DOZEN for 11/01/2010
On the Enchantment of Secrets, the Power of Folktales, and
Legend of Steel Bashaw
Meseldžija on The
Legend of Steel Bashaw
Let’s get the messy stuff outta the way right now.
Yes, I wrote the catalogue copy, and by extension even a
bit of back cover copy, for this book.
But the truth of the matter is that I would be doing this
interview, and raving about the Legend of Steel
Bashaw to all and sundry, whether I’d done
that bit of work for the good folks at Flesk Publications
or no. Quite simply, Steel Bashaw represents
not just a breathtakingly beautiful debut from a storyteller
and painter of immense talent; it’s also the single best
Foreign Language Original Graphic Novel [or illustrated
story] I’ve read all year. And this has been a year filled
with mightily impressive translated OGNs.
The Legend of Steel Bashaw is
a tale filled with princes and princes, beasts and monsters,
real and otherwise. It’s built from the same strong, lasting
stuff as all of the other Great Tales. And Petar tells it
with such passion, purity of vision and exemplary execution
that it seems to flow effortless from the page to inhabit
your heart, mind and deeper, more profound regions, too.
From the book’s history-haunted introduction to the last
page of the tale, and even beyond that into the “making
of” section which follows the main feature, it is a triumphal
performance from start to finish, one that announces the
arrival of a truly noteworthy new artist to the American
Ladies and gents, it’s my pleasure to introduce you all
to Petar Meseldžija. He’s one hell of an artist and storyteller,
and as you’re about to discover, even via email his wit
is a deadly as his brushwork and narrative instincts are
steady and true.
Baker: How would you describe Steel
Petar Meseldžija: The Legend
of Steel Bashaw is a tale about the wonders
of life and the joys and pains of living. It talks about
love, responsibility, dedication and compassion. It is a
story which does not promote the sharp division line between
good and bad, but rather sees these opposites as the indissoluble
parts of the whole.
It’s also based upon a tale that is a particular
favorite of storytellers in your homeland. What lead to
your decision to adapt that particular yarn out of all the
folk tales you heard as a child?
PM: The folk tale, “Baš Čelik,” which served
as the springboard for the creation of The Legend
of Steel Bashaw, is simply the most interesting,
exciting and one of the most picturesque of tales to choose
from the Serbian folklore library. It is not without a reason
that it became the most popular Serbian fairytale. A curious
thing is that this folk tale appeared in 1916 within the
collection of fairytales from the Allied Nations, as a representative
of the Serbian folklore. The book was illustrated by the
legendary French/English illustrator Edmund Dulac and was
published in Great Britain during the First World War.
BB: Ah, another volume to add to my list
of books I need to add to my library.
Well, how closely did you follow the basic outline of Bas
Čelik while creating Bashaw…
and if you did make changes, what might those be, and what
lead to those alterations?
I used the basic outline of the original tale only as a
guideline, or as a kind of spine whose function was to inspire
and hold the “muscles” of my story together. To be honest,
though quite exciting, the original tale appeared to me
too old-fashioned, not exactly ‘up to date’ and belonging
to the mind frame of the past times. So, I thought it was
time to redesign and refresh it, without spoiling the beauty
of the ancient folk wisdom and the mythological truth embedded
in it. I also reduced the level of violence and took the
opportunity of infusing the story with some spiritual symbolism.
I tried to make the story more appealing to the contemporary
reader, and by doing so, to give him chance to identify
with the characters and situations.
BB: Now, I understand that it took you
15 years to finish Bashaw. So, cutting right to the chase,
what took so long? Not that the results aren’t spectacular—they
are—but I was curious what particular challenges, artist,
narrative and even spiritual, this project posed that required
that long of a process?
PM: Well, one proverb says: “There is no
shortcut to the place that is truly worthwhile of being
at.” I obviously did not take a shortcut in creating Steel
Bashaw. It is true that it took me 15 years
to complete it, but it does not mean that I worked on the
project constantly for 15 years. On the contrary; there
were many breaks, of which the longest one lasted for 7
years. I think, all in all, I effectively worked on the
paintings two (2) to three (3) years. It is not possible
to count the time I spent on thinking, traveling, collecting
reference, reading, photo shooting, doing all sorts of research,
sketching and making preliminary drawings.
Besides, as you might have noticed, my approach to illustration
is greatly influenced by the XIX (19th) century art, especially
the last few decades, as well as by the art of the American
illustrators from the golden age. Therefore my approach
to illustration is painterly. I often think of myself as
being a mind of an illustrator trapped in the painter´s
body. The pictorial quality of my illustrations is very
important aspect of my approach. I often spend days on solving
a certain pictorial problems although I know it will not
be possible to properly see and enjoy the results when the
painting is published. It is just that the physical appearance
of my originals are so important to me—more important than
how a particular painting will turn out when reproduced
in a book, on the cover, as a poster or in the magazines.
Therefore I am often disappointed when I see my paintings
in more recent years I’ve applied more and more so-called
alla-prima technique in my working process, which means
that almost every brushstroke counts and therefore must
be executed with outermost concentration. This is a working
method that is quite exhausting, mentally as well as physically.
All that contributed to the long genesis of Steel
After all, now that the book is finished and published in
Serbia (2008) and in the US (2010), I could say I was fortunate
enough not to finish the book earlier. As I grew in age,
developed myself and my artistic skills and gained life
experience, so, too, did the book grow in its complexity,
depth and quality.
BB: What kept you committed to finishing
this project over such an extended period? Did you ever
have any doubts you’d see it done, much less in print?
I do remember I had some doubts back in the nineties. In
fact, at that time I was deeply involved with a different
kind of painting, which made me believe, fortunately only
for a brief period of time that I’d lost my interest in
the project. I suppose that working on Steel
Bashaw was a kind of compensation for the
things I lost and was missing in my new surroundings in
the Netherlands. It also had to do with reflection on my
own identity, for I must remind you, in 1991 I left my native
country because of the civil war and therefore lost connection
with all the things which made up the first 26 years of
my life. How does one deal with such a huge life change
and the shock which goes with it? I did it through the creation
of Steel Bashaw.
BB: Did the basic format of the book go
through any major changes between your initial moment of
inspiration and the final published version? In other words,
did you originally conceive of it as a comic, but it later
became an illustrated prose tale as your artistic vision
developed and shifted from comics to illustration and painting
over the years?
PM: From the very beginning it was meant
to be an illustrated book. I definitely stopped drawing
comics a year before I started to work on Steel
Bashaw. Back in 1993 I only knew that I had
a strong urge to illustrate the original folk tale. As the
project slowly developed, the idea of changing the initial
tale grew stronger. My tale was conceived gradually and
during many years. The new tale initiated the creation of
new illustrations—the illustrations, in their turn, influenced
the development of the story, forcing it to take unexpected
twists and turns. So the story, the illustrations and myself,
we all grew together simultaneously, interacting with each
When did you first become interested in art, and creating
your own? Is it something that you’ve always done, or was
there a particular point where you discovered your gift?
PM: As with many other children, I often
spent time drawing all sorts of things; but, when I was
about 12 years old, I started to draw comics. It was love
at first sight. Though I am no longer “married” to that
first love of mine, drawing comics was one of the things
that gave me a sense of tremendous joy and elation. It was
one of the most important “addictions” of my life. It definitely
defined my future career and therefore my whole life up
to now. That is how I enrolled in the world of art.
As for my gift; it was during the studies at the art academy
when, one day, my dog started to bark at one of my life-size
drawings of a model, that I became definitely sure of my
BB: What kind of formal training did you
have early on? And are there any tips or special techniques
you learned during that period which have proven themselves
helpful through the years?
PM: I studied painting at the art academy
in my hometown. I spent four (4) years learning drawing,
painting, sculpturing, handling various graphic techniques,
and studied anatomy, architecture, and many other useful
things—all of which contributed to the development and deepening
of my artistic insight, knowledge and skills. Just being
at the academy every day, absorbing the inspiring atmosphere,
was very important for my development, although I have to
say that in fact nobody at the academy taught me to paint
in the classic way, for the prevailing view on art was favoring
the modernistic dogma. I learned to paint in the classic
way on my own, through looking at and analyzing the paintings
of the artists I adored at that time…and, let’s not to forget,
through hard work, persistence and practice.
When did you first break into comics?
PM: I published my first comic series,
named Krampi, in 1981. That is how my comic career started.
I drew comics with love and passion for the next 11 – 12
years. It was one of the most important aspects of my life.
During that time I created about 300 comic pages. Nevertheless,
in 1992, at that time I drew my last comic page. I already
felt that my urge to keep on doing comics had almost entirely
disappeared. The flame was out. Other things attracted my
attention, like painting and illustration.
BB: Well, how difficult was it to abandon
PM: As I have just said, my desire for
doing comics weakened so badly that I stopped doing it without
any problems. As an artist, I wanted to go further and to
try my hand at different things. Other kinds of frontiers
were calling me.
BB: You also graduated from the Academy
of Arts in Novi Sad (Serbia). What lead you to enroll there?
And are there any important lessons they might have instilled
in you that you’d like to share with any aspiring artists
PM: By the time I decided to enter the
Art Academy I drew comics for about 6 years. Some of my
fellow comic artists told me that there is nothing a comic
artist can learn at the Novi Sad Art Academy and that there
is even a chance that I would lose the touch of a true comic
draughtsman. In spite of their concerns, I felt that I needed
and wanted to study art in order to fully awaken and develop
the artist within me.
There is one particular thing I would tell, when asked,
to any aspiring artist; if you really want to make something
of your life by being an artist, make sure you love creating
art to the bone!
The life of a true artist is hard and difficult. Most of
your precious life, you will have to spend in loneliness,
wrestling with your paintings, comics, sculptures, designs
or whatever your true artistic vocation is or will be. Add
to it the money issue and the long, painful and uncertain
path towards recognition. Only through sincere love for
the creative process and unreserved commitment will you
be able to withstand all the troubles which will patiently
wait for you to come along.
(One thing I like about myself is my "optimism”…)
What aspects of illustration and painting first
caught, and have held your interest, these past few years?
PM: Classic XIX (19th) Century (second
half) painting enriched by some aspect of XX (20th) Century
art was and still is my cup of tea. That is the reason I
love so much of the American illustrators from the Golden
Age. All of them were great classic painters and they carried
that glorious tradition, so wonderfully represented by Sargent,
Sorolla and Zorn, into the XX century. Let me be clear,
I admire all sorts of good art, from the objects of primitive
artistic expression to the contemporary forms of art. But,
a fat oil paint and a proper brush are still my dearest
BB: What do you hope your readers get from
your work in general, and from Bashaw, in particular?
PM: Talking of Steel Bashaw, I
can say that I hope people will be delighted and inspired
by the sincere and multileveled approached to the art of
illustration, which I tried to introduce in my book, and
which is based upon all that I’ve experienced, the total
sum of my knowledge and skill collected along the way until
I also hope they will realize that suggestiveness in art
(as well as in Life) reaches deeper than descriptiveness.
No one can look through my eyes, but one can learn to look
through his own eyes.
What do you get from creating art, in general,
and what has Steel Bashaw given
PM: What do I get from creating art? Myself! Only through
the process of creation, which in its purest meaning means—to
make something from “nothing” (from a white canvas to the
painted two-dimensional world)—am I able to be closest to
my true being. I am not saying that I get to know myself
completely through creating art, but I certainly experience
the feeling of “coming home.”
Until now, Steel Bashaw has enriched
my life on many different levels. On one hand, it brought
me back to my national and spiritual roots; on the other,
it propelled me into the wide world and reconnected me with
BB: I have to play the Devil’s Advocate here and ask if
you’ve ever had serious thoughts about sharing the location
of the ruins you so eloquently describe in your introduction
to Steel Bashaw. After all, isn’t
it a potentially historic find of real importance?
PM: Well Bill, I am afraid I can´t answer
this question to your satisfaction. It is a secret and it
will stay a secret, for as we all know, secrets tend to
lose their enchanting power after they have been revealed.
And enchantment is one of the keywords of Steel
BB: Well, given that state of affairs on
that front, what’s next for you, Petar? Will we be seeing
more folk lore adaptations from you in the future, or are
you moving in a completely different direction these days?
I just finished the work on a new book which deals with
the creatures from Serbian mythology. I collaborated with
four very talented Serbian illustrators. I was responsible
for envisioning the giants and dwarfs. I still have not
see the printed book, but I have seen the PDF files and
I must say that it looks fantastic! The book is printed
in Serbian language, but the publisher, www.orfelin.info,
will certainly try to find a foreign publisher in order
to publish the book in English as well.
that, I am working on my new book projects (there are two
of them at the moment). Further, I am painting book covers
for Scholastic, Inc., doing personal commissions and many
Anything else you’d like to add before I let you get back
Dear reader, go to www.fleskpublications.com.
Do yourself a favor and buy the book, The Legend
of Steel Bashaw. Your children and even your
grandchildren will be grateful to you, because they will
cherish this book long after we have left this place. When
you have read the entire book and have spent some time absorbing
the pictures, you will understand why!
(Some people told me that one is his own best promoter,
so I thought I’ll give it a try!)
And he does an admirable job
of it, doesn’t he folks?
But in all seriousness, if you’ve not checked out Petar’s
The Legend of Steel Bashaw yet, deprive yourself of
that pleasure no longer. Once again, yeah, I wrote the catalogue
and some back cover copy for the book. But I’d be raving
about this masterwork regardless. It is, in my opinion,
the single best translated OGN published so far this year.
You heard it here first, folks…