Tereza Lazar, the best aqua designer of Ukraine, creates cherry tree gardens and rainforests in aquariums. 

When a hobby turns into a passion and a great success. Tereza Lazar lives in the town of Uzhhorod, she can and loves working with aquariums. Many Uzhhorod residents have a “window” into a magical aqua world designed by her talented hands. Due to her, many people found out what aquascaping is. Her hobby has just been introduced to the world: she took part in the main world competition and found herself within an elite of aqua designers.

The most prestigious contest IAPLC 2018 (18th International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest) placed her 12th, the second among Europeans and the first among Ukrainians. In general, the contest, founded by Takashi Amano, a “guru” of aquascaping, received 1977 applications with photos of works sent by participants from 68 countries.

It is an open contest for the whole world. There are no limitations, the size of an aquarium isn’t regulated, of course, only natural materials are allowed. The important condition is that photos should correctly show what you have created. Almost two thousand participants from 68 countries, Japan, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, – there were many works from these countries where aquascaping is widely spread. Eight aqua designers from Ukraine took part in the contest. Only I came to present Ukraine at the awarding ceremony in Japan. I was extremely pleased and proud to see the flag of Ukraine above the stage! I also appreciate the opportunity to communicate with people I used to know only online, those were the leading world aqua designers. I am also happy people recognized me and came up to say hello… I wish I had had more time to see Japanese temples, but anyway, I got an incredible impression!

What was your aquarium like?

At the last contest, I presented a stone composition. This time, I designed a 180 litres aquarium with stones, schist and driftwood. I made the trees. A mysterious forest – that’s how I called the work.

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Tereza Lazar’s aquarium which took the 12th place in IAPLC 2018

Do I get it right – an aquarium is like a separate ecosystem, isn’t it?

Yes, it seems like you can create any composition for an exhibition and then you can just disassemble it. But you want it to live further. One of the criteria of the works is a lifetime of an aquarium. For example, you can’t plant a big plant in a small aquarium – it won’t work. You have to follow all the proportions. There are plants which are more or less demanding. More often, I use those which require special conditions: a certain light, an appropriate level of carbon dioxide, fertilizers. However, for this contest, I used moss which isn’t very demanding but it also requires certain conditions. It is better, of course, to make such works for yourself, at home, as I can provide appropriate care: cut it and watch constantly. But when you launch a new aquarium, it starts to live its own life, some parameters can change, seaweed can grow, you have to watch all the stages to go well, you have to wait until the balance is achieved. Sometimes, when I leave the town, my aquariums start to miss me…

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Tereza Lazar’s aquarium took the 79th place in IAPLC 2017

You don’t put an accent on fish in your aquariums, do you?

My priority is design. I choose fish depending on an idea. This time, I needed them to be like birds that’s why I chose those which become not longer than 1. 5 cm. I like school fish. It is very difficult to take a photo of an aquarium, you have to catch the moment when fish swim the way I imagine it, and they hide behind stones… We managed to do it, but it took much time and work.

By the way, how much time does it take to work on a contest aquarium?

It took me 4 months to complete the Mysterious Forest. You have to wait for plants to become pretty. For example, I cut moss to make it thick. They have to be that volume and form I imagine it to be… But it isn’t long, sometimes, it takes more time.

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How did you start to do aquascaping?

I have liked aquariums since I was a little child. My grandad-biologist had aquariums, fish, our neighbour was breeding fish, almost all his flat was full of aquariums… Grandad gave me the first aquarium as a present. I had it when I was a student, but then more important things appeared: marriage, child… But after a while, my mom presented fish to my son, and it started again. In 2013, I registered on the Lviv aqua designers forum. In 2014, I took part in their contest for the first time. I felt strange and anxious. I craved to express myself, I didn’t expect to win, I wanted to meet new people, first of all. Contests are about networking, people are friendly, helpful, they give plants to each other… By the way, that time, I also had a combination of stones and wood. I took first place and it stimulated me, gave me the thrill of competition. I again tried Lviv, then Uzhhorod, then Kyiv, and I got into it… In 2016, I applied for the world contest in Japan. Then, it was a small 60 cm aquarium. But this time, I used a bigger one, it is interesting and convenient to work with it. However, some use even 1.5-meter aquariums, but they require many materials, it is difficult to get them in Ukraine. In Japan or Taiwan, for example, they can find or order anything, and as for me, I don’t only buy but also go to forests, look for sticks, driftwood…

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Aquascaping is art, of course, I guess you also learn much…

Without a doubt, it is art! As for learning, I graduated from the Biology Faculty, but yes, I learn all the time. Today, aquascaping is a hobby for me, not a job, I work at the Uzhhorod Town Council. I guess I would like to make it my job, but for now, I do aquascaping only at weekends. To make it a serious occupation, you have to open your studio and show what you do. It is possible in cities but not in Uzhhorod.

Is there such a term as “aquarium fashion”?

Yes, you should follow trends. This Japanese contest, the most important in the world, sets the trends: every year, we wait for the catalogue very much. For example, in 2014, the first place was given to a French design made of stones (this is called Iwagumi). But the last year, and two years ago, designs were made of driftwood – Ryoboku. Every time, I look and think: what fantastic works, what else can I make up which hasn’t been invented yet?! It seems everything has been shown already! But still people make incredible works, and each is different! Actually, aquascaping – the craft of arranging of aquatic plants – was founded by Takashi Amano, a famous aqua designer, photographer, guru of aquascaping. If you compare works from the first 2001 contest founded by him and modern ones, the difference is huge: from simple aquariums to fantastic designs, participants create miracles… By the way, I am very concerned about repeating one’s work by accident. But in general, to feel the wave, you have to follow trends. I’d like to mention that at the last contest in Japan, the first place was given to a classic work. Nobody expected that everybody tried to make more complicated designs, so did I, and there, surprisingly, quite a simple composition won. Everything changes sometimes it goes back to the roots… As for fashion, now, palidariums are popular, it is when an aquarium is only half-full of water, and there is an above-water part. It is popular today.

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Your 12th place in such a contest can be considered as a victory, actually…

I didn’t even dream of that! Yes, I wanted very much to participate and be in the top 100 as at the previous contest which was a great moment for me. But the 12th place is a miracle. Leading designers are mostly from those countries where aquascaping is developed, for example, China and, of course, Japan. Just a few Europeans.

When you create an aquarium, you rather “paint” or you “build”?

Yes, I have an approximate picture in my head, but more frequently, I take the material I have as the basis. I try to use stones, driftwood, combine them, lay out. I work long hours, I do everything very thoroughly, I pay attention to details. People often recognize me because my works are very detailed. They say they see my hand. I lay each stone, each stick the way it has to be. And yes, I seem to be an architect a little because I have to calculate the proportions of composition. I am a bit florist and even a stone-setter (my husband presented me a hammer!)…

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By the way, how did you find materials for the contest work?

We were in Hungary in a shop where I often buy materials, I bought lava and other things there… And I saw a stone-schist, I thought maybe I should take it home just in case, I bought it, we loaded it into the car, for some reason, it encouraged me to work with it from the very beginning. There were no exotic elements: I found roots in the forest, as for plants, they are usual. But I also used wood moss.

You arrange nano-aquariums exhibitions and contest in Uzhhorod. What are these?

These are aquariums up to 40 kiers. It is hard to decorate such ones because you have to do everything very small and adhere to proportions. I attended the Lviv Nano-Aquariums Exhibition, so I wanted to arrange the event in Uzhhorod to let our club express itself. We have arranged this event for five years, the exhibition takes place in a thematic café which is decorated with aquariums, people are interested. By the way, my design on the basis of the film King Kong and Skull Island which I made for the exhibition is the only one which is based on some plot.

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Tereza Lazar’s work for the Nano-Aquariums Exhibition

When participants from Kyiv came to the contest, they expressed an interesting idea. There are many blooming cherry trees in Uzhhorod in spring, many tourists come – why not arrange a contest Sakura in Aquarium? This spring, we have made the third such a contest, people from Belarus, Ukrainian cities participate. The peculiarity of the 2019 exhibition is that children also take part on equal terms with adults. They have created very interesting works. We don’t set a goal to simulate sakura in an aquarium. It can be just a hint, a fantasy. We are pleasantly impressed with the ideas. The main point is communication, we show guests the Zakarpattia region (with Uzhhorod being its centre).

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Aquariums of participants of the exhibition-contest Sakura in Aquarium

How has your life changed after you succeeded in the world contest?

I have many master classes now. In Kyiv, together with my assistant-engineer, I built an aquarium with fountains. I was in Lviv in Kyiv as a judge at the contest, and before that, I had some training… Now I am going to Odesa, Dnipro, Kharkiv. An amusing period of life, yes, but I lack time because of my work… Now I can see the big attention of people to aquascaping in Ukraine.

What inspires you?

I love forests! I am fond of hiking, walking. I pick up sticks, look for inverted trees with pretty dry roots. I pick up, bring all these home, I have no space already, I have also made a storehouse in my mother’s house… Sometimes, I can build a composition on just one piece of driftwood. For example, I found a very interesting root and made an aquarium with a Bonsai-like tree. I also have a work Autumn in the Carpathians.

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The aquarium is believed to bring calmness and harmony into space. They say you can meditate watching this world. Would you recommend people to have aquariums at our uncalming times?

Without a doubt! However, I am bad at mediating with aquariums! Because the more I work with them, the more flaws I notice: this plant has a wrong leaf, I should cut it, there, something appeared, I should correct it… Aquariums are really great things. When it is in an interior, it is pretty, it is relaxing, it changes your mood… When you watch fish, how they grow when you feed them…  My angelfish can see me when I am in the corridor yet, they line up and ask for food, they almost talk (laugh).

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I congratulate you on the win in one more international contest which has recently taken place! But as far as I understand, it’s not an aquarium…

It was the contest  Aquaflora Wabi Kusa Handbag Challenge 2019. Wabi Cusa is a new direction for me. It is of Japanese origin, it is a composition of grassy hygrophilous or aquatic plants. Cusa from Japanese is grass, Wabi is moderation, the objection of bright visual effect, watching the nature excellence which is expressed in simple things. It was founded by Takashi Amano. I didn’t plan to take part but organisers invited me, so I decided to try. The task was to create a design made of plants which live under the water but gradually cease to be aquatic; the composition itself should be without water. I was interested to do it, but surprisingly, I won. I made my composition, like everybody, on the spring theme, in a special bag, it is also very small: 17.5*11*17 centimetres.

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What do you dream of?

Naturally, I would like to have my own studio. To have space where I can create what I like, to make it a considerable part of my life. Because now, this hobby is only a small piece of my life although it pushes out many other things.

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Please tell about your perfect aquarium you would create if you had all the conditions!

Yes, now I can’t create a new incredible aquarium because there is no space at home. If I do it for someone else, it will be hard to provide appropriate care if the design is complicated. But one day, I’ll have my best one! It’s a pity, but I will disassemble my contest aquarium and create a new aquascape on its basis. The one which I would spend enough time on and develop it to the state needed so it will please me. But now, I don’t know what it will be like. I’ll learn it only the moment when I start to create it because it is art!

By Alla Khayatova

Photo: Serhiy Hudak and Tereza Lazar

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