Archive for the ‘story of a painting’ Category



Caged. Oil on canvas. 20×20. 2011.

Caged is about lack of freedom, particularly the freedom of a woman in a male-dominated society.  In this work I reflect on my own experiences as a female artist and also on experiences of other women whose stories I had either read or heard

I did not realize how much my life was affected by living in a patriarchal society in Russia until I moved to America. Studying art history opened my eyes to many stories of female artists. Linda Nochlin’s article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was especially insightful. Another book that created a strong impression on me was Peeling Potatoes, Painting Pictures by Renee Baigell and Matthew Baigel.  It was a very interesting compilation of interviews with contemporary women painters in post-Soviet Russia, Latvia and Estonia. You could see several different approaches to how these women saw themselves. Some of them admitted the limitations and discussed it freely. Some stated that it is true that women are inferior to men as artists, but felt they were are an exception. Some refused to talk about it at all.

Caged expresses my feelings towards the immobility and disruption that I felt, and possibly many women artists feel.


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I am going to publish a story about each painting that means a lot to me. Self-Portrait in the Red Turban is probably number one in this category.

Self-Portrait in a Red Turban

Self-Portrait in the Red Turban

I always wanted to be an artist.  My grandmother gave me a book from which I taught myself to draw when I was five.  Then at the age of thirteen I enrolled in a four-year course of study at an Art School which held classes after the regular secondary school day ended.  There is a great system of art and music schools that still exists in Russia.  After the end of my regular school I would run to my second – art – school every day to study art history, painting, drawing, sculpture and composition.  I was unaware that in the rest of the world Abstract Expressionism was the mainstream. In my world the mainstream was Rembrandt, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, all the “Old Masters”.

I can say that I had a classical training in art.  The “Old Masters” were considered to be “gods of the past”, however, the present day “masters” had to create in the style of “social realism” to be approved by the ruling Communist Party. That was not too exciting. In addition, one day someone said to me that “there had never been any great women artists”.

At first, I tried to argue but I had no facts to prove the opposite.  During that time in Russia no one knew about Artemisia Gentileschi, Georgia O’Keefe, or Lee Miller.  In the meanwhile Linda Nochlin’s 1971 article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”was published in the United States.  It is ironic that the same words that empowered women artists in the United States made me give up my dream of becoming an artist in the USSR. As I observed that all “great artists” of both present and the past were men, especially those who chose to join the Communist Party, I also heard negative remarks about “women’s art” which was often considered unimportant and limited to flowers and such. That was very discouraging for me as a young person and the desire to become a professional artist was suppressed by the time to apply to college.

Drawing always remained my way to express my emotions and feelings.  I drew to express myself and it made my life more bearable.  But I gave up on the idea of becoming a “professional” artist because I did not want to be a mediocre artist.  Mediocrity as an artist seemed to be predetermined just by the fact that I was a female.  I became a “shadow artist”.

I learned the term “shadow artist” much later, while living in the US and reading Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way.  “Shadow Artist”, according to Cameron, is a person whose “inner artist” or “artist within” was suppressed for a number of reasons. Such people do not believe they can be “real artists”.  They love art, try to be around artists, sometimes they become models, muses, or supporters of artists.  Sometimes they marry artists. Cameron did not go so far in her book as to state that being a “shadow artist” is much more typical for women than for men, but that seems to be the case.

When I moved to the US in 2001 my life changed. I was greatly encouraged and supported by my loving husband and started becoming a “professional artist”, getting my degree in art, coming out of a “shadow”. The more I learned about female artists the more interested I became in “women issues” in art. One of my favorite artists, Katherine Ace, once said that as a woman she should be careful about what she chooses to paint.  She said: “painting flowers is politically dangerous for a female artist, playing right into cultural stereotypes. It sets you up to be dismissed“.  But she painted flowers anyway, as well as other subjects.

Self-representation, like painting flowers, risks being stereotyped as “feminine.”  Many of my works are based on some form of self-representation.  Even if use models, I still often identify myself with the models, their life stories and feelings. I believe, that engaging with self-representation places me within the mainstream of contemporary female artists who took themselves as subjects.

In her study of female surrealist artists W. Chadwick characterized them with: “the affinity for the structures of fabulist narrative, and a tendency towards the phantasmic and oneiric.” Other qualities shared by female surrealist artists, according to Chadwick, include embrace of doubling, masking, and masquerade as defenses against fears of non-identity. Chadwick pointed out the following representational strategies that continue to resonate in the works of female surrealists:

  • Self as Other;
  • Self as Body;
  • Self as Masquerade or Absence.

Many women adopted practices of “self-othering” – identifying with moments prior to historical time and/or outside the civilized cultural spaces identified with patriarchy.  Chadwick sees these categories as broad frames “within which it is possible to enact dialogs between contemporary women artists and Surrealism.” You can see fabulist narrative, phantasmic and oneiric qualities in some of my work. One example is identifying myself with Van Eyck in Self-Portrait in the Red Turban.

I represent myself in this painting as “Other” and as a male.  This is my way of reflecting on my role as a woman artist in contemporary art world which still treats women artists differently than male.

The crows included in this work are connected with my childhood memories and experience with my mother’s pet crow. It combines my feelings of bitterness of rejection. Once at the age 4 while being rejected by a crow (see the full story in this post), and then again, at the age 14 being rejected by the Art World when I was told “there had never been great women artists.”  The images of the crows in this work symbolize great artists whom I admired and wanted to belong to their world but was not allowed. This work is a statement that I do belong to the Art World.  I state this by wearing Van Eyck’s famous red turban and the coat with crow’s feathers.  This connects me to the Art World as well as to the Crows’ World.

This painting is very important to me, so when it was sold after my MFA thesis show, I felt that I had to make another one. That is why there are two version of it:

2011   DSCN1479

and 2013:

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2. Second from the top left is again a scene from a real photograph depicting my mother as a student in a classroom with her mother as a teacher. My grandmother was an elementary school teacher and taught my mother during her first years in school. She later taught me to read, write, and draw and basically everything as well. I pasted a gigantic portrait of Lenin on the wall. Portraits of Lenin and Stalin were the norm in the Soviet classrooms. On the left there is a poster with the text: “Bring the soldiers at the front joy with excellence in your studies”. This reflects on the time of that photograph – it was done during  the Second World War – the Great Patriotic War as we called it in Russia. My mother’s father lost his eye in that war. My father’s father never came back home.

Вторая картинка слева сделана с настоящей фотокарточки. Моя мама сидит в классе, а учительница за ее спиной – моя бабушка – мамина мама. Моя бабушка была учительницей начальных классов. Это она научила меня читать, писать и рисовать, а текже многому другому, напрмер, свистеть в два пальца. На стене висит гигантский портрет Ленина. Это некоторое преувеличение действительности, хотя на самом деле в школах тогда всюду висели портреты Ленина и Сталина. Справа лозунг – “Порадуй Фронт Отличной Учебой” – это уже не выдумка, а как на фотографии. Снимок сделан во время Великой Отечественной войны. У бабушки на груди – орден Героя Труда. В школе ее очень уважали.


3. This is also a real photo. Mother and her father go to dig potatoes. During and after the war there was a shortage of food. Everybody tried to find a spot of land to grow some vegetables. Potatoes was a staple food. My mother’s family were lucky to have a little piece of land somewhere out of town. On this photo my Mom is already a college student, she is visiting back home with her parents and accompanying her father in his agricultural duties.

Это еще одна настоящая фотография. Мама идет со своим папой (моим дедушкой) окучивать картошку. У них был маленький клочок земли на окраине города. Дедушка туда наведывался регулярно, и мама пошла помогать, когда приехала на каникулы из другого города где была уже студенткой института.


4. This is another real photograph – my mother with her friends when they were hiking in the mountains. She was born and raised in the Ural mountains – an area with incredibly beautiful nature and she loved the nature and travelling with friends.

Еще одна настоящая фотка. Мама с друзьями в горах. Она была отличницей и активисткой: учавствовала во всех возможных кружках, в том числе и Клубе Туризма, у нее было множество друзей.


5. One of those friends she fell in love and he became my father (about whom there will be another story). In the meanwhile she was happy and this was my favorite photo of the two of them.

Один из этих друзей стал ее мужем и моим отцом, о котором – отдельная история. Это моя любимая фотография, где они вдвоем и мама – счастлива.


6. Writing her Doctoral dissertation was from my mother’s words another significant event in her life. Or I would rather say a “Chapter” in her life, because she was writing it for a very long time. First she was taking care of her husband who was behind her in his education and she was cooking and cleaning for him to help him finish college. Then she was cooking and cleaning and taking care of the children to help him finish HIS Doctoral dissertation. And only after all that she would allow herself to work on her own research. Her area of studies was concrete. She was a construction engineer. Not a very exciting area from my point of view. My mother claimed it was very interesting. But I did not believe her. This is one of my “invented” photographs. I see her studying in the library after all her cooking and cleaning, and after the children were already grown up enough to be left at home by themselves. She is tired and falling asleep while reading about concrete ingredients. I actually found one of her articles online and pasted it as a text-collage in this small image.

Со слов моей мамы – написание диссертации – одно из важных моментов ее жизни. Я бы назвала это скорее “Главой жизни”, т.к. написание заняло очень много времени: больше десяти лет. Сначала она чистила, мыла и готовила для любимого мужа который учился в техникуме на вечернем, чтобы дать ему возможность поступить в университет. Потом чтобы дать ему возможность закончить университет. Потом, чтобы дать ему возможность написать и защитиьь его диссертацию, потом дети были все еще маленькие… В результате, она защитилась сама, уже когда они почти что развелись. Это “изобретенная” фотография. На ней я вообразила как мама сидит в библиотеке после кухни, уборок и стирок, читает про свой железо-бетон (это была ее специализация, она была – инженер-строитель) и засыпает над книками. В  книгу раскрытую перед ней я вклеила (коллаж) статью про железо-бетон (нашла в интернете).


7. Birth of her first child. I have heard this story many times, and this is an “invented photograph”. My mother was breastfeeding her first child (my brother)  and it was April 12, 1961. And She heard on the radio that the First Man is in Space – Yuri Gagarin! Her heart was filled with joy and pride! She is breastfeeding her FIRST child and the FIRST man is in Space! She imagined a very bright future for her FIST child and for the whole of human kind. If you meet her now, she will still tell you this story with great enthusiasm and ecstatic feeling. The radio is in the top right part of the image.

Рождение первого ребенка. Эту исорию я слышала много раз. Это опять же “изобретенная” фотография. Моя мама кормит грудью своего первого ребенка, сына (моего брата) 12го апреля 1961 года. Во время кормления она слышит по радио объявление: “Первый Человек в Космосе!” Мою маму охватывает великая гордость и космические чувства, так как она видит аналогию ее Первый ребенок и Первый человек в Космосе! И по сегодняшний день она испытывает сильные чувства по этому поводу. Я нарисовала радио на стенке в маленькой комнатке которую они снимали.


8. After I was born and breastfed for 4 months, my parents brought me to my mom’s parents who lived in a small town, about 1-2 hours trip by train or bus. It was probably too much for my mother to cook and clean for my father and her first child and to care for me as well. I was better off with my grandparents. As I mentioned earlier, my grandmother was an elementary school teacher and she raised me since I was 4 months till 4 years old. My first memories are from my grandparents small apartment with a view of the Ural mountains from the windows. My grandmother taught me to read and write, she taught me how to draw and when I was leaving them to go back to live with my parents I cried and I missed her so much. She told me to always look at the star at night and tell her Goodnight, and she will hear and tell me Goodnight back. I did. I think she can still hear me through the star. But during the time when I lived with my grandparents I missed my mother very much. Every time when she visited I was very happy and cried when she was leaving. This is the scene when my mother is leaving and we are saying Goodbye at the train station.


9. Potato Picking duties. Every September brought Potato picking duties for all  people living in the Soviet Union’s cities and towns. Students with their teachers from schools and colleges, PhDs and their Lab Assistants from the research institutions had to go to the villages and kolhoz to help the farmers  pick potatoes, or carrots, or beets… I usually went with my mother for a few days. I went with my school also but that was usually for just one day. I and many other young people saw it as fun, but of course it was physically challenging work and our backs were hurting after it for a while. As I look back – it was not the best use of all those intellectuals’ time and probably happened to be one of many reasons for the “brain-drain” in the Soviet Union.

На картошке. Русскоговорящим не надо обхъяснять что это такое. Студенты, школьники, учителя, профессора, Кандидаты наук и соискатели – все должны были ехать “на картошку” в сентябре. Это моя мама – кандидат наук – собирает картошку в ведро. Славное было время!

See Part 1  here

Начало –  здесь

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The image in the center is a watercolor painting made from a photo of my mother I took when we visited the University of Virginia in 2004. After that the idea was born to use this portrait for a bigger painting and add small scenes on the edges. This idea was influenced by the structure of Russian icons where the main image of a Saint is in the center and the smaller images “klejma” are located on the sides, illustrating the Saint’s life.  So, in “My Mother’s Life” her portrait is surrounded by the most important scenes of her life. I conducted a series of interviews with my mother clarifying which events in her life she considered the most important. Some of the events she considered the most important I used in the painting. For example, one is “the birth of her first child, the son” (let me note that it was not me). Some of the events I had to add by myself based on my understanding of what was important in her life. Some of the small images are based on real life photos and some are “invented”  – based on my imagination, but also based on real facts of my mother’s life.

First in the series of small images (top, left) is the detail of a real photograph. My mother is sitting on a chair, she is maybe 2 or 3 years old and her face looks angry. My mother told me she felt angry and unhappy when they took her photo, because she had to pose in an old coat. She inherited that coat from her older brother, as he did from somebody else. She felt that the coat was very old and ugly and she felt terrible that she had her photo taken in such an ugly coat. She later told me about her  thought process: <<Why did we always say in school “Thank you to the Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood!” while in fact I am not that happy – I have such an old coat?>>. That moment I depicted in this first image and that’s why there is a text there in Russian, translated as “Thank you to the Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood!”


Центральный портрет был написан с фото которое было сделано в Америке, на территории университета Вирджинии, когда мама приезжала в 2004 году.  Я решила использовать это фото для портрета, но потом родилась идея – дополнить портрет сценами из ее жизни, заимствуя идею Русских Икон. В “житийных” иконах в центре всегда стоит большой образ святого, а вокруг – маленькие картинки – “клейма” с изображениями жития святых. Так и в “Жизни Мой Мамы” ее жизнь – наиболее значтельные сцены – по краям в маленьких картинках. С мамой были проведены небольшие интервью, проливающие свет на те части ее жизни, которые она считала наиболее важными. И кое-что было принято во внимание. Так, например, одно из наиболее важных событий в ее жизни было “рождение первого ребенка, сына” (примечание, я не была ни первым ребенком, ни сыном). Но некоторые важные события в жизни были определены мною, по моему собственному усмотрению. Некоторые “картинки из жизни” были прямые заимствования из существующих фотографий, а некоторые – были “изобретенными фотографиями” и я изобразила некоторые моменты просто из воображения.

Первая картинка – это прямое заимствование старой фотографии. Мама маленькая, ей года 2 или 3, она сидит на стуле и лицо ее очень сердитое. По ее словам, она помнит, что была очень недовольна фактом, что ее фотографируют, а она сидит в старом пальто. Пальто ей досталось от старших братьев, а им – еще от кого-то. Она действительно очень страдала от осознания уродливости этого старого пальто, и в те моменты ее маленькую детскую голову пришла мысль – <а почему в школе мы всегда говорим “Спасибо Товарищу Сталину за наше счастливое детство!” ? Когда на самом деле я себя совсем не чувствую счастливой и у меня таkое старое пальто?>. Это я и изобразила. В нижней части – текст  “Спасибо Товарищу Сталину за наше счастливое детство!”


Part 2

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My Mother's Life

My Mother’s Life. Mixed media: watercolor, acrylic on canvas and paper.2006.

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I was going to publish more stories about my paintings and then a friend asked “Why the crow?” So I will start from this one.

In the Room With Memories

In the Room With Memories. Oil and collage on canvas. 48×36.

The crow in the painting “In a Room With Memories”  is a memory from my childhood.  My mother had a pet crow.  The crow just came into the open window one day and stayed to live with us. My mother named her “Vichka” (short for Viktoria). She loved my mother and hated me, probably out of jealousy,  and tried to bite me if I came too close.  I was only 4 years old, I was scared, but fascinated with the crow and was trying to gain her trust.  In doing so, I learned to speak like a crow, but that just seemed to annoy her more.  In this painting I am finally becoming friends with the crow and making peace with my childhood memories.

The image of the crow is also appearing in “Self-Portrait in the Red Turban”. I thought about how the feeling of me being rejected by the crow in my childhood is similar to the feeling of being rejected by the art world. I felt rejected when I heard from someone at about the age 14: “There had never been great women artists.”  At first I tried to argue but I had no facts to prove the opposite.  During the 1970s in the Soviet Union no one knew about Artemisia Gentileschi,  Georgia O’Keefe, or Lee Miller.  It was obvious that all “great artists” of both present and the past were men, especially those who chose to join the Communist Party.  I heard negative remarks about “women’s art” which was often considered unimportant and limited to flowers and such.  At the same time in the United States Linda Nochlin’s 1971 article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was published.  It is ironic that the same words that empowered women artists in the United States made me give up my dream of becoming an artist in the USSR.

Self-Portrait in a Red Turban

Self-Portrait in a Red Turban. Oil on canvas and paper. Artist-made frame. 

The image of the crows in this work represents great artists whom I admired and wanted to belong but was rejected.  Just like being rejected by the crow in my childhood with whom I wanted to be friends.  There is a statement in this work that I do belong to the art world.  I state this by representing myself in Van Eyck’s famous red turban and by painting crow feathers on my coat.  This connects me to the art world as well as to the crows’ world.




One of the crows. Oil on gessoed watercolor paper



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In a Golden Room. oil and gold leaf on canvas
Last week I submitted my paintings for a local juried art show. There were supposed to be three paintings and I brought just one first out of my car. I brought this one – which as I thought, was the least “nude” figure. Just a shoulder, an arm and a profile face… It is not even a figure, it’s a portrait!

Two more paintings with much more obviously exposed parts of female bodies were left in a car. At first nobody said anything and I went back to the car to bring my other two paintings after filling my exhibition papers. A minute after I went outside, someone was already running to get me, shouting: “Alla! We cannot exhibit nudity in a bank!” (that’s where the show was).

Fair enough, I thought, and I took this painting back into the car and went home, just to return back again with three perfectly modest landscapes. No nudity.

Next day, at the reception, I was talking to the artists who were receiving submissions the night before. They told me: “Of course, your painting could not be acceptable. It had an exposed, erect penis”…..?????

Imagine my amused face… “Excuse me? What penis? Where?”… “Well, we saw it yesterday”, the ladies told me. Then the discussion unfolded, in which I explained to them that not only I did not paint any penis there, but I was not so completely out of my mind to bring the painting with a penis to a bank if there was one. They were a bit confused, but insisted they saw a penis for sure. Although, as one of the ladies noted, there were also two male artists present at that time, who said they did not see a penis…. “Aha! I said, so it means you saw there something what OTHER people did not see?! What do you think, I said, would Freud said about that?”

Well, my friends, although this is a story from a past, please, take a good look at this painting now. What are you seeing? Please, tell me if you see a penis on it or not.

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