A Conversation with Sylvia Bubalo

October 29, 1992

Blosser: Can you tell something about your background –where you were born, and your family . . .

Bubalo: Doylestown, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mennonite family – church family. There were five children – one brother in the middle.

Blosser: When were you born? What year was that?

Bubalo: 1928, November 25.

Blosser: Good. This is a farm family?

Bubalo: No, we were in town.

Blosser: Okay.

Bubalo: In a town. I went to a public school.

Blosser: And Vladimir, your husband?

Bubalo: He was born in Chicago, his parents were of Eastern Orthodox background, and from that country which has been very much in the news, all broken up: Yugoslavia. But his father and his mother had come to this country well before Tito. In fact his father came before the First World War. He had an awareness of what was coming. That was a very long time ago.

Blosser: Was he your age, or a bit older than you?

Bubalo: Vladimir? He was actually five and a half years younger than I. He was born in 1934.

Blosser: Had you met in . . .

Bubalo: At the Art Institute of Chicago, a full time student, and instantaneously it was as if we had known each other forever. And one of the things that struck him was when we told each other our life stories I think the very first time we sat down at coffee break from one class – and didn’t go back after that class – from the break. And when he found out that there was such a thing as a church that took a position of peace, it matched exactly where he was. And as a result – now he was twenty-one at the time and I was twenty-six when we met. And he had already had ten months – this is too long to get into in detail, but – he had, because of very traumatic experiences from the time, previously, he ended up running into the army. Actually, he was barely eighteen – not even eighteen. But when he was in the army, he soon found out that it was against his conscience, what he had to do in some of the practice things – like sticking a bayonet into a straw dummy – he couldn’t do it. So he had a hard fast realization of what his beliefs were, even though he didn’t know that there was such a thing as church groups who, you know, in history had taken a peace position. So when I met him, he was out of the service, but was still on an on-call basis. So he started the proceedings for taking the conscientious objection position, and to make a long story short, the judge was so angry with him, not believing that this could be possible, that the judge broke a rule which ended up actually preventing Vladimir from having to go to prison for his conscience. And that was over a span of a number of years that we were in suspense about whether he would end up going to prison. I even wrote a letter to Eisenhower – well, I won’t take any more time – but this is a major point. And then he became a Mennonite, joined with the Mennonites, with me, in Chicago, at the Woodlawn Mennonite Church.

Blosser: I believe Bob Regier was at that church with you.

Bubalo: Delton Franz was pastor at the time. So he took it all very seriously.

Blosser: And this would have been in the 1950s?

Bubalo: Yes. We were married in 1957. And it was a month after that that we were officially members at Woodlawn. I was an associate member because I retained my membership for a long time from my home church.

Blosser: Let me move back just a little bit. Did you attend other schools as well?

Bubalo: Well, Goshen College, before the Art Institute. And after Goshen College, two years of MCC, and then a second year in Seminary, because in my senior year at Goshen I was in seminary. The second year was through the General Conference, conjoint with the Brethren at Bethany in Chicago.

Blosser: Your degree at Goshen?

Bubalo: A Bachelor of Arts – more liberal arts, but majoring in Bible, and then that’s what led to being in the seminary my senior year. There wasn’t enough art – very little art – I took whatever they had and so – it was different from what you have now.

Blosser: How did you get into art?

Bubalo: Well, I say that even though it may not be comfortable for people in academics to hear this kind of way of speaking, but I’ve lived long enough not to care about that in one sense, because I have to say that from the time I was four – between age four and twelve – I use the word “calling.” You don’t hear that much anymore. But I know, beginning when I was four that I was to be an artist, and grow up. And to put it very naively and simply that it was to be this medium I was to use to tell a very simple and profound truth – to express it, and that was, that God’s love – absolute love – was for the whole world, and it is to be told and expressed and shared. And without any condition. Unconditionally. And this was very deep with me. I had three particular occasions up to the time I was twelve, where this was quite dramatically clear to me, in a spiritual – an inner happening. I’ll take no time to go into that.

Blosser: And so that even at a very young age you were making art?

Bubalo: Oh yes, and all through school, from first grade on, teachers and classmates were aware of this, and I know it helped me in school and in social relationships with my fellow students because I also happen to be born with a physical limitation in the form of muscular dystrophy. It’s not that it showed in normal circumstances, and I also tried to hide it, in terms of going up steps, its just that I was fragile, and could not walk fast, but I also developed an outgoing personality so that people would be deflected, but this also enhanced my awareness that – it helped me to feel whole that there was something significant that I could do, not what I could not do. Do you understand? The art I could do. The running and the climbing stairs and all that – I didn’t focus on that, for the most part. Okay, I don’t want to go deeply. The combination of these things does relate to what happened later on. Enough said.

Blosser: Good, good. One more question, though: The time you were growing up, art in the Mennonite Church was pretty much – was looked down upon. Most people thought that art was frivolous and maybe even dangerous.

Bubalo: That’s right.

Blosser: Did you experience any of those kinds of rejections, or

Bubalo: Let me put it this way. From the age of twelve onward, I no longer felt the joy that – of having this calling. I realized it was a burden that was given to me and I tried even to find other means of – in the first place I wanted to find a way of earning a living, and spiritual things were deeply important to me. In other words, Christ was very real to me. I knew that this was my commission, and I couldn’t escape it, but then I tried to in applied ways, especially in MCC, and they wanted to help me to be able to adapt the art abilities and I will always bless them in their effort.

Blosser: Okay. That was going to be one of my questions: Who along the way really supported your . . .

Bubalo: All right. I want to say, my parents – very loving parents. But in that – I call it a very dark period in the Mennonite Church – the areas that I knew. And this increased the judgment and condemnation of anything like the arts which to me was cutting off aspects of the Holy Spirit. Many people who had, other than myself as well. But in my case, where it hurt the most was because, if I could not earn some sort of practical means of – well, let me cut it quickly to the core: I was going to have to rely the same as missionaries, and I felt very close to people in mission, through history of the church, and all that went with it, and especially those that had no support, or even very little prayer support, but I hung on to those stories because I sensed from childhood on that this was me. I was going to have to depend on God directly. Because the church wasn’t there. And that was very hard to separate the two. And I wasn’t able to. But it happened.

Blosser: And your parents, what did they do at that point . . .

Bubalo: They were in pain, first of all because the church also judged – when I say “the church,” I don’t mean as a public statement, but it was very common, and it’s still there, but not as it used to be. Judgment, that even my parents had a child who was born with a handicap. And there are many many families that have experienced this pain which is so deep. And so I had the double judgement.

Blosser: Implying that your problem was a judgment from God on them . . .

Bubalo: I didn’t feel that God judged me.

Blosser: But others might have seen it that way. Or seen it as a judgment on your family?

Bubalo: No – about the art?

Blosser: No. About your physical limitation.

Bubalo: Oh, yes, Oh, yes.

Blosser: That’s what I was trying to clarify, that they would see physical handicaps as a judgment of God upon your parents, as something they might have done.

Bubalo: And so, I think that covers it.

Blosser: Vladimir, maybe you can give a little of his history to with regard to art and development and support.

Bubalo: Well, the thing that struck us both was, he was a deeply spiritual person. This amazed me. I don’t know how to say it other than that, quickly. He was also quite a charismatic person. People were drawn to him: children were, he was gifted from youth – he went to the Art Institute by scholarship; when he was a child he won awards, numbers of years in a row, and as we were students, then, as adults. The thing was, poverty entered into their situation, the depression had hit – his father was fifty years old when Vladimir was born. And he had studied architecture in Yugoslavia as a young man before he came to this country, but he wasn’t able in this country to take that further, so he had to start a business, a grocery store, with other persons.

Blosser: But art and architecture were not at all foreign to the family?

Bubalo: Well, both parents were very much creative. His mother was, even though she didn’t draw or paint, she did unusual things as I guess, you know, the outlet in terms of crafts and sewing and very intricate patterns, using materials. But artwork, not. She never thought of that as an art. She was exceptionally gifted in that. It is just that it was submerged. But with Vladimir, his faith he expressed in his art right from the start. Right in school. And his teachers saw that he had an unusual gift. The thing was, he had to work nights, until two in the morning, in order to work his way through. And that prevented him from some of the things that would have been required – he got his diploma, but he couldn’t get the BSA.

Blosser: Okay. I was going to ask you about – both of you – your education at the Chicago Art Institute. You were there how long, and . . .

Bubalo: Well, he completed it – four years. I was only able to complete – almost complete – three years. As I said, this was beyond college and after seminary, and of course my physical strength was involved as it related to transportation. We had no car, and as population increased, and difficulty with buses, the time came where once I was married as well, and the combined responsibilities changed, I was not able to complete my third year. But I had enough for what I was to do. Just that it was well, we know that – I would not have been able to teach at a university or college or public school anyway, so, again, for physical reasons. And I was not led to be “a teacher.” I was led to do the work. That was the calling, and that was what was so difficult.

Blosser: Okay. So then you both lived there for a while after being in school? Go ahead and play out the rest of your time after education at the Art Institute. What did you do, how did you live your lives?

Bubalo: Well, after he graduated, we were still under this suspense about prison all these years. And he continued to work full time at the second Greek grocery store. And I had, off and on, worked part-time, and hoped to be able to continue that the rest of my life, because we were aware of the realities, and this was the amazing thing about Vladimir, that he chose to marry, not only a woman artist, because, it was well known in school, I mean, just the words passed around, you don’t marry an artist. If you are an artist, you’re going to need someone who can earn a living where you can’t. And we both were aware of that, but his faith was such that he also was way ahead of his time in terms of women, and being equal, and as companion to the work of God in the world. And he was determined that we were either going to both work – sink or swim together, not just one of us. But in the process he lost out in human terms, and he died young as a result of it. He had believed that it could develop that there would be a spiritual support for us in the church, at least praying support. And that didn’t happen. I’m not saying that we didn’t have individual, many loving human beings within the Mennonite church who cared about us as persons, but they could not – the key people, whatever that means – did not have discernment that there was a place for us. And I don’t mean that we would have asked even for funds. But just, you know, but that there would have been spiritual support – the way the church prays – committees pray for things that they believe in. We couldn’t get that.

Blosser: Okay. Two concrete things here: What did you do? Literally, you moved then, did you not, to Scottdale?

Bubalo: Right. Because the time came, after Martin Luther King was murdered, we always lived in the areas that were the least expensive. And that always kept us with friends and neighbors who were of minority group. And it became heavily Black territory then, where we were living last in Chicago. And up to that time Vladimir was very successful in terms of recognition of his work developing and being shown and written about, but I could no longer get about, even immediately outside the apartment where we lived. I just keep it at that. We had to move, and I know that God was using that to bring us to Scottdale. We have many permanent friendships there. And people that I know that still pray for us. But when in Scottdale it was no longer possible for him to really paint, because of requirements involved with even – there wasn’t room for him as an artist. That was made quite clear to him, and even in the beginning, by one particular key person who – that’s all I want to say about that.

Blosser: He was a graphic designer there, was he not?

Bubalo: Yes he was, and that was the point. It was made clear to him that he wasn’t there as an artist. He was there as a graphic designer. What I’m saying is, in the process of all the responsibilities he also took upon himself – things that I couldn’t do – practical things. We lived on the third floor apartment, and ultimately we couldn’t even remain there, financially. We couldn’t afford it, because I couldn’t equally earn.

Blosser: So eventually you left, and moved to where?

Bubalo: To Seattle, and I don’t think there’s time to – I want to just say, it was a very profound and painful, and also with joy, in terms of persons that we got to know and were able to see the Seattle Mennonite Church become born and they – that is a pioneer situation, and we were part of it in ways that I cannot go into. But we saw God at work in that, in wonderful ways. But we were older people, older than the twenties and thirties by that time. And our circumstances – well, let’s just say, I’m convinced that one of the things that we were there for was for our circumstance – in our circumstance – that we pray for the church to become the praying church, so that all the gifts will no longer be judged from human instead of holy spirit discernment as to what is to be included and who is to be included, and I say this because there are so many other artists I know, younger ones, who have struggled, and I feel this was a major part of our lives to be seeds for the Mennonite church, to no longer divorce or excommunicate right from the start, those who are called to be artists. And that has been our history.

Blosser: That’s interesting. That’s interesting. From there you moved to Goshen.

Bubalo: Well, I will try to say this as succinctly as possible. While we were in Seattle, we experienced a storm that would not quit. Almost right from the start. The spiritual storm. Which made it impossible for him to get any foothold in terms of the gifts that he had. If I stand back and separate myself from us, and look at us as other people, such as – I’ll use statistics. We were in poverty, except that we were literally fed by God, by his manna. That’s the best that I can say. And in the process he was battered so much that he broke. His body broke. And he died, what we would say, before his time. And the thing was, he was very healthy up until – this is so tied together, I link it up with other artists of the past: who died because of spiritual brokenness and having, not the support that, when we speak of a church community, neither one of us could experience that, then. Only when he was dying – and when I say this, there were loving individuals, and still are. But that is a fact. I saw it happening day by day. But I say, that the thing that sustained us up to the end was literally, the life of Christ. His personal life, his Gethsemane. And Vladimir has painted about that. We both have painted in our own individual ways, about what was happening to us, and it became more and more clear that God was speaking and saying, if I didn’t prevent – you know – Jesus from suffering, and you follow, I could not guarantee that you would not experience things akin to that. And we realized it. It’s just that we also knew that we were seen as fools. In a Mennonite group that was well off, and I say that grateful. My Mennonite family has been well off. I have never wished anything else. I only say that in the connection that we could not even be seen in our poverty. It was not understood.

Blosser: Sure. In other words, you very well related how art is so integrated into your faith, and conversely, your lifestyle decisions were based on these issues, clearly, they were. Do you think the church is changing, or has changed? What would you like to see? We only have about a minute here.

Bubalo: Well, when I see . . . Let’s just say, I have hope. In 1980 – I can end on this – Vladimir and I were at such a point where nothing was certain, and it began when Ronald Reagan was commencing. And we had already been seriously affected by programs that were being instituted across the country. And we had no idea what was going to happen next to us, whether we’d even be out on the street. And we were both led at the same time to pick up the candle and say, whatever else, this is going to represent our home, and we – this was going to be Christ – God. And this was our foolishness, but it was also what kept us spiritually alive, and aware that we were doing what God had called us to do, no matter how foolish it seemed to anyone else. And that candle time we kept up every day, and I have continued this candle time. And we mean it to be for the healing of the church.

Blosser: That’s wonderful. When did Vladimir die?

Bubalo: July 21, 9:03 a.m., in eighty-nine. And I was not able to be there at the time of his death. And that has been part of the deepest grief.

Blosser: I’m sure. The church, as you see it, is better in recognizing people who have the call to be the artist?

Bubalo: I am isolated. And I don’t get to meetings. And always there have been individuals who we were spiritually sustained by. But when we speak of leadership in the church, I don’t have any answer on that. I don’t have enough evidence. But I tell you, I’m not pessimistic, because of my belief in the work of Christ. And to me, artists have been part of God’s ministry right from the start. So, I can’t speak in terms other than that. I’m very optimistic because I’m optimistic about God’s plan. . . .

October 29, 1992

About the Author

John  Blosser

John Blosser (Goshen College ’70) is a visual artist and Professor of Art at Goshen College. A native of Ohio, Blosser received an M.A. in painting and drawing from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and an M.F.A. in drawing from Arizona State University. He has also taught at Hesston College and in Macha, Zambia. His art has been exhibited in numerous regional and national invitational and juried shows, some in Texas, Kansas, Chicago and New York. His works are included in over 40 private and public collections. Throughout the past two decades he has undertaken a Mennonite Artists Project, collecting video and audio interviews with significant Mennonite Artists, including Sylvia Bubalo, Paul A. Friesen, Ezra Hershberger, Bob Regier, Oliver Wendell “Tom” Shenk, Paul Soldner, and Elizabeth Wenger.