“I have to find her!” she says. This is how artist Jelena Bulajić’s process commences: With a face that speaks to her and sends her on a mission.

I’ve run into Bulajić (pronounced boo-LIGHT) on King Street. It’s the second time our paths have crossed since our interview. Before this, we chanced on each other at a Spoleto show where Bulajić spotted the woman she’s now hoping to track down.
“You must have seen her,” Bulajić insists. The woman was directly across the stage from the section we were seated in, facing in our direction. Fumbling, I confess I don’t know who she’s talking about but we strategize about, how the artist might find her new muse, a face in a crowd.

Bulajić’s work has been dominated by faces for a while now. Faces that have been lived in. Men and women who’ve seen a good bit of life pass before their eyes, hints of which Bulajić patiently seeks to render in her paintings of them. It’s one of the comments she makes about a work currently in progress, a project she’s undertaken as this year’s artist in residence at Home is Where The Art Is on Warren Street. “I still don’t have the eyes right,” she says, mulling over the picture in her hand. She takes her own black and white photographs of her subjects as reference for each of her works.

Born in Serbia, Bulajić studied art there before moving to London and earning her Master in Fine Art from the City & Guilds of London Art School. Her work has been enthusiastically received, featured in Young Gods at the Griffin Gallery (London, February 2014) and subsequently sold into the Saatchi Collection. This summer, her work will hang in London’s National Portrait Gallery, part of the BP Portrait Award Exhibition that features “the most outstanding and innovative new portraits from around the world” and styles itself the “most prestigious international portrait painting competition.”

For her own part, Bulajić does not call her paintings portraits. This invites closer inspection. Using what the artist describes as a “sort of grisaille approach,” the work stands revealed as a combination of Bulajić’s twin loves: painting and drawing. Subject matter and masterful rendering aside, it’s her technique that sets these not-portrait portraits apart.

They are works on canvas, paintings without paint. Powdered substances like kaolin and Caledonian granite provide subtle tones. Pure colorless glazes, layered atop those minerals, build out depth and dimension. But her work begins with the intimacy of proximity.

“I started with canvasses that were about the size of my body and moved on to canvasses that were double that size. The actual size of the painting is relevant because I believe that knowledge of the exterior of things remains in proximity. I always wish the paintings to be close to one’s eye. It may be an illusion or not,” she says. “But I wish them to be in kissing distance so that no matter how far away the actual observer may be, the painting will kind of stand in front of his face, very near to the person observing.”

While her choice of subject — those lived-in faces — has not changed, her attitudes about them has evolved. What began as a reaction to an entire group of people, has now become much more personal, limited to the face before her.

“It’s true there is a social agenda with elderly people, “ she says. “In the past my work truly was focused on exactly that marginalized group of people, very strictly and with quite clear intention to break the conspiracy of silence surrounding old age,” Bulajić says. “But I have to say that I have somehow emptied my mind of any sort of social approaches to painting. Now it is simply about another person’s eyes touching my eyes. Simply about an encounter. They do, indeed, happen to be elderly and I imagine there must be, on my part, a reason for that. But I am not aware of it. I don’t know why.”

She says she’s instinctive now. She doesn’t put an idea in front of the work anymore.
“I simply let my soul roam and find another being with whom it will be an asymmetrical relationship, one which we can accept as it is. It is —” here she pauses for the words to come to her, “It’s about beauty and kindness of another person. Yes.”

Is beauty and kindness more evident in an older person?

“It might be more present. Because people of an advanced age drop their masks, they drop their identity. It is a pure interaction, I think,” she says.

We wondered if she sees part of her own future in the work as she’s doing it.
“Not really. I am excited about seeing my own face in the future. And I hope I live long. But while I’m in the process of working, the only thing that truly matters is the state of mind in which you’re doing the work. So, when I work, all that I try to focus on is that my body is prepared for it. That I’m not feeling drowsy or hungry or this or that. I don’t eat if I’m painting. So it’s 16 hours of starving every day. But it’s all very relevant.”

Relevant to her because, in this, she is following Italian painter Cennino Cenninni’s lead. In his Craftsman’s Handbook (written in the 15th century as a “how to” book on Rennaissance art), Cenninni, she says, “proposed this concept of how one should purify one’s body before one begins and while you are painting. It’s extraordinary.”

It must be a tough road to follow. Cenninni was no slouch when it came to handing out precise advice. An example:

“Your life should be arranged just as if you were studying theology or philosophy or other theories, that is to say, eating and drinking moderately, at least twice a day, electing digestible and wholesome dishes, and light wines; saving and sparing your hand, preserving it from such strains as heaving stones, crowbars, and many other things which are bad for your hand, from giving them a chance to weary it.”
Bulajić is far more sanguine in her approach, if just as disciplined.

“You have to bring yourself to a particular state in which you can actually paint with all your mind and body present. You’re not thinking about god knows what. You’re thinking about the actual work. I am thinking about this actual face. That’s all I think about. I think about this map of the face and how that might be developed,” says Bulajić.

You can follow those developments at Home is Where The Art Is, which will host a show of Bulajić’s work from June 13-22. A private viewing will be held on Thurs. June 12. http://www.homewhereartis.com