The unexpected success of a Roma amateur artist

By • on September 14, 2012

Milan Goroľ, a 41-year-old amateur painter and wood-carver from Ondavské Matiašovce in eastern Slovakia, has been celebrating his first successes as an artist.

He wanted to become a painter since his childhood. His classmates are recollecting how he would draw ships and landscapes under his desk during classes. Once he drew a real car with all the details. From that moment on, his friends started to admire him.

Today, Milan Goroľ paints on canvas with acrylic and oil paints and carves beautiful wooden panels with religious themes. He gained the appreciation and admiration of non-Roma society when Mária Mrážiková, the mayor of Ondavské Matiašovce, and the priest of the local church contacted him for the restoration of all the fourteen stations of Jesus Christ Calvary found in the church. The professional restoration would have cost the rectory a sum that they could not afford. So they decided to talk to Mr. Goroľ, already known as a talented artist whose paintings decorated the walls of numerous households in Ondavské Matiašovce.

Photo by Mária Hušová

The priest asked him to restore several statues with missing parts and a painting as a test. There were no doubts left that the Calvary would look like brand new after Goroľ returned the items. The rectory thus saved a lot of money and the mayor happily bought several landscapes from Goroľ, paintings that are lightening up the walls of local municipality building now.

Many non-Roma from the village and from nearby Košice buy Goroľ’s paintings and he is constantly getting new orders. Thanks to the Cultural Centre in Vranov nad Topľou and to the mayor’s help, his talented hands led him to the district’s amateur painter competition. He finished in the fourth place out of forty five painters and is now expecting results from the regional competition. The admiration for his paintings and carvings also spreads across social networks, and other rectories needing to restore calvaries and other statues have been contacting him. This would finally be his desired art journey as well as a way to earn money for Goroľ who was forced to ask for a disability pension after several knee operations. While he was working, he did not have time to paint. But, as a pensioner with a brush and a chisel, he started a new chapter of his life. He has already completed four courses in acrylic and oil painting. Other than landscapes and sacral art, portraits are his foremost ambition.

Goroľ looks to great masters like Da Vinci or Monet when seeking inspiration. He examines their paintings online: “I pay attention to what colours they used, how the paint still shines on canvas and how those painters actually did it all,” clarifies Mr. Goroľ, whose dream is to master portraits. “I would love to paint facial features so well that one wouldn’t be able to distinguish the portrait from a photo of the model,” adds the artist.

I went to see him at work. He was carving Jesus out of a piece of wood when I stopped by. Frankly, I could not believe my eyes when I saw what a talent had been locked inside him for years! Suddenly I remembered his first work which I had seen several years ago – a cook captured at work surrounded by a pile of vegetables. His more recent paintings somehow changed, they are better spaced and they breathe as if they had a soul. Some of them are copies from other masters whereas others are his own creation.

Goroľ’s wife Nataša proudly showed me diplomas and awards collected from various competitions. She also showed me the painting collection with a Christian theme that her husband did as a present for her.

The Roma from his community are very proud of him. They visit Goroľ while he works and ask questions: what the result will be, for whom, and so on. They say how happy they would be to have their portraits painted once he will master his dream, and this motivates the artist.

From my perspective, he has an incredible talent and I believe he will become a recognized painter. Artistic skills including painting are nothing exceptional for Roma, and I myself know several painters. For example, Milan Novák, my father’s friend from Vranov nad Topľou used to be an acclaimed painter during the old regime. Communists would call him to paint waterfalls and sunsets for their living rooms. His wall paintings can still be seen in some cultural houses and even bigger restaurants. Mr. Kokeny, a Hungarian Roma living in Slovakia, paints frescoes. Mr. Cichý from Nižný Žipov in eastern Slovakia is also an amazing artist who painted my portrait once. Viktor Holub from Žalobín, a village near Ondavské Matiašovce, is also an aspiring Roma painter. People learned about his talent after seeing his Calvary painting in the local church. As you see, many Roma start their artistic careers with religios art.

To conclude, Roma know something else apart from singing and dancing, as the deeply rooted stereotype goes. There are acclaimed Roma painters, sculptors and artists in Slovakia and other countries as well, if we are to talk solely about the art scene. I also know many successful Roma businessmen. The world should hear as much about them as it hears about non-Roma intelligent and talented people and see the two categories as equals. But the majority of society perceives them as an exception. And once they accept them as an exception, they stop recognizing their Roma identities.