One day, reading The Sun,
a story—"The Immigrant’s Bed" by Florin Ion Firimita—moved me to write to the magazine’s editor, Sy Safransky, for the address of its author.
Firimita is a writer, but he’s also a visual artist. In the months that followed, I received several pieces of his writing, including excerpts from a novel in progress, the text of a long and interesting interview with the artist, a portfolio of his paintings and a feature-length movie, "The Art of Leaving," made by filmmaker Brian Kamerzel about Firimita and his story. Poring over all this material, I found myself unable to decide what, from all that, I wanted to publish.
Writing about Kamerzel’s film, Mattias Frey summarizes Firimita’s bio in the following words: Born and raised in Romania during the Cold War and orphaned at the age of 16, Firimita survived the terror and tedium of the police state through small acts of resistance: dropping cans of paint on parade banners and diluting glue so that party posters would quickly fall from walls. After participating in the December 1989 revolution, he fled to the U.S. to begin a new life.
In an email Firimita sent to me, he writes: I held all sorts of strange jobs. In Romania I stenciled coffins. I was a slogan writer for the Communist Party, a window dresser, a night guard, a salesman. I’ve had about one hundred exhibits in the U.S. since 1990. When last year I had a show at my new gallery, White Space, in New Haven, CT, and shared the same room with Picasso, Dali, and Miro, I thought that maybe all those surreal experiences paid off. But then, you learn that the ultimate challenge has nothing to do with whom you’re sitting next to on a gallery wall, but rather with what happens when you go back to the studio, or to the writing table. It's not a competition, is it?
I grew up raised by Socialist Realism, and hated it. I was rejected from Bucharest’s Nicolae Grigorescu Art Institute. Within several years, while in high school, I lost my mentor and my parents. I was an involuntary participant in the 1989 Romanian Revolution.
Maybe my need and passion for writing comes in part from long hours of reading. My interest in writing could also be traced back to the habit of keeping a journal since I was thirteen. After coming to the States, by cheating my way out of Romania, I started learning English, and switched to writing in my "new" language. The new journal has now about a thousand pages. In this era of blogs and all sorts of tell-all tales, who cares? But it’s mine, and that’s all that matters. The journal became my surrogate family. These were "serious" diaries in which, as a teenager, I was already envisioning exile as a place. My problem was that I did not have to go anywhere to feel like a refugee, because, like thousands of my compatriots, I was already feeling exiled in my own country.
Under Communism, I kept my notebooks hidden in a storage room, in a sack of salt. That is why I have decided to title those notebooks "The Salt Diaries."
Now, even if I’ll always keep a foot in Europe, my life is so typically American (simple, nice house in the Berkshires, great people in my life, I teach, paint, write, etc.), that I wonder if I haven’t dreamt it all.
[I was tempted to publish Brian Kamerzel’s conversation with Firimita, but I already had three interviews in this issue. Instead, here are a few excerpts—Firimita is speaking]
"I think that beauty is still a dirty word. I guess we owe that to the postmodernists. But I think that beauty is still out there, despite of what we make of it.
"I think we are lost in language stunts. The internal disease in some of contemporary art is the absence of compassion (in a broader sense) and a terrible separation between art and the public. These days, there are no mediators between the public and artist. Critics have failed to do that by encrypting art and building barriers between the two worlds.
"I had to wear so many masks until the moment I left Romania. I have sold myself so many times that, by the time I left, I felt that if anyone cared to turn my soul upside down, like a glove, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, left in there.
"I had been an involuntary Gypsy all my life. I kept moving around, most times against my will. Especially in Romania I was kicked around from apartment to apartment, from job to job. Periods of hunger alternating with depression. I had been so close to being homeless so many times. But I had never had a home in Romania. Living in Bucharest always felt like living in cement tents.
"America gave me the chance of being an artist. In Romania I was ignored, mainly because I didn’t have room to be myself. Creativity suffers when you have to stay in line for food.
"I paint what I am. If you stick to that you will win, and you will equally fail, but you will always be true to yourself.
"Painting is one of the last bastions of intimacy. Few things are private these days in this country.
"Creating is such a private and sacred act, comparable only with religious experiences.
Finally, I put the videotape the artist had sent into my old video player. I confess that as I pressed the "play" button I wasn’t expecting a lot. "Another artist’s video." The movie begins with a long silent passage in which we see a figure with a camera walking alone through a snowbound landscape. I kept waiting to be disappointed, but minute after minute passed and each scene continued to hold my attention. Hesitantly, I began to hope for a surprise. The truth is, I was already surprised. This film was far more interesting and far more compelling than I ever would have dared hope. As a film about an artist, this one is very restrained. We are not being treated to someone as a "future celebrity artist." In fact, we hardly even get a glimpse of Firimita until long into the film—and then, only obliquely. It’s a lovely film. I was amazed.
Afterwards, I kept thinking about images that had been taken from Firimita’s sketchbook. "Too bad he doesn’t live nearby," I thought. Maybe I could borrow one of the sketchbooks. As it happened, I’d just been talking with ceramic artist Richard Shaw, who mentioned how he always loves to see an artist’s sketchbook. I decided to ask Firimita and he sent me one of his sketchbooks. The images here were taken from it.
And here is another excerpt from Kamerzel’s conversation with Firimita: "I was maybe five. My parents used to buy me birds. We had several birdcages filled with canaries on our balcony. I thought it was unfair for those beautiful birds to be locked in their cages. I didn’t think that birds should be caged. They were too beautiful. So I would leave the door open and, after awhile, they would fly away. But at some point I would find them dead in the yard, or I would find their feathers scattered around the yard. I couldn’t imagine that they didn’t know anything else but the cage. It took me a while to realize that sometimes, if you are locked in, and someone opens the door, you would still stay there because you became too comfortable with the cage. Slowly my entire country became a cage." The metaphor, in one form or another, belongs to us all.
To learn more, visit the artist's website