Zdena Šarić from Zenica, in central Bosnia and Herzegovina, is not an ordinary artist. Instead of a paint brush, she uses an electric iron. Instead of a canvas, she uses old wall calendars. And nearly every Wednesday, she teaches classes to young adults with disabilities, showing them how to use household appliances – such as clothes irons, soldering irons and ovens – to make paintings.

For more than two years, Šarić has offered these classes through a small local association called Zvijezda. Zvijezda is run by parents of children and young adults who have a range of intellectual and physical disabilities, such as Down syndrome and paralysis. The association offers daycare and activities that promote socialisation. In Šarić’s class, the students create paintings using a technique officially called “encaustic” or “hot wax painting”, but which is most often referred to as “iron painting”.

Photo courtesy of Zvijezda.
 

This technique has become increasingly popular in the past two decades, with artists around the world starting to use it in their work. The method involves a heated surface onto which wax is applied and then painted with household appliances instead of a brush.

Photo by Lidija Pisker.


Šarić has taught “iron painting” to many different groups of people – including pre-school children, elderly people, and people with hearing and speaking disabilities – but she says she has never witnessed such strong excitement as with this group of students.

“You get lost in the painting and forget about the outside world”

This type of art is intuitive, and as such, it has a great therapeutic effect on everyone who tries it. As soon as you start to ‘iron’ the painting, you get lost in it and you forget about the outside world. The only thing that matters is how the colours will intertwine and what the painting will look like in the end. I think that is one of the reasons why this group likes it so much.

Some people say they have special needs, but in fact what they look for in life is simple and pure. Instead of going to clubs and bars on the weekends, these young men and women eagerly await our Wednesday meetings, where they have fun, laugh, fall in love and make friends.

We organised two exhibitions of their work. They got really excited about the idea of showing their paintings. Not only did they paint them, but they also prepared frames for the paintings, with much effort and dedication.”

The students' work at auction. Photo courtesy of Zvijezda.
 

During the last exhibit, all the paintings were sold in a day. A third exhibit is planned for later this year.

“[These exhibits] showed that they can do the same thing as the rest of the young people when they get a chance. A couple of small home irons and some wax did more for social inclusion of these young people than hundreds of state strategies.

 

Šarić says that these strategies are on paper only – that in truth, very few strategies for social inclusion are actually applied. (International observers have repeatedly criticised Bosnia and Herzegovina for failing to provide adequate inclusion measures.)

Nobody knows this better than Josip Valentić, father to 31-year-old Sandro, who suffers from cerebral paralysis, epilepsy and diabetes, and who has become a fan of “iron painting”.

No one takes care of this population; the authorities don't care, no one but us, the parents. Eight years ago, I and a couple of parents decided to establish the Zvijezda association to try to help our children because no one else would. If they didn’t come here [to participate in the association's activities], they would stay at home all the time.

A student holding his work. Photo by Lidija Pisker.

The joy that overwhelms them every time they come to the classes – it can hardly be described with words. The iron painting infects the group members with positive energy, and they are also very curious about painting with ovens and soldering irons. We parents enjoy the classes too because we see them smiling and enjoying this creative work. Sometimes we paint with them. It’s always fun – we never know how many paintings we will have finished by the end.

The classes take place in a decrepit, abandoned municipal building, where the Zvijezda association is located. This former kindergarten building caught fire several times in the past; most of the rooms are demolished and full of garbage, while the windows are smashed. Still, it is the only space the parents could get for free. All other expenses of the organisation are paid by the parents themselves.

The abandoned school where the Zvijezda association organises its activities. Photo by Lidija Pisker.


Members of the Zvijezda association maintain the building and the surrounding area as much as they can, but they say it is impossible for them to clean all the trash. Photo by Lidija Pisker.
 

With the money earned from the art exhibits, the parents plan to continue to organise various activities for their children. They have asked city authorities for a safer space to meet, but this request is still pending.

 

Article written with freelance journalist Lidija Pisker.