No. 7: The Gorna Lipnitsa Dream Tree (2019)

No. 7: The Gorna Lipnitsa Dream Tree (2019)

“The Gorna Lipnitsa Dream Tree” is the seventh installation of “Project: 100 Dream Trees”, and located in the village of Gorna Lipnitsa, Bulgaria.

This mural was created during my participation in The Old School Residency from 10 to 24 August 2019.

“The Gorna Lipnitsa Dream Tree” (2019)
Acrylic on wall, 2m x 2m

Find it here: 502 48, 5227 Gorna Lipnitsa, Veliko Tarnovo Province, Bulgaria.

This wall belongs to a private residence along the main road that runs through the village.

Welcome to Gorna Lipnitsa, Bulgaria!

Gorna Lipnitsa was established around the mid 15th century, and was one of the villages that Turkish invaders attacked and took over when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.

In general life in Gorna Lipnitsa is peaceful and slow, with very little going on.

Over the years, the decline of the village has been apparent from the abandoned houses  with overgrown gardens all around, and empty storefronts in the village center. 

The Old School Residency

While it’s situated at the base of the Dream Tree with the yellow brick road leading to its front doors, the Old School Residency isn’t the first nor the most prominent building you’ll come across in Gorna Lipnitsa. But it has been a major gateway for visitors to this village over the past ten years, bringing together artists from all over the world, and art lovers from the surrounding region.

Thus the family of penguins at the front of the building represent Dimitar and Darina, founders of The Old School Residency, and their 19-year-old son Enik.

The Old School Residency got its name from the building itself – the old primary school which was permanently closed largely because of the dwindling numbers of children in the village. With better schools and greater accessibility to the conveniences and comforts of life found in nearby towns and cities such as Pavlikeni (only a 10-minute drive away), many families have relocated from Gorna Lipnitsa.

Today there are only around 10 children (under the age of 12) who live in the village, and they go to school in Pavlikeni.

Entrance to the school grounds

Ten years ago Dimitar and Darina, a couple of artists and lawyers, took over the old school to manifest their dream of running an artist residency, and to bring art and culture to the village.

Dimitar was originally from Gorna Lipnitsa (his father was the Mayor while I was there), and he now lives with Darina and their son Enik in Sofia.

Every summer for the past ten years, Dimitar and Darina have spent May to August in Gorna Lipnitsa hosting artists from all around the world. This year, Enik has joined them for the first time during his summer break from university.

Here’s a photo of the footpath leading through the trees to the Old School building where the classrooms have been repurposed into artist studios, some of which house permanent art installations from previous artists-in-residence.

In this Dream Tree mural I’ve included a platform above the Old School to represent all the artists who have been here before and those who will come in future, and they take the form of myself and three of my fellow artists-in-residence during my time here:

From left to right, that’s me painting a heart, followed by Chris from Greece drawing or painting on paper, photographer Elisabetta from Italy, and sculptor Liav from Israel. These three artists were also my housemates during my two weeks here, and our home was on the edge of the village, a 15-minute walk away from the Old School and the village center.

Zora Community Center

The Zora Community Center is a prominent building in the village center, and a multi-functional space for most activities in the village.

(I loved seeing old cars in the village, and feeling like I’ve stepped back in time.)

Inside the Zora Community Center is a theater with wooden fold-up seats and a balcony level, and this is where large events in the village are held (such as the bread festival which ended a few days before I arrived).

Upstairs there’s the local library, a small museum displaying artifacts from the village, and a very special room dedicated to Serafim Severnjak.

Serafim Severnjak Collection

Serafim Severnjak was a famous Bulgarian writer, publican and journalist who was born in Gorna Lipnitsa in 1930, and believed to be killed in Cuba in 1988.

When Serafim died, his father set up a room in the Zora Community Center as a memorial. Here you will see Serafim’s desk with his typewriter, glasses and the pens that he used, and a coat rack with his jacket, hats, and the boots that he wore for fishing.

His cabinet has also been kept to preserve his works, and the glass case in the corner displays photographs of him and his daughters, and at business meetings with his colleagues.

Now Penguin Serafim lives on in The Gorna Lipnitsa Dream Tree:

Seniors Center

Zora Community Center is also home to the seniors center, a room on the ground floor where local retirees gather, play games and pass the time.

The Local Bar

When you go through the door on the left side of the Community Center, you’ll find steps leading down into the basement, where the local bar is.

There are a number of booth seats inside, but the artists and I preferred to occupy one of the two small tables outside. 

I’ve also painted the grey tabby stray cat that comes meowing for food from the bar patrons seated outside.

Here’s my overall depiction of the Zora Community Center:

The Korean Artists

At the foreground of the photo above, you’ll see a penguin videographer and three dancing penguins. These represent the performing artists of Old School Residency, and my inspiration was the Korean group who were also my fellow artists-in-residence.

They are Association LaVie, led by curator Eun-ji, with performers Junny and Jessica, and videographer Yoon.

Check out the awesome video performance they made during their time in Gorna Lipnitsa, which also showcases the local scenery, the inside of the Old School, the theater in the Community Center, and other places.

Agricultural Museum

The day after all the artists had arrived, we were taken on a tour of the village, and our first stop was the Agricultural Museum.

As we approached the entrance, we were greeted by a group of ladies in traditional Bulgarian dress, who sang songs for us.

Here’s a short excerpt of their performance:

Upon entering the doorway, the first building you’ll see was specially constructed to imitate rural houses from 250 years ago, made with stone walls and a roof of stone slabs.

The house has a living room and a sleeping room arranged with furniture and household items to give visitors a sense of what a typical rural Bulgarian home would have been like in the past.

Thus I felt it most apt to use this building to represent the Agricultural Museum:

In the museum’s second building, there are displays of all kinds of old agricultural instruments and equipment, some of which are unique to Bulgaria.

I really liked this “stand” for salt rock which is meant for sheep to lick.

And this trough is for stepping on grapes to make wine.

Behind the penguin in the wine trough are fields and hay rolls in the distance, which represent the beautiful scenery around the village.

St. Dimitar Church

During Ottoman Bulgaria, there were many obstacles and formalities that prevented the construction of this church.

The most respected men from the village had to travel on foot to obtain permission from the sultan, and finally in 1963 the church was constructed on what used to be the edge of the village (which is now mid-way on the 15-minute trek between the village center and my temporary home).

The brown door at the side with a white frame around it used to be the door to the church. When it was constructed, there was a Turkish law stipulating that the church could not exceed a certain height, thus the builders put soil around the building to conceal its true size.

On the front wall are three recesses above the entrance, in which previous artist-in-residence Maria Aleksieva has painted the images of St Dimitar, St George and St Nestor.

Thus my mural version of the church has these three Penguin Saints.

St Ivan Rilski Chapel

A short walk from my temporary home, this tiny chapel is located at the end of the village, and on land that belongs to the home of Dimitar’s parents.

A long time ago in the same spot of the chapel today, there was a church named after St Ivan Rilksi, the Wonder Worker. When the Turks seized the region, they destroyed the church and its surrounding villages.

In 1993, Dimitar’s mother Maria fell terminally ill. Then after 20 days of suffering and believing she was at death’s door, her pain mysteriously went away.

Her right hand remained completely crippled, but one day while standing in the place where the chapel is now, she had a vision of St Ivan putting something warm in her crippled hand, and she was able to move it again.

In the winter of 2000 Maria fell painfully ill again, and went to the same spot. It was very cold but she persisted staying there for 15 minutes, and upon returning home her pain disappeared. After that each time she was gravely ill, she’d return to the same spot, and her health was restored.

At the end of 2002, she was diagnosed with a tumor, but in spring 2003 decided to spend her money on constructing the chapel first. Maria worked alongside the workmen, and a few months later when it was time for her operation, the tumor had completely disappeared.

Around this time, there was a boy in a desperate situation and wanted to die. When he heard of Maria’s miracles, he visited the worksite while the builders worked and lit a candle there. Later when he returned home, his problem which had seemed impossible a day earlier, had been resolved.

According to legend there was always a snake around St Ivan Rilski. In 2005 when the chapel was sanctified by the bishop of Tarnovo province, a snake began to live under the building, and is said to be a guard of the the holy place.

These days the temple is used for christenings, weddings and other religious events, and worshippers from all over Bulgaria travel here.

Chapel bell and a cute little seating area

Inside the chapel are six frescos by Dimitar (three were completed when I was there) that present six scenes in the life of St Ivan Rilski. The preparation of the murals involved extensive research into the Saint’s life, as well as visits to real places where he once lived and traveled.

Darina shared the story of how they were having difficulty locating one of these places, and were wandering around for hours. Suddenly a dog appeared, and seemed to want them to follow it, so they did. A few minutes later, they arrived at the place they had been searching for, and the dog had mysteriously disappeared.

One morning mid-way through painting this mural, there was a feast day celebration at the chapel that ended with lunch. I went (for the lunch) with Chris and Liav, and we sat and ate with at least 20 other people in the yard behind the chapel.

Thus I’ve included feasting penguins in my little chapel scene, with the large blue penguin perhaps representing the Mayor (Dimitar’s father).

Paganism and Legends

Gorna Lipnitsa also has its share of pagan practices and legends about dragons.


One of the local pagan practices in Bulgaria is called Kukeri, where men dress in scary-looking masks made of animal skin and other textiles, hang large bells around their waists, and perform traditional rituals to scare away evil spirits.

My cute version of Kukeri now lives at the top of this Dream Tree:


Next door to these Penguin Kukeri is a very friendly and happy dragon, symbolizing the village’s numerous dragon legends (most of which are not like my cute dragon).

One that I heard was about dragons coming to steal people from the village to turn them into dragons.

I wouldn’t mind being turned into a dragon though. (Hmm… imagine a Penguin-Dragon hybrid creature…)

On one of the school buildings, an earlier artist-in-residence, Paloma Ayala, has painted a beautiful mural inspired by one of these these dragon stories.

How This Dream Tree Came About

Initially the residency organizers had assigned me a grey wall beside one of the two small stores in the village. This was the photo they had emailed me before I arrived.

On the first day when we toured the village, they showed me the building, and I realized it wasn’t a good choice for a Dream Tree.

You can’t tell from the photo, but the patterned stone base of the wall on the left side actually reaches my chest level, which meant I would have to be on a tall ladder 90% of the time while painting this wall.

I also noticed the wall faced north, which meant it’s in the sun for most of the day, which not only limited my working hours, but made working on a ladder all the more difficult.

Thirdly, the grey surface was concrete, thus it would need a white primer layer first to ensure the paint stays on the wall and maintains color lightness. 

Overall, I just wasn’t feeling this wall; somehow it didn’t feel “right” to me.

A happy coincidence

Our last stop for the tour was the Old School, and as we exited the gate, I noticed this white-ish wall just diagonally across the road.

I went closer to take a look, and while it was very rough and textured, everything else was perfect.

The wall faces the west, so it’s in its own shadow from the morning sun. When I started painting, I realized it stays in the shadow until around 4pm, thus I had plenty of time each day to work.

It’s white-ish, so no primer needed, and I could start painting on the wall directly.

The stone design at the base reached up to my knees, so I’d still need a ladder, but I didn’t need to be on it 90% of the time.

And being right across the road from the Old School was very convenient because that’s where I’d be storing my materials for painting this wall, and getting clean water for painting.

The next day I wandered around the village center on my own to shortlist other options, but it soon became clear that this was the best one.

Meeting with the owners

On my fourth day here, Dimitar and Darina brought me to meet Stefan and Kinka, the retired couple who own and live in this house, to ask their permission for painting the mural on their wall.

I had prepared a sketch to give them an idea of what this mural might look like, and with Darina’s help, explained the concept of the Dream Tree to them.

Stefan and Kinka were reluctant and hesitant at first, but after answering their questions with the help of Darina’s translation, they said OK.


Thus began my painting of this mural, on this very rough textured wall.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wall as textured and as rough as this one. When I put my hand on it, it’s so prickly and feels like tiny needles all over my fingers and palm. It’s not a wall you’d want to lean on, or punch when you’re angry (not that I’d recommend punching any wall to express your anger).

Even though the wall is the most textured I’ve painted, and three paintbrushes didn’t survive along the way, it didn’t take me long to adopt a systematic approach to working with this surface.

With The Gorna Lipnitsa Dream Tree, the mural itself was the least of my challenges.

For some reason, my two weeks here was as rough as the wall I was painting.

Too many little inconveniences that added up

Like a snowflake that started rolling down the hill and picking up more snowflakes along the way, what began as a couple of little inconveniences soon snowballed into an avalanche over my first days here.

The most terrible bed

The night before I traveled to Gorna Lipnitsa, I was bitten by bed bugs in the hostel, and couldn’t sleep all night. I had spent the next day waiting for my clothes and bags to be cleaned at the laundromat, surrounded by my other items like a hobo in the hostel common area, with a very swollen, painful and itchy bedbug bite on my right eyelid.

Then I rode one hour on a small, cramped, hot and stuffy bus to Pavlikeni to meet Dimitar and Darina, who drove me to the village from there. And after barely enough time for a quick shower, we gathered for a welcome dinner with everyone else.

By the time I went to bed, I had been awake for 36 hours, and all I wanted was a comfortable place to rest. 

Cue the world’s worst bed. When I sat on it, it sank under my weight, and because of the springs under it that don’t hold up the mattress, my butt was lower than every other part of my body. I wasn’t lying flat in the bed, plus I could feel the springs in my back through the thin and lumpy mattress.

A week later I moved the mattress to the floor, which was actually quite heavy despite it’s lack of “meat”. I no longer sank into the bed, but it was too hard and still lumpy, and still uncomfortable.

A long trek to and from the village center

The next issue was the 15-minute walk from the house to the village center. A 15-minute walk isn’t really all that long, but when there’s no shade along the way, the sidewalks are pretty messed up, and you’re passing what looked like mostly abandoned houses, those walks certainly felt like forever.

And when I needed to get something from the store, I’d have to make this 15-minute trek. If I wanted to hang out at the bar, I’d have to make this 15-minute trek. When I wanted to go to work, I’d have to make this 15-minute trek. And when I needed to get online to update my website and social media, I’d have to make this 15-minute trek because there’s no Wi-Fi at the house.

Bad internet situation

I could still work my way around the 15-minute walk by adapting my tasks accordingly, like going to the store just before heading home, or bringing my laptop to the school with me on the days I needed to handle online tasks.

But on the first day we went to the Old School to work, Elisabetta and I spent two hours just trying to find a place to work in the building because there was barely any Wi-Fi signal. Later we learnt that the router is in a tree in the yard so it can provide Wi-Fi to both school buildings.

Thus the best place to get the Wi-Fi signal is sitting outside the building, which isn’t so bad in the mornings when it’s cool, but once it passes 1pm it’s way too hot and sunny, and at 5pm it’s mosquito o’clock so you don’t want to be outside at all.

Lacking facilities at the The Old School

Though we had keys to lock the building at night, Darina didn’t recommend that we leave our laptops and valuables overnight in the school. So if I wanted to do online work I’d have to bring my heavy laptop on the 15-minute trek to and from the school each time. 

While the Old School Residency has been here for 10 years, the facilities of the school haven’t been well-maintained. There are broken windows, the floor in the ground floor classroom has holes, and there’s only one tap with running water, which we were advised not to drink from.

Then there are the traumatic toilets in its own little building in the yard, which consists of many cubicles with walls that are chest level high, and you do your business in a what is literally a hole in the ground.

When I went to check them out, I was greeted by the smell of sitting human waste in the container under the holes, buzzing flies and mosquitoes, and in the corners of the cubicles are spiders galore.

The local store

On our first morning here the organizers took us to the local store, and I soon realized it’s not the system I’m used to: putting items into a basket and bringing it to the cashier to check out.

In both stores here, 90% of items are behind the counter, and you’d have to line up to tell the cashier what you wanted, then they bring it to the register to ring it up.

Firstly, this system is really really really slow when there are others in line.

Secondly, nobody speaks English, so non-Bulgarian speakers have to point and gesture and hope they understand you. Thankfully I had participated in Bulgarian language lessons during my previous residency in Sofia, but it was challenging enough even with the organizers there helping with translations.

Added to that, the store has very limited items, and barely any fresh produce.

The organizers would take us to Pavlikeni once a week, where we could visit the farmer’s market and the supermarket, thus I’d have to plan my groceries for the week each time.

No washer anywhere

There’s no washer in the house, or in the Koreans’ accommodation, or anywhere in the village. We had to hand-wash our things, or pay for someone in the village to do it (which depends on the organizers’ availability to pick up and drop off your clothes). I tried this service one time, and my clothes returned still wet.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t have issues hand-washing my clothes, but after long hours of working at the wall and the 15-minute trek back home in the middle of the afternoon (sometimes carrying groceries from the local store), the last thing I wanted to do when I returned home was washing my clothes.

I had reached my limit

I was up to my eyebrows outside of my comfort zone, away from all the conveniences that I’m used to, and I felt completely helpless that everything was out of my control.

It was a hassle to go to the store, I had no proper workspace with good internet for handling my online tasks, the school toilet was shitty (literally there’s shit sitting in the hole in the ground) and full of insects, the trek to and from the school in the heat was so draining, and after all that each day, a terrible bed to look forward to each night.

Yet it seemed that my housemates were enjoying this place, thus I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me.

Three days into my time here I had an emotional breakdown in front of them.

And as they listened and offered their perspectives, I realized that I wasn’t in the same situation as they were.

For them, being here was a break from their usual lives, a time for them to disconnect from the outside world and just focus on their work.

For me, I’d been away from home for four months, stayed in at least five accommodations before this, painted five murals, and have had to adjust to various little inconveniences and different groups of people every step along the way. I was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted in general, and even though I thought I had rested and recuperated during the ten days between the previous residency and here, it’s not quite the same as having a home base to return to.

I was supposed to be in Gorna Lipnitsa for three weeks, but this was the first time in all my residencies that I just wanted to get out of here as soon as possible. Thus I decided to complete this Dream Tree within two weeks, then get the hell out and spend the third week with the boyfriend, who was going to be in Bansko, the ski resort town of Bulgaria.

After all, a critical part of my work at this point was to update my website, and it was impossible for me to do that with the Wi-Fi setup (or lack thereof) at the school, thus I would handle that during my week in Bansko.

What I’ve Learnt From This Experience

From the above challenges, I learnt a few things.

The first, and perhaps the most important, is that I really needed to take better care of my well-being, and even more so because murals are physically and mentally challenging work.

But on the days I’m supposed to rest, I end up feeling restless (how ironic) and that I’ve got so much do to, and I’ll get to work. Then on the days I have a lot to do, the part of me that wants to rest kicks in and makes me procrastinate, and so I end up having to catch up on work on my days of rest. Such a vicious cycle.

I realized also that painting murals takes it toll on the physical body, and for someone who doesn’t exercise regularly (my excuse is always that I need the time for my work), I started to get new aches and pains in my body that were accumulated from the past four months of painting five murals.

And because I was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted, and in an environment that didn’t provide me much comfort, it became easier to let myself off the hook from putting in the extra effort to gather people to paint their dreams.

On the first day when I brought this up to the organizers, they said I could go and invite the residents myself. I was a little taken aback because in previous residencies, the organizers had all been very helpful in coordinating these “Paint-Your-Dream” sessions. I suppose they are more hands-off in this residency, but somehow not getting the support I needed amplified that voice in my head that was constantly repeating how my project wasn’t all that important.

The second obstacle was when the wall owners didn’t seem too excited or keen about me painting their wall, so I felt it was too much to ask if people could paint their dreams as part of the mural. Initially I had decided to ask them again when the mural was more completed, but once the tiredness from days of working kicked in, and without the support I needed from the organizers, I felt I only had enough in me to try and complete this mural by myself.

On my last evening in Gorna Lipnitsa, some residents came my mural presentation, and it was then I realized what a wasted opportunity it was that they weren’t invited to paint their dreams. Somehow the project had become all about me, rather than about the community aspect and the message behind the Dream Tree – that all of us have the possibility to live the life of our dreams.

Even though Dream Tree No. 7 was finished, I felt incomplete. I felt like I hadn’t done my best to manifest my own project to the intended outcome. If I had asked the wall owners about letting people paint and they said no, then I can still say I’ve done my part to try and make it happen. But I hadn’t even asked. So I was the only one responsible for the failure to manifest my original intention.

I realized I’ve been waiting for someone to make my project important, before I could feel like it was. It’s important to me, yes, but I didn’t feel like it would be important to anyone else, thus it really isn’t important at all.

And as I left, a week earlier than intended, I carried a lot of mixed feelings. I was relieved to get out of that place, I was excited to see my boyfriend and spend a week in a place I hadn’t visited before, but I also couldn’t help but wonder how things would have played out if I had toughed it out that final week and saw my original intention through.

If I had just put in that effort to invite people to paint their dreams, if I had been more firm in asking for support from the organizers, if I had been more thick-skinned and insist on the importance of my project for the community, perhaps I’d feel more complete about this Dream Tree.

But ultimately, I had made my decision to leave it as it is, and once I’ve declared it complete, there’s no going back to change it. There’s only moving forward to do the next one better, to fight harder for the original intention of the project, to take better care of myself.

In the grand goal of 100 Dream Trees, some of which will be more prominent than others, this one will eventually become a blip, seen only by the residents here, future artists attending the Old School Residency, and maybe some travelers who seeking a miracle from St Ivan Rilski.

For now, I make my peace and move on.

7 Dream Trees up, 93 more to go!

Work-in-Progress Video:

Check out the time-lapse making of “The Gorna Lipnitsa Dream Tree” on YouTube here:


Special Thanks:

  • The Old School Residency
  • Stefan Georgiev & Kinka Georgieva

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