Trance, horses and art: the fascinating world of Laima Vitola

Blessed are those who do what they love for a living and even luckier are those who are astoundingly good at it. One such fortunate soul is 26 year-old Laima Vitola: visual artist and expert art restorer, who spoke to MATTHEW AGIUS at her home studio.

Laima Vitola
Laima Vitola

What brought you to Malta?

“I am a 26 year-old, Latvian born and raised, adventurous girl, artist and art restorer who loves music and beautiful things in life. I like to create. I’m a creative person. It’s been only a year since I arrived to Malta. I wanted to go on an Erasmus internship after I graduated and I came to work with local conservation company Atelier del Restauro. I came here for five months and had a job offer. I remember coming to Malta in December and thinking, ‘It’s nice here, the beach, the sun the people. It would be nice to stay here.’ Quite accidentally I found a job with Recoop, another art restoration company. I really liked the colleagues and atmosphere in my workplace and so I decided to stay.”

Tell me about your background in art.

“I’ve been formally learning how to draw for more than 10 years but it all began when I was a child - I really enjoyed drawing princesses and horses. I started to go to an academic drawing studio in my hometown Jelgava when I was still in primary school. In high school I made a choice between architecture or art and design school.

“So I was studying wooden product design in this amazing school where we were always learning to draw and paint. Besides the drawing and painting I really formed my tastes and vision in art and really learned how to be creative.

“The logical path would have been to become a designer but I didn’t like that idea, especially the whole design process and deadlines, there were many days when we didn’t sleep at all because of our school projects.”

She then went to the Art Academy of Latvia where she chose to study painting restoration. “Somehow, I thought that would be a good profession,” she laughs, before turning serious again. “I really enjoyed copying artworks by the old masters. We had to make very precise copies of artworks and paintings in museums and graphic arts. That’s where you really learn patience.”

What was the high point of your career so far?

“My first solo exhibition was in Cafe Society, a bar in Valletta that hold exhibitions, in May. They are very open for artists who want to display their works. I just randomly ended up there one day and they said ‘yes’ and I had a reason to make my artworks happen.”

Woman in a dream 50x70 cm 2019
Woman in a dream 50x70 cm 2019

Who’s your favourite artist?

“Albrecht Durer. Since I was very small, his work kind of mesmerised me. Melencolia I, the angel sitting with the greyhound surrounded with objects. There are plenty of meanings and symbolism in the artwork, but really, I just like the vibe, you know?” she smiles.

Favourite medium?

“Charcoal on canvas,” she says with little hesitation. “You can make many sensitive drawings with it.”

You recently had an exhibition in Cafe Society. Tell me more about it and what kind of reception did it get?

Vītola is self-deprecating. “There are no reviews or anything official, just people who went and enjoyed my art. It was an important step for me to prove to myself that I can be an artist,” she says.

“I had this opportunity to make an exhibition and I just let my thoughts fly and do what I love doing best. Of course I’d also like to sell some of my works at some point!”

Explain your creative process

“In the beginning it’s a feeling of something that I want to do, some kind of a shape or form or sometimes I just want to enjoy the material. I have some vision of what I want to do, then there are phases:

“The little idea, the devastation of starting to do it, the empty canvas. You put on the first layers and then think ‘Oh my God what is this?’ The end result is often completely different from what I had planned. I find this flow very exciting. I put on my favourite music and work all night long, trying to create perfect new things.

“Some paintings I make in one sitting, in three or four takes.” Those takes can be hours long, she says. A lover of electronic dance music, Vītola jokes that she had “the best weekend of my life when I found an 18hour DJ set and used it to help me focus on my work.”

Do you have plans for any more exhibitions in the near future?

It’s early days yet, but Vītola has an idea, she says. “In this previous exhibition, I really wanted to make atmospheric paintings and play around with shapes and forms, light and create this atmosphere.

“Now I’m planning to work with my favourite medium, charcoal. I would love to make large scale drawings of horses. They’re from another world. I have a very strong bond with these animals because I’ve been riding horses since I was a child. I was very close to horses and their personalities. I have had many nice horse friends…they are so gracious and beautiful.”

You work in restoration, that’s your day job. Do you find it ties in nicely with your artistic abilities?

“My artistic abilities come in very handy with retouching. I’m like a manual printer. I can mix any colour imaginable and this comes in very handy.

Perfectionism and patience are very needed qualities in my line of work.

What does restoration entail on a day-to-day basis? What’s your average day like?

“Sometimes we have to do the same thing for a very long period of time but at the same time as soon as you finish you have another project because no two artworks are the same. They would never be the same in terms of restoration.”

Have you studied restoration-related subjects in Malta? If so, what impression did you get?

“No. All my education comes from Latvia. Learning in university is one thing and another is learning on site. ‘The work is the teacher’.”

What is your most prestigious restoration project? Is it also your favourite?

“That was a recent one, the paintings of the Mosta rotunda. At the moment we are restoring a Mattia Preti. There’s also St Paul’s cupola. It’s hard to tell which are the favourite ones. Work is work and I tend to treat my patients equally, so to speak.”

From an outsider’s perspective, what is the Maltese art scene like? Is it easy to break into?

Vītola says its just the beginning of her Maltese experience. “When I came here, I was not intending to break into the scene, it was just that for the first time in my life I had enough time to create my own work. So I spent half a year creating art.”

Sphynx 110x70 cm
Sphynx 110x70 cm

What advice do you have for budding artists?

“The advice would be “just work.” You need to work even if you don’t feel inspired, because inspiration comes only when you’re working.

“My latest collection is about the sensation, about how it makes you feel. Of course the visual is there but you can feel the vibe.

‘‘Contemporary art is about saying something and not creating beauty and atmosphere, but we all want to be in a great atmosphere. Those paintings are all about the sensation’’.

Are there any future projects in the pipeline?

“You know how it is with projects, I have the thoughts and the will to make and if I have this will, I will do it because I can’t live without creating. It’s a must and there will be projects coming...”