Hungarian artist Erzsébet Szilajka sees every rock as a potential component in her enchanting pebble art.
When you’re walking on a rocky beach or driving down a gravel road, you might not see the potential in the pebbles underfoot or under your tires, but for one Hungarian artist, those stones are just the tools she needs to bring her artistic vision to life. Erzsébet Szilajka’s pebble art is drawing a growing loyal fan base who love to see her collection of stones come to life. In an interview, the artist shared what inspired her to create pebble art and the work that goes into each unique creation.
When did you become interested in making pebble art?
I’ve long been attracted to the interesting world of stones and collected them since I was little. Their variety, colors, and shapes always sparked my imagination. As my pebble collection grew and grew, I stored them in different boxes.
I also used the stones to create pictures of my childhood, like a kind of jigsaw puzzle. More than 10 years passed before it occurred to me that these compositions are a scrapbook documenting the history of Erzsébet Szilajka, working-class pebble artist.
I have a lot of memories of when I was a schoolgirl on my way home, stopping at a gravel mound at a construction site to collect assorted pebbles for hours. I loved that the stones were hot when the sun was hot, cold in cold weather but still warm in the palm of my hand in no time. I found them very beautiful, and I imagined what they resembled.
What types of pebbles do you like to collect?
There’s hardly a pebble that doesn’t attract my interest. I really like ridged, varied surfaces and striped stones. The most difficult choice is what not to pick up, because all the shapes and patterns could be a good fit for something.
I joke that it’s best for me to hurry along a gravel road, because if I stop, it’ll be a whole day of collecting. I could take everything home, so I have to tell myself no.
However, this process has taught me to let go. It can be difficult to part with the stones to finish a picture, but the reward is sharing with others. It’s a good feeling to experience the joy of creating a picture, and at the same time, I will have to say good-bye to some of my collection.
What types of pebbles do you need to have available the most?
The stones I need to collect are the ones that will be the hands and feet in my images, but I’m also always looking for ones that will work as the head—an eternal deficit. Without them, I can’t complete the picture, so they’re good to have on hand. Then I choose ones that will fit well as a skirt or upper body. Different stones are often clearly suited for very different roles. And I have a large box for very special colors or shapes.
How much time does it take to create a pebble artwork?
The first step is pebble collection, which is time-consuming. The stones must be washed one by one, cleaned of mud and grime. Then I arrange the image on a wooden base on my desk at home. After that comes the background painting, usually done with acrylic paint. It takes me a long time to achieve a simple and natural look. I also create backgrounds that function as paintings, such as street cars, rooftops, a starry sky, or depictions of seasons. In every work, the most important thing is to keep the focus on the pebbles in the main image, not the picture background. I always try to keep this balance. When the background is finished, and there’s a clear theme, it’s time for me to create the work with pebbles.
Sometimes I have to pause working on an image because I can’t find the right pebbles to finish it, and that piece might remain in standby mode for weeks or months. If I already have all the stones for the entire composition, I spend time finding the best arrangement. If I want to portray a gesture, the figure must be in perfect balance, which requires a little anatomical knowledge. Then I hot-glue the image together, which is also time-consuming, precise work.
I can’t estimate exactly how long an image will take, as it’s very variable, but from collection to implementation, the process is long and complex.
Your pebble artworks represent a kind of static visual world, while at the same time depicting very expressive emotions. How do you achieve both?
Indeed, pebbles are both static and dynamic at the same time. This depends on how the creator imbeds the movements and feelings of the imagined world into the finished art.
I get a lot of feedback that my pictures are almost “moving” and evoke very deep feelings. As I work, spontaneous, unplanned details become a part of the picture, so I always leave room for my imagination, emotions, and thoughts to affect the message. The emerging visual world becomes dynamic, even though the pebbles themselves are static in the work. The end result is like a photo taken at a good moment: there’s movement and the feeling of a story.
When did you start sharing your creations with a larger audience?
An improvised little piece I made for a small exhibit was so successful that it gave me a huge boost to continue. Later I also showed my works on Facebook, which I’ve continued to do.
Your creations incorporate drawings, painted backgrounds, and pebbles. How do you create harmony among these elements?
I’ve experimented a lot, and I’ve tried different painting and drawing techniques since childhood. I shape the background until I achieve the delicate softness and lightness I want: hard stones “soften” in such an environment. It took a lot of time to try different versions, and I admit I didn’t like that part. I learned from my mistakes, and because of brave experimentation, I accidentally came up with techniques that at first I hadn’t been able to figure out. To quote contemporary artist Rebecca Joy Plett: “When you buy something from an artist, you’re buying more than an object. You’re buying hundreds of hours of errors and experimentation. You’re buying years of frustration and moments of pure joy. You’re not buying just one thing; you are buying a piece of a heart, a piece of a soul, a small piece of someone’s life.”
Do you have a favorite theme for your creations?
I often rely on customers’ ideas, but I always combine them with artistic freedom. If it were always up to me, I’d lean toward simplicity and clarity. I think the essentials of life always stand or fall based on the simplest things. I like simple themes, such as the love between two people or among family members.
Art bridges the delicate boundary between the commonplace and individuality. The finished work is not the product I create but the joint work of the creator and the recipient. A piece becomes a real creation when it has meaning for the recipient. When the recipient can add to the piece her own feelings and thoughts from the depths of her being, the work has fulfilled its purpose. The potential is both in the spirit of freedom in the pictures and in the fact that the pebbles have no faces, so anyone can “enter” and become involved in the work.
How has the public responded to your work?
Most of the feedback is that my works evoke peace, harmony, serenity, and relaxation. I’m amazed again and again when, independently of each other, more and more people describe the same thing, even with different words. I think that harmony must originate from within—somewhere from the depths of the soul, like the deepest parts of the ocean. It’s a secret world even divers don’t know or dare to descend. There may be storms in our lives, but from the deepest parts of our being, internal harmony and peace can be achieved, regardless of external factors. I think that’s what’s transmitted through my pictures, and I hope to continue to share it. It seems to me that is my gift, and the most beautiful thing is that I didn’t come to this awareness by myself but through feedback from the public. This fills me with gratitude and encourages me to continue.
What are your plans for the future? Do you think pebble art will become a full-time job?
I think my artwork is unlikely to be a source of stable income, but my art will always be a constant part of my life because I have an inner need to keep creating it.
What message do you hope to send through your art?
I hope my work brings people peace and harmony, helping them feel joy and love. All this goes much further than mere human striving, will, or intent. I believe I’m a tool in the hands of God, and I look for opportunities to share his gifts, which feeds my art and humbles me. I merely receive and pass on the gift to the best of my ability.