One has multiple lives within the one we are given.
The following interview was originally published in Benji Knewman Vol. 7.
It smells of truffled mushrooms on toast where Martina and I meet for the second time. The dish is a renowned crowd-pleaser at Fingers Crossed, an excellent and reassuringly unexciting East London breakfast joint. Colourful wooden panels clad the walls; the space is small and bustling. Martina and I seem to share a deep love for simple things of quality, and breakfast. This becomes evident when we arrive at her airy apartment in Dalston and I’m served more food: black coffee and green avocado with soft-boiled egg on bouncy bread. Aesthetically pleasing boxes are piled up in the hallway: she is preparing to leave London’s commercial buzz behind and relocate to Berlin. Without sounding schizophrenic, illustrator Martina Paukova believes that one has multiple lives within the one we are given.
Tell me about Berlin. Do you already have a studio space or vision of how your work life is gonna look there?
I have no idea. I know exactly three people there, which is not much (laughs). I will have to go through the whole spiel (German for “game”) of finding new friends and establishing social circles – I have a feeling it’s going to be good. I was there in the summer for two weeks to see how the city feels and reached out to a few illustrators that I know from the internet. I said, “Hello guys, I’m coming over,” and they were like, “Of course, we know your work. Let’s meet up.” I’m thinking of using illustration as an entry point.
It’s probably a smart move for connecting socially and for work.
I never look at illustration as work. I think about it as my other life, so in a way it’s quite ideal to have those two worlds combined. I’m flying to Berlin next week to stay with a friend who’s going to lie that I live with him and we’re gonna go to the Bürgeramt (Citizens’ Registration Office). We have an appointment there, so I need to polish my non-existent German. I’ll be pointing at my friend like, “Ja, genau. Das ist mein Mann.” (“Yes, exactly. This is my husband.”) We’re going to pretend we’re a couple because I need to apply for SCHUFA (a record of creditworthiness). I had German lessons when I was in school but that was 20 years ago; they don’t count anymore. I’m now listening to audiotapes and podcasts: real beginners’ podcasts like, “Oh, das ist Frau Paukova.” (“Oh, this is Miss Paukova.”)
I like the challenge; it feels like opening all the windows in your head and getting the fresh air in — or whatever it is that comes in: a strange bird or a pigeon, possibly pooping in the middle of your living room. But still, it’s something new.
It sounds exciting.
Yes, it is. And if it doesn’t work out I can always come back.
That’s the thing about coming back — you can always go back. It’s always gonna be there, the back.
Well, I’m a bit worried about Brexit. I have no idea what lies ahead.
Right. You studied politics before, didn’t you?
I did (laughs). What if I tell you, that when I left Slovakia two weeks after finishing my master’s in European studies I came to this country and got a job as a barista at Starbucks? It was almost like building a new identity from scratch. Nothing I was doing in Slovakia or who I was, was relevant anymore. It wasn’t of any use. I started my graphic design course while working at Starbucks and in a restaurant. Again, nobody cared that I had a master’s in politics. It’s been pushed so far away by now that I can’t even recall basic facts about the EU anymore. I know the larger umbrella of thinking but if I was to lead a truly informed discussion about the topic of Brexit, I would need to prepare myself. You see, I stopped being this person, and I have been something else for nearly eight years. Politics is gone. It feels like a joke — haha, I studied politics. Like, really?
Did Brexit figure into your thinking about going somewhere else?
I didn’t think the vote would go through. I was in Berlin during that time giving a lecture at Pictoplasma, a graphic design festival. It was the first time I’d experienced the city. It was May. I discovered the district Mitte and then Neukölln, the trees and wide streets, and thought this (the prospect of living here) sounded so good. Why not? I can work from anywhere. That’s why I’m so shocked after the vote; I have no idea what’s happening. Nobody seems to know. In theory I should have permanent status (in the UK) after five years.
Really? I don’t know about those things.
When you stay in this country working and living for longer than five years, you automatically gain permanent residency status. But if you stay outside of the country for x months you might jeopardize the thing. I’m worried that even though I have permanent residency, if I leave for more than six months I’ll have to start from zero. I was doing a lot of research on this but nobody seems to have an understanding of what’s going to happen.
It is a weird time. I grew up with the feeling of borders opening. I remember my parents and I travelling in the car from Germany to Poland. There were those really long queues at the border; many Germans did their shopping on the Polish side because it was so much cheaper. Then, suddenly, those checkpoints and borders were gone. Not having to stop and show your passport felt very free. It’s a frightening idea that this will be changing again.
Exactly. Doors are closing and god knows which other doors will be the next to close. It’s strange. Things are becoming slightly chaotic somehow. I remember before Europe opened up to Slovakia, for example, if I wanted to go to Austria — not even to shop, since I only had money for one Nike t-shirt — I would have had to get Austrian Schilling, which would’ve involved a black market/bank visit. It was a different era.
Do you remember the markets by the border?
Of course. Your parents are Polish? So they properly experienced communism?
Yes. My dad always tells me stories of how you’d go to the shop and it wasn’t even about not having money — no one had money — but there was simply nothing to buy. Can you imagine there being one kind of shoes? You were really lucky if they had them in your size.
One type of flour. One brand of coffee. One kind of chocolate. One brand of everything, one type of shoes. It made things easier. There was this small shop in my hometown belonging to a chain of shops throughout the country. For that shop you had to have a special currency which wasn’t Slovak Koruna: it was coupons that you’d get in exchange for currency, but there was also a black market for them. The shop sold a few Western items like Levi’s jeans or denim jackets — things that nobody else sold. Proper Western stuff. It was extremely expensive: a pair of jeans would be two months’ salary.
I kind of like the idea. Now, being so in the middle of this super consumerist Western world and having the possibility to spend money on stupid stuff, I am quite happy to have this depository of memories from communism. I can always compare the values and say, “Actually, don’t do this or don’t buy that — be happy with what you have.” It’s a nice bit of baggage to carry around.
Do you still have that feeling when you go back? How often do you go back?
Twice a year; there really is no need to go back more. I have my small community here, the things I’ve created; my friends and flatmates are all designers. When I go back to Slovakia, all my friends there are economists, working in banks and companies in good positions because it was the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences where we studied. It’s a different life, none of them really knows what I’m doing.
What, you draw pictures? For money? My mom is still asking me, “When are you going to find a real job?” And I’m like, you know, this is my real job.
But then again, I don’t dare to tell her some things. As a commercial illustrator it’s such strange world. If you’re lucky you can earn extremely good money — I don’t dare to tell her how much I got for the Google commission I did last year. It would throw her world order upside down. What? You get so much money for drawing some awkward characters? I have a funny relationship with Slovakia. Do you often go home?
Home to Berlin more often than to Poland. Last time I was there I told my grandfather what I was doing and he didn’t really understand; he said culture was for people who didn’t learn a proper skill. It’s quite rural where he lives. You get up in the morning and work hard. Sunday you go to church. There’s rules for life.
It is kind of amazing to have access to this kind of life. My father, an educated person living in a small village, recently told me he only has a few friends in the area that he can meet up with for engaging in real conversation. He runs a gardening company and most people he meets are ordinary folks from the region. And I was telling him, imagine where I live — it’s such a concentration of highly intellectual, clever people. My grandmother is a bit like your grandfather and it’s really hard to talk to her but she’s so precious — she’s from a different time.
Exactly. I filmed my granddad in the summer, asking him how he grows stuff and does things in the garden. He’s sitting in front of his bright green garden shed, a cigarette in his hand and a cap on his head, always a cap. Potatoes just grow, he says. I guess there’s a lot of things that you don’t need and it’s nice to have them but it’s equally good to know that you don’t need them.
When I’m back home it’s nice to do things in a simple, old-school way: have coffee instead of espresso, with a bit of condensed milk on the side. Not sweetened, just a quite thick and fatty milk (smietanka). It’s so nice. I don’t think I would enjoy flat whites in Slovakia; it’s something that belongs here — to my life here, my other persona here. My mom always comments on my coats — what is this? What are you wearing? It’s a reality check of some sort. You made me nostalgic about Slovakia.
Maybe you should go — but maybe not in winter?
No, probably not. It was -15C this year, which never happened when I was there — I don’t dare to say it must be climate change. But even here in England, I don’t think the winters were so severe before. And the summers too — Berlin is so hot.
It feels like you’re by the sea in the summer.
I made the decision (to move) last summer and still felt maybe it’s not going to happen, but now I’ve already sent the first suitcases of stuff. It’s happening. But because I know it’s happening and it’s just two months away, I’m unable to function normally. I feel very slowed down, very mindful, internal, enjoying my time at home. I don’t want to go out for dinner; no, I want to cook. It’s almost like saying goodbye to the city, just me and my flat. It’s very strange. I’m surprised by this state of mind — maybe I shouldn’t take it so seriously but I do, somehow. I’m going to relocate and I’m going to be somebody else, yet again.
It’s the exciting part about going somewhere, isn’t it? You don’t have any reference points; you go forward instead of relating back.
Think of a map, not in a cartographic sense but a map here (points at her head). My functioning in London after eight years is so…you have your map of things. You go to Supersavers and your dentist and your GP. I hardly leave my map. I’m like, this is my role and I’m going to stick to it. Whereas with Berlin, the whole thing is suddenly open access.
The act of relocation, it can be important. Changing something.
That’s why a studio space is important, although I’ve realised I like doing half my work at home and half in the studio. It’s healthy to have a space to go to when you feel that inner itch — I just pack my things and go over to the studio. Even just changing the noises; changing the channels, words, conversations.
I’m curious how it’s gonna be in Germany. I’ll probably slip into a similar lifestyle as everything I know here is available there as well. I found a nice little coffee place near Ostkreuz. It’s run by a Slovak guy but he’s one of those people who always replies in English; he refuses to speak Slovakian to me. It is weird — he keeps his distance. Whenever I meet a Slovak person – there’s not so many of us abroad; I met two over the course of eight years in London — I’m like ?!=§=)§%IO§&!!? (speaks enthusiastically in Slovak). It’s this kind of childlike excitement. I’ll try to speak to him more when I live there (laughs). I’ll be like, “Hi, I’ve moved here. I’m gonna come and speak to you in Slovak every day!”
But he replies in English, not German?
Yes, but the whole city is English. This is the thing that surprises me. I tried to test my German somewhere and people always responded, “Please speak English to me.” That’s why it’s good to go to very basic supermarkets. People there often don’t speak English and you are forced to make it work anyway; it’s the best way to learn. That’s another facet of supermarkets: the people who work behind the tills or counters. It’s worth it to take note of them. It’s all part of the experience — looking at the goods, the people working and how they communicate with each other, the small talk. It’s a micro cosmos — supermarkets are great.
I love the packaging of products in Italian supermarkets.
I guess Italy has a different relationship to beauty than Slovakia, where everything is very functional and practical — beauty is just this extra layer that is not necessary as long as a product serves its purpose. Whereas Italy has this idea of “la dolce vita”.
I googled Slovakia today before I came here and the first sentence on the Wikipedia page was something like, “Slovakia has a lot of mountains and beautiful castles.”
Jesus, who wrote that?
Wikipedia really didn’t say much more.
That is just one facet. Every country has mountains and castles in some way or another. I mean, every country has beautiful nature, apparently the UK as well. I still haven’t been to Scotland.
Do you have a list with things to do before leaving?
There’s a lot of things I should put on that list. I feel anxious. I do have a new, exciting addiction in my life, though, which is a 3D modelling software called Blender. Maybe that explains why I feel anti-social: I just want to do online tutorials all day. My work in 2D illustration and the way I flatten things is kind of opposite to 3D but still, I work with perspective — the stuff I make is 3D, but it’s flattened. But Blender (sighs) — I’m curious to see what I can do with it. You can take illustrations from Adobe Illustrator or a jpeg and place it onto a 3D object. Blender automatically translates it into a texture. It looks so realistic!
You are speaking to me in a moment when I’m on the verge of transforming into a 3D illustrator — these are exciting times, so I think about what I could do. I met with Emily from It’s Nice That and spoke with her about my work, my visual alphabet and digital language. My work is naive but there’s a touch of sophistication, so if I manage to work with my style in this new sphere, no idea what’s gonna happen. It could be really good or really bad.
Ha! I’m gonna make a series about failed pottery, simple vases with eyes and noses. I like when stuff becomes a character, but right now I’m totally enslaved to my aesthetics. If I was to start painting I would most probably paint the same things [as I draw now], just larger-scale. Where is the learning curve?
And working in 3D gives you the freedom to develop a new visual language?
Yes, because with illustration I can’t just start something new. I have an audience and this is what brings money to the table. I’m kind of stuck in this aesthetic. Every now and then I can try something new, like two months ago, I started doing new noses. You can slowly introduce one thing here or there, but you can’t just change everything.
(Martina shows me works by illustrators Jack Sachs and Kirsten Lepore, both of whom work with 3D modelling. The latter spurs us to talk about Gesichtswurst [face-sausage], a German luncheon meat made of finely hashed or ground, heat-cured pork, which German children eat on sandwiches. The meat has a friendly face modelled into it.)
Gesichtswurst — I wonder how it’s made. It would be a nice thing to do in Blender. I like this idea, making mental notes for Berlin here. Sausage faces in Blender.