The first year of the Define American Undocumented Artist Fellowship concluded on November 30 breaking new ground on the type of support available to these artists and the amazing work they can produce individually and in collaboration with their local communities. We are beginning the new year reflecting on the work of the incredible artists in the program and sharing stories of their partnerships with community-based organizations.
Being an artist can be a lonely practice — spending hours in a studio or garage creating a painting, sculpture or print — often with very little encouragement or feedback. When Lilian Shtereva moved to New York as a new American, the first thing she did was to look for an artist community. Working out of a studio space in Brooklyn, Lilian was enjoying getting to know her neighbors and exploring the small galleries in her neighborhood, but was finding it hard to make real connections. When she heard about the opportunity to apply for the Define American Artist Fellowship, she was attracted to the program’s goal of helping artists create and strengthen community collaborations.
Lilian got her start in the arts while growing up in Haskovo, Bulgaria. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. She employs oil paint as her primary medium, gravitating toward colors and textures inspired by nature. Her work is noted for its organic composition, and the connection between linen, pigment, solvent, sand and botanical matter. The work implies politics of insistent experimentation and an embrace of ruin. Many of the paintings are in process, exhibiting traces of vegetation, storms, winds and earth.
Her desire to make experimentation a key element of her artistic practice led her to collaborate with artists from various backgrounds including opera, dance and theatre. Her love of nature inspired her to take her canvases to NYC rooftops and forest camping trips — often with other artists. Lilian has no shortage of courage to keep pushing herself and the boundaries of her art, but she had been hesitant to apply to many traditional art fellowships, residencies and funding opportunities because of her short time in the States.
In the orientation for the Define American fellowship, the artist fellows workshopped their “stories of self,” sharing their personal backgrounds and articulating why they are passionate about their art forms. The story of self is an integral part of Define American’s culture change work, from learning to prep for a media interview, to sharing personal experiences with writers’ rooms, to applying for arts grants. We believe that every time we share our story and our passions, it changes the narrative.
In trainings and one-on-ones with Define American staff, Lilian practiced explaining where she is in her artistic practice and how she would like it to develop. Very quickly she gained the confidence to use this skill to connect with other organizations and fellowship and mentoring opportunities. Most of these were NYC-based organizations supporting local artists, including: NYFA Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program, FiveMyles, Irish Arts Center, Brooklyn Arts Council and Mana Contemporary. Through these organizations and new connections, she was also able to meet other independent artists and find new collaborators.
After many applications and interviews, Lilian has been accepted to several prestigious NY-based art fellowships in the last year and keeps growing her network of local artists looking for community. She has a vision to continue expanding the connection opportunities for artists in New York City — especially among immigrant artists — as she knows firsthand how difficult to form but ultimately rewarding those connections can be.
The Undocumented Artist Fellowship is made possible through a grant from the Kresge Foundation. Read about more artist fellows! Want to see more great work? Support our 2020 artist fellows by donating today!