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Vessela Brakalova says her work on display at St. John’s airport is about feeling, not just seeing


It's big, bold and beautiful

At a place where people go to fly to other destinations, Vessela Brakalova set out to make travellers feel grounded, even taking them to the bottom of the ocean.

It’s that sense of diving underwater that’s conjured by some of her big, bold digital mosaic pieces displayed on the second level of the departures area in the new and revamped section of the St. John’s International Airport.

“As you come up the escalator, you feel like you’re rising up from the bottom of the ocean,” Brakalova said, lifting her hand as she looked up at her artwork during an interview at the airport last week.

“You really have that feeling of movement and surprise… It was about creating a whole experience for people.”

The three pieces are all large, measuring about six metres long and three to four metres deep.

“We wanted something that would be iconic, culturally relevant and something that would show a really strong sense of place that when you see this artwork you know you’re not in Saskatoon or Calgary or Toronto, that you’re here.”
Keith Collins, CEO and president,
St. John’s International Airport Authority

Two are thematically linked in a series entitled Rich Waters (of the North Atlantic). The first, at the top of the escalators, from “the upper part of the ocean,” depicts whale and seal, while the second, located on the same wall just inside the glass doors, portrays fish, starfish and the bottom of an iceberg “from another level of the ocean,” she said.

The third piece, hung on the opposite wall behind the escalators, is entitled Destination: A Portrait of St. John’s, which depicts an aerial view of city’s harbour area. It includes “little treasures,” Brakalova said, including a cruise ship, an iceberg in the Narrows, the Loop at Bannerman Park and The Rooms.

Put together in several panels and printed on fine canvas, the three pieces are each illuminated from the back by a bank of LED lights. Displayed on a backdrop of shiny blue wall tiles — as was architect John Hearn’s request — the pieces are eye-catching.

Brakalova couldn’t be prouder of the work and was thrilled to have been selected last year from a large group of artists to display their work at the airport.

“I never thought I would be selected, so I allowed myself to have fun,” said Brakalova, who was part of a group of artists commissioned to do six smaller pieces at the airport 18 years ago.

With the backdrop of the blue tiles in the new section, Brakalova’s first idea was a duel artwork featuring Amelia Earhart, tying it to the history of flying. She changed her idea to feature the ocean, which is symbolic and encapsulates this province’s rich natural environment, culture and heritage.

‘She understood what we wanted’

Keith Collins, CEO and president of the St. John’s Airport Authority, said Brakalova was the clear choice.

“She understood what we wanted and she delivered in every sense,” said Collins, who worked with Business and Arts Newfoundland and Labrador to reach out to the local arts community.

“We wanted something that would be iconic, culturally relevant and something that would show a really strong sense of place that when you see this artwork you know you’re not in Saskatoon or Calgary or Toronto, that you’re here.”

It was a huge opportunity for Brakalova, who has come a long way from when she defected from Sofia, Bulgaria, to this province 28 years ago with her young daughter. Brakalova, who studied fine art, with a specialty in book design and illustration, met some accomplished local artists shortly after she arrived, including Gerry Squires, and soon made a name for herself on the local arts scene.

In 1993, she and fellow Bulgarian Vesilina Tomova created a new company, Vis-à-Vis Graphics, a multidisciplinary art and design studio specializing in branding, illustration and graphic and interpretive design.

Their first big job was to create the Cabot 500 logo. Soon after, they were called on to provide illustrations for the government’s travel guides.

From commercial design, they branched out to do more creative work, in which they could have more of an artistic vision and work on interpretive pieces.

That led to commissions at The Rooms, where their historical pieces are on display on the second floor.

The first proposal from the airport included six smaller pieces — two in the customers arrivals area, depicting caribou antlers and a giant blueberry, while the other four are high on the walls at the area of the former security departures. They include depictions of a fisherman’s net and rock, a gannet, a dory and pipes, symbolizing the growing oil industry here. For those, she worked with local artists Jerry Evans and Ned Pratt, as well as Tomova.

Brakalova’s work is also featured at the St. John’s Convention Centre and Memorial University, the Johnson GEO Centre and the Fluvarium.

A special task for artist Brakalova

But creating the new pieces at the airport was special for Brakalova, who admitted she was emotional the first time she saw them installed.

“I can’t express how happy I was because with everything in that scale, you can only envision how that’s going to look like. All of a sudden you see it, it’s like, ‘Oh my God.’”
Vessela Brakalova

“I cried,” said Brakalova, who says she worked “a gazillion” hours on the computer to create them and credits her husband Gerald Amey for being her sounding board. “I can only compare that feeling to giving birth to a child.

“I can’t express how happy I was because with everything in that scale, you can only envision how that’s going to look like. All of a sudden you see it, it’s like, ‘Oh my God.’”

Brakalova said she would like to see more artists’ work commissioned at various buildings across the province.

“That’s what we need — these examples of business leadership in this community, because you think about it, (the artwork is) only a small percentage of (a new construction) budget,” said Brakalova, who added that besides the airport, there have only been only two other public art commissions in the city.

“(Having these art pieces here) sent a huge message — this organization is supporting (the arts community) on a big scale, and that’s so important.”

rosie. mullaley@thetelegram.com

Twitter: TelyRosie

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