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Trying to Buy Art Supplies 3/20/06

Artists supplies available.

Pearl Paint on New York's Canal Street is an artist's dream. Five stories of two side-by side brownstones chock full of arts supplies. One floor devoted to paper alone. There other great places in New York. Utrecht Linens, Grand Central, Jake's, Sam Flax. However, there is nothing even close to them in Ulan Ude or, for that matter, Irkusk, the "Paris of Siberia".

I needed to purchase arts supplies so my volunteers and I could start work in the hospitals, primarily two types of paint; acrylic wall paint and acrylic artist paint for detailing borders in patient rooms, creating paintings for the ceilings of the intensive care units, repairing old murals and such - acrylic as we will be working in active hospitals thus drying times and fumes must be kept to a minimum. I normally shop for wall paints either at McDonough's Valley Hardware in Keene Valley or Aubachon in Lake Placid, or one of the other shops if either doesn't have what I need; a rarity. The shelves are filled with paints (many ready mixed), color charts and fliers suggesting schemes for "An Inspired Collection for Interiors," "The Gentle Hint of Color…" or The Cool Fresh Color…" As the Russians would say, "nowadays" about the only wall paints you can purchase in the United States is acrylic as oil-based are being fazed out for health and environmental reasons. Your choice of paint surface is diverse: flat, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss, hi-gloss, enamel, exterior, decking and sometimes one or two others. Not so in Ulan Ude. Here it comes in flat or gloss and long shelves filled with paint options and premixed colors are a rarity.

The standard is oil-based paint (to be used interior or exterior walls, floors, fencing or shutters). The primarily color choices are white, black, blue, yellow or green, or a tan, used for floors - the same brown everywhere. That covers 90% of all applications. These colors are available premixed in oil (gloss only), but not in acrylic. There is a widely used Russian brand (TekC) that comes in acrylic (flat only) or oil-based that provides more color options. More often than not, you must mix it yourself by purchasing a color tint (sold separately) and adding it to a base. A few larger shops will mix it for you. Finding a clean color wheel for selecting colors can be a challenge. Paint is sold in one, three or nine liter cans. One shop in Ulan Ude sells a French brand (Vincent) for three times the price of the Russian paint and will mix it for you, and one sells a Finnish brand, but does not mix the color.

A selection of house paints.

While I settled on the Russian brand for the wall paint, and had planned on purchasing one liter containers of French paint to use instead of artist's acrylic paint for the detailing , create paintings for the walls and ceilings, and repair murals, Galena, the head of decorative arts, strongly recommended that we purchase a quality acrylic sold either in tubes or jars in art shops, indeed at Ulan Ude's main (and over-inflated prices) purveyor of arts supplies on Arbat Street. She felt that professional artists colors would hold up best under the intense wall scrubbing conditions at hospitals and that purchasing them in jars would give us the most paint per ruble. We had checked out the prices in January. The jars had gone up from 30 rubles to 70 in the past year. We decided to bite the bullet and purchase them, and I agreed to go to Arbat Street and buy several jars of each desired color.

"They no longer sell them," I said to Galina after a fruitless day spent at the art shop, along with checking out three other shops and four bookstores that also sold (limited) arts supplies. "Nor will they order them as they said they would in January."


I then went on to tell her of all the other places I checked. Then I said, "Can we purchase the ones we saw advertised in the journal over the internet or by phone, you know, have them shipped?"

"No, I have never heard of purchasing arts supplies that way. Did you try the Russian Artists Society?"

"Yes, they were all in an office drinking vodka, singing patriotic songs, eating food and celebrating Defenders of the Country Day. I stayed for forty-five minutes to be polite, had more vodka than I intended and finally learned that they purchase their art supplies at the shop on Arbat."

"They often have such celebrations," she said. "What about their art store? They have two in the building."

"They didn't recommend them. They showed me their own paintings, one had a studio in their gallery, and they seem to use oil or gouache."

"Hmm, well I have a friend coming in twenty minutes. She teaches industrial design in Irkusk. Maybe she can help." (Irkusk is a city twice the size of Ulan Ude located on the west side of Baikal and reputed to have an excellent arts academy)

"No problem," said Galina's friend Sveta shortly after she arrived. "I am going back tonight to Irkusk by train. You come with me. We shop. You get your paints, take the train back Monday night and will be back in Ulan Ude first thing Tuesday morning."

"Should we call the shops to see if they have the paint we want? I'd hate to take a nine hour train ride to Irkusk to find out they don't have the paint," I said.

"They are closed today. It is Sunday. But I guarantee they have paint. My son is a painter. OK?" she said. (The Academy was open on Sunday to make up for the three days lost to the back to back national holidays of Defenders of the Country Day, Men's Day, and some other day).

"OK," I said, although not relishing the idea but seeing no alternative.

Monday at 11:00 AM, having arrived by overnight train in the higher-priced second class compartment as they were sold out of third class tickets, had breakfast, and endured nonstop comments about the size and noise of my rolling carry-on suitcase I brought to carry the paints back in rather than lug them around, we are looking in a shop window. Inside a few boxes with some paint and several busted art boards are lying about. Nothing else. "They went out of business," said Galena.

"So it appears," I said.

"Well, we will try another," she said.

Five shops later, one of which was also out of business, we have learned that the jars of paint Galina wanted are no longer being sold in Irkusk.

"How about this paint? It is acrylic," said Sveta holding up a small jar of gold paint.

"True," I said. "But it used to simulate the surface of granite, is expensive (280 rubles a jar) and only comes in three colors."

"We have these," said the shop assistant holding up a box of eight assorted small tubes of acrylic paint and another of six tiny jars of paint. We demurred.

Sveta and I stood outside each looking a bit forlorn, possibly grim and determined as well, an unusual state as we both tend to look on the bright side and are cheerful most times. She turned and asked three men standing by a car for their suggestions telling them what we needed and why.

Naj's travel case filled with purchased paints.

"Go to a professional paint store," they said. "Go where they sell wall paints. You may have to purchase them in liter cans, but they should have paint that will meet his requirements."

"My son will take you," said Sveta brightly getting off her cell phone. "He knows where to find such a store. He'll meet you back at my college where I teach."

So he (Sasha) did. First we walked about two kilometers through the teaming streets of Irkusk, which as Sveta earlier said, is a like a mini Moscow. People are energetic, many well dressed and stylish. The streets are lined with all manner of shops. There was energy in the air. Startling to me was the few Buryats or Buddhist influence to be seen, which is so much of the character of Ulan Ude. The contrast was marked. It was as if one city is in Asia and the other in Europe, yet their physical distance is relatively close, about 300 km, albeit separated by Baikal.

"We are now are at the end of the city," said Sasha. "This is where the large supermarkets begin." First we went to a shop that sold auto body paints and where he gets his cans of spray paint for decorating bridges, buildings, nightclubs and graphic displays. Since their paints, though colorful, were not water based, we followed their suggestions to another market building containing a shop that specialized in Finnish wall paints, where I purchased ten liters of made-to-order mixed paints and three liters of white, all in semi-gloss as it is not sold in gloss or enamel.

"Wonderful," said Sveta of our success. "But couldn't you have purchased such paints in Ulan Ude?"

"Almost," I said. "It had been my initial thought but Galina wanted the artist quality paints, which we couldn't find. In Ulan Ude they sell French wall paints that cost 480 rubles a liter while these Finnish paints went for 300 a liter. The French paints don't come in semi-gloss as these do. They do sell the Finnish paint in Ulan Ude, but you can't get them to mix the colors and I don't know if it comes in semi-gloss. So it was good that we came, I now have paint in hand and I got to see a bit of Irkusk."

Sveta (in mask) my guide about the Irkusk art and paint stores.

"Yes. Irkusk is a wonderful city filled with many beautiful women, wonderful museums and good students. It is growing very fast," she said. "Would you like to eat? Then we go to a museum with my class. I have tickets. No problem."

Note: It should be pointed out that Sveta was very generous with her time and hospitality, as was her son, indeed her parents who live in Ulan Ude with whom we had dinner before we left on my last-minute trip to Irkusk. Earlier that day, we made a special trip to the train station to get tickets, which required going to and waiting for an office to open to get a ticket as it was "sold out". She toured me around Irkusk for four hours in search of paint, provided me a chance to clean up and have breakfast at her home, introduced me to her college, colleagues and students, took me to a museum, and made sure at day's end that I was safely back on the train in the right compartment with my carry-on now jammed and heavy with paint. It is said in Russia, that when you have a Russian for a friend, you have their friends as well. That level of friendship and support was never better on display by Sveta and reflects a very special quality of many Russians have that would make the world a far better place if many more emulated.

From a practical standpoint, factoring in the cost of travel, if I had purchased the French paint in Ulan Ude my total out of pocket would have been the same, although they would have been in flat and not semi-gloss. The time cost was large with my now being in an ever-tighter rush to get work accomplished. On the other hand I had a delightful experience, saw Irkusk from an inside advantage, and met some wonderful people. Galena, of course, threw up her hands with a shriek of laughter when she heard of my adventures. We did not get the paint we want, whether it would be even possible in Moscow one wonders. In Ulan Ude, artists primarily use watercolor, gouache and tempera for their low cost, also paint on masonite or paper rather than canvas (same reason), or use oil paint, sticking with the traditional materials. When painting walls, the impact of paint fumes or toxins on themselves or others, or the environment doesn't seem to be a high concern although the use of acrylics is increasing.

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