Nfld. & Labrador

The Free World features Bulgarian artists who defected in N.L. and stayed

The Rooms in St. John's is showcasing the work of Bulgarian artists who immigrated to Canada as part of a mass defection in the 1990s, and chose to remain in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Only 1 per cent of Bulgarians who defected in Gander chose to stay in the province

Artists Ellie Yonova, Luben Boykov and Vessela Brakalova are among the one per cent of Bulgarians who defected in Gander that chose to stay in the province. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

The Rooms in St. John's is showcasing the work of Bulgarian artists who immigrated to Canada as part of a mass defection in the 1990s, and chose to remain in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"All of us entered Canada at Gander Airport, and of about 30 out of 3,000 Bulgarians who came at that time — in 1990 and subsequent years — only one per cent stayed here," sculptor Luben Boykov told CBC Radio's Weekend AM.

The Free World exhibit features work from Boykov, Vessela Brakalova, Elena Popova, Veselina Tomova and Ellie Yonova. All chose to stay in the province, and went on to contribute to the local arts community.

Sculptor Luben Boykov likely would have travelled on to Montreal with many other Bulgarian immigrants, but he couldn't afford a bus ticket. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

"Ninety-nine per cent moved on to bigger centres and those of us who stayed, made it by choice," Boykov said.

"Newfoundland, as we all know and we have learned, is not an easy choice to make. You have to work at it, you have to struggle to fall in love but once you do, you stay."

While Boykov went on to fall in love with the province, he said his initial reason for remaining was much less romantic.
Boykov's advice for new immigrants is to hang on to their dreams. He says the province is a good place start over. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

When he first defected in Gander, Immigration Canada was offering subsidized transport to Montreal. But Boykov was $20 short of the fair needed to buy a bus ticket. 

"In the subsequent two weeks, a few things happened. We met people, we had an epiphany about the place and said we better stay and check it out."

Mosaic master

Artist Vessela Brakalova first settled in St. John's before eventually meeting her husband and moving to St. Philip's.

"I'd always seen myself as a graphic designer and artist, and I really wanted to build a body of work, I really wanted to reach my potential," she said. 

"That was one of the many reasons I came to the new world — with great expectations to have much more opportunity to do that." 

Vessela Brakalova lived in St. John's for several years before meeting her husband and relocating to St. Philip's. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

Brakalova, who submitted multiple mosaic pieces to the exhibit, said her glasswork began during a do-it-yourself project at home. 

"Nearby there is a stained glass studio which is owned by Brendan Blackmore, an old friend of mine. I visited him one day and I saw extensive amounts of glass cuts, odds and ends, from his stained glass going in the bucket and then in the garbage."

Brakalova used the unwanted glass to brighten up a bare wall in her home. Many of the pieces submitted to the exhibit are influenced by Newfoundland landscapes.
Brakalova says she came to North America to realize her dream and build a body of work. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

"St. John's, Newfoundland has been referred to as the oldest city in North America and my place of origin is Bulgaria, where mosaic is very well-received and it's been part of the fabric of many, many centuries," she said. 

"To me, a mosaic is a way I'm connecting the place of origin and the place of present, and I'm trying to make sense of that connection through my glass." 

The filmmaker who decided to stay

Ellie Yonova came to Newfoundland to research the journey of Bulgarian immigrants for a documentary.

"I loved the place, I loved my Bulgarian fellows and I just decided to stay."

Filmmaker Ellie Yonova first came to Newfoundland to research Bulgarian immigrants for a documentary. She fell in love with the province and decided to stay. (Heather Bartlett/CBC)

Yonova, a photographer and filmmaker, said her work is "a mix between some kind of abstraction, still with recognizable objects from real life."

"I've always been attracted to the play of light, the beautiful optical qualities of any glass container that distorts and makes everything unique ... the works that you see [at The Rooms] are from different periods of my art-making."

'This is a good place to start'

Brakalova and the others are curious to know if there are any artists within the province's growing Syrian population 

"I know these people are arriving under enormous amounts of stress and the change is so dramatic it just shakes up your foundation as a human being," said. Boykov

"Hang on to your dreams, to your core values. This is a good place to allow all these virtual wings that people have to be spread out, and breathe a breath of free air."

Hang on to your dreams, to your core values.- Luben Boykov, sculptor

Brakalova said Newfoundland Labrador is "a micro-society," that offers refugees an idea of what it means to be Canadian.

"It's an easy place to learn how that society functions, and it's a safe place to be," she said. 

Yonova agrees. 

"I would say to these guys to keep their feet here. This is a good place to start."

With files from Heather Barrett