“The Hrom Dream Tree” is the eighth installation of “Project: 100 Dream Trees”, and located in the neighborhood of Hrom in Skopje, Macedonia.
This mural was created during my participation in Brashnar Creative Project from 1 – 30 September 2019.
Find it here: Panko Brashnarov 17, Skopje 1000, Macedonia
This wall belongs to Brashnar Creative Project, an artist residency founded in 2016 that has since brought artists from all around the world to Skopje during the summer months.
Welcome to Hrom!
As a suburb almost on the edge of Skopje, Hrom has an interesting mix of rural, residential, and urban characteristics, which inspired the mural design.
How this Mural Came About
When I had applied to the residency, my original plan was to paint “The Skopje Dream Tree”.
However, after visiting the Skopje city center on my second day here, I wasn’t really feeling it.
At the same time, the location of the Brashnar art house is 30 minutes by public transport from the city center, so I was doubtful about painting city center landmarks on a wall that would mostly be visited by residents of this neighborhood.
I also felt that the residents who see this Dream Tree would relate more with it if it was about their neighborhood, as opposed to the city center that was intentionally designed to attract visitors to Skopje and boost the local tourism industry.
As the first week went by, the more I explored my neighborhood, the more I fell in love with what Hrom had to offer as inspiration for the eighth Dream Tree mural.
Designing the Mural
“The Hrom Dream Tree” was both the shortest and the longest wall I’ve painted (as of September 2019). On average it’s around 1.2m tall (so I didn’t need a ladder, yay!), and the combined length of both segments on either side of the small gate is around 15m.
At first I had only wanted to paint the smaller section in between the big and small gates, but it didn’t seem big enough. And if I were to paint a portion of the longer segment, I feared it may look weird and chopped off if I didn’t cover the entire length of the wall.
So I stepped up to the challenge to paint all of it, and thus designed a Dream Tree mural that showcased the rural, residential, and more urban aspects of Hrom.
Two Dream Trees
Because of the small gate between the walls, I couldn’t figure out where to place the tree for the mural, which is usually at the center of the painting.
The more I looked at the walls and thought about it, the more I felt the best course of action was to paint two Trees, one on each side of the small gate.
The Family Tree
The Family Tree depicts aspects of life in the suburban neighborhood of Hrom, where most residents are families with children.
The Artists’ Tree
The Artists’ Tree is a symbolic home for all the artists who have attended and will attend the residency program at Brashnar Creative Project.
These artist penguins on the Tree’s platforms are directly inspired by my fellow artists-in-residence in September 2019.
A Closer Look at Hrom
As a suburb almost on the edge of Skopje, Hrom has an interesting mix of rural, residential, and urban characteristics.
The Rural Aspects
A prominent rural characteristic of Hrom is the scenery around the Vardar River, which marks the boundary along one side of the neighborhood. From the Brashnar art house, this section of river is only a five-minute walk away.
In the evenings, residents stroll, jog, cycle, and walk their dogs along the dirt path that runs by the river.
At some point along the path, there’s a rickety bridge leading to the Muslim village on the other side. From Hrom’s river bank, the only visible part of the village mosque is the minaret rising amidst the greenery, from which the calls to prayer can be heard throughout the day.
Though the rickety bridge is supported by three concrete pillars, the walking surface is constructed mostly from plywood contributed and pieced together by the residents who live nearby. Despite how shabby it looks, I was told it’s quite sturdy and small cars are often driven across.
(I was pretty scared when I crossed it one morning to explore the Muslim village, because I could feel the bridge sink under each step I took, and there were many holes between the wood pieces large enough for my foot to fall through.)
One evening I saw a goat herder from the village and his goats strolling along the paved walkway near my home, thus I’ve painted them crossing the rickety bridge.
(At the base of this wall are three Painted Dreams by kids from the neighborhood. My personal favorite is the big tile on the left, painted by a 3-year-old, who I believe was trying to paint a penguin lol. More on the Painted Dreams later…)
Macedonia is an agricultural country, and most local meals are prepared with locally grown produce.
In this area around the river, it’s common to see greenhouses and land where residents have farmed and grown all kinds of vegetables and fruits.
Thus here are my Farmer Penguins:
A number of houses also have fruit trees growing in their yards, such as this house using grapevines to create a beautiful shade for their driveway…
…which has inspired the painted grapevine trellis beside the Family Tree:
The Residential Aspects of Hrom
Just five minutes of walking down the paved path at the end of my street, there’s a soccer field set amidst the various agricultural plots.
During the summer there are often matches among local soccer clubs, and sometimes from the Brashnar art house we could hear the whistles and shouts in the distance.
Under the Macedonian title of the mural are three houses along a road, to represent some of the residential neighborhoods in this area:
The first house is Brashnar Creative Project, my home during September 2019. Standing in front are two penguins (with a white dog) welcoming you, and they represent Ankica and Kenneth, the residency organizers.
The white dog beside them is Bela, and while she looks like she belongs to this house, she’s actually a neighbor’s dog who wanders around on her own in the mornings and evenings.
She comes by the house everyday, and if the small gate isn’t locked, she knows how to push it open and let herself in, and then we’d find her waiting for us right outside the front door.
When the small gate is locked, she’d settle down just outside the gate and wait for someone to come out and play with her. During the days I was painting, I’d sometimes have this happy white furry companion beside me.
The second house depicts a common feature of many houses here, having a basement which sits partway into the ground, so you’d have to go up some stairs to access the main entrance of the house:
I learnt from Ankica it’s necessary for many families to have basements because they need a cool place to store their homegrown fruits and vegetables during the hot summers. And the reason why the basements aren’t deeper into the ground is because at some places the underground water table is rather high.
The third house is interesting. At first glance this house appears like it’s still under construction, but a closer look shows signs of people already living in them!
Ankica said such houses with unfinished exteriors are common and intentional in Skopje, as it’s rather costly to hard-plaster and paint the entire outside of the building. Inside, however, it’s just as finished as any other home.
At the main road where buses run to and from the city center, there’s a roundabout with a prominent horseman statue.
This roundabout was constructed about two years ago in 2017 to regulate traffic at this junction. At the beginning many motorists were confused by this, and coupled with Macedonians’ haphazard driving, there were several traffic incidents here.
On the other side of the roundabout, I’ve painted the neighborhood kindergarten…
…and the green market where you can shop for in-season fruits and vegetables, as well as meat, cheese, bread and other local products:
Beside the kindergarten are some steps leading down to a little shop.
This is a famous bakery in Hrom known for its pretzels and the most amazing donut-like pastry with a hazelnut cream filling and powdered sugar on top.
(I kid you not… this snack is like heaven in your mouth!)
They open from 5pm to 1am on Sundays to Fridays, and at night there’s always a line of people on these steps waiting to get some delicious post-dinner treats from here.
The Urban Aspects of Hrom
“The Hrom Dream Tree” is located in a quiet residential area, and as we get closer to the main road where the buses run to and from the city center, there are more apartment buildings such as this red one.
Across the main road from these red apartment blocks, there’s a very noticeable long cluster of five terraced buildings.
This is Porta Vlae, a residential and commercial complex of brutalist architecture, which marks the boundary between the neighborhoods Hrom and Vlae.
There are many shops, restaurants, bar and cafes along the ground floor of these buildings, where residents from Hrom and Vlae run errands, have meals, get coffee, go for walks, and hang out.
In front of my version of Porta Vlae are orange and yellow buildings, a factory where people from the neighborhood used to work many years ago.
Today it’s empty and abandoned, and easily accessible through a broken fence.
(I didn’t go into the compound, just in case there were some shady characters loitering around.)
Beside these buildings is the Vardar River again, wider than where it flows in the quieter side of Hrom near the Brashnar art house. Across the river in two places are large bridges that connect the main roads running to and from the city center. Here’s the bridge closer to my side of the Hrom:
One morning I went for a long walk to explore the area, and when I stopped to take photos of the river view at this bridge, a horse-led carriage came by, traveling on the road along with the other cars and buses:
Inspired by what I had seen, I’ve painted a horse and carriage on the bridge, instead of motor vehicles.
You might notice a few more tiles on the wall here, which were painted by residents of Hrom during my “Paint-Your-Dream” workshop.
On Sunday 22 September 2019, when the wall was about 70% completed, we held a “Paint-Your-Dream” workshop in the driveway, and invited people from the neighborhood to paint their dreams on tiles.
These were free-and-easy sessions where residents could come by any time that morning and paint an image to represent their dreams.
Most of the workshop participants were children, and while the parents took photos and chit-chatted, many of them declined to paint a tile, claiming they were not good at art.
Even Bela “paw-painted” a tile in a collaborative piece with Ankica:
At the end of the workshop, we had a total of 23 painted dreams be incorporated into the mural:
The next day in the evening, Ankica and Kenneth assisted me with affixing the tiles onto the wall. (They did most of the heavy lifting here, I mostly just held the flashlight and told them where to put each tile.)
Young Artist Filip
One of my favorite moments of painting “The Hrom Dream Tree” is meeting the young artist Filip.
During the Paint-Your-Dream workshop, one of the tiles Filip painted was this purple one with a yellow sailboat:
Underneath his tile, I’ve painted a Child Penguin Artist to represent him. The penguin on the other side of his easel is his younger brother, and the two of them are probably the biggest fans of this mural.
Filip and his brother live on the same street, and on my first weekend painting the wall, the two of them were playing outside and had come up to me, curious as to what I was doing. And when I turned to say hello, they ran away because they were shy! Then they’d come back for a few seconds, and run off again.
Little did I know then that Filip was an artist himself!
A week later on Saturday morning (the day before the Paint-Your-Dream workshop), the boys came around again, and ran off when I noticed them.
Then when I stood up to take a break, I saw that Filip was seated on a stool at the next house’s wall, with a sketchbook and paper resting on the wall ledge. He was drawing while he faced the wall, as though he was painting a mural himself!
The next day when the Hrom residents came to paint their dreams, the boys arrived with their parents around 11am. Their mother told me Filip had been asking the entire morning when they were going over to join the workshop.
He painted three tiles, drew on some paper, then went home and came back with some of his drawings to show me.
Ankica pasted them up on the gate so it was like a mini-exhibition that everyone could enjoy while the workshop was going on.
From the looks of these drawings, Filip is definitely a gifted young artist, and I hope that if his dream is to be an artist, he will live it out every single day.
In the meantime, at least for the next few years, there will always be his painted tiles and the Child Penguin Artist on the wall to remind him that his dreams are possible, and somewhere out there this Penguin Artist believes in him.
The Longest Wall
Every mural comes with its challenges, and “The Hrom Dream Tree” was no different.
While it’s the shortest wall I’ve painted (height-wise), it was also the longest (approximately 15 meters), and thus this was the largest mural in terms of total surface area.
While I was glad I didn’t need a ladder for this mural, such a long wall meant that time could potentially be wasted on moving back and forth along the length. Thus in order to maximize my working efficiency, I had to plan out how I was going to complete this mural in just 1.5 weeks before the Residency Open Studio event on Wednesday 25 September.
This plan included planning out the mural design directly onto the wall itself. For the first time in my Dream Tree painting process, I painted the outlines for 80% of the details, including the Penguins (which are normally layered on top of the completed landmarks):
Then, in order to minimize the time spent on washing brushes and preparing new paint colors, the next best action was to fill in all the large areas that were of the same color at one go.
And even painting these large areas had to follow a certain order: as far as possible from background to foreground. Thus I painted the purple sky first, then the pale green-blue mountain backdrop, then the pale pink-purple ground, then the river, the trees (a mixture of green, blue and pink), and the road.
After that it was about tackling one segment at a time to minimize unnecessary movement back and forth the length of the wall.
The next challenge had to do with my wall-painting hours. From what I had observed, the wall is in its own shadow in the mornings, and again from 4.30pm.
Which meant my painting hours were 6.30am to 1pm, and 4.30 to 7.00pm (where I lose the daylight).
So I’d get up around 6.00am each day, and paint until lunch, after which I pretty much just vegetate until I have to work again at 4.30pm until sundown. And that’s assuming it doesn’t rain. On the one very rainy day that occurred the day before the Open Studio, I had to start and stop my painting process according to the weather’s temperament, and this was the most annoying and tiring day because I wanted so badly to cross the finish line, and the rain kept interrupting my work.
Residency Schedule Timings
Out of the residencies I’d attended this year, this one had the most eventful program, which included a full day of work at the garden Ankica and her parents tend to (which feeds us fresh fruits and vegetables at the residency), two day trips, a 3-day vacation at Lake Ohrid, and group dinners which the artist residents take turns to prepare.
Thus my time frame of working on this wall also included some of these extra-curricular activities, and it was pretty much nonstop paint-gardening-travel-socialize-paint from 12 to 25 September.
Here’s a quick look at these days:
- Thu 12 Sep: Sketch and paint outline on the wall
- Fri 13 Sep: More sketching and finish painting outline on the wall
- Sat – Mon, 14-16 Sep: Paint 6.30am-1.00pm, 4.30-7.00pm
- Tue 17 Sep: Paint 6.30am-9.00am, Gardening 9.30am to 4.00pm
- Wed – Fri, 18-20 Sep: Group trip to Lake Ohrid
- Sat 21 Sep: Paint 6.30am-1.00pm, 4.30-7.00pm
- Sun 22 Sep: Paint-Your-Dream workshop, Paint 4.30-7.00pm, Group dinner
- Mon 23 Sep: Paint 6.30am-1.00pm, 4.30-7.00pm, Group dinner, Fix tiles to wall
- Tue 24 Sep: Paint while it rained on-and-off the whole day
- Wed 25 Sep: Paint 6.30am-2.00pm & 3.00-5.00pm, 7.00pm Open Studio
Physical Body Breakdown
Looking at this crazy 13-day schedule, I can see now why my physical body crashed the day after the Open Studio.
My boyfriend had arrived in Skopje a few hours before the Open Studio, and at the start of the event, I had already started to feel unwell, but I powered through it to chat and socialize with the other artists and the guests.
After the Open Studio I returned with Jay to his Airbnb, and all through the next day, I continued to feel unwell. I had a constant headache, I didn’t have any appetite, and my body just felt like lying down and not moving at all.
I had basically reached my physical breaking point, after pushing myself continuously like that for almost 2 weeks without rest (“rest” for me means sleeping and lying down and basically doing nothing lol).
These 5.5 months of traveling and painting a total of 6 murals (7 including Dream Tree No. 2 in Singapore just before I had left for Europe in mid-April) had also taken its toll on my physical body. During the previous Dream Tree I painted in Bulgaria, my left shoulder blade hurt at times after I completed work for the day.
And while painting “The Hrom Dream Tree”, my right shoulder became tense and painful after the first couple of painting hours each day. On the fifth day of work, I had a small emotional breakdown because I saw how much more I had to paint of this wall, and with the pain in my shoulder, it felt impossible to complete this mural in time for the Open Studio.
By choosing to paint my largest mural in less than 2 weeks (and after completing 6 murals in 5 months), I had given myself a formidable challenge, somehow managed to hang in there until it was complete, and then completely crashed and burned for days after that.
What I’ve Learnt
With these challenges comes the opportunity to do better next time, and to bring these lessons into Dream Tree No. 9 and beyond.
Firstly, I learnt that I have to start work earlier. With each mural, I’ve always underestimated how much time I’ve needed. And because I’ve completed the painting part for most of them in a week or less, I’d assumed I had more than enough time for this one. I could have started three or four days earlier, and probably taken at least a full day of rest somewhere in the middle.
Secondly, I learnt of my physical body’s limits, and how it’s imperative for me to take extra good care of myself, because the next 92 Dream Trees will continue to test my limits. This means developing a regular exercise habit, perhaps even devising a system of stretches for my shoulders, back and wrists to be done before and after each painting session.
Thirdly, I learnt that as much as I prefer to work alone, there are going to be times that asking for help is necessary. To me, asking for help makes me feel like I’m being a nuisance to others. But from this experience, I realized that Ankica and Kenneth were happy to assist me with my project, and my feeling like I was burdensome or troublesome was all just in my head.
After all, their residency house was getting an artistic upgrade, and this project is kind of a collaboration between the residency, the community and myself. Thus the very nature of my project already meant that I’m never alone in it, thus perhaps it’s time to start brainstorming creative ways to get others involved with the upcoming Dream Trees.
From this experience of attending 5 consecutive residencies in 5.5 months, I realized that my old way of doing things (procrastinating at the beginning and rushing like mad as I get closer to the deadline) was no longer an option if I wanted “Project: 100 Dream Trees” to be sustainable for my physical, emotional and mental health.
At the same time, this idea that I had to be a lone wolf in painting 100 Dream Trees wasn’t allowing me to grow as a person or ensuring that I would be able to complete my entire project in the long run. I’ve started to realize that pretty soon I’ll need to start assembling a team to work with me on this — perhaps someone to coordinate with the local communities, someone to handle the documentation of the process, and maybe even a few someones to paint with me as the walls progressively get larger.
There won’t be another Dream Tree for the next few months, but it’s definitely food for thought while I continue hunting for more communities to collaborate with in 2020 and beyond.
8 Dream Trees up, 92 more to go!
Check out the time-lapse making of “The Hrom Dream Tree” on YouTube here:
- Brashnar Creative Project
- Ankica Mitrovska & Kenneth Moore
- The residents of Hrom who have painted their dreams