If you’ve ever followed the work of Evergreen artist Nikolo Balkanski you know that he is – well, very, very talented. Hop onto his website and get ready to scroll. His list of awards, honors, exhibits, publications and workshops is nothing less than impressive.
Nikolo was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1957 and found himself an artist at the tender age of three, “or maybe before that,” he said, waving off the question dismissively. “I’ve always been an artist.” That is something he is quite certain of. The other is that he is an American, and he is proud of it.
Referring to a newspaper report that called him a ‘Bulgarian immigrant,’ he showed his disapproval. “I’m not an immigrant – I received an H1B visa. (A non-immigrant visa in the US that allows foreign workers in specialty occupations to work in America.) “I lived in Bulgaria for 20 years. I’ve lived in America for 32 years and have been an American citizen for 22.” Don’t call him a Bulgarian. “Bulgarian-born, maybe. But I’m an American.”
People may be surprised to learn that he served in the Bulgarian army as an artillery specialist. He says matter-of-factly, “It was mandatory service.” He then spent two years in Finland where his Finnish mother was second at the consulate.
At just 21 years old, he had his first solo exhibit that featured Finland’s top politicians, actors, and poets. “People came and saw these works and then they wanted their own portraits.” He went on to study further at the University of Helsinki.
In 1981, Nikolo’s Finnish portraits were shown in “Finland in Portraits,” a show that was organized by the Finnish/Bulgarian Friendship Society as part of the 1300 years of Bulgarian statehood. Two years later, the portraits were featured at the October Gallery in London, and were also featured on the British Broadcasting Company. It was at the Friendship Society show that Nikolo’s direction began to point toward Evergreen.
Evergreen resident and Hungarian immigrant Gene Sternberg had gone to Bulgaria to see the Ivanovo Rock Church in Bulgaria, “and I was a friend of the American pastor there. I had painted (the pastor’s) portrait,” and he added with a smile, “and I was dating his daughter. Every other Sunday he would invite people to come to visit at his apartment after the service. Pat Stephenson, another Evergreen resident, came to his party and happened to sit next to me. When I told her I was an artist, she was very interested in me. She extended her stay to see my work and asked if I wanted to come to Colorado.” Not thinking she really meant it, Nikolo went on to paint and exhibit his work in both England and France. “We had stayed in touch, and then in 1984 she sent me a ticket.” Always quick with a story, he told of first stopping in NYC to visit with an old friend. “It was a late night.” When he arrived at the airport he was jet-lagged; he fell asleep in his seat. “When I woke up, no one was there,” he laughed. “I slept in the airport that night.”
Picking up her guest the following day after he re-booked his flight, Stevephenson had Nikolo stay in her mother’s home that happened to be across the street from Gene and Barbara Sternberg, and next door to Barbara Fischer on Upper Bear Creek Road. “They took me out to dinner at The Fort Restaurant,” he recalled. Not done with their hospitality, “They all threw a party, where I showed images of 400-500 photos of portraits I had done.” Word spread and Nikolo found himself busy at the easel once again.
After living in the bustling cities of Sofia, Helsinki and London, Upper Bear Creek “was so quiet. I used to go to the restaurant at the end of Upper Bear just to be in activity.”
With his visa ready to expire, he headed to California and drove the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco and then returned to Finland. “I had a one-man show” that was a great success, “it was almost sold-out.” But despite his success, he found himself homesick for Evergreen. “I wasn’t planning on coming back,” but in 1985, he did just that.”
Again, the twinkle in his eye returned – another story was about to be told. “I had met (Senator) John McCain’s mother,” he said. “In order to get my visa, I had to stay in Washington, D.C. for a time. Mrs. McCain said, ‘If you can get to Washington, you can stay in my apartment.’ She totally trusted me to stay in her guestroom, even though she was away. One night the phone rang and it was John McCain. ‘Who is this? Oh, you must be one of my mother’s friends.’ They’re good people,” Nikolo said of the McCains.
He returned only briefly to Finland and with a visa in hand, first traveled to the Canary Islands, and “then back to Evergreen in 1986. Gene invited me to join Tom Ware’s weekly drawing group in his home – a group that Ware continues today – where I got to know other artists in the community.” Nikolo was part of a show in Sternberg’s studio. With the positive reaction to his work, he opened a gallery at the end of Main Street for two years. “Tom, Laura Mehmert and I shared the gallery. We took turns running the gallery.” He slyly added “Monk (Ware, Tom’s wife) usually covered Tom’s times.” Nikolo and his dog Marty, who was more than once been featured in his work, lived above the gallery for a time, until he later purchased a home in town.
In 1990 Sternberg encouraged Nikolo to move down into the city. “He thought it would be easier to meet single women down there,” he laughed. Nikolo found a home not far from Evergreen where he resides today. He still considers himself truly at home in Evergreen, and without a doubt, his heart is here – in America.