As a teenager in Sofia, Bulgaria, Eva sought for truth and found the restored Gospel. Now a mother of three living in the United States, Eva’s passion for learning continues to drive her personal and professional pursuits: “Lost in Learning”, her recently published fine art photography monograph, features the original manuscripts and objects used by the world’s great discoverers as they too sought for truth. Her work has been collected by institutions including The U.S. Library of Congress (Permanent Collection), The British Library, The Marriott Library (University of Utah), and The Victoria Albert Museum (National Art Library). Together with her husband Eva homeschools her children so that they can share in her search for knowledge.
When I was fifteen and growing up in Sofia, Bulgaria, I really wanted to find God in my life. I was searching fervently for God and truth and I went to about seven different churches. But I was never satisfied. It was never the one. There was always something missing, something empty. Good churches, but they were not full, not quite complete. One day I met the missionaries. They were two elders, one from Utah, one from California. They actually had a street board sign. In Europe they do that a lot, where they go around and talk about pictures they’ve posted on a board. I plucked up all my courage to try out my English and ask them where they were from and what they were doing. They just stood out: They were in a park, they had their picture boards. It was just different. They gave me a card that said where and when they met.
What was it about the Gospel that convinced you it was the truth?
I remember attending Sacrament Meeting that next Sunday for the very first time. We met on top of a stadium in a little rented room. It had Dale Parson’s depiction of the Savior taped up on the wall. Nothing like those fancy Utah chapels — but it was so amazing because I felt the same Spirit — truly, I felt such an overwhelming sense of peace. It was right as the missionaries were passing the sacrament that I felt a strong this feeling of peace, like this was the right place for me. I’d never felt anything like that before in my life, in any of the other churches I’d been to. It was like I could talk to God. It was right. I was complete. I can still vividly remember that feeling of taking the sacrament for the first time.
We joined the church in 1992, after only four weeks of attending. My whole family. Mom and dad too. It was a miracle: they quit smoking and drinking. We all felt the Spirit and we all were baptized.
So how did the Church change your family’s life after your baptism?
I enjoyed sharing the Gospel with others though I did feel like a bit of an outcast in my high school , like anyone might who is the only member in their school. But the biggest change came when I was about to graduate from high school. I met a sister missionary, Saren Eyre, in Sofia whose family offered to sponsor me to come to America. Both The Eyres and Michael and Celia Blackburn were very generous in supporting my education and coming to Utah.
The dream of my heart, since I was three years old and could understand what was going on around me. was to go to America. People would laugh at me. We had no money, and we were in a Communist country! You couldn’t just leave the country. But I had this hope and this faith that it would happen. And it did! With God all things are possible. I love my sponsor parents, Richard and Linda Eyre. They met my mom and dad and promised they’d take care of me. Of course since I’m their only child my parents were concerned about letting me go at age 18.
I went to Ricks College [now Brigham Young University – Idaho] and after a year at Ricks I transferred to the University of Utah and lived with the Eyres. Then I served a mission to New York City.
What legally did you have to do to leave the country?
I had to get a student visa and take the TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language]. The fact that I passed that was a miracle in itself because I didn’t study English formally. I just spent time with the missionaries and went to the movies. I just went with it. I was immersed in it. I loved it. I dreamed it. Every second I had I listened to the Voice of America radio program and the BBC [British Broadcasting Company]. When you really have a passion for something it’s not like “Eat your vegetables. Learn this.” Learning English became my whole life. I would bring my 3×5 note cards to the movies with me in the dark and I would write down any new words I heard. I got a dictionary for my birthday, an American slang dictionary. I was never happier in my life!
Let’s move on to your photography. What were the influences that led you to be a photographer?
Growing up in Bulgaria, an old country, I was immersed in the history of incredible men. History was always passion of mine — ancient and Medieval history especially, like Alexander the Great and Da Vinci. Another factor was that my dad was an amateur artist. He painted the Beatles as a mural on our kitchen wall. The whole band, with long hair and everything! That was totally against the regime, I mean, we could have been in jail for that! He did auto body work for a living but he had a little studio at our house and during any break from his work he would create masterpieces. So art was a part of my life because of my dad. And history was in my life because of my country. It all comes together through my photography.
Has your focus always been on historical objects?
Not always. I’ve taken pictures of many different things. But photographing history is what makes my heart really start beating fast. I have three principles that guide my life and my art: “Discovery”, “Light” and “Life”. In my life, these principles led me to the Gospel and I prayed and pondered for a long time how I could reflect these principles in my photography. Finally, it came to me when my family and I were living in Oxford, England.
Spending time there on the campus of Oxford University I was busily engaged in a project to photograph all 39 colleges. Some of it was commissioned architectural work some was just my personal drive as an artist, but it was great as I had access to many places the public can’t go. I got to see where great minds have lived and worked like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
One night, I was reading The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin and my prayers were answered. I read about the Imago Mundi which was a manuscript by a French astrologer, Pierre d’Ailly, which greatly influenced how Columbus calculated his voyage to the new world. It said that Columbus hand written notes were in the margin and as I read about the manuscript I was on fire. I knew I had to find and photograph that manuscript.
Where was it?
They had a facsimile copy of the book at a College in another state, which I was able to get a hold of for photographing. That was the beginning of my project, Lost in Learning. The project is a traveling collection of 30 black and white framed photographs showing the instruments and manuscripts of Columbus, Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Handel, Leonardo Da Vinci, and others.
The project has taken me six years to complete, and most of the time when shooting I would go up in my studio on the third floor and lock the door and follow the spirit of inspiration. I would shoot for an hour, sometimes two and come down from a shoot exhausted and drained, but knowing there was something amazing in the making. The whole experience of creating these images was very spiritual in nature and I often felt guided in my work.
You were alone in your studio?
For the most part, I’ve shot alone, though working with these instruments and books that have defined so much of history I certainly felt a close connection with to these incredible figures whose lives and works I was documenting.
One of my favorite things about the project is how history seemed to come alive when looked at from a new angle or through another lens. That’s what makes it unique — it’s not just “Here’s the book, here’s a picture of this guy.” I would sometimes put two books together and it becomes a different story.
I really want people to look deeper into these people, to see the kind of “carpe diem” passion they had for life. From there I hope people look inside themselves and discover that same well of creative inspiration. It’s in all of us. These people had imagination, they had creativity. They wanted to figure out things, experiment. And that’s exactly the way we are when we’re born. That’s what kids do 24/7. We’re all born discoverers as little children and it’s so important to nurture and rekindle that spirit throughout our lives.
So how have you been raising three children while doing this?
My husband is very supportive of my passion for photography and my passion for life. He’s always given me time. I can’t thank him enough. He works full time and then comes home and makes sure I have my time. Without him none of this would be possible.
We homeschool our three kids because this innate passion for learning is so important to us and we want them to be free to learn what they want to learn. As such we tend to view learning and education rather broadly, something more than just “doing school”. My six-year-old knows more about DaVinci than I did when I was in college! Because he sees me doing it. He sees me shooting DaVinci. So he says, “Mom, what’s this book all about?” Having the kids see and do and ask questions it stays with them and gives them a platform for building knowledge throughout their lives.
Of course finding time isn’t always simple. Sometimes I’ll get up before the kids do. Sometimes I’ll do late hours. Sometimes I’ll even try involve my kids, especially my oldest, my six-year-old, because he’s picking things up so quickly now. He takes pictures right next to me and I can show him what I’m doing, not just tell him about it. He’s not afraid, he might make mistakes but he is right there with me. I expose them to what I do, talk to them, explain to them. It’s not just this secret thing that I do. They’ve really been a big part of my work. I bring them to my studio with me, I show them the objects I’m shooting and teach my kids about why they’re important.
There’s never a dull moment in my house! I love being busy and in the midst of things. Naturally, I love peace too, and I try to make the most of living so close to the ocean. I feel like I go to the temple when I go to the ocean and spend a few hours watching the waves and pondering about God’s blessings in my life. When I spend time at the ocean I come back recharged and say, “Yes! OK, now we can go on.”
At A Glance
Eva Koleva Timothy
Location: Newbury, MA
Marital status: Married 10 years
Children: Three (ages 6, 4, 2)
Convert to Church: 1992
Schools Attended: Ricks College, University of Utah, Oxford School of Photography
Languages Spoken at Home: English and Bulgarian
On the Web: View Eva’s photography and the Lost in Learning project at LostInLearning.com and Illumea.com
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.