Thursday, June 29, 2017

From Russia to the USA

I started this piece while I was living with my grandma. She has this photo of herself in her 40s that she really likes and she wanted me to paint her when she was still young and beautiful.

I wanted to paint her in her own apartment, using the things that surround her in her daily life and add elements of the house she spent 20 years building in the country side which she has now sadly sold 10 years ago and never stops regretting it. Originally I planned to use her tablecloth from her apartment and paint cherry blossoms and a yellow wooden house for the backdrop.

The design didn't seem as interesting as the scene that presented itself to me in her very own kitchen so I chose to simply surround her with what she lives with now. That way overtime, when she looks at the painting it won't have to hurt her with painful memories of a regretful decision to sell her house.

Boris Kustodeev is a painter revered in Russia for his depictions of beautiful and flourishing merchant wives. One of the most famous of his works and one of my most favorites as well is titled a Merchant's Wife (very original).

I saw it last year during my trip to St. Petersburg and I've wanted to paint something along its lines for a long time now. My painting from today is my first of its kind and I hope to make many more in the future. I love the abundance of the table setting, the picturesque background and the lavishness of the lady's attire. I especially aspire to the depth of Boris Kustodeev's designs.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Back to Art

I've taken a few days since my return to visit some friends and spend some time with my husband and his lovely little daughter. Today I'm mentally preparing to go back into painting starting tomorrow. To get myself motivated I'd like to share this drawing I worked on during my stay in Russia. After I worked for a costume designer in New York, I ended up meeting her on my way to Russia. I spent the night in her home and she was very kind and welcoming.

She gave me a gift of some paintbrush markers from Japan. I've never used them before so I went to town with them in my free time when hanging out at my grandma's. This is a scene from the fairy tale "the Terrible Revenge" by Gogol. In this scene a guest at a wedding at the start of the story suddenly turns into a shapeshifter anti-chirst and everyone witnesses his sudden transformation and the guests become terrified. Using the markers really helped me get away from my usual precision and be more quick and gestural in my strokes.

I've wanted to illustrate this entire story for many years now, but I've still some other work to finish before I can truly invest myself into this series. I have to finish all the Matryoshkas of my friends I've promised them I'd make.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Back at Last

I am so happy to be back home. After staying away for almost two months coming back felt strange. I saw my home with new eyes and I loved seeing it again. I felt the heat and it was brutal. I saw Fourth Av. and it was empty. I thought about the masses of people in the streets of St. Petersburg, especially downtown. I thought of the metro in rush hour and wondered how we were all able to walk in different directions without walking into each other every second, like a bunch of babies playing bumper cars.

At the end of May a gentle white flower blooms called "Under Snow". It usually grows in the forest under the melting snow. I'm not sure how or why it's in this snowless field.

I have often wondered the same thing when walking on the U of A campus between two periods, I think that's usually the 10 minutes before the hour. Everyone is rushing, no one is checking the street before crossing it and bikers and skateboarders are flooding the same paths as the pedestrians in all different directions. Somehow no one ever seems to get hurt and I think the human brain is amazing for being able to navigate through such chaos.

My grandmother can never take a walk without sitting down on a bench for a rest. Here we're sitting in our neighborhood in one of the small refuges from the city. You can pretend you're in the country when you sit here.

St. Petersburg was beautiful because of the pretty buildings, lush summer foliage and aromatic spring time blooms of lavender, cherry blossoms and fresh leaves sprouting on the branches that smell of the gentle green color. St. Petersburg was home because of my grandmother that I know and love and the strangers whose faces I understand with their open frankness and meek soulfulness. Tucson is home because of the large support network of friends and family I am so fortunate to have and because I know where the yummiest food is, where my friends play the best music and where people I know and love show their art.

I wish my grandmother didn't live by herself. I am sorry to leave her so far away where she has no family and most of her friends are already dead.

I am so happy to be back home.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

From Cold to Hot

I've spent May and most of June in St. Petersburg. The warmest it's been here during those two months is 70 degrees, and that was only for one day. I wore my summer dress only once. Some time at the end of May the central heating system in our building was turned off for the summer because the temperatures had reached 65 degrees in the day and at night it did not drop to freezing anymore. For a week the weather seemed to be warming up. Suddenly it dropped down to 48 degrees in the day and no one turned the central heating system back on in the building. It was REALLY cold for an entire week.

At home I wore woolen socks, a sweater dress, a large cotton sweater and a woolen scarf wrapped around my head. I found a Soviet Era space heater in my grandmother's closet. It was made of a bright red plastic on the outside and I was afraid that it would melt if it got really hot. I'm not sure why I thought this, upon reflection I recall that I have plastic space heaters at home which work just fine, although now I question the choice of material. Unfortunately the old space heater was missing a prong in its socket.

I think that if I could add up all the days that were actually warm in the city, they would amount to one full week. And if you counted up the days that I could spend entirely without wearing a coat, it would probably amount to two days. On the 21st, in the evening, I will be in Tucson. I really missed the heat.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Saying Goodbye

I walked out onto the balcony today, on my grandmother's flat on the fifth floor to hang up her laundry. The air is fresh, a cool breeze is blowing and the sun is shining. A beautiful day. Aroma from the lavender is floating all the way up to the fifth floor. It must be pungent down there, on the ground. The radio plays songs from the Soviet Era, the 90s and some contemporary stuff I've never heard. My grandma is fixing a cabinet door she's been waiting for me to come and fix for many years now. I was supposed to fix it today, maybe she'll let me finishing the job. She's upset, she's mad, she knows I'm leaving in less than 48 hours.

View from my grandma's kitchen window on a rainy day (June 2017)

I'm drinking my coffee and crying. She saw my tears fall, she said nothing. What is there to say. She lived through the WWII blockade. She moves on, she can't cry, life does not care for tears. Tears do not feed you, tears do not fix things. I remembered my feeling of love for this country. I've been away for so long that I forgot. But now I remember and I can come back home and carry the painful, aimless love with me.

Marsovo Field and blooming lavender on a sunny day (June 2017)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Stuff about Russia and Me

I'm coming to the end of my stay in Russia. This trip is culminating with much time spent with my grandma. We spent so much of this trip waiting for doctors and worrying about possible surgeries that this time we have left together since the results feels like stolen freedom. In Russian we have an expression "torn off the leash" meaning we've been pent up not doing much and now we're going wild with all the sudden freedom we have. So we've been doing all the touristy things that people do.

The first time I visited since leaving was in 2008-2009, during the christmas and new years season. I spent a month with my grandma in the cold cold city and I remember then she went all over town with me and did a bunch of sight seeing and theater going. It took me 7 years to finally make it out again and last summer my grandmother hardly did anything with me. She seemed much more feeble than she did in 2009 and I had experienced my mother's decent into disability by then.

My experience of taking care of my mother and the hardships she faced whenever going outside of the house, and the stress it caused me to take care of her made me fear going out with my grandmother last summer. I was afraid that her personality would be difficult, like my mother's. I was afraid we would clash. I was afraid she'd be extravagant and embarrassing and I avoided going out with her.

This time a friend gave me some very good advice. I was complaining one day that my grandmother sometimes embarrasses me by the things she says or the things she does and it causes me to tension around her because I try to contain her outrageousness by reproaching her. My friend told me I should not worry so much about what other people might think of my grandma when she says or does things I don't like. Even if her behavior is offensive, it's not my fault and not my business to do anything about it.

Sleeping security guard on the train to the village (Summer of 2016)

I started to mind this advise and it really helped me to enjoy my grandma's company a lot. Besides, I  later realized that while she is a bit extravagant even in Russia, in her own city, the things she says are not as outrageous as I think. For me it's just culture shock. Certain conversations publicly unacceptable in my experience in the US, are normal and acceptable in Russia.

Another sleeping guard on the train to the village (summer, 2016)

Of course we all know that in theory when it comes to any country or culture, there are going to be polar opposites in some aspects. It's weird to experience these polar opposites suddenly and come to a realization that what you thought was your culture, is actually not something you can understand or accept anymore. What I mean is, because I'm Russian and because I've spent a certain amount of time growing up here and living with my Russian mother in the US as well, I have a belief that I am culturally like people in Russia.

I didn't anticipate that being here for two months would cause me so much internal turmoil. Turns out I only speak and look Russian, but many things are lost on me as far as ways people interact and things they say and value. Often times I've been truly upset by things and it's been a journey of acceptance and coming to terms with two very different worlds where things are different and yet the same.  It's funny to leave at the end of two months because I feel that it is now that I've finally come to terms with all the cultural differences and clashes and have overcome my culture shock. I leave with a bitter sweet taste of affection for this place that used to be my home.

Sleeping passanger on the train to the village (Summer 2016)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Feminists in St. Petersburg, Russia

So something that has been bugging me about my communication with people in Russia is the sheer amount of complaint against the government and the system and the colossal lack of action to create a better reality. Many conversations I've had with younger locals have gone somethings like this:

Local: May I ask where you're from?
Me: The US.
Local: Wow, you're lucky! I'm planning to go to (whatever other country) soon.
Me: Why?
Local: The government is no good, there's no opportunity, the economy is bad...

While everyone is complaining and masses desire to and many leave the country, no one is taking it up to do civil actions to attempt to make a change in the world around them. This passivity and the idea that going to a new country will magically make things better has made me very upset and I felt suffocated with the silent acceptance of what is clearly wrong in the world around.

My sense of distress led me to reach out to a woman I know through a mutual friend who is involved in activism with LGBT rights in Oakland. She is also a Russian immigrant and has spent a year in St. Petersburg as an adult studying in the university recently. I asked her if she knew of any people here taking concrete actions to better their environment. She led me to a group of feminists by the name of "Eve's Ribs".

I attended a lecture given by a lawyer regarding women's rights in the work place. Her focal points of discussion surrounded discrimination, women's vs. men's salary, and harassment. An example was brought up of discrimination in a recent case where the plaintiff was a stewardess and the defendant, the national airline, Aeroflot. The plaintiff complained that Aeroflot gave salary raises and international raises to younger, thinner stewardesses. All older and heavier stewardesses were restrained to national flights only and were on a different pay schedule from the younger more "attractive" ones. 

Aeroflot argued that the weight of the stewardesses effected the cost of operating the plane because it needed more fuel and even brought an actual monetary figure of loss per kilo per year! Also, they said that stewardesses who were thicker were less effectual in their job duties because they would not be able to walk down the isles since they'd be snagging the seats as they walked. Judges ruled in favor of Aeroflot, they did not think there was valid discrimination.

There is also a list of jobs, like about 600 of them, that women are simply not allowed to have in Russia because "they're bad for their reproductive system". A woman in the audience told us that she was part of a law firm that took action and set a precedent for battling this list of jobs. A woman who worked for the law firm and had no desire to take on one of these jobs actually went and applied and after being denied on the basis that she was a woman, the law firm took the case to court. This action created a lot of buzz in the media and eventually led to the firm taking on a real case with a woman who wanted a job she was not allowed to have. The woman won and got her job.

I asked if there was a constitution that made discrimination against the law. The lawyer said, yes, but in Russia it is considered to be in bad taste to bring up the constitution in a court of law. If a lawyer brings up the constitution to make a point everyone decides that it is time to stop listening to that lawyer and no one takes them seriously from that point on. I was also told that most of the cases are decided before they're even heard. Bribery is still ruling our country. If a high profile case is won by the plaintiff, it is often to their detriment. Some men recently won some case and soon there after a bag of money was dropped into their possession, they were caught by the police and spend some years in prison for theft. They were framed.

I learned a lot about the state of affairs in Russia during this lecture. But I was very happy to see that there was some people willing to speak of what is happening and to call it out for its injustice rather than just sit around complaining and wishing they were in a different country. There is still fear, and a lot of it, though. After the speaker told me that the judicial system is rigged, she asked that the person who was recording the event do not post the recording publicly and repeatedly alluded to the fact that she really shouldn't be saying the things she said about the courts. This was very disconcerting, for how can change be brought forth if people fear speaking out?

Change is happening, but it is happening slowly and carefully. Activism is treading lightly in St. Petersburg. The lady in charge of organizing the event told me that only recently the "feminism" was distasteful in her midsts and it has been a battle to simply get things rolling, but things are rolling and hopefully they will grow and flourish.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

More from Russian Ethnological Museum: Russian Section

As promised yesterday, here are more costume photos. Today's collection is from the Russian people's traditional clothes.