Internationally recognized New York-based artist Luba Lukova is regarded as one of the most distinctive image-makers working today. Her artwork uses metaphors, the juxtaposition of symbols, and bold, deceptively simple graphics to comment on many of today’s social and political issues.
Illustrator and Designer Michael Gibbs recently talked to her about her childhood, her art, and what inspires her work.
Michael Gibbs: Luba, you were born in Bulgaria, and came to the U.S. in the 1990’s, right? What brought you to America? And how did your life in Eastern Europe influence your artwork?
Luba Lukova: I was born and educated in Bulgaria and, of course, this has shaped me both as a person and an artist. I came to the U.S. by invitation of the International Poster Exhibition in Fort Collins, Colorado. They had seen my work at other international biennials and wanted me to be a part of their show. So I’ve lived in New York more than any other place in the world, and that has also had an intense effect on me and my work.
Michael Gibbs: I’ve long been a fan of Eastern European poster artists and printmakers, and have always been impressed by the strength of their images; at times, it can almost seem brutal by American standards.
Luba Lukova: I think we need to be specific when talking about art that comes form Eastern Europe. Eastern European countries are very different in terms of language, culture, and visual character.
To me the greatest examples of poster art came from Poland in the 70s. These posters spoke with distilled metaphorical images done by true masters who knew how to convey emotion. Bulgaria also had remarkable artists and some of them were my professors at the National Art Academy, from which I graduated.
The Bulgarian visual culture is much different than the Polish. In Bulgaria there are almost everywhere examples of ancient art from different civilizations and I think that added a special flair to the Bulgarian poster art and illustration that was done back in the 70s and 80s. I think it has put a mark on my own work, as well. Image has always been a leading element in European design.
I explain this in light of the fact that so many languages are spoken in Europe and the image is capable of transcending the language barrier. It is interesting you say that Eastern European posters seem almost brutal by American standards. From 1945 to 1990 Eastern Europe suffered the atrocities of the Communist regime. Well, when the reality is brutal, the art reflects that. But there is more to it, posters were considered back then a true form of art that digs deep into the human soul. It was not a slick commercial design as the ones we see now.
Michael Gibbs: Tell us more about how you became an artist. Did you study art? design? illustration? Did you draw a lot as a kid, or did you grow into it? And, has any one artist had a particular influence on you?
Luba Lukova: My grandmother was an artist and I grew up around her, so from a very early childhood I was determined to become an artist like her. I drew a lot as a kid, like almost every child does. I’ve attended many art classes and I graduated from the National Art Academy in Sofia.
This was a six-year program with a very vigorous training in drawing and painting. I graduated with a masters degree in poster and graphic design. But we were basically trained to do everything and that I think was a very good thing. I cannot say that there is a single influence in my career as an artist. I’m open to so many things. I’ve been definitely affected by artists like Picasso, Goya, Rembrandt, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Charlie Chaplin, and so many more.
Michael Gibbs: Your artwork, exemplified by the 12 pieces you did for your Social Justice series, addresses many of the social and political issues of the day. It seems almost as if every issue that matters has been addressed in your artwork over the years. How did you position yourself to get so involved in creating artwork for these issues?
Luba Lukova: I think art should reflect what is going on in the real world. I’ve never wanted to be a distant, elitist artist and I’ve always felt that drive to tackle controversial issues. Toward the end of my studies at the National Art Academy, I had this thought that if I’ve spent so many years learning how to speak with my art, I should use that skill to say something meaningful and truthful, no matter the consequences. I guess this is a simple idea but it is relevant to me to this day.
Michael Gibbs: Clay & Gold is the publishing company you started 2 years ago. Tell us more about that.
Luba Lukova: It is an extension of my artistic practice and it allows me to publish my work without any restrictions. The Social Justice series was our first publication. We are in the finishing stages of a new book called “Graphic Guts,” a comprehensive collection of my political posters.
The name Clay & Gold comes from an ancient Sanskrit text saying: “To the illumined mind, a clod of clay, a stone and gold are the same.” I thought this might be true for what I’d like to do with my publications. The beauty and meaning have nothing to do with the expense of the materials, it is the ideas and feelings that bring value. So that is why I called it “Clay & Gold.”
Michael Gibbs: Art can serve many purposes, one of them being a vehicle for advocating change and bringing awareness to issues. Do you think artwork can affect change or act as a catalyst for change?
Luba Lukova: I do believe so. It is easy to get discouraged about art’s ability to change the world when we see that abuse and injustice continue despite the creation of so much powerful art. It is impossible for art to fix a declining economy or stop all wars, but art changes the way people see and understand reality. And if we, as artists, often lose faith in the impact of our work, those in power are quite aware of it. If art were so innocent and benign, there wouldn’t be censorship in this world.
Michael Gibbs: On the surface, your images are graphically bold and deceptively simple. By contrast, the underlying issues are complex and your solutions are intricate and handled with great insight and passion. How do you work — with traditional media or digitally? And regarding concepts, I sense a great deal of empathy in your imagery; do your ideas come to you quickly and instinctively, or do you do a fair amount of research and try different approaches? (In general; as an artist, I know this can be a tough question.)
Luba Lukova: It is a tough question and there is no formula that we can easily follow in order to achieve a successful solution. Each project is a new challenge. Everything I do begins with drawing.
Sometimes I do many sketches, sometimes the process is very fast. I also paint with acrylic paint and occasionally will touch up finished images on the computer. But this is when I’m preparing files for print, the actual image making is entirely done by hand. I love doing research for every piece I create.
I believe that the brain has this wonderful ability to store information that is seemingly unnecessary. But that depot of accumulated images and thoughts is very helpful when we need to come up with our own concepts and ideas.
Michael Gibbs: The passion in your artwork suggests that you seek out your own causes. There is a lot of power in each individual image, but also a power and sense of purpose in the collective body of work. Do you seek out assignments that can allow you to become involved in issues that are of interest to you, or do causes seek you out?
Luba Lukova: I don’t really seek my own causes. I constantly think about what’s happening in the world and I have plenty of material to tackle in the future. I guess after so many years of doing my artwork people approach me because they’ve seen it and feel that I’m the right artist for their cause. There is so much need out there for art that has meaning, especially now in these difficult times.
Michael Gibbs: If you had your choice of issues to illustrate today, what would it, or they, be? And if you had a dream project to work on, what would it be?
Luba Lukova: I really don’t like to dream about things. If I want something to happen I will do my best to make it a reality. I’d like to be able to continue with my work, and choose themes that are interesting for me and the audience. Stay tuned for my new projects.
Michael Gibbs: Last question: After the Great Depression, the U.S. government, through the Work Progress Administration (WPA), helped put artists to work by funding arts projects. One of the results was a tremendous body of work and the beginnings of many artists’ careers. The closest thing we have to that nowadays is the National Endowment for the Arts. Do you see government as having a role in promoting the Arts? What place do you think the Arts has in public life?
Luba Lukova: I think government support of the arts can be a double edged sword. Art needs support but does not need restriction. And government subsidies and control, like during the Communist regime, can destroy any integrity and creativity. What the government needs to do is to enforce quality art education in our schools. Art is so magnetic to younger people and it is really important, it makes us better humans.