October 11, 2017

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK – Ivan the Painter: “My Paintings Are My Life”

ART AND LIFE: From his childhood behind the Iron Curtain in Bulgaria to a successful career in the restaurant business (starting at a resort on the Black Sea) to a new life in New Jersey as a painter, muralist, and designer, Cvetko Ivanov has come a long way to his porch on Vandeventer Street, where he stands amidst a selection of his original works. 

By Donald Gilpin

Artist Cvetko Ivanov can be found most Saturdays and Sundays surrounded by dozens of his paintings on the front porch of the Vandeventer Street house where he lives with his niece and her husband. From his easy-going, friendly demeanor as he talks to passers-by and other interested customers, it might be hard to guess that his life has taken more than a few dramatic turns. 

One of those life-changing moments occurred in 1973, when Ivanov, known as Ivan for most of his life in the United States, was living in South River and working in the restaurant business.

Three years earlier he had fled his native country, Communist Bulgaria, and eventually immigrated to the United States as a refugee. “They said if you behave for two years, we’ll give you a green card, and in another three years you’ll become a citizen,” Ivanov recalled.

Trained and widely experienced as a restaurateur in Bulgaria, Ivanov was making a sketch to pass the time during a break from his job as waiter one day when a woman approached him and asked him about his drawing.

“As a little boy in Bulgaria I used to doodle,” Ivanov said, ”Flowers, women, nature, trees. That lady saw me there in the restaurant and said, ‘You are an artist.’ And I said, ’I don’t know anything about being an artist. I’m a waiter.’ She insisted, ‘You could be a very good artist.’ I started to believe her. We bought books and I started to play around, drawing and stenciling flowers. My life started from there.”


Even as a young boy in the 1940s and 1950s, Ivanov felt the harsh constraints of communism in Bulgaria, which he described as “the worst communist country in the world. Communism depressed people. They treated you like you’re not a human being. Life was unbearable.”

Eager to go to college — “I wanted to educate myself and be somebody” — Ivanov found himself frustrated by the authorities, who did not see his family as good communists. “They never wanted to give me permission. They said you are not our friend. I was a young boy, 17. What did I understand about politics, the economy, or anything? They would not let me go to college, and I got not a little, but a lot disturbed.”

Ivanov served in the military for about two years, after which time he noted, “Bulgaria became a little softer,” and he was able to go for two years to the Interior Architecture College in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria.

But he still chafed under the restrictions of his school and his country. “The more I learned about the world, the angrier I became,” he said. “I got into books about America, about Europe, about communism, about capitalism. I started to educate myself.”

He continued, “I started to disagree with what I was learning. I started to doubt what I was doing. I said, ‘I’m not one of those guys who sits at a desk and draws things.’ They controlled you from morning to evening — what you do, what you eat, what you say, where you go. They were so afraid of some kind of organized revolution.”

Restaurant Business 

At this point, in the early 1960s, Ivanov’s life took a turn into his first career, the restaurant business, when he was approached with the opportunity to go to school for two years to study tourism. Also included was the opportunity to learn a foreign language.

Ivanov considered the alternatives. “I thought about it and I pictured myself working in the factories and going to a school I didn’t like, and I said, ‘I guess this tourism business is for me.’”

For two years, seven hours a day, six days a week, Ivanov learned the tourism business and he learned the German language. Because he was not considered a worthy communist, he was not permitted to become a manager, but he was allowed to become a waiter and he secured a job at Sunny Beach, a resort restaurant on the Black Sea.

“This was my kingdom,” he described. “I had a supreme life from 1964 to 1970. You can’t imagine. I was an important moneymaker for that Balkan tourist industry. I worked very hard. People liked me. I had my friends from all of Europe: Germany, Austria, Sweden, Holland.”

Struck by the contrast between his home country and his growing knowledge of Europe and Europeans, Ivanov finally realized that he had to leave. “I decided it’s beautiful here, but it’s not a place where I can develop myself and live. Nobody gives you any chance. I had a lot of friends in the West. I said I’m gonna go. I didn’t see a future for me in Bulgaria.”

After a dangerous border crossing into Yugoslavia, now Serbia, Ivanov found many of his friends and eventually made his way to Austria, to a refugee camp outside Vienna, where his application was processed and, after a year, he was able to come to the United States.

Two Careers

For several years in the 1970s and early 80s Ivanov was pursuing both art and restaurant careers simultaneously. “I started to draw all sorts of designs,” he said. “I got into it, and people said i could sell these designs. But I was in the restaurant business and bartending and that was my life. But in ’74 or ’75, a design firm in New York bought one of my designs. They made millions from it making wallpaper, and they paid me 300 bucks. And I was so happy.”

Both careers flourished in the following years. “I started to get more ambitious,” Ivanov said. “I worked in Vegas. I worked on 5th Avenue. I lived in Miami. I opened a restaurant in Miami in 1975. I was very successful. I also started to paint more seriously.”

Ivanov found more and more work as an artist and designer, and in the mid ’80s he stopped working in the restaurant business to devote his full time to what would become Studio Ivan. In addition to his many paintings of landscapes and nature, Ivanov’s numerous jobs have included murals, tromp l’oeil, ceiling designs, architectural gilding, marbling, and all types and periods of finishes for walls, furniture, and mantels.

“Childhood images of simple beauty — flowering meadows, herds of grazing water buffalos, summers in the countryside — have nurtured in me a love for nature and all the colors, shapes, and fury in which it comes,” he said.

He continued, “Observing or painting water, sky vistas, or flowers makes me happy. I strive to capture the ever-changing boundaries of waves, the illusive shapes of cloudscapes, the explosion of colors that flowers can offer. While much of my older work included seascapes from the Black Sea and mountainous scenes reminiscent of my former homeland, more recent work has focused on settings in and around Princeton and nearby rural Hunterdon County. I still like painting flowers too.”

Surrounded by his art and work, Ivanov reflected on his adventurous life from Bulgaria to Vandeventer Street. “These paintings keep my life intact,” he said. “They keep me happy, even if I don’t sell them this week. My paintings are my life.”