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An RPCV with a commitment to cross-cultural collaboration secures volunteers to help renovate and design House of Urnebes in Serbia. It’s meant to be a permanent gathering space where artists can meet in an atmosphere of creative free expression.
Gina Larson talks with Associate Editor of Global Stories Tiffany James
After meeting at a project design and management training hosted by the Peace Corps Kosovo in 2018, RPCV Gina Larson (Kosovo 2017–19) and her partner, Nenad, connected over a mutual passion for art, which grew into a shared belief that some of the best art is the result of collaboration and diverse inspiration. With the support of National Peace Corps Association, they issued an open call for five volunteers to serve in a 2.5 week-long Interior Design Colony in Smederevo, Serbia, from July 28 — August 15 to help complete the transformation of an empty house into House of Urnebes (HoU) — an international gathering place for artists.
“We decided to host the Interior Design Colony, instead of just hiring an agency or contractor, to ensure this space is truly designed by creative people and for creative people,” says Larson. The Interior Design Colony will also provide a unique opportunity to ensure the principles of collaboration and diversity are built into the foundation of the space as well as promote cross-cultural collaboration and creativity within the fields of interior design and construction.
Potential volunteers from 20 different countries submitted a total of 40 applications, expressing interest in participating in the Interior Design Colony this summer. Volunteers will help decorate and design House of Urnebes' coffee shop, five hostel dorm rooms, an art studio, and a community lounge. Interior Design Colony participants will receive free accommodations for the duration of the project, a cash stipend for food, and a budget to bring their interior design ideas to life. They will also have opportunities to explore Smederevo and other nearby parts of Serbia, with down time to relax or work on their own creative projects.
Let’s Talk Cross-Cultural Collaboration and Inspiration
To get a sense of the personality and the story behind the Interior Design Colony, Associate Editor of Global Stories Tiffany James sat down for a conversation with Gina Larson. Here’s an edited version.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your Peace Corps experience. What motivated you to serve?
My grandmother’s brother was very involved with the Peace Corps during its foundational years in the early 1960s. I remember growing up hearing stories of his work and adventures in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh. So, joining the Peace Corps had been on my radar since a very young age. My Peace Corps service inspired my interest in cross-cultural collaboration, allowed me to get involved with the arts world, and awakened my entrepreneurial spirit. My time in the Peace Corps also introduced me to many talented people across the Balkans — including my partner, Nenad — without whom this project would not be possible.
Q: What inspires you to open an international gathering place for artists in Serbia?
Nenad and I are driven by a belief that some of the best art is the result of collaboration and diverse inspiration. After attending a project design and management training hosted by the Peace Corps in Kosovo, we started working on organizing a few short art colonies, with groups of artists coming to Nenad’s village to live and create together for a few weeks at a time.
We witnessed diverse artists create beautiful things together and listened to artists talk about how it was nice to have a safe space to meet new artists from outside their own community. This inspired us to pursue creating an “international gathering place for artists” — a permanent location where artists can go to meet other diverse artists and access an atmosphere of creative free expression.
Q: It sounds like the project design and management training played a pivotal role in House of Urnebes.
The project design and management training was hosted by Peace Corps staff in Priština in February of 2018 — about six months after my cohort arrived in Kosovo. This training was a series of workshops designed as an opportunity for Peace Corps Volunteers and their local counterparts to work on developing project ideas and proposals for our communities in preparation for small project assistance grant applications. For this training, Volunteers were allowed to invite one local community leader to attend the workshops with them.
Nenad ran a small NGO with his friends. They worked to organize after-school art and music programming for youth in his village. He was invited to the project design and management training by the Volunteer in his village. During the training’s coffee breaks, Nenad and I got to talking and discovered a mutual passion for art. He invited me to come to his village on the weekends to volunteer with his organization’s projects. Some of the projects included a sculpture course and contest for high schoolers — resulting in a ten-foot tall version of the winning sculpture being built in front of the school — and a two week-long “art colony,” culminating in an exhibition and dance performance to celebrate Roma Day. The success of these events gave us the inspiration and confidence to pursue opening House of Urnebes.
Q: How do you think this gathering space will make an impact, both locally and internationally?
House of Urnebes was designed to provide a welcoming community with educational opportunities for artists, offer unique events for locals, and create a shared, open space that both artists and locals can make their own. Artists all around the world who are a part of the HoU community can connect through in-person and virtual events to share knowledge, supplies, equipment, and audiences, while also collaborating and inspiring each other. HoU will also organize events that help artists re-skill and up-skill — including activities like trainings on new art techniques, digital marketing workshops, and lessons from established musicians.
By opening an artistic and cultural venue in our local community, HoU will bring more color and music to the city while building a sense of hometown pride for the people of Smederevo. When the community is involved in the design of the space, they become interested in the upkeep. HoU will empower local artists, youth, and other community members to put forward new ideas for events; then provide them with the space, resources, and support needed to bring these ideas to life.
Q: Why this house?
The house that will become House of Urnebes has a whole history of its own. Nenad’s family is originally from a small town near Kosovska Kamenica, in eastern Kosovo. In 1999, as the situation worsened in Kosovo, they had to leave and decided to move up to Smederevo — a beautiful city located on the Danube River. Nenad’s parents built this house from the ground up. They began to operate a small market on the first floor — selling snacks, drinks, and other household supplies. The market soon became a community gathering place, with many patrons stopping by not only to buy supplies, but also to have a drink and chat with their neighbors.
After a few years, the war came to an end, and Nenad’s family decided to return to their home in Kosovska Kamenica. After they left Smederevo, the house sat empty for more than 15 years. Now, we want to bring life back to this once great community gathering space. House of Urnebes is, in a big way, designed to give back to the community that supported Nenad’s family during a time of need. The house itself is located about 15 minutess from the city center of Smederevo. It is a four-story house with about 6,500 square feet. While this is a huge space, it is not uncommon for Balkan families to build large houses with the intention of several generations living under one roof. The first two floors of the house have been complete since Nenad’s family lived there 15 years ago. This first half of the summer has been dedicated to finishing renovations of the top two floors in preparation for Interior Design Colony participants to arrive in late July.
Q: You’ve mentioned cross-cultural collaboration. How do you define that — and why is it something you hope to promote via this project?
House of Urnebes is specifically promoting cross-cultural collaboration in the arts, which could mean two people from different backgrounds working together on the same piece — or two people from different backgrounds taking inspiration from each other while working on their own individual pieces. House of Urnebes was actually named to try and represent the impact of cross-cultural collaboration. Google Translate will translate urnebes into English equivalents like “pandemonium,” “commotion,” or “kerfuffle.” However, urnebes is a very versatile word that is used to describe the chaos that can happen in fun, angry, bizarre, or hilarious situations. We took this name to recognize the artistic chaos that will ensue by bringing together artists from different mediums, nationalities, and religions. Just as urnebes can describe happy, angry, and strange chaos, we understand that bringing together artists from different backgrounds can result in beautiful but also chaotic, emotional, raw, and urnebesni collaborations.
"The Interior Design Colony was designed as a way to ensure we are building the idea of cross-cultural collaboration literally into the walls of the house."
The Interior Design Colony was designed as a way to ensure we are building the idea of cross-cultural collaboration literally into the walls of the house. We decided to host the Interior Design Colony, instead of just hiring an agency or contractor, to ensure this space is truly designed by creative people and for creative people. By building a team of motivated creatives, we can draw from a larger pool of ideas and perspectives when planning the design of the house. The Interior Design Colony will also have an impact on the participants and local volunteers. This project will serve as a mini cultural exchange itself, with opportunities for colony participants to share their culture and skills with the local community and opportunities for the local community to share their culture and skills with colony participants. Essentially, we decided there is no reason to wait until HoU is finished to start promoting cross-cultural collaboration, when we can actually use the creation of the space to start working towards this goal!
Learn more about the Interior Design Colony at the House of Urnebes Facebook page.
Tiffany James is associate editor of global stories with National Peace Corps Association. Write her here.