Artist Oksana Berda on reclaiming her agency, maintaining creative energy and a healthy sense of self.
I’d like to introduce you to Oksana Berda, an abstract painter and entrepreneur. When I interviewed Oksana last spring, she spoke to the years she spent burnt out during her graduate degree, attempting to balance school with work and social life. She recalled her exhaustion so vividly, that I was reminded of a similar feeling in myself. She referred to it as Stagnant energy: putting energy into activities that didn’t encourage her creativity, thereby cutting off her creative flow and causing her spirit to grow stale over time. However, this concept of stale creative energy seemed so far behind her, as she sat on the sofa in her art-filled living space, chatting with me about the start of her journey to reclaim her identity as an artist. Today, painting is her full-time job, and there is no shortage of inspiration in her life. The water-inspired creative explained that the creative process is like osmosis. Whatever you are putting your energy into, should encourage your creative energy.
Why water? “It was sort of a natural evolution,” says Berda, “I wasn’t looking for a subject matter when I started painting again but I was experimenting with colour and I started to isolate specific colours and push them as far as I could in different ways.” Near that time, Berda stumbled upon a small beach in Port Credit, Mississauga, that she says appeared as if it was out of a storybook, it was so perfect. Suddenly she was going there every Friday for walks and she started bringing taking along her sketchbook with her to doodle.
“It’s just limitless,” she says of the water, “the light that you get, the interactions of textures[...]I feel like that’s my life’s work, to just explore that forever.”
Most of Berda’s growth including her journey with painting has occurred in the last few years, since relieving herself of her degree, post-grad and full-time work life. Berda explains how she’s taken these years to reclaim her identity as an artist and everything adjacent. Now, Berda recalls how she spent her early 20s losing herself to the robotic cycle of school and work with little else to inspire her. In a recent blog post on her website titled “Sometimes it Snows in April” after a Prince song by the same name, Berda discusses struggling with depression in her early 20s and how she manages her energy levels now. She started by introducing difficulties with her mental health which she attributes in the first paragraph to a rundown state of body and mind.
At the time, she was a grad student at the University of New Brunswick, balancing a 20-hour workweek with TA work and a social life. She admits that she barely slept. When she graduated and everything began to taper off, she was left confused and unsure of what to do next. “I just felt so stagnant and so stale,” says Berda, freshly turned 24 at the time. Despite any fears she had of uprooting, she needed to make a change.
Step 1) move back to Toronto. “I broke my own heart doing it,” she says of leaving her friends in New Brunswick, “but I had to do it, it was a growth thing”. Step 2) make a timeline. She got another restaurant job in Toronto and told herself that it was the last of it’s kind. “You’re retiring after this,” she told herself, “you’re not going back”. And she didn’t. Step 3) She booked a flight. She’d heard about Spain’s Camino Trail (otherwise known as the Spain Pilgrimage) through some friends and knew it was meant for her.
Her last day of work was Sept. 25, just after her 25th birthday. As she writes in her photo diary, she had been burning the candle at both ends for three years. The trip taught her how to finally take care of herself. “The first thing that became really clear,” she writes, “What a wrecked state my body was in. As soon as I was on the trail and went through all the initial body conditioning and the pain of a through-hike, I Just cried for two days straight. I pitied myself, I replayed all sorts of memories, some I didn’t’ even know I archived, I felt the hopelessness deeply. Once I got to process all that internal dialogue, I released it. And some of that pain will still loop back sometimes but it’s not a stagnant mass anymore.” She writes later that it isn’t her belief that everyone needs to go on a 26-day through-hike in Spain to find answers, but it is what she needed.
“I think you need to put yourself through situations where you can depend on yourself and trust yourself and know that you’ve made it through this thing in order to grow,” she says.
Allowing herself to pursue inspiration is something that Berda now incorporates into her everyday routine. A big part of her reclaim since finishing grad school and completing her through-hike has been embracing her identity as an artist. “I don’t think it’s a part of our redirect to learn to apply the things we learn and make them into something,” says Berda. School certainly doesn’t show us how to do it. Perched on the edge of her bed, she begins to tell us a memory she recently recalled from her childhood. She was so young, she said, around the age of grade one and listening to the teacher explain the roles for their end of year performance. The roles weren’t assigned, she remembers, but rather divvied up to whoever wanted them. Even though she wanted to be the princess, the lead, so badly, she was too shy and worried that a raised hand would be entitled. She let the role pass to the next kid to raise their hand instead. But what stands out to her about this memory is that she became sick right after and missed the entire performance.
“I really feel like because I didn’t pursue what I really wanted at the time, my body picked up that sort of energy shift and made me ill,” says Berda.
With that memory in mind, she reminds herself to not shy away from the things she wants but rather approach opportunities head-on. “Instead of sitting there and observing when someone does something that I think is great, I can send them an email and ask to collaborate or see if I can support them somehow.”
“I just try to stay open and really honest,” she says. Berda compares her creative process to osmosis, “If you put something out there you start feeling something and if you’re interested in something, those opportunities will present themselves, but you have to be open enough because it might not be the way you envision it. It might come adjacently and you just have to be alive and open.” Berda has been ‘accountability partners’ with one of her best friends for over a year now, meaning that they meet once a month to talk through their goals and the smaller steps that will get them there. Berda says she tells her friends all the time when they’re feeling stuck to message someone who inspires them, someone working on a cool project, even just to ask to meet them for coffee and a conversation. She says she’s never been rejected in doing this and benefits a lot from those exchanges of energy. In fact, nowadays Berda says she never feels like she’s lacking inspiration. “I don’t mean to sound like I never get blocked,” she says, “but I find that it’s usually a result of something more personal to me and not something lacking around me.”
Berda feels the most ‘uninspired’ when her body is really rundown and even then it just means that she needs to take the time to rest and recoup. In those moments of rest, ideas just start to come back up. “I try to stay as full as I can, says Berda, “so I read a lot” … “those little ideas will drive me”.
She explains that she tries to stay connected to things that she’s passionate about at all times, even if they’re weird little things. Her example is not limited to anything small, however, in fact, it’s “all of ESPN’s content,” she says. “I’ve seen every single episode of the 30 for 30 series,” because she admires the athlete’s journey so much, she explains (a documentary film series highlighting interesting people and events in sports history). “Last Wednesday I just let myself watch “O.J.: Made in America” by Ezra Edelman twice,” she laughs. Its eight hours and that’s all my soul needed. I felt re-energized … I got my fire back, I was inspired.” She tells us that she thinks it’s amazing because a project like that takes so much energy and often as an artist, the projects she takes on don’t have a fast turnaround with the satisfaction of having completed something. Sometimes you need that satisfaction to remind yourself that the time being invested in a project will come to fruition.