Aida Bukovica's
Vision of Art Royale

by Monty Montgomery

A year and a half ago, the Lee County Alliance for the Arts experienced a renaissance. Emerging revived and re-energized under the leadership of new Executive Director Louise Senneff from a long period of retrenchment, the Alliance re-invented itself as a creative force and re-entered the local social scene as a fun, "happening place" with leading-edge exhibitions and truly special events. Art Royale, sponsored by a new Women’s Signature Group and held October 23, 2003, was one of those major new events. Widely attended, heavily covered in the press and excitedly talked about by those lucky enough to be there as well as by those who weren’t, Art Royale was a sensation! So sensational it’s already become an annual Lee County event. How did that happen?

There must have been some inspirational dynamo behind the scenes! Surely, some magical combination of Ziegfeld and Barnum with an artist’s insight and sensibility to bring together a broad spectrum of creative people working in diverse media: blacksmiths, painters, sculptors, fire-dancers, computer whizzes, stilt-walkers, musicians, costume designers, etc. In short, there must have been some very unique person in our midst able to produce that never-before-seen phantasmagoric evening of interactive and participatory art experiences. Meet Aida Bukovica

Are you a Fort Myers native or from some other place?

Aida Bukovica: I’ve been here 11 years. I came as a war refugee from Bosnia in ’93. Back home, I was trained in the technology of textiles and have been in fashion all my life. I was exposed to art in art school since I was six years old. Then, in 1991, war changed my whole perspective, life, art, and humanity.

What happened?

I was out of school, starting my own fashion design business at home in Sarajevo, which was a beautiful Olympic city. And then, the war came along and changed forever the way I think. My experience is that war is the worst human invention of all time. There’s no winner in a war. Everyone’s a loser. For every side, it’s disaster.

The worst thing the war did to me is it uprooted me. I lost my sense of identity and was – like most of the refugees – horribly displaced and separated from family. It was very painful.

May I ask, what was the first event, the first experience in the war that directly affected you personally?

The first experience was just "something is happening" that you were told was never going to happen to you or your generation. I mean, you live and grow up believing this can not ever happen to you. You think it will not happen. And then it happens, out of the blue. The human hate, the destruction, the blindness of the people who are really blinded by their hate and greed and jealousy, whatever – I don’t even know what to call it.

What was the first event that made you realize "This is really happening"?

The first thing was we were protesting against the war on the streets of Sarajevo and then...that’s where I first experienced the shooting. We were just like, just like animals someone was shooting—and I always hated even animals to be shot. That was my first experience of war and my first absolute feeling so weak and so small. Fragile. I realized how fragile and small I am. How helpless when someone has a weapon and you don’t. You don’t even want to have weapons. Your good intentions and good heart is just so fragile compared to someone’s guns, that’s what scared me. Because I always thought, "I didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t hurt anyone, I don’t hate anyone, nothing can happen to me." But of course, not true!

And then my whole life, the whole genocidal way of this war, reminded me of what we had learned in studies about World War II and the horrible holocaust and horrible hate towards people. That’s what scared me. That was first. After that I would say nothing would shatter that first scare.

But anyway, after a certain amount of time...after all the horrible experiences I had, I was brought here with a special program for refugees from Bosnia and refugees in general, to have a chance to start new lives, to reunite with their loved ones, and so forth.

Do you have family or others here now?

I have my sister. When she came I was her guardian for a number of years. I raised her and she’s now in college in Greensboro, North Carolina, with the tremendous help and support of my friends here. I lost a lot of family…but I still have, thank God, my siblings. My brothers are alive and two aunts are alive.

How did you happen to come to Fort Myers, Florida?

I was in a group selected to go to Cape Coral where a Lutheran Church was my sponsor. I did not like leaving my home in Europe to come to the United States. I was picked by a program that sent many people to many different countries: Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Poland—many, many places. I came to the United States.

Before you came, what did you think about the United States?

Well, I really always wanted to go see the Grand Canyon. I thought that America was a country of plastic and nylon and a bit superficial, too Disney World for me. But, when I came here and got off the plane in Fort Myers, I had these beautiful smiling faces looking at me. With time, my life became much easier when I met my first friends, who were Jane and Brian Baker. They were my first really close American friends, and I couldn’t have run into any better people. They were not my sponsors, and I met many people here who helped me before I met them, even people from my country who were here for a number of years, but Jane and Brian Baker helped me make the first real deep connections to American people. Soon I realized, knowing and learning and just breathing air everyday of my life here, that American people are the most genuine people in the world.

I was so overwhelmed with the amount of support and love I received here from my friends and the beautiful people here that I had this feeling that I did not know how to, what to, give them back. To cook for them? To invite them for dinner? That’s not enough all the time. I dreamed about having an opportunity to do something in their honor that will leave a bigger legacy, sort of their legacy because they are definitely my inspiration. My friends are my inspiration.

I always dreamed that sometime I would be happy again. And now I’m so happy, so happy, and I’m so grateful that I want to find a way, to please my friends, to say to them "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

You’re now in a new business: Aida Design Concepts?

Yes, I went from Publix deli, washing the dishes, to decorating the refrigerator deli display cases, to being a waitress in an upscale French restaurant – a horrible waitress – and then, decorative fabrics, which gave me an insight on how much I can use my training and my knowledge to help people create their own personal styles and environments. Then I worked at Chico’s as a freelancer for eight years and also worked with Edmond Interiors.

All of that enhanced me personally, because every person I met on my journey here was a very special person and they have forever left something, a part of them, in me.

How is your business doing, what are you working on?

In Aida Design Concepts I’m consulting with people about their homes. I just currently finished a very beautiful 3,000 square feet condo in The Dunes, Naples. That was the biggest project I’ve been working on, and I’m finishing a few homes in Gulf Harbour.

I am not fast. I am very slow. Why is that? Because I want to have things right. Because I really want to get so personal and I want everything to be special. I do not repeat any details or anything in my approach to the people’s homes. I take every person, every family as an individual and I try to make it as personal as possible. That takes a lot of time. I don’t do ‘cookie cutter’ things, where I just go into a home with picture #1, 2 and 3, "La la la la la la! Style this and style that…" I like to do very personalized things. Each one is the first one … and that takes time….

How did Art Royale get started?

I was invited by Beth Crane to join the Alliance’s new Women’s Signature Board and was invited to their first meeting where we talked about the Board having this very big fundraising event for Alliance for the Arts. I walked into the room and met the most beautiful women in Fort Myers, beautiful inside and outside. I sat there, just so overwhelmed. Everyone started talking and giving their ideas. The more I heard, the more I realized I already had in my head something to add because I always recognized the amount of talented people in this town. It’s such a small town yet has more creative people per capita, it’s just unbelievable. And I felt all that talent was not recognized.

I had in mind sort of like an adult party, very interactive. My inspiration was from one of my favorite cities in the whole world – Barcelona. Barcelona has a street called Las Ramblas, this almost never-ending street where you can walk and walk. You can go there after a long day and energize yourself because there are so many artists and artisans and so much art is happening as you’re walking. It’s not only artists, painters, sculptors. Sometimes, people who are lawyers, doctors or construction workers who have dreams of something they want to do, will come and do it and perform and get it out of their system. That’s what I liked about Las Ramblas. I really loved that concept.

So that was the inspiration. I didn’t know what to expect when I presented my ideas or if anyone would like them. But, Beth Crane called me – I think she’s really incredible, the true driving force behind it – she called me and she said, "Aida, you stirred that room up. And we want you to chair this event." I said, "What?" I was in a shock at first. I said, "Oh my, no! I don’t have time! I will give you this whole thing and you’ve just got to do it." And she said, "No, no, no, Aida, you don’t understand. No one else can do it. Personally, you’re the only one. Only the person who has the vision can stand and lead this in the right direction."

She said there was "an incredible group of women that will help you": Andrea Prather, Andi Horowitz, Debra Hobbs, Jo Ann Catti, Mary Lawton, Nicole Goldberg, Lisa Dusseau and so many more. That’s kind of why I accepted. They were such a great group, so helpful and wonderful. And, that’s how Art Royale started.

What happened?

I think what happened is that we had created an event where people came and were treated to a fun fundraising event. We created an event all about art where people could touch the artists, talk to artists, become artists themselves that night (that’s very important) and then go home energized and engaged and thinking about people they met that night. Also, artists for the first time could have fun and play and dream their dreams and have their dreams happen in a fun, public way.

The artists were the ones who brought the art to Art Royale and are responsible for it’s success. Their imagination, their vibrancy was it. I’m a huge dreamer and romantic so I do believe that it takes a dreamer to be a successful artist, a successful doctor, a successful anything, gardener, construction worker. You have to have dreams. And Art Royale is all about the artists’ dreams.
So what were your personal reactions to the first Art Royale? What did you think and feel when it was over?

I would say that my feelings about the event were established when two days prior the artists came with their props, their paints, their canvasses. To experience 26 individuals working in such a harmony and to create such a positive energy, that’s what I loved about Art Royale.

That means we are very, very strong, but we have to keep together. We have to be closer. So many artists try to kind of remove themselves, isolate themselves, and that’s not good. We are all one side, we can only make a difference if we are talking and we are exchanging and collaborating. I do believe the future of the world is in collaboration. I think uniting two, three people creatively can successfully bring not only a beautiful piece of art that will energize us, but also a beautiful solution for finding new energy or building a new construction, or a new vision for a bridge or doing a surgery that is shorter and better. Become a better whatever. Collaboration!

As the Art Royale chairperson and visionary force, what were the toughest, most challenging parts for you?

I want to work in the background, but I realized with the short period of time that wasn’t possible. Because if you have a vision and a concept, it’s just hard to gain trust from artists and not hurt their feelings if you have to communicate teamwork to them. It’s the ‘total feel’ being created. You have to be an individual yourself, but the overall has to create a flow. It’s like being a director in a play directing actors. I think that’s very hard to do. I realize in general, that to communicate your vision to artists, make sure that you’re not entering in their creativity.

I would like also to emphasize that one of the hardest things about Art Royale was to call each individual artist and ask them to participate. I didn’t want them to feel that "Oh my, they’re again looking for donated pieces!" For a good cause, they don’t mind, they’re generous. But I really wanted them to do something first and foremost for themselves, the artists, to have fun, to work on a project that will be an exciting challenge for them. Also, I wanted to open minds and to put art on a different platform that is more visible, more accessible to people.

That to me was very hard, but I’m so fortunate that I have not found what I was afraid of. I received more surprisingly good things, like when we would meet and talk or artists would call me and say "Aida, I just was thinking…" and it was such a good idea and so remarkable. I think it takes in every project a person who will overlook, orchestrate and keep the balance. You have to have a person who will have enough of a kind of charisma to hold all the threads together.

It’s your calling, your destiny?

I don’t believe it’s my destiny. I strongly believe, I have such a strong belief in my dreams that it just can’t fail. My friends just recently told me my life is a musical. We were discussing musical elements, and this year music is going to be one of the strongest Art Royale components, much stronger than last year and so incredibly adventurous. So, we were discussing that, and one of my friends said, "Aida, how can you go ahead, you don’t even have any of this, and you don’t have that...yet you talk as though you have it all!" I said, "Exactly. Because we are going to have it!"

You know, we don’t have money but we’ll find a way to get money and have what we need to produce a successful event. We may not reach perfection, but we’ll reach terrific! My grandfather also taught me if you have three good days and you are happy, happy, happy, put a little stone in your shoes to bother yourself for a while – so you remain realistic and balanced.

One of my dreams is to make ‘Art Royale for Children’ on a really grand scale. That will be so much fun. A different event but also Art Royale, for juniors, in the daytime. I think that is the most important thing. Enabling artists to invite people of all ages to interact with them also raises awareness for the arts. In a time when public schools cut art classes and art teachers are without work, but more importantly, the kids are not exposed to art. I believe that art in so many ways, like bringing art to cancer patients, makes people healthier, and happier. Being exposed to art at any age doesn’t mean you have to become an artist, but you become a better person. You become less violent, happier, healthier, you find ways to channel your creativity in new directions easier. And that’s really what the goal of Art Royale is. Taking it to the kids is key. The money raised from Art Royale goes to summer arts camp, goes to arts programs that Alliance for the Arts organizes all year around, and that’s very, very important.

What else is being planned for this year that you can talk about?

Ideas we plan are: "Surprise!" That’s what we plan, big-big letters, SURPRISE! We will try to come up to the challenge to surprise more. The theme is "The Future is Ours!" Attire is white, be creative. It is the day before Halloween. It’s taking art to the next level, really. I chose this theme because with all that’s happening in the world right now, I think the majority of the population is forgetting it’s 2004.

We are entering rings of Saturn, seeing them on our television in one corner of this world and in other corners of the world people are dying from hunger and suffering in wars and hate. Just imagine how much – not only money – how much human energy is wasted. If we can just remind everyone that we should dream on. It keeps people energized. I’m afraid people will stop dreaming if you don’t remind them you have to dream on. Things happen. Life is beautiful. The world is beautiful. You know, we have to keep our trees green and our waters clean, that’s why this is a tribute to our futures.

It’s so important, to have open-mind thinking, to have a dialog, to talk, to experience. We are on the same side, we are in this community and we are supporting the arts and that’s wonderful. What we think politically doesn’t really affect what we want for this world.

So far we have 23 exhibits submitted that involve almost 40 artists. They’re all such incredible ideas. We are limited by space so we may not be able to use them all, which is a concern, and I may have to tell some, "No." I wish we could expand the roof and use the tops of the trees. Maybe it’s actually a way to help us grow, have more space and maybe do it on different grounds, like adding the Broadway Palm, almost next door.

For now, it will be an evening of dazzling fine and performing arts with the art taken out of sterile formal organizational settings to energize it for the artists and the public. And I just want to express my gratitude to the artists who are making this event come true and my admiration for their efforts and energy and their good hearts and their "genuine-ity". I express that to them so highly that I wish I could whisper that in their ears everyday.

It’s like the ‘Angels of the Arts Awards’, it’s not just recognizing their artwork, it’s recognizing their thinking in general and their good deeds, their genuine soul. I’m so happy the Angels of the Arts is happening. It’s so important because art is important.

For example, to me, Dr. Fenning, a surgeon, is also an incredible artist. I think of him as so creative and an out-of-the-box person. All these out-of-the-box people can succeed in their practice as a lawyer, as a doctor, as an engineer, as an architect, because they see and move forward instead of standing still.

On September 17th, the Fennings are having an Open House at their home. It’s a fund raiser and preview presentation for Art Royale. It’s like, how do you say "you have your eyes closed tight and then you sense or taste something and try to tell what it is"? What would you call that? What is the magical word that describes that you are there blindfolded and you have to taste something to recognize what it is? That’s what their Open House will be. It will be: "Indulging the first senses and tastes of The Future is Ours! Art Royale 2004". Very intriguing and stimulating. Stimulating the palate. You’ll want to be there. •

from the September-October 2004 issue

"I realized knowing and learning
and just breathing every day of
my life here that American people
are the most genuine
people in the world."

"One of my dreams is to make
'Art Royale for Children'
on a really grand scale."