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Creativity is the way I share my soul with the world. --Brene Brown

Re-Imagining the World: An Artist's Remarkable Life Journey

--by Bela Shah, syndicated from servicespace.org, May 11, 2017

The following is an article based on an Awakin Call interview with Slobodan Dan Paich. You can listen to the full recording here.

Slobodan Dan Paich is a man with a big heart, really connected to the inspiration behind life.  So much so that one of this summer’s Service Space interns remembers comparing Slobodan to Santa Claus as a young boy.  We had a chance to engage with Slobodan on last Saturday’s Awakin Call, where seemingly disparate aspects of his remarkable life softly emerged.  His voice trailed off at times, as he searched for words that could capture the wordless essence of his transcendent views. Slobodan is an artist, and harnesses his gift as a tool for social change. But as you will discover, his life paints a refreshingly new perspective of how art can catalyze change in our inner and outer worlds.

Born in Yugoslavia on the eve of the capitulation of Hitler’s Germany, his parents gifted him a name that means “one who is free”.  And so it followed that Slobodan somehow pushed through the limitations of poverty and communism, and created a life that continues to unfold along an “impossible” trajectory. 

“When I was a child, my best friend was the radio. I even used to embrace the radio.  One day, when I heard about auditions for a children’s performance, I asked my mother for permission. She immediately said no, but at the age of 8, I knew it was something that needed to be done, something that I had to do.”

Slobodan ended up becoming a very prominent child performer, but fame was only a sidebar.  Within a rigid and often fearful communist environment, he was compelled as a teenager to create a number of small, independent theaters.  Believing in what he has termed the “community of the commons”, transformative powers emerged as people gathered and celebrated artistic expression in public spaces.

“Activism is not the cause, but the effect of the engagement in life.  If one is committed to being deeply connected with life, then inspiration must pour into life, it can’t be helped.”

Eventually forced to flee Yugoslavia, it wasn’t long before Slobodan found a way to integrate art back into his life while in London.  Although he arrived with little money, no English speaking skills, and no friends or contacts, his perseverance led him to a teaching job at a small college. Stepping beyond his comfort zone, Slobodan adopted a large space in the basement of the college, with the intention of transforming it into a learning experiment for anyone to participate in. In addition to teaching classes, the basement served as a “playground of experience”. Soon after, he serendipitously came across an announcement for an international architectural competition in Paris, asking for “new ideas in education in the community.” Slobodan drew the blueprint of his building and won the French architectural competition.

Was it perseverance or serendipity that helped Slobodan to succeed in his dreams? Perhaps it was both, the commitment to beliefs and ideas allowing the magic to unfold in other unforeseen areas.  To Slobodan, perseverance is like being with your inner child and guiding it through life.  When you approach the difficult or painful circumstances that arise throughout life in this way, perseverance becomes natural to every human being, not a quality gifted to only some. 

“Unfortunately, we are eroding our natural perseverance through electronic means. When we invade young minds with products, we’re actually eroding the edges of perseverance and disabling it.  How many bombs and explosions do our children see when they’re only five years old? They are numbed to this very vital flow of inner perseverance. My efforts in the last years have been focused on the ecology of the inner world and the mind.”

As part of this committed focus, after moving to the United States, Slobodan founded Artship.  Through performing arts, visual arts, and research of cultural phenomena, Artship offers broad access to the transforming powers of the creative process and presents new opportunities for breakthrough thinking and creative work.  For example, Slobodan curated the “Windows Project”, which showcased over 5,000 artists in vacant storefronts in downtown Oakland for over ten years. 

New and emerging artists at every level, from children to seniors, and that weren’t accepted by galleries, were encouraged and invited to exhibit their work 24/7.  Behind the scenes, artists received technical help in assembling their exhibitions, sometimes creating entire exhibitions from scratch.  A number of artists launched their careers through the Windows Project, simply because they were given a space and encouragement to present their work; in this community of the commons, perseverance and magic blended together to create an informal art school for “doing and making”.

The idea for the Windows Project resulted from an invitation to Slobodan from the Oakland Chamber of Commerce to submit ideas for “art as collateral” for urban economic development. The project played a major role in revitalizing various districts in downtown Oakland, and more than one million people were exposed to new ways of imagining the world.

“We live in a culture that puts creativity first…but my approach to creativity is that it’s a byproduct of problem solving. I’m not seeking some place where I’m creative, and therefore unstuck.  I’m problem solving, and then the moment of epiphany, the connection happens because I’m engaged with something.”

When Slobodan isn’t problem solving or working on his next research paper for international conferences, you might find him in a Japanese tea shop in San Francisco, drinking from one cup and painting from the other.  Many of these delicate paintings, Slobodan will scan and share with his friends, or gift randomly to people on the streets:).

In reflecting and writing about the trajectory of Slobodan’s life, I am amazed by how the impossible became possible. Something he shared provides insight:

“Fear is just the other side of love. I think it’s important to accept that one might be fearful, it’s ok not to be strong, it’s ok to be vulnerable…standing in the middle of vulnerability is where one is really true to him or herself…there is where something might happen.” 

Bela Shah works with Dalai Lama Fellows, and is a writer and volunteer with ServiceSpace. A former attorney, Bela finds joy through meditation, long walks in nature, and crafting poetry for children. 


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