Why you should care
Because art can improve seniors’ mental health.
Zdena Šarić, a single mother and caretaker of her ill father, had a tough year in 2010. She lost her job, her father died and then her son moved out. Loneliness and a sense of worthlessness settled over her small apartment on the outskirts of Zenica, a formerly industrial city in central Bosnia.
But Šarić’s depression only lasted for a short while. One day, while rearranging the closets, she found a small travel iron and an old box of her son’s wax colors, and she decided to try something she had read about on the internet: painting with them. “Once I’ve seen colors melting on the paper in front of me while I was directing them with a hot iron, I’ve got so drawn into it and my life suddenly looked as colorful as was my first painting,” says Šarić.
Ever since, Šarić, now 69, has been showing others how to care for their mental health with “iron painting.”
Many of the women she’s worked with have started exhibiting their paintings, either on their social media profiles or in art galleries.
Known as encaustic painting, wax is melted and then applied to surfaces such as paper, canvas or wood. Heated stones did the trick in ancient times, but now people use electric irons, hot plates or hair dryers. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, art schools teach encaustic theory, but not many people explored it before Šarić. When she first searched for it online, she found almost no Bosnian-language results. But with the help of Google Translate, she started learning more about how to master a style that has become increasingly popular in the West in recent decades (acclaimed Canadian short film The Physics of Sorrow was animated by encaustic painting).
Šarić’s research suggested encaustic might be an efficient form of art therapy, because of its simplicity and flexibility, which helps reduce stress. Stunning results are produced after only a couple of strokes on paper, which can be empowering.
With that in mind, Šarić started promoting encaustic through her Facebook page. Regional media became intrigued by her story, as an older woman with no formal art education or previous experience in painting. Citizens’ associations began inviting her to present encaustic to women, children and people with disabilities in Bosnia and neighboring countries.
“I was very interested to see how one can paint with an iron,” Meliha Bičo Družić, 64, a retired economist from Zenica recalls of first meeting Šarić in 2012. Bičo Družić immediately fell in love with the unusual technique.
She is among more than 4,000 women from Bosnia and Croatia whom Šarić has introduced to encaustic since 2010. Many, including Bičo Družić, have started exhibiting their paintings, either on social media or in galleries. Encaustic-related blogs, online forums and Facebook groups in Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian languages boomed. Learning how to repurpose a popular household tool to explore their creativity improved many women’s self-confidence and gave them a sense of belonging.
Bičo Družić is now an active member of a local senior art association and has taught encaustic classes herself. A recent group joked with her about how they’ve stopped using their irons on their clothes. Instead, they’re “ironing their paintings nowadays,” Bičo Družić says.
There has been no scientific research about the effects of encaustic on mental health, but studies have shown that art therapy can improve self-esteem and fight depression among seniors. Šarić believes that her large community of women — who had never thought of themselves as artists but who are now painting, exhibiting and even selling their works — is proof in itself.
When diagnosed with cervical cancer two and a half years ago, Šarić asked her son to bring her materials to the hospital. “I didn’t want our days to revolve around chemotherapies and thoughts about the disease,” Šarić says. “So we played with irons and colors to bring some color into our hospital lives.” Šarić’s cancer has not been cured but is in remission, which she takes as great news, but it remains the biggest hurdle to her spreading encaustic further.
“She’s the mother of encaustic in Bosnia,” says visual artist and art teacher Admira Bradarić, who organized an exhibition of Šarić’s encaustic paintings at her art gallery in the city of Maglaj. Šarić’s demonstration that day inspired the host. “I felt creative and free,” Bradarić says. “As an already established artist, I went back to my own painting techniques, but encaustic has enriched my creativity.”
If her health holds up, Šarić plans to expand her network into Serbia this year. “Encaustic connects people, especially women,” she says. “I’m happy to be able to be that ‘creative glue.’”
OZY’S 5 Questions With Zdena Šarić
- What’s the last book you read? Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red.
- What do you worry about? My health. I always think that, if my cancer spreads, I’ll be forced to give up on the things I’m doing. There are so many dreams I still have; I hope my disease will not stop me from accomplishing them.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? I am tempted to say “iron” as it literally changed my life — and the lives of people around me. But if it wasn’t for iron, I’m sure I would have thought of some other way to help myself.
- Who is your hero? Every hardworking person who inspires positive changes in her or his surroundings, no matter how small the changes may seem.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I don’t think much about material things. I only hope for my health to be stable so I can have an active, independent life.