“I wanted to create a chronicle, to paint the devastation, cleanup and rebirth,” says the artist, on the phone from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where he now teaches. “It was my way of engaging. Being from Bosnia, a person who experienced a different kind of devastation and tragedy—one caused by human hand, one caused by nature—it was my way of saying I care. I’m looking for meaning through the act of painting.”
Kobaslija was 17 when his parents smuggled him and his younger sister out of Bosnia to Croatia. They made their way to a refugee center in Germany, where the family was reunited several few years later. A fluid artist who learned to draw by copying his grandmother’s needlepoint renderings of portraits by Frans Hals and other Old Masters, Amer studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and after moving to Florida got his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Ringling College of Art and Design, followed by a Master of Fine Arts at New Jersey’s Montclair College of the Arts.
Kobaslija had explored his painful Bosnian past and questions of memory in his earlier work, but as grad school began he felt the need “to embrace my present, and engage with this new world,” he says. He roamed Manhattan, looking at everything and painting pulsing streetscapes. They were competent, he says, but didn’t go very deep. It wasn’t until the artist found himself alone, monk-like, in his windowless little painting studio in New Jersey that something came to life for him.
“I didn’t have a dollar to my name. I was happy to be there. All that mattered was painting,” Kobaslija says. “Without realizing it, I was meditating on the nature of that space.” He describes the studio paintings he’s made over many years as “self-portraits without one’s own likeness. You don’t see the person, but you have all these windows into their mind.”
In 2010, the widow of the late French master Balthus allowed Kobaslija to paint the artist’s studio in the Swiss Alps, untouched and unvisited since Balthus’ death a decade before. Three years after making those dynamic paintings, with their vertiginous viewpoints and telling detail, Kobaslija painted a bird’s-eye view portrait of Jackson Pollock’s suitably paint-splattered studio floor in East Hampton on Long Island.
The pictures of his own various studios—with their books and paint palettes, old sneakers, stacked canvases and half-empty boxes—carry what Kobaslija, referring to Emily Dickenson, calls “the sum of my experiences. I’m revealed. Ever since I fled Bosnia, I’ve lived in so many places I don’t remember all the names. It’s been nomadic, and at worst, frenetic. Painting those spaces—they’re like chapters of my history.”