My Friend Slobodan

My most recent creative project is a slender book called The Three Jewels. I didn’t write it in order to heavily market it, but to offer it to my dear friend, Slobodan Dan Paich—a brilliant visual artist who also helmed a cross-cultural arts initiative known as the Artship Ensemble, whose mission is to offer broad access to the transformative powers of the creative process. I met Slobodan in 2008, during a time when my own creativity and personal transformation were rapidly shifting my personal concepts of who I was and what I wished to share with the world, as a writer and theater artist—but also as a soul navigating the many paradoxes of this stage production called life. 

I recently discovered that Slobodan passed away in late 2022. He leaves behind a rich legacy of work, and my book is a testament to the multifarious nature of his own creative work and approaches to mentorship. My book is the result of a spontaneous, improvisational discovery process in which the characters and story of The Three Jewels gradually emerged, through the shadows and uncertainty. That story is the personal myth of my life, which I credit Slobodan with helping me to write, word by word, over the course of several months in 2012. I hope that it will find a home in the world, for it belongs to my friend Slobodan just as much as it does to me. 

The following piece is my eulogy, my evolving love poem, to my dear friend and mentor. To learn more about Slobodan, please feel free to listen to this 2011 StoryCorps conversation, recorded at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, between Slobodan and me. StoryCorps is an American nonprofit organization whose mission is to record, preserve, and share the stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs. 

He was my friend. His name was Slobodan. He made me feel seen. He made me feel like seeing. He saw the real me. He made me want to be real. 

Slobodan installation
Slobodan displaying his unique and perplexing sense of humor.

When I was with him, life was art. He made words with his pictures. Pictures with his words. He loved tea. And its many variations of color. Its specific heralding of specific places and states of being. He found texture in everything. Maybe because he bothered to. 

He was a lonely soul. A beautiful one. He left his country at a tender age. He never returned. He traveled this world, and this world was his family. He said no matter what happened, we would always be connected on the inner planes. I still believe him. 

I wonder why he didn’t tell me. That he was sick, I mean. I understand few people knew. When I learned this, it made me feel better. It made me realize his words, “This is my last email,” were final but not in the way I’d understood. It isn’t always about me. 

Life. Death. Other processes. What begins a process? What ends it? You talk to someone you just met and you feel something. Together. It’s like you’re on a train heading into the ocean and you’re nosediving toward a watery distant light. It seems all the brighter in this darkness you’re navigating. Because the mystery is finding the other. Finding, even though perhaps you were not searching. But maybe you always were. 

And we are pieces of an atom split apart. But we, Slobodan and I, found each other. Electrons zipping about. Possibility landing. 

He had a white beard. Playful blue eyes, always quietly sparkling. A tailored suit. He looked like a magical character from an Old World fairy tale. Set to slightly modern times. He made me smile. Breathe a little deeper. Succumb to wonder. 

But that question: where do things, people, end and begin? 

Will remembering his slow gait and the sweeping gestures of his fingers across his face, like he was fanning out cards and divining prophecies, be enough? What is my responsibility to my friend? He is gone, yet he never left. He remains here. In my words. My art. My determination to follow his example. To follow the golden thread he held out, unspooling before me. Creating a golden path upon which I’d walk. Unafraid. Not free of grief or loss, but equipped with a warrior’s heart. 

Maybe as he was with me, I’ll be patient with myself. Maybe I’ll forget myself in order to remember. Maybe I’ll be astonished at what this life could become. If it were a tribute to every friend who helped me. Who helped me to remember.

I’m Nirmala Nataraj, a New York–based writer, editor, book midwife, theater artist, and mythmaker.

As someone who has woven in and out of a number of different word realms—nonprofit communications, advertising, theatre, publishing, and community arts, to name a few—I know that liberation is possible through the stories we choose to tell. As a first-generation South Asian American, I myself exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, art forms, and languages—and it is this multiplicity of narratives that informs my personal and professional approach.

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