Interview with illustrator Florentina Surel
“I feel at home when I do anything creative, not only the usual drawing & painting, but anything that makes my right part of the brain sing”
Florentina Surel is a Copenhagen-based illustrator hailing from a small town in Romania. She works with different media but currently focuses on digital illustration. She is young, but her opinions and outlook on life reveal a person much wiser than her age might suggest. She is rather shy, yet has a great sense of humor that manifests through many of her drawings. You can see her work at florentinasurel.com
I met Florentina working for a Danish fashion startup where she worked as a logistics manager. Over the course of almost two years, I’d seen her put in heaps of energy and commitment into what she knew she really wanted to do — illustration. So she challenged herself in every possible way and just drew, and drew… And it paid off — as of February 2019, she is officially a full-time illustrator with an up and coming tech startup!
The following is a conversation we had in a great little beer cellar called Peders in December 2018. It has been edited for clarity and coherence. I had asked Florentina to send me a few photos of what makes her think of home, which you will find farther down below, accompanied by her own commentary. We also had a photo shoot one of the preceding weekends where I took analog portraits of her in a part of Copenhagen called Sydhavnstippen.
Kelu: What happens if you never make it big as an artist? Have you ever thought of that?
Surel: I’m already not making it big.
Kelu: But you’re very young.
Surel: Yeah, but it’s something that was never there, so the idea of losing something that I never had is.. fine.
Kelu: Ok, so, you’re ok with just drawing all your life and never making it big?
Surel: I’m not even sure what that means anymore.
Kelu: Yeah, what is big?
Surel: It could be many things now. It could be a job that is exactly ‘on’ that; it could be people wanting to buy what I do — some paintings to have them in their houses. A colleague wants to print something I made, and I’m like, wow, I already made it a bit big! [laughing] That’s nice, that’s big enough for now. Could be bigger but… I try to aim high but keep my feet on the ground. I don’t want to act… holy — is that how you say it? Like I am some big artist, act all ‘holy’.
Kelu: I think I know what you mean.
Surel: Just trying to do my best. Hope somebody will notice me. Of course, there’s work for me to bring it to somebody to notice me. I just need some sort of break-through because now there is nothing. So what I try to do is get into editorials or have some magazine post me, so that others will see. I even have a friend who has a connection but… it didn’t work, they didn’t want me.
So I thought, ok, I guess I’m not that good. Try harder! That keeps my feet on the ground all the time — people not wanting me.
No matter how many people tell me: no, no, but you’re good… It’s kinda tricky because I grew up with that, and I am not sure why — why people did that to me. When I was in middle and high school, I was studying math and computer science but my right part of the brain was the active one, the one that’s creative. I was ok at math but everyone knew what I was better at, so everybody would tell me that I was good because there was no competition. And I grew up like that: hearing “you’re so good, you’re so good”. And then, when I came here, people started telling me in my face that no, you’re not. I was like, holy shit! I had never heard that before.
I don’t agree all the time, which is kind of weird. Most of the time I see it and I know it, I know I’m not there on any level; I’m kind of mediocre. I know I am. Because that’s how it is when you try many things — you’re not good at one main thing. I don’t have that, and it’s kind of problematic. And I can’t find it! I’m waiting for that moment when people are finally realizing: Oh, but we want someone who knows a bit of everything…
My personality is also very tricky. It’s really not helping me. I think [there are] more people that dislike me than there are people that like me, so it’s difficult to connect when I have to sell myself.
I’m not good at selling myself.
Kelu: [understandingly] Tell me about it!!
Surel: I also don’t have that one perfected style that I can sell so it’s like a vicious circle. What do I do? So, the solution right now looks like this: just pick one road for once and see where it takes you, and be confident.
Kelu: Fake it ‘till you make it.
Surel: Yeah, exactly!
Kelu: I’ve been told, by some people, that it’s the part of the process that you just have to accept. You do have to tell yourself — not yourself even, tell the others — to basically be faking it even if inside you’re feeling like you’re not doing anything extraordinary. You see so many big artists that, in my opinion, shouldn’t be anywhere near the top, but they’re so full of self-confidence.
Surel: Yeah, but then, marketing is a whole other skill that I don’t have, and you need to invest so much time in it.
Kelu: And then we’re getting to the question of basically just luck and fate.
Surel: I’m kind of lucky! I choose to believe that. I’m already here, in Denmark! I think it’s the greatest luck of my life to date.
Kelu: What do you mean?
Surel: For now, this is the best thing that happened to me. Being here. Having been able to leave for the first time and then liking it and wanting to go again. And maybe the fact that my parents accepted it early…
Kelu: When you say “accepted” — were they uncomfortable in the beginning? Because your brother is not living in Romania, either.
Surel: No, but he decided that later and for other reasons. Basically, our family is a bit strange in the fact that… how do I say it… There is love, for sure; my parents have basically given their lives to us, and it’s weird to live my own life knowing that because now I left, and my brother left, and they’re alone. They’ve been very selfless. But their love, it was always expressed more through the things that they would give us.
It was very easy for me to leave because it wasn’t overly emotional, I’d say. Maybe they don’t even think the same but, in some way, they knew that we, the children, should go in order to develop. They told me that they didn’t want me to stay in the same city I grew up in. To have your studies, you should go to another one, at least, if not abroad. I did that, and then I went with Erasmus [a pan-European study mobility program], and from then on I felt like it was my journey to just leave all the time. So they’re ok with that, but I can’t help feeling that I’m not doing enough to show them gratitude. And I don’t know if I ever will. They say that their biggest gift is when we have what we want.
Kelu: I don’t know if it’s, like, a Soviet, eastern-bloc thing because my parents are like that, too.
Surel: But you have a different relationship with your parents!
Kelu: Yes, I do, but some of the themes are very similar: they are the happiest when my sister and I, when we achieve something, when we go places. They don’t care about social acceptance. What they care about is that we’re doing what we like, we’re living where we like. They’re incredibly happy that we’ve lived and traveled abroad — all of these experiences that the average person doesn’t have. They are extremely proud of us for that. And they’ve also been very selfless, as you said about yours.
Surel: I can’t believe how they did that. I cannot see one thing in my life where I’m selfless like that.
Kelu: Yeah, that’s definitely different. When I was in my 20’s, I went through a period… like, now I call my parents every day, and I shudder to think that there were times (when I was in my 20’s) when I wouldn’t call them for two months. Two months! What a jerk!
Surel: I don’t know why. I can’t explain it, either.
Kelu: It’s not like I didn’t love them or that I was mad at them. I didn’t feel the need. And now I’m thinking I was so selfish.
Surel: I think selfish is the right word… I don’t know what could move me to call them every day. I try to call them once a week, on the weekends, but even that I can’t do. I can’t believe how time flies. I have a very strong love-hate relationship with time! For me, especially at work, time flies really quickly. I try to get done with work so I can go home and do my own thing, and I’m captured in that way of thinking. I try to block out anything that can take me out of this because if I need to clean, call my parents… my boyfriend also wants to tell me what he… Ok, ok, this sounds really bad…
Kelu: [mockingly] I have to listen to my boyfriend!
Surel: It’s just the things that add up, and I listen to him, and then maybe a friend writes, and they want to call me, and all my plans are suddenly changing where what I wanted was to just go home and put on paper the creative thoughts of the day. Perhaps there is a simple technical reason why artists have been created initially to be loners.
So, sometimes I even do two things at a time. If I’m talking with somebody, at least I know I have my hands free so I can draw — at least I know I can do something (and all my close ones have been instructed not to feel upset about it!). Or I clean in the meantime. But I can’t do just one thing. There is noooo time. I’m crazy about time. I already feel so old.
It may be a curse of my generation. So many others are doing so well for themselves at the age that I’m at, so they make it difficult for the rest of us, in a way. And the way it’s communicated nowadays! You see it, and you want it, too! What am I doing with my life? And in fact, maybe my life is just good — good enough. It’s just this idea of doing good things and doing them fast, and doing them in your 20’s.
Kelu: And being visible.
Surel: Especially that! If nobody heard of you, then, who are you? But when I make it, at least I’ll know that I left Romania, that small city that never inspired me and that felt like a village.
Kelu: How many people was it?
Surel: Twenty… thousand.
Kelu: Oh wow, it is a village!
Surel: Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s two hundred thousand.
Kelu: That’s a big leap [teasingly]
Surel: I just know it starts with twenty.
Kelu: But it feels like twenty thousand, that’s what’s important, I guess.
Surel: Yeah, it’s dead. It’s a dead ex-industrial city. Started from the bottom, right?
What else would you like to know?
Kelu: I’m in the business of memories. Some people will call it escapist, nostalgic, childish, not serious. Memories have always been very important to me, and I believe that memories do steer our lives. Maybe not everybody’s lives, but they certainly do steer my life. Especially the memories from childhood.
So, I’m very interested in how our sense of home manifests, and where it comes from. I find that creative people are particularly susceptible to smell, sound, song, anything that can trigger a memory — and then we get creative; at least, that’s how I am. Sometimes it’s a painful one, sometimes it’s a warm one. I want to know more about what moves you, how you grew up, how that informs who you are today, and where you want to go — as one layer. I want to know more about your childhood. Because what you told me over the last year, that you somehow don’t remember much — that is very odd. I’ve never met anyone who’d say that.
Also, what you wrote as a comment to one of the photos. You were pretty emphatic about wanting to leave Romania, not feeling that you have much in common with the people there. That resonated with me because that’s exactly how I feel about Russia. So, I’m all ears! What did you mean by not having much in common…?
Surel: It’s not like I have much in common with people here. It’s only the third place that I’ve been inhabiting for a bit, so it makes me feel like it might never happen, or it might happen at some point later.
Like I wrote, feeling at home is becoming for me about the small things.
I don’t know if it’s the way I am, the way my brain is wired, or if I made a conscious decision… That could be it — it could be a memory I put in my own head. I feel like when I was small, I heard this thing that you need to live in the present, and I made a promise to myself that I would do that and not cry over the past. I do think about the future, though, which is pretty healthy, but not in the way that I forget what I have to do now. I just try to live now in the best way that I understand the concept.
It might not be what you hear in psychology: that you can’t remember the past because something bad had happened… Let’s take how Danes raise their kids. Maybe it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to see how I was raised, but that was fine to me. I don’t feel like blaming my parents for whatever they did. They didn’t have the life of a Danish person, so I completely understand why they reacted the way they did sometimes. So, it’s not about that; it’s not about them. I just feel like that was then, and now I am looking forward to what I want because when I was with my parents I needed to do things that were very simple. I had to eat; I had to sleep; I had to study — study things that I didn’t like, that I didn’t find interesting; stay with people that I didn’t find interesting. It was more like a must.
So, when I realized that I would want to get out of that, I didn’t even think that it would be possible.
First, my boyfriend wanted to go to Denmark, and I said ok, that is fine, I support you, you should go, but I never thought that I would follow or that I would have the financial possibility… that I could change my way of thinking in such a way that I could just… leave. Then my parents were fine with it, so everything aligned.
The way I see it, my whole life has been in one line. I never wanted it to be a straight line, so when it does [become straight], I try to [change that].
For example, when I was in university, I remember telling my boyfriend that everything is too simple, too easy; I get tens all the time; everyone appreciates what I do, but I’m not happy with that. It can’t be that everyone likes what I do. How is that even possible? I felt like I needed something to stir me up, that I needed some hardships in my life. My parents were supporting me financially; I had a scholarship from the university — it wasn’t a lot but it was enough to live my simple life. I needed something difficult for me to form me, I knew that. And now I feel that need again. Change needs to be made.
Kelu: What’s on your mind?
Surel: Well, I definitely need some time to do what I like, and then when I get bored of that I’m going to have to find something else. Maybe now I’m ready to do more of what I envisioned for myself.
Surel: Yeah… When I came to Copenhagen, I was just out of school, and nobody wanted me for creative jobs. I didn’t understand it then, but I totally get it now.
The way I was writing resumes and cover letters, the way I was presenting my work — it’s no surprise nobody was replying. But it’s nice, this realization, that I see now what I couldn’t see then. It’s unfolding in front of my eyes that what I wanted — I got; I just didn’t see it at the time. So, if I were to say now if I’m happy, I’m pretty happy. I got what I wanted so far. I just know that there’s more
Kelu: Let’s hit that record button! What if there’s a gem that we’re missing?!
Surel: We also need to hear about you. It’s like a treat because you interview others but then, you also give out about yourself. And in the end, all these interviews make a story about you! [laughing]
Kelu: [exaggeratedly, chewing a cookie] Yeah, put it down right there: it’s all about me! Who cares about them?! They’re just props to tell my story.
Some years ago when I had another blog, I thought to make a series of Q&A’s with people about their sense of home. I had a list of questions that they could choose from and answer in writing. Then, I also had five or seven sentences that I wanted them to complete. A very simple task. The first [Q&A] that I did was with a friend. I published it; there was not much response. And then, somebody that I cared about read it and gave a very honest opinion that it was just… boring. There was no spark in it. And the thing is that I knew it was boring. That’s why it hurt so much.
Surel: But you need to hear that. You really do.
Surel: You need the hurt!
Kelu: I fully agree. I think pain and hurt are very strong stimuli… I don’t think there can be any creativity without pain. I just don’t think it’s possible.
Kelu: So, you still haven’t shared anything about your childhood. Any memory? Nothing, at all?! Like, if you thought back: something warm, something nice.
Surel: Mmm, ok, I can find stuff like that but it’s just… it’s there. If something triggers it, I’ll remember.
Kelu: I want to know!
Surel: I don’t know, it’s very random.
Kelu: Random is the best!
Surel: I remember how my grandma, how she’d always raise chickens, and sometimes she would buy small chicks, but other times she would have them hatch from an egg!
Kelu: Oh yeah, my grandma did that, too.
Surel: It’s amazing to me! I’ve been trying to grow those carnivorous plants from seeds (remember I was telling you?), and they’ve died already, and this woman raised life from… nothing. It was so cute to play with those chicks. She would take so much care of them. I don’t know the practical reason for this, but it was usually winter when the chicks were really small, and they’d grow until spring or summer.
It was sweet to visit my grandparents in the winter. You’d stay inside because it was warm. How do you call those home-made radiators? That you also would cook on… Did you have those in your homes?
Kelu: My grandma had a wood-burning oven that was all stone, and the whole surface, you could cook on it.
Surel: Yeah, that’s what it was. It was incredibly warm from that thing. It was also very effective at bringing the family together — coming inside all frozen and cuddling near it. That’s also a memory that I like, deeply linked in the Romanian culture. I wouldn’t trade it for anything modern.
Kelu: Did you grow up in a house or an apartment?
Surel: I grew up in an apartment. But we would visit our grandparents very often because their house was just a few kilometers away. Our parents wanted us to be as close as possible to our grands, so we would go every weekend or every two weekends or every month. I grew up with them being very close, which now feels strange because I’m so far away.
Kelu: Are they… Do they still… live?
Surel: Yeah, both. All four, I mean. They are quite old, and I can’t believe when I go home how… how time flies. If there’s one real thing that brings tears to my eyes, it is going back home and seeing the changes one year means for them, for their faces; seeing that they’re so much weaker…
So, that’s one memory.
Kelu: Do you remember ever… I don’t know… When I was a kid, sometimes, I would envy other kids for how things were in their homes, with their families. Did you ever have that?
Surel: Oh yeah! Yes.
Kelu: What did you envy them for?
Surel: In general, money was what made them (my parents) just not be completely themselves, I think. Maybe they would have been sweeter, if things hadn’t been so harsh in their life. And it was harsh for a very long time, maybe until three years ago it was always, always harsh. I cannot believe how they could live a life like that. Also with small kids. They managed to raise us as normal humans — we’re not stealing or robbing or anything. They would tell us that they don’t have enough, and we couldn’t understand the concept.
My father cries when he tells me this story. One time, I asked him… We weren’t asking for much; we were really good kids. We were only asking for maybe an ice-cream or a bag of chips. It was really small, small amounts, so you can imagine the poverty if they had to say no to that. So I asked my dad: yesterday you said no, the day before you said no, two weeks ago you said no, and today it’s a no again; if it’s always a no-no-no, when is it going to be a yes? And he was, like: My god, this kid! So he said: Ok, I’m gonna treat you like an adult, then. He took a piece of paper and a pencil and said, ok, this is how much I earn, and then he started putting minuses: I have to pay this and this, and then he crossed the line, and it was already zero, and he went on: I need to pay this, I need to pay this. I was, like: Whoa, what do you mean? Because it’s already zero — where do you get this money?
[eyes swelling up a bit]
Then we all started crying.
Kelu: How old were you?
Surel: He says I was very little. Since then, he says, I never asked again. Or perhaps I did, but I would be understanding and humble if he just said no.
That was… You made me dig up a good memory.
Kelu: It’s a strong one. I remember my sister and I, when we lived in Latvia, I think I was in preschool, like, six years old (I don’t remember exactly). We were out somewhere, and I was eating an apple. We were walking along this small steamy rivulet with a lot of tall grass, and I thought in my head that I finished the apple, so I threw the remnants into the grass, and my sister gave me that look… and then she told me, in a very calm voice… I don’t remember the words exactly, but she said: You really shouldn’t do that; our parents work so hard, and every penny counts, and you should really eat an apple to the very, as they would say in Russian, “to the very last seed”. It made such an impression on me. I felt such shame for… letting my parents down, for having my sister think that I am not grateful. It stayed with me until today. Every time I eat an apple — I am forty — I think of that moment.
Surel: I’ve seen that! I’ve seen that you do eat it all! [laughing]
Kelu: Yes, that’s why. So, now you know the secret.
Surel: Wow. Yes, it’s good that these hurtful moments help us be the best versions of ourselves, like the trendy thing to say is nowadays.
[beer pause: sour vs dark]
Surel: Do you take moments to dig into yourself and ask yourself questions? Do you look for answers from yourself?
Kelu: I’m tempted to say: All the time. But I may not be understanding your question. As in..? An example, please!
Surel: As in what we just did. Are you asking yourself sometimes: Why do I do this? What is the root of this problem?
Kelu: I do. I would say I do. I think it’s true for most people, at least, for most people who are trying to be self-aware. Many times the answer is there, and you know it and you don’t allow yourself to… Because it’s only in your head and you’re kind of like, oh, nobody can hear it, nobody can know it, so it’s like it’s not there. When, in fact, it is there, and you know what you’re doing and that you should be doing things differently, and you still disregard it. That feels very painful sometimes. It’s like, you know it’s bad and you’re still doing it. You know why you do certain things the way you do, so that means you can change them, yet you still are not changing them. What does that make you?
Surel: So, what is painful? The question What does that make you?
Kelu: Because I realize that I am not strong enough. You know why it is — that means you have the tools to change it. That’s shameful, to me. I am ashamed of myself.
Surel: Oh yeah, I feel the same. Shame.
Kelu: Shame is, generally… It’s a very strong presence in my life. For all things imaginable. I am not saying it as a bad thing, necessarily. I think shame can be a good force.
Surel: Although, sometimes it really… if you could tap out of it, it would help you much better, if you just weren’t self-shamed. Because it also depends on if you’re by yourself or if you need to interact with other people who regard this shame, if they can see it, as something else. Maybe you’re shameful, but they’ll see you as too shy. Some people don’t have enough patience with that. They’ll just finish with you already when they notice it and continue talking to you just to be nice, but you’re not getting anything out of it, neither of you…
So, what else about memories?
Kelu: We can tap into them an any point.
Surel: I am working on a to-do list basis!
Kelu: What do you mean?
Surel: I like to know what I have to do.
Kelu: Ok, so I’m going to have to throw you off your game [both laughing] and jump from here to there. Since you asked, though: when we were having tea [Sunday, after the photo shoot], when we sat down to have tea — tea and cake and sandwiches — you said: Oh, this reminds me of home. What did you mean? I think I know what you meant but…
Surel: Can you remind me?
Kelu: Remember, I poured tea, hot tea? We were cold…
Surel: Oh… oh, oh, the combination of tastes!
Kelu: What was it? I felt very similarly.
Surel: Just the fact that we mix things. Even when we eat [at work], I can see what’s in your plate — it looks exactly like mine. We just put stuff together.
Kelu: Yeah, it’s not super-organized.
Surel: And I don’t need it to be. And it’s just a way of being, I guess, but this specific memory, yes, it’s exactly how we were doing it at home. At breakfast, you wouldn’t have cereal or oatmeal — we didn’t know what that was. We would have some sandwiches and tea, and we would mix them together just so the bread would… go [down]. [laughing] So, it was exactly the taste of that, the combination of textures and the warmth of the tea… everything together.
Kelu: Ohhh, that is very interesting because I thought of something else. Your aspect is even more interesting.
Surel: What did you think?
Kelu: I just thought, first of all, tea… I don’t know… Tea, that’s the key word for me. I exclusively grew up on black tea. But also, now that you said it, this thing about mixing, I understand that that’s exactly how it’s been in my family… and for pretty much everyone around me. We never cared — we never had rules, like, in terms of food, that this only goes with this, or that only goes with that. There were no rules. We just ate what we liked, and nobody judged. At least, that’s how I remember it. That’s how I am today. So, we are very similar that way.
We always had a thermos. Whenever we were outside, we’d always have that thermos with hot tea. And that’s a very warm memory. Like when we went mushroom picking… or when we did garden work… My grandmother, in Estonia, she lived in a house, and the garden was right there, but when we lived in Latvia, we lived in an apartment, and there was a communal gardening area, so everybody had a small parcel of land, and they cultivated it. When we went there, even though it was 5 minutes away, we would work all day, and we’d have tea and sandwiches. It was nice.
To this day, to have a picnic — and by picnic I mean the simplest of procedures: something warm in a thermos and the simplest of sandwiches, and for it not to be in a plastic cup, and with a blanket. That is the warmest feeling I can have. With the people that you love or enjoy the company of — that’s the most amazing feeling for me. That’s when I feel that I am happy, and I’m glad I’m human, and it’s nice to be on this planet.
Surel: So, you would vote for that as the nicest thing to experience as a human?
Kelu: [interjecting] Wow, I never thought of it that way!
Surel: Just interacting with others?
Kelu: It’s not just any others. I am very specific about that. It’s a very, very small circle of the people you hold dear or that you connect with. To me, a picnic is also always in nature. So, it’s that combination of being in nature and having tea or coffee with the people you love. That’s the most incredible thing for me. It’s also the smells. The sounds that the trees make, and the birds. Everything. Even if it’s in the winter — the silence is also very powerful. When we had a dog, in the winter I would take a small thermos and go on a walk with our dog for maybe two hours into the woods and just sit under a tree and drink tea.
We need new beers soon!
So, how do you feel about your new home? I mean Denmark. How long have you been here now — three years?
Surel: I don’t know. I always forget, and I say two. I also say two because I don’t like people telling me that I should [start to] learn Danish already. [laughing] Two is decent.
Kelu: [mockingly] You don’t speak it yet? What’s wrong with you? You, lazy foreigner!
Surel: Yeah, maybe three… What do I think of it? Now that you asked me, I realized that I haven’t noticed when I became comfortable with it. I dread something when it’s awful, and when it’s good I’m like, oh, I feel like it’s always been like that.
Kelu: What was so awful in the beginning?
Surel: It was hard to accommodate with how people are here. Very impersonal. Very… I don’t want to say cold — because everyone says that. A synonym to that would be unattached to what they say. If I’m talking to somebody new, I will not just chit-chat. I want to get to know them, to look for more than just the job title. That may be a personality trait or a part of the culture in which I grew [up], but here it’s just very common for people not to care a lot. They will just talk a lot if they need to.
Kelu: You mean a lot of chit-chat about superficial things?
Surel: Yes. And that’s not to… I will never say that in front of Danes because it sounds insulting, I get it, but for me, for who I am, that is just not enough. It’s nicer to talk with real interest in mind, it’s just how humans are supposed to talk, I feel.
Kelu: It’s how you build connections, right? I feel very similarly about this.
Surel: Exactly! And I didn’t understand in the beginning the tendency to try to be pleasant when you don’t want to; it felt dishonest. But now, knowing how small Denmark is, I see that you can’t not keep in mind that you never know who you’ll be working with next, so you better create a good image about yourself! I think a Danish friend explained to me, actually, that there is this sort of a village effect: you just need to be nice.
Kelu: I think there is a lot of truth to that.
Surel: For me, it was unpleasant in the beginning. But to be fair and not to blame others for no good reason, it’s just the same with every new beginning. I try to change things about myself all the time, but I try to decide thoroughly what could really be me, and what will look off. Maybe that is where the difficulty is laying.
Kelu: Are you afraid that it might actually…? [pensively] I always have a difficult time keeping things apart. As complex as I think I am [Florentina laughing], I think I am very simple, to a fault, and that if I have an emotion or a feeling — that’s it, that’s me. And if I have to fake something, I’m very scared that it will change me in ways that I don’t want it to change me. I’m scared that I’ll also become fake, and that is a very scary thought for me. So I have to train myself to be a little bit like that but not to let that change my core.
Surel: I guess that’s the sweet point where you can actually watch what you’re doing, but I can’t always be on the watch. I’ve tried that, too. It’s just not me. I guess I’ll try to work a bit on the chit-chat part, but when I got what I wanted, I’m me again [laughing maleficently]. I don’t know, I’m ok with some people not liking me. The way I see it, you need more time than usual to get to know me, and then you can realize that you might like me. But you need some time, you need to put some time into it. Most people don’t want that.
Kelu: It was the same with me, with how I saw you when we met. It took me about a week to start liking you.
Surel: Maybe that’s a record of the smallest amount of time.
Kelu: Really?! It’s not like I didn’t like you from the beginning —it’s just that I didn’t know what to think because you were so in your shell.
Surel: Many things were happening in that period of my life — a lot of change at the same time (at 22!), but yeah, hopefully I’m different now, and I’ll be more open to new people because I’m not some crazy lady. But I like my shell! I like my shell.
Kelu: Is your shell your home?
Surel: Yeah, maybe. My shell is my home. [laughing radiantly]
Kelu: How big is the shell? What’s in the shell?
Surel: Oh, we’re decorating!
Kelu: Yes, how much can fit in it?
Surel: Well, basically, we can only fit me since I’m not welcoming anybody else. [laughing]
Kelu: Well, you can be in a large room all by yourself.
Surel: True. I think I can fit a hand and a leg of a person that I like. My shell is very private.
Kelu: Does it have a color?
Surel: I don’t know, maybe red. Red is my color. It can also mean danger, so run away from my shell.
Kelu: That’s a survival mechanism!
Surel: That’s nature, right?!
Kelu: I love it!
Surel: My shell doesn’t have a lot of my paintings. My shell has a lot of other people’s paintings… or stuff. I like that, when other people like me, they give me stuff that they care about, so I gather that, and I just keep it. Like, you gave me some stuff, other close friends gave me some stuff, many people give me stuff that they make with their own hands, which is adorable. Taking the time to show your small or large affection for me is the nicest thing that I can receive, so my shell is a hoarding room. [laughing]
Kelu: That’s very interesting. We’re getting somewhere. So it’s a storage, as well as a safe space.
Surel: I’m not a good inventor-ist. How do you call that? A person that keeps the inventory.
Kelu: So it’s a mess, too!
Surel: Not a mess but… you know, sometimes when you’re too organized you forget about the important things, so I just like to think about it in the moment, and if I need to I’ll always find something, just like in my house: I know it’s not always extremely organized, but I know exactly where to find stuff.
Kelu: It can be like that for me, yes.
Surel: My shell is cozy.
Kelu: What’s cozy?
Surel: I like warm. Maybe I can have a beach in my shell… and my portion of sun. That would be really nice. Usually shells are on the beach, but I want a beach in my shell.
Kelu: [cheekily] Wow, that’s deep! That’s super-deep.
Surel: And maybe that’s all. I’m not that high-maintenance. I just want this.
Kelu: Do you need the shell to keep things out or do you just like being in the shell?
Surel: Most of the time we’re out of our shells — we need to be out of our shells. So whenever I need to retreat into it, I like having everything that I like in it. I don’t need to have people inside — I can meet them outside my shell, but when I need to be with myself, in my own zone, I like that space.
Kelu: Do you dream often?
Surel: I don’t know… I don’t remember.
Kelu: That answers the questions.
Surel: What’s the answer? I heard that everybody dreams; it’s just a matter of do you remember or not?
Kelu: Yeah… I very often dream, and I don’t remember. When I wake up, I remember that I dreamed something, and I should remember it, but when I actually wake up — I don’t remember. But I know that I told myself to remember. And I feel so stupid for not remembering it.
Surel: It’s frustrating. But also, when I remember dreams, sometimes I’m like, what the fuck is this? What is this supposed to be? It’s very weird dreams.
Kelu: I think that’s what they should be. I like dreams. Even though most of my dreams are nightmares or not very pleasant dreams, I still like them. Ohhh, I remembered now [excitedly]!
Surel: [laughing] I remembered now that I always kill somebody in my dreams.
Kelu: Oh wow! [both laughing]
Surel: …or somebody gets killed.
Kelu: You really make sure nobody gets in your shell! Yeah, no, I remembered that I lifted myself off, like I used to… like, flying. And I hadn’t had that in years. That was just a few days ago.
Surel: What have you read about dreams that are repetitive? What are those supposed to be? When you have the same dream — the sa-a-ame way…
Kelu: I do believe that dreams are not just… what your usual psychology will tell you, or your usual science… that oh, it’s just your brain trying to cope with life and all of that. Bullshit. I do believe that dreams connect you with some other dimensions. That’s very clear to me. I don’t care what science says. I know what I sense. I do think that yeah, sometimes, it will be something meaningless, but the more you are connected to yourself, the more you will be able to make sense of your dreams. From my own feelings and sensations, and from what I’ve read, I think that it’s about how it feels for you in that dream — that’s the key. It’s not always about what’s happening — it’s about how it feels inside the dream.
Surel: But if I’m always scared, then what?
Kelu: I do believe that many times dreams are signs or warnings or representations of something. It’s about how well-attuned you are to yourself to understand them. So, I do think it’s a bit of a skill… What is the repetitive dream you have?
Surel: I don’t remember exactly what happens, but I know that I marked it somehow: I’ve had this dream already too many times. Many times it was a bit sexual. I don’t remember. But it was weird. It was not like something that would be expected… I don’t know what it means. That’s why I choose not to make anything out of them. They’re just weird. If somebody could explain it to me, I’d be happy to hear, but I don’t know. I read some time ago about lucid dreaming, but that’s so scary, and I didn’t get to the point where they tell you how to get out of there, so you could be stuck in there for a while. It’s stuff I am not ready for.
What I like instead is deja-vu. Every time I have a deja-vu, I feel like I’m on the right path. In the past, I linked it to something that was supposed to happen, and it would happened. And in my brain I am like, yeah, this is my sign. So, that’s the quirky thing I like to believe in.
I haven’t met somebody, yet, who would be trained enough to show me the real path. I feel like with spirituality it can really go downhill if you meet the wrong person.
I first was introduced to it by a person that was (as I found out later) eating my energy, that was gaining something off of me.
Kelu: A vampire.
Surel: I heard a lot about that. I don’t think he believed that, but he liked to control what I was thinking in such a way… I mean, I am grateful for the fact that I was introduced to this, but for the amount of time that I spent on that stuff… I also realized at some point that he was inserting ideas [in my head] so that he could gain something out of it. So, I had to let that one go.
Kelu: Kudos to you that you were able to do that. So many people get trapped.
Surel: Well, I wasn’t trapped enough not to be rational anymore. But it was really interesting.
It was interesting because it was the first time I was doing something like this. I wanted some sort of help… but I didn’t get anywhere. It’s very difficult to put aside what’s bullshit and what’s actually gifted people that can help you in some way. I feel like everyone — just like this guy — can write something on the internet, and you read it and feel like you relate to it, and all of a sudden you’re just a creep who believes in weird stuff.
Kelu: It can be very complicated. All of this is happening on the margins of the normal society. And on the margins, unfortunately, there are many people who are charlatans. So, you really need to tread carefully.
[both pausing for a while, retreating into own thoughts]
Surel: [sipping a stout] I will post this interview on my portfolio, and I will brag about it until the moment… I mean, even after… when I consider I’ve made it big. So I’ll always be like, this is who I was; this is who I maybe still am, but it’s so nice that somebody noticed me, even then. It’s nice to have points of reference along the way. That’s why I keep all these things in my shell. Since I lose memories, it’s the only thing that helps me remember. I’ll put your interview in my shell.
Kelu: I hope I have good photos to show you for it! Lately, I set the bar very low in order to just do something. So if there are two really good photographs that are emotive, I will consider it a success…
Do you identify as a Romanian? When you talk to yourself: are you a Romanian? What are you? Or let’s start differently. If you were to identify what you are, who you are, what would be the 3-4-10 things that you’d identify as? What are the most important things?
Surel: I have one word for you: I identify as confused. [both laughing]
When I first came here, I thought strongly that I am Romanian, and that I’m very different from the people here. But I realized that, after some time, I can acclimate, and I know that I will always find a way, so my Romanian-ism, much of it, has gone. It’s because I live with a Romanian, and I have Romanian friends and my parents, I keep the language and the way of thinking, a big part of it, but let’s say, 50% I‘m totally open to anything else. What Romania gave me was to always stay only in my shell and not try more than what is given to you. It’s the people that I loved that taught me that I should want more; the stories that my grandma has that they had to steal in order to survive — those stories make your skin go like chicken skin…
Surel: Yes, goosebumps, that’s right… So, THAT I may never lose because it’s only natural to keep some memories, but I’m always gonna be open. I think it’s a feature of mine — I’ll always be open to anything else. And at some point, I’ll judge if that’s for me or not. So, I identify as confused for the moment. I’m really not sure who I am. I know a few things about me, but that is also why it’s difficult to deal with other people because most people expect you to already know. At least, the people I meet here: they find their own anchor in other people who seem already confident enough. So, if I’m not that person, they don’t have anything to gain from me. What I have to offer is not something they’re looking for, yet, which is honesty and a safe space. Maybe I’m also born old, so I need to go reverse and grow into a baby.
Kelu: Do you have any regrets?
Surel: I made a promise to myself that I would never have regrets. Every now and then I’ll remember some, but then I forget them again. This forgetting thing is a common theme with me. I hope it’s not a disease or something [laughing]. So, I don’t have regrets.
Kelu: Wow, you’re already many, many steps ahead of me!
Surel: I don’t know, we have different pathways.
Kelu: Yes, ‘cause I’m a-a-all about regrets. Sometimes it drowns me.
Surel: Nobody remembers how many times you’ve failed. Nobody knows. Nobody’s interested.
Kelu: I know! With me, it’s mostly about not using the opportunities that were there because I was stupid enough not to see them.
Surel: There will always be many opportunities given to you at the same time, and you can only pick one, so maybe you just chose as best as you could.
Kelu: Maybe. I hope so.
Surel: For many of them, do you think you could go back in time and re-do them?
Kelu: Most of my life
Surel: Then just do!
Kelu: I can’t. That’s the thing, I can’t because the circumstances are different, and those opportunities are gone.
Surel: Is it because it’s dependent on other people?
Kelu: Other people, other laws, other age, other everything.
Surel: That’s ok. Constraints many times help more than… [pausing]
Kelu: That’s the thing: I feel like I’m always so constrained… that I’m always trying to get out of those constraints.
Surel: Maybe you don’t need to fight them.
Kelu: Oh yes, I do, because they’re quite tangible constraints.
Surel: Maybe you don’t need to fight them. Maybe you just need to work around…
Kelu: That’s what I’m trying to do by coming here [to Denmark].
Surel: But then, you’re on your way to one success. One win at a time.
Kelu: Yes, but it also makes me feel that it makes me into a person that I really don’t want to be. Maybe I’m just fooling myself, but when I see people working on a Greenpeace boat, protesting somewhere in the Arctic (regardless of what we might think about the effectiveness of what they do), I think: That could be me, one of them. But I can’t do that because if I wish to get another citizenship, I can’t be the revolutionary that I am inside.
Surel: But then just get what you need, and then you do the other thing.
Kelu: It takes so-o-o long that it pretty much makes you into a different person. It takes a decade to get a Danish passport. And that’s one of my regrets: I could have changed all of that many years ago…
And that’s what I mean when I sometimes say, hotheadedly, that people here, especially young people, are just so spoiled. They have everything! And by everything I mean opportunities. They have every opportunity in the world to be whatever they want to be, and yet, somehow, they don’t really use them. They choose beer, cigarettes, and just… bitching over actually making use of their privileges. And for someone who doesn’t have that — call it envy — it hurts me.
Surel: Yeah, I can totally see that. But, I also see it as an advantage: you are moving forward so much faster because you have an aim, and they’re running aimlessly. You do have an advantage because when you do have what they have, with that amount of privileges you will do so much more. You shouldn’t think of all the obstacles. Just do you, look ahead like a horse.
Kelu: Yes, that’s what I’m trying to do.
Surel: If you think about it: it’s quite easy to ignore everybody, it’s fairly easy.
Kelu: That’s what I’ve been practicing. I’ve been telling myself to really watch it when I cycle every morning because I get annoyed so easily, but then it’s like: I don’t want them to define my day. And many times it works: whenever it rises in me: oh, what an idiot!
Surel: [laughing knowingly]
Kelu: I just try to keep quiet inside me. Like, I know they’re an idiot, but I’m not going to let them take over my day. Easier said than done. Many times it works. On the other hand, reading the news, it scares me that I often feel like I can’t listen to anything — I just feel like I want to run away from it because I disagree with it. It doesn’t feel healthy. But emotionally, I’m not ready to deal with what I hear or read because of where I am in my life, so if I also have to process that, it ruins me. So, I’m basically at a point where I filter out most of the information around me. Yes, I do read the news and on other topics that interest me but… Do you know what I mean? Letting the world in is too stressful because I know I can’t change anything about it. The only thing I can change is me and what I do, so I should focus on that.
Surel: I don’t want to have anything to do with news at all, which, I know, is bad but I can’t deal with it, either, so I also choose to work on myself.
Kelu: Question! On Sunday, when we were out there at Sydhavnstippen… I want to ask you how you feel about nature. When we were out there, how did it feel? Did you think we were in nature? How did you see all of that? It was the first time you were there.
Surel: I think I take it a bit for granted. I liked it. I liked that it was there. I like that it still exists, but I was more focused on the outing we had and the fact that we were shooting [photographs] and talking… I liked it, and it made me feel comfortable, but many other things make me comfortable. There was no real attachment…
Kelu: So, it’s not something that you would seek.
Surel: No. I like to run through forests because it helps me avoid other people when I feel like taking a break and being by myself. I like it as an escape place but not like you do. It’s not on that deep, deep level. I like it because many other people don’t like it, so I know I can go there. [laughing]
Kelu: Ok, that’s a way to put it!
Surel: I don’t feel a connection with trees. I’m very grateful but… maybe I don’t have [enough] knowledge about them. Maybe I’m just ignorant.
Kelu: When you were growing up, was there any nature around, more or less wild? Not a park, I mean.
Surel: Maybe around my grandparents’ village. We would see animals around; maybe we’d go to the small river that was around the village; there were cows around — we could see them eat grass; we’d stay with the geese and kind of keep an eye on them… I was never taught the names of birds, the names of trees, what plants grow and bloom at what time… So mostly, it comes from the fact that I was never introduced to it, really.
Kelu: It’s very odd for me. That’s what I hear from many Greeks, too. This very concept is very new to me; that oh, I was never taught the names of birds or trees. In my head, it’s always been so much there from a very early age that I’m not even sure how I know them: was it school? was it books? was it parents? I just know that the basic twenty trees that are there, I always knew. The basic birds, too. And everybody around me knew them. We used them. We would use that in games. We would say: We’re meeting by that tree that is next to that tree, and we’d use the specific name of the tree. So it’s an interesting thing to me. I thought that that knowledge just came naturally as you were growing up…
Surel: I sometimes wonder: what would Romania, being such a huge country, be if it had the amount of success that Denmark has?
Kelu: What kind of success? Just being rich or…?
Surel: Just being more mindful about resources, how to trade the goods we have, people being more careful with keeping other good people inside the country. I just heard that there’s some politician that’s part of an EU committee that wants Romanians to come back home after 5 years. Like, you took your portion of out, so now come back! What?! Where should I come back [to]?! You, mister, gave me nothing!
Kelu: A Romanian politician?
Surel: Yes, of course. I hope that nobody’s going to take him seriously. I hope they laugh him off because it’s crazy that he would get to choose for us.
Kelu: I know what you mean. Both our countries have a rich history of dictatorship. I’m always scared that they will come up with something that will affect me, maybe not directly, but even indirectly — all this hysteria about Russian spies everywhere. I’m like: well, thanks! Now everybody sees me as an agent!
Surel: It’s just a joke.
Kelu: People’s perceptions are not a joke, unfortunately. Luckily, though, I have to say that Danes so far have been very good. I haven’t had any bad experiences. Whenever people hear that I’m Russian — Danes, Swedes — they’re very excited; they always magically have some story to share about a Russian friend or that they’ve been to Russia… some Russian words, which always impresses me. So personally, I have not had bad experiences, but I can see how, if it continues (history has shown us) that it can really get nasty. Maybe I’m overly cautious but countries might start saying: all Russian citizens — out! That’s a possibility.
Surel: Yeah, somebody told me that, too.
Kelu: And then, where do I go back to? To a country I have little emotional connection with? To a culture I don’t really identify with?
[both sipping beer]
Surel: Do you think we’ll die soon? Do you think a catastrophical disaster will happen that hits us really badly?
Kelu: It would be too easy on humans, honestly. Unfortunately, I think it will just be getting worse and worse gradually.
Surel: And we’ll just adapt?
Kelu: Maybe, but at what cost, both human- and planet-wise?! At least, if it was something sudden, humans would have a chance of actually learning something and realizing something, but I don’t think that will happen. If it happens gradually, even with big events along the way but nothing really critical where it hits you over the head, humans will never learn. I just don’t believe it.
Surel: I just recently learned that because of all the space tests there’s so much garbage around [the planet], soon it will be impossible to get off the planet, so we’ll be just stuck here. That’s apocalyptic to me.
Kelu: Space trash. I’ve seen maps of that. It’s really frightening. Honestly, I don’t care what people call me — a pessimist or whatever — that’s what humans are to me, that’s it: shitting everywhere and leaving trash behind. Whenever I hear: [in a wimpy voice] Oh, but humans have created civilizations, and art… That, to me, is tiny compared to the trash they/we leave behind.
Kelu: That’s why I’m struggling with my identity as a human. I’m ashamed to be a human. And there’s nothing I can do about it. How do you deal with that?
Surel: I guess by being an activist?
Kelu: Yeah, maybe… I don’t know. I don’t think that being an activist necessarily is the answer…
Do you think you will stay in Denmark long? Would you like to?
Surel: I don’t know. For the little that I know about myself, I will get bored at some point, so I’ll need to leave, at least for a while and then maybe come back. Life is sweet here, but things will get the same, so I’ll need to change the scenery. I don’t know what should be next. Maybe I will like it in Thailand…
Kelu: Earlier you asked me why I photograph. I was just thinking about it yesterday. I read a lot of interviews with photographers, especially now that I’m so much into film photography, and I spend an hour reading and looking through different artists’ work every day. Of course, I always try to compare myself and try to understand: so, this is what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, so how is it different from what I am doing?
I was looking at this one photographer, and his entire body of work — it was great, and it was all views. Views, from a distance. Either landscapes, or people at a regular distance. To me, it was very obvious, as I was flipping through the photos and looking at his different projects. I didn’t find a single photo that would have a detail of something. I’m very different. I photograph details a lot. My favorite thing is photographing through something — through branches, with something in front of the lens. And I realized: it’s like I’m looking out from a secret place. That’s how I photograph.
Surel: From your shell!
Kelu: Yes! From my shell, exactly! [excitedly] So why do I photograph? Maybe it’s a cliché. They don’t like this word in the art world — which I give zero fucks about — it’s all about beauty. Not in the sense of pretty. Beauty in the sense of… I love nature. I hurt for and with it. When I photograph, it’s like an ode to nature. It’s an expression of my gratitude for the fact that it’s there, that it can give so much joy. It’s so large, and it’s so small at the same time because we can hurt it so easily. I feel like if I do that, I somehow help it. Maybe that’s also wrong because nature doesn’t need helping… like, in intergalactic terms. Who am I to think that I can help nature? That can be interpreted as being very arrogant.
Surel: I do think nature needs help. No, we need help. Nature will resist for itself.
Kelu: Yeah, that’s what I mean. What is nature? It’s like, some billions of years ago this planet was just a rock, a burning rock, and at that time that was nature — the burning rock. You know what I mean? At the same time, going back to the beauty point, I just think there’s so much ugliness in the world, emotional ugliness, that I want to leave something behind that is not ugliness, something that’s just pure, in a way. An emotion. And I’m not ashamed of emotions. I think emotions are the most important thing we have, regardless of what the art world thinks.
Surel: But has the art world ever lost this notion? I thought that even modern artists are supposed to instigate some emotion. It’s not the old kind of emotion.
Kelu: Well, whenever emotion is brought up, it’s looked down upon as amateurish, as something that real art doesn’t concern itself with. It’s the same with literature, for example. I’ve always struggled with it. It’s a topic for a much, much different – and bigger – conversation.
Surel: I think you need to not care and find your outlets. That’s the way.