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Visiting Vladivostok 4/3/06

City and port of Vladivostok on the Pacific coast of Siberia

Tall ship Pallada.
"You need to loosen up," said painter Irina Nanazhivina, this as we stood overlooking Russia's Pacific Fleet and the once closed (to Americans) dramatic harbor of Vladivostok, well east of China and indeed well east of Japan located off to the south. The city's beautiful Mediterranean light was fading into the gathering darkness, a light so stimulating that, combined with the dramatic landscape that plunges into the bay, would cause artists to beat the doors down getting here if they knew about it. Twinkling lights were coming on like fireflies dancing on the warm breeze.

In five days the US Consulate staff in Vladivostok had had me present three lectures on rustic furniture, three on the use of the arts in healthcare, visit three galleries, give four presentations on my art work and the challenges and opportunities of being an artist in the west, participate in arts sessions with patients in a children's oncology hospital (both in patient rooms on a one on one basis and in an activity room), co-design a mural for a patient cafeteria with Irina and engage a couple dozen patients painting it under the watchful eye of the media and hospital staff, have a private meeting with the hospital director, purchase arts supplies (twice), tour a tall ship, and co-create a large painting with herself (Irina) and three other Russian artists, this earlier that evening in a gallery filled with onlookers and again the media. The presentations, by the way, took place at the Vladivostok Arts College, Arts Academy, Artists' Union, Children's Hospital, Clinic of Manual (Chiropractic) Therapy, Institute of Foreign Languages, American Corner, and the Picture Galley.

Group photo of the artists who worked together on the fun to create but failed painting along with Daniel Hastings and the Consul General.

"You need to relax more," she said, "artistically."

Detail of the fun-to-create but "failed" collaborative painting.

"It really was a bad work of art," I said to herself and arts organizer Yuriy Volkogonov who planned the evenings art event.

"Yes, but you missed the fight," said painter Fydor Morozov. "We needed your participation at that point. You have to be more a part of the struggle. What is birth without pain?"

"Where were you?" said Zhenya Diamantidi of the Consulate staff.

"I reminded Yuriy I wanted to purchase a Russian Navy tee shirt before I left and so we stepped out for a few minutes, and went to the Army Navy store. We got there just before it closed."

"Were you successful?" she said.

"Yes, though I think it may be a bit small."

"No problem, they shrink or stretch to fit your size. Congratulations on getting it. I didn't think you would have time."

"I was determined. How often does one get to visit a Russian Navy port?" I said.

Determination was indeed the watchword for the week. First by the US Consulate to get me there, an effort led by their public affairs director Daniel Hastings beginning in December when it seemed impossible as my grant was scheduled to end in January and the University of Culture in Kemerovo had secured my January travel-within-Russia-before-I-go slot in what turned out to be the coldest week of the coldest winter on record since 1941. Naturally it snow six inches while I was in Vladivostok.

Naj and Feydor in his studio.

Irina in her studio

Hastings felt that the local arts community needed some attention and recognition, and that the healthcare community, the children's oncology center in particular, would welcome discussing the use of the arts in healing, thus he was determined to get me to Vladivostok for as long as the US Embassy's tight travel budgets would allow. The determination of local talent to continue pushing their artistic dreams and language under Soviet times, through the brutal economic challenges of the early nineties, and until now, in circumstances modestly better, was also breath taking to experience as was their work. Artists like painter Fydor Morozov and sculptor Valeryi Nenazhivan, and many others displayed in gallery Art Etazh, are world class. Indeed painter Irina Nanazhivina is an excellent colorist and had some real gems in her studio, one small painting especially luminous and well drawn. Fydor graduated in 1972 from the Vladivostok School of Arts, the same school where Gustave Courbet received his training for you trivia buffs, and managed through sheer determination gain a solid knowledge of the developments in arts from French Impressionism through the Twentieth Century, no mean feat where such modern trends were in disfavor with the state.

Yuriy and wife/choreographer Victoria.

The greater feat of his and others was staying true to their artistic explorations. Equally determined has been the efforts of Alexander Glazer, who has organized over 160 exhibitions of nonconformist artists in the west, say nothing of some of the first such exhibitions in Russia (one in 1967 that was closed two hours after opening by the KGB), his protégé Yuri Volkogonov, who with Glazer organized 21 such exhibits between 1996 and 98, curates exhibits for C.A.S.E. Museum of Contemporary Art in Jersey City, and currently is working on several projects in his home city of Vladivostok, and Aleksander Ivanovich Gorodniy, director of the Art Etazh Gallery and Museum of Contemporary now lodged in the top floor of the Technical College, a stunning location and naturally lit space the end result of his more than twenty years of dreaming, collecting art, seeking spaces and twisting arms. I must add that Yuri has put together an extraordinary collection of drawings that would give the curator of NYC's MOMA drawing collection heart palpitations, this too no easy feat with a family to support that includes Vladivostok's leading choreographer Victoria Volkogonova.

Oncology patients painting in their activity room.

Kids painting muralin the oncology hospital cafe.

Consul General John Mark Pommersheim
joining the fray.

No less determined was Dr. Minkina Lyudmila Mikhaylovna, director of the Children's Oncology Hospital. Hastings found in her a soul mate equal in getting all she could out of my visit which resulted a very intense, compact and hands-on effort that engaged what at seemed nearly every patient within the hospital within a five hour span, this following two previous arts activities with her patients. Children were lined up side-by-side and standing on tables painting madly away in the cafeteria (the intended place), out in the hall and in the activity room, which they decided to redecorate on their own. Doctors, nurses, therapists, the media and consulate representatives flowed in with both Daniel Hastings and Consul General John Mark Pommersheim grabbing brushes and joining the fray.

In contrast to the no less spirited or fun, though badly executed, collaboration of the next day by four leading painters, one being Irina, and myself, this work turned out quite well, credit due much to Irina's ability to organize and structure so many kids at once, coupled with her artistic abilities. To say she was drained the next morning would be modest. We all were. More was planned so resting was not scheduled. Mikhaylovna's only disappointment was that she and their resident therapist wanted to add sessions on caring for the caregivers with the hospital doctors while I was there, but there simply wasn't time. "I will get you back," she said smiling at Hastings at the post gallery paint-off reception held at his home the next, and my last, evening.

He smiled back. Turning to me Daniel said, in a classic illustration of the pot calling the kettle black, "You're an instigator."

"Are you on a stamp?" said Feydor.

"A stamp?" I said.

"Yes, a postage stamp."

"No, I'm not dead yet. Usually only dead artists get their art or face on a stamp," I said.

"Not if you go to Belgium," he said. "There you give the post office some money, they will print stamps with your art or face on it, it's good for business with so many stamp collectors, and you get to send your art around. It's like an international exhibition.


"Yes, and if you go to Belgium I will give you some images so you can get my paintings on a stamp. Think of it as a group show," he said.

"This has been great. What will we do on Monday?" said Irina.

"I leave tomorrow," I said. "I will not be here on Monday. Let the kids paint, but on paper now and not the walls."

Sculptor Valeryi Nenazhivan said, while putting on his jacket, "You can ride with us."

"Remember to loosen up," said Irina, giving me a hug farewell. "See you when you come back."

I looked over and saw Daniel and Mikhaylovna in deep conversation. Somehow I felt that my return might be sooner than later.

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