kid with long legs,” she says. “But for me, in a way, I had had to separate myself from them to survive. So I had to become tougher and colder in a way.”
Seleskovic is now, she says, as much American as Bosnian: “The United States wasn’t for me like a vacation anymore; it was the place where I came to adulthood. I had 17 years in Bosnia and seven years here, and I think they’re very equal to me in a lot of ways,” she says.
The past eight years have left her with the assumption that life is, above all, transient. “People can leave your life and disappear at any moment and you’ll never see them again. I can be betrayed at any timeby anybody.” Her art, she says, is the only real anchor she has. “Now it’s a way of life,” she says. “It’s challengingit doesn’t have the right answers.” But as much as her artwork reflects a life of disjuncture, art itself, she remarks, allows her to put everything in one place.CP