Roosevelt Islanders

Ioan Popoiu: Refugee Finds Freedom as American Artist

David Stone
Eve On Venus / New Work by Ioan Popoiu
Eve On Venus / New Work by Ioan Popoiu
Photo provided by the artist.

The year was 1975. Ioan Popoiu's artwork was exhibited professionally for the first time in the Municipal Exhibition space in Bucharest, Romania, his native land.

Four decades later, his paintings represent expressionist explorations of freedoms that tantalized him in his youth.

"My work is an expression of my personal life journey," Popoiu says, but that oversimplifies a career of enthusiastic work that stays in touch with his personal history, the environment and ethical considerations.

A political refugee who endured a 45 day hunger strike that forced the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu to allow his family to leave Romania in 1984, Popoiu's art is informed in part by a five year struggle that ended with his being stripped of his citizenship and love for the traditions he was forced to leave behind.

He and his family arrived in New York and settled on Roosevelt Island as refugees, escaping the last grasp of the Soviet Union and its satellite nations.

Learn more about Romanian History in Pictures

Growing Up Romanian

"The Miorita ballad, is perhaps, the most eloquent Romanian folk poem ever created, summing up the most important beliefs" of the Romanian nation, according to Rolandia. and Popoiu shares both its folk sensitivities and birthplace in Vrancea. The story is not as important to his work as are the atmosphere and values in which it takes place.

Vrancea was a "community of local farmers, wine makers and some of the most beautiful rolling hills that made my childhood one filled with Jules Verne-like play and explorations. Every day summertime was a great adventure."

As a youngster excited about art, Popoiu absorbed the rhythms and textures of country life that later found their way into his paintings. In 2014, his most recent solo exhibit, A Moment in Time, he was inspired by a “visceral connection” to the Cucuteni, a Romanian culture that rose and disappeared during the Neolithic Era, 4800 - 3000 BCE. 

Before that, in 2011, his Blanket of Ash and Lapilli (See a short video from the exhibitwas an expressionist meditation on contemporary environmental destruction of the rural landscapes and the cultures being lost with them.

"As a young artist in Communist Romania in the 1970's and 1980's, my first shows were controlled by what the government deemed not provocative or revolutionary," he recalls.

He chafed against the restrictions.

"To further educate myself, I would attend the American and French Embassies for unfiltered information about the current art scene in Europe, America and across the globe."

Click here to see Paul Postelnicu's video overview of Ioan Popoiu's paintings

Curiosity fueled a yearning for freedom.

"I dreamed of coming to New York City, dreamed about the artist community here, the MOMA, the MET, Gaggosian Gallery, the Guggenheim. How lucky and culturally educated these New Yorkers must be, I thought to myself, they can visit these places as they wish, no need for government sign off on your work, no need to register my name with the national government when entering a place of education."

Finally, Popoiu requested permission to leave the country but received it only after he forced the issue after five years by going on a hunger strike. Stripped of their citizenship, his family landed here in 1984.

By 1989, he had his first solo exhibit, Abstractions, at the Morin Miller Gallery, here in New York. A year later, his work was accepted in group shows, Artists For Romania II, at the World Bank Auditorium in Washington, D.C. and Unveiling Communist Romania, at the Stedelijk Museum, dedicated to contemporary and modern art, in Amsterdam, Holland. 

More shows have followed, set in places as nearby as New Haven, Connecticutt, and Camden, New Jersey, and as far away as Paris. But these days, Popoiu devotes most of his creative energies to Gallery RIVAA where he serves as Vice President.

Highlights of most of RIVAA's group shows, Popoiu's work "is an expression of my personal life journey and struggles of a refugee making the move across the ocean for freedom of expression, freedom of education and freedom of thought. At the same time some of my inspiration comes from Romanian folk art, specifically from the region known as Maramures," an ethno-cultural region in northern Romania and western Ukraine.

"Richly colored and delicately hand woven silk, bio-organic, cotton, kelp textiles, beautiful traditional ceramic and wooden carvings all have a place in my work and in my heart."

Currently, he is developing a solo exhibit, Phantom of the Holographs Wakes, which opens in mid-April.

The show "refers to my new paintings which are done differently than my previous paintings and  reminds me of the holographic images. The paintings are done in acrylic on canvas, sometimes on plywood boards."

Mark your calendars for an opening reception being planned for April 22nd, from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. In the meantime, look for Popoiu's work, along with other RIVAA artists in Vernissage 16, which opens with a public reception this Saturday.

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