Maya Kulenovic spent most of her adult life in Canada, her adopted homeland. She was born in the city of Sarajevo, in the part of former Yugoslavia which is today Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her family was primarily involved with science and literature most of her relatives from her parents’ and grandparents’ generation were and are university professors in the fields of mathematics, physics, medicine etc. Some were quite famous writers. Although she is not aware of any professional visual artists in her family, she does remember that visual art as well as music have always been given an important place, and artistic ability was respected and admired highly. She started painting at the age of two, and was immediately interested in the ‘realism’ of what she was trying to draw. Right away she knew that she wanted to be an artist, and she never questioned this intent. Her parents have always been supportive and she is eternally grateful to them for that, although at the same time they wanted her to have a complete classical education. So besides art, she focused on sciences (mathematics, physics, chemistry) through school, as well as classical music (piano). This is also apparent in her early drawings and paintings, which clearly show her attempt to reflect mathematical principles in proportion and composition.
She started her formal art education in Istanbul, Turkey, where her parents taught at an American university as visiting professors for a few years. This was a transition time for her, just after having escaped the war in Sarajevo, and before immigrating into Canada. Whilst much from that period of her life is a blur, she has memories of it as a hectic and hard time, and also the time in which she discovered Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, and Goya’s etchings. After their move to Canada, Maya transferred to Ontario College of Art and Design, and graduated with honors two years later. Shortly thereafter she obtained her Master's degree in London, England, at Chelsea College of Art and Design. Her first acquaintance with London at the age of eleven had instilled a special love for that city, so studying there had been a dream ever since. The greatest impact of her studies was that they reconnected her with European architecture, as she had almost forgotten about the sense of grandeur and the weight of history in European cities, which is lacking from North American cities. Although she had some very good teachers, especially at Ontario College, for her the greatest benefit of an art education was that she was given a space to work in, a model to work from if she wanted one, and a nicely equipped library. The measure of guidance she received from teachers was helpful, but her personal research and practice were much more important.
In her recollection, it was definitely Rembrandt who first moved her, especially his landscapes. She could look at them for hours, even as a little child; she was amazed by the sense of light, and the way he painted her favorite kind of weather. Then came Dürer, Leonardo, Goya and Vermeer. The most powerful memories and places of her childhood are the dark hesitant skies and infinite water of the Adriatic Sea in early fall, the sound of Bach and Chopin, and the works by these masters. In her mind, they seem to blend into one. It would seem that as a child before the war, she lived more in books than in reality, which may explain why she considers the history of the world to be her true heritage.
Maya has never consciously made any choices in her selection of themes or subjects. She paints things that move her, which to her are important reflections of what human beings on this earth experience. Themes emerge of their own. Choice does come into play in her simplification of images, where every color or detail that does not serve to express what she wants is left out, without any decoration or excess of any kind.
Artists often reflect reality through the prism of their own experience and interests; some of them create utopias, some dystopias, while others combine the two. Kulenovic's work ranges her in the second category. Her paintings are representations of a psychological heaven and hell at the same time. Even though some of the themes are uncomfortable, there is a hope and beauty in them that is liberating. Her paintings are not desperate at all. Admittedly, there is a sense of mortality in them, as well as fear, but these two are not the conclusion, but a beginning of something unknown. They are questions rather than answers but questions which are imposing themselves on the observer, and not giving him the option of ignoring them. Like staring into a dark abyss, without knowing what is beyond the shadow.
There is suffering expressed in many of her portraits, but that suffering -usually some kind of injury represented by blood- is a sign of transformation. Although no answers are provided to the question what this transformation may be, the suffering does not necessarily signify demise. This particular imagery may have something to do not only with the war, but with her having been brought up on a diet of classical paintings, which were often of a religious and mythological character, and stories whose predominant themes were those of suffering and transformation.
While human subjects simultaneously cause change and suffer its consequences, the effects of change on buildings are a part of their character and their history the more pronounced the change, the more individual and unique they are. Through the state of the buildings, one can envision the possible histories and destinies of their makers. The buildings are undergoing a similar process as the portraits; they are either dormant, or affected by weather and water. In the buildings, however, the transformation signifies their return from a human function to a natural form stone.
The landscapes constitute the most ethereal theme. Landscapes change without memory. They exist in the moment. They truly do not care for anything human they just are. Even when affected by human actions, they are still more resilient and unwelcoming. While the theme of architecture can probably be related to her European history and 'Old World' upbringing, the landscapes of the vast, primordial Canadian territories represent a sort of liberation; a still, deep breath after a storm.
The relationship between these subjects may be expressed as follows: although the same elements exist in all three groups, the focus in the portraits is primarily on conflicting emotional existence; in the buildings it is on histories, and in the landscapes, the focus is on being. In a way, then, they complement each other. If one had to characterize her work in a phrase, one might say that the common element in her paintings is one of contemplative realism.
Kulenovic's realism may appear shocking to its beholder. Indeed, if Kulenovic is shocked by certain things, the route she follows to express them artistically will sometimes take her to the more extreme range of her experiences and emotions. Her range may be a bit wider than that of some people. Although she was not hurt personally during the war, the intensity of fear and aggression she felt in and around her caused a certain change in her thinking and perception. For years after the war she researched instances of human aggression and destructiveness, and their consequences in various current and historical events. It stands to reason that this has had an impact on her thought process.
The way she works is quite spontaneous. Most of her images start as an idea, usually about the predominant element in the painting, which will later carry its main psychological effect. Then the search for reference materials is conducted, which usually includes dozens of photographs, photos she has found and her own ones. In addition, she often uses documentary films and photographs, as well as books on architecture, and early photography. At this stage the image becomes more apparent. During the process of sketching, and then painting, the original reference images change many times. At no point in the process does she paint from photographs; rather, she paints from her imagination with the aid of photography.
Discipline may be the wrong word for her arduous activity, in which she engages during long working days in her studio. As a child, Maya used to be extremely disciplined, to the point of not really feeling and enjoying her life. Today she does exactly what she feels like doing, enjoying this to the full. It does not require any discipline or effort. She benefits from two to three breaks from work to go for a run, or to train in martial arts: karate and Okinawan kobudo, which involves weapons. (She has black belts in both.) Running helps her creative process, when the mind is free and open to all kinds of ideas. Martial arts offer a different kind of contemplation: a complete emptying of the mind. Practicing with the sword and other weapons, for example, helps in painting as it can re-set her eye as well as her hand: whenever a problem crops up on the canvas, she leaves it, practices weapons for a while, and when she comes back, she sees the problem and can fix it in a few brushstrokes. She often practices martial arts before starting a painting. It helps her attain decisive simplification in her sketching. So if discipline does come into her work at all, she may be said to be a committed disciple of her own method, which enables her to focus mind and body so as to attain the optimum expression of her creativity.