Spoke Art in San Francisco is exhibiting a new series of work by Bay Area-based painter Nadezda, titled Lukomorye. For her inaugural solo exhibition with the gallery, she has created a body of new work that takes the viewer on a fantastical journey to a world of romantic, dark fairytales teeming with hidden mysteries.
Influenced by Russian folklore, children’s stories, theatre and beyond, Nadezda’s masterfully executed oil paintings and graphite drawings explore the depths of imagination. As if through a delicate and impassioned dance, the artist’s mark-making is full of movement illuminating figures and their environments. Balancing finely rendered details with brevity and the suggestion of narrative clues, one is left to continue the story held within each piece.
The artist invites us into the boundless depths of her creative well, where characters come creeping, gamboling and raging forth. Nadezda’s work creates a sense of curiosity, at once foreboding and magnetic, sending the viewer tumbling through the magical portal contained within each frame into the land of Lukomorye.
Spoke Art curator Dasha Matsuura interviewed this intriguing artist, which you can read below!
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Dasha Matsuura: Could you start off by telling us a bit about your personal and professional background? What were you like creatively as a kid?
Nadezda: I grew up in the north of Russia by the White Sea – the land of birch and pine forests, swamps and beautiful long summer sunsets, when the sun only dips its toes into the horizon and then immediately jumps back up into the sky. Thanks to my creative family I was engulfed into the world of art early on – dancing, drawing, poetry, music, songwriting, pyrography, folk art and theater. They gave me and my younger brother full creative freedom to draw on the walls of our apartment, mix perfumes and shampoos in the bathtub pretending we were chemists, soak excerpts of the latest newspaper as if we were developing photographs, cutting up pairs of socks to make stuffed creatures out of them and the list goes on. My brother and I spent numerous hours exploring the shared yard outlined by three other apartment buildings, the youngest residents of which were also left to their freedom all day long during weekends. So we teamed up – buried treasures, climbed trees, made houses out of freshly cut hay… Simple finds like sticks, piles of leaves, rocks, dull shards, paper, dry flowers were enough to come up with a thousand ways to make our days fun and exciting. We had to use our imagination to invent and go on a journey into fantastic lands.
Another big influence was my wonderfully eccentric grandma, whose unconventional ways of creative thinking and love for classical literature, opera and ballet were passed on to me. When I was very young she would tell me: “Nadia, the mouse has ears, the mouse lives in the wall, therefore the wall “has” the mouse and therefore the wall has ears, too. Is that right?” It made me burst out in giggles. Even as a kid I understood that the logic of this was broken, but I found it funny when the meaning did not line up with the technically logical suggestions and I immediately imagined big ears growing out of the room’s wall.
Whimsy and fairytales figure prominently in your work generally and particularly for this exhibition. You’ve talked about how the stories you grew up with were lessons in life with the good and the bad not being polarized and not always having a happy ending being a big influence on you. What do you think about the cultural shift in the Russian or Slavic rooted fairytales versus the Disney-fied happy-go-lucky American versions of similar/same stories?
Only lately I started to realize how big of an influence old Eastern European fairy tales and animation movies had on me, – have you ever seen Hedgehog in The Fog? Or 70s-80s Russian versions of Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland? They are so different visually and emotionally from all the other adaptations I have seen… with their muted colors and rough-edged and distorted proportions. They were kind, naive and very sad at the same time… like seeing a soaking wet plush toy abandoned in the park on a rainy day. That sweet melancholy sometimes finds its way into my artwork.
As kids we did not spend much time in front of the TV, with an exception that every Friday we would watch those amazing animations and live action films, which were a magical glimpse into American fairy tale movies – colorful, swirling with songs and big-eyed creatures. It was so new and wonderful! Having seen different adaptations of these stories made me realize that there are so many ways one tale can be told and its in the artist’s power to choose the exact emotional tint of it.
Another reason I feel deep connection to the old Eastern European fairy tales is my family’s involvement in a local theater. Since age seven I was playing piglets, flowers, puppets, mushrooms then later graduated from background creatures to the secondary and lead roles, which mostly were a part of plays that were based on the same fairy tales from the books I would read as a kid. My parents still perform there, so I get occasional photo updates from my mom (commenting on a picture of my dad dressed in full costume and make-up of his character): ”Look, your dad was a swamp spirit again last Sunday.”
Can you tell us about some of the tales you were inspired by or used as jumping off points?
One of the biggest influences were tales by Stepan Pisakhov, whose stories are a brilliant example of Northern Russia’s folklore and written in a uniquely colorful manner with distinct flavors of the Pomor Region, where I come from. The wonderful animation movies like “Under Yesteryear’s Snowfall” (Padal Proshlogodniy Sneg) and “A Plasticine Crow” (Plastilinovaya Vorona) still stir and splash my imagination and feel like home.
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was another one of my favorite stories growing up. The tangled logic and surreal world were one of the first examples where I saw that there is no limitation to one’s imaginary world. After reading the sequel “Through The Looking-Glass”, I remember standing for a good half an hour in front of the hallway mirror, hoping that if I stare at it long enough, the surface would warp, melt and I would be able to walk through the portal into the secret bizarre world where cats talk, snacks make you expand and shrink and the tea party is hosted by the most eccentric characters.
I never used these stories directly as a reference, but they are buried deep within my spirit.
Each of your pieces feels like it is encapsulating a moment in a story. Do you see the work in Lukomorye as one continuous story or more like overlapping vignettes that all take place in the same world you’ve created?
Imagine you are going camping – you will see certain things that you did not expect to see, but because you have an idea that they belong to the environment of the place you will be camping at, so you let those encounters happen and surprise you. Like that vast old oak tree that happened to grow in your camp ground that you saw upon arrival, a feisty chipmunk that jumped in front of you when you went for a hike, a pile of rusty food cans in the middle of nowhere (you learn later that they belonged to the gold miners, who worked there a hundred years ago). Then the evening descends and you have a conversation with another camper you encountered on your path and you learn a captivating story from him. Your head is already picturing your own take on the stranger’s story… Back to the camp again – due to the dangerously hot weather, the park would not let you have fire, so you realize that you are only equipped with a headlamp to see if you are being robbed by the mischievous raccoons or this is just wind playing in the dried out pile of leaves..
All of these stories happen to you unexpectedly, but all within the same environment you initially chose (you are unlikely to meet a spaceman or have a gondola ride there.. or are you?) Like with the camping example, I chose an overall location of my creative camping ground – Lukomorye, which gave me a vast creative territory to explore, where I let the nature of things bring ideas to me, which I celebrated in the form of paintings that are notions of such an imaginary journey.
Theatricality is prevalent in so many elements of your work from the costumes, dramatic lighting, intensely emotive subjects and the environments you present them in. Did you see or participate in live theatre?
Ten years of experience in theater is a bottomless well of inspiration for my creative approach. It is fascinating how much more life-like the implied reality can be (versus the high-definition-everything-spelled-out version). The world you see on stage can feel so real just by being presented with cleverly set-up minimal decorations and light.
I’m also fascinated by the emotional transformation that the actors have to impose on themselves in order to make the audience understand the depth of the character within a short duration of the play. It is a great journey where you get to live the life of someone else or watch your fellow actors transform into someone completely different. My experience in concept art for film enabled me to compose fantastical situations, but one thing that I took from theater remains the same – it is the collaboration with a live model, or an actor, that cannot be made-up and always charges me with an emotional energy, which I transfer into my paintings.
Your process of photographing for reference feels like the production of small plays often times. Can you walk us through your creative process from conception of a scene to directing reference shoots to the final painting?
I work with people who love acting. I stress the word “love” here, because the best results come when I work with people who enjoy such immersive experiences as much as I do. I thoroughly prepare for every photoshoot as if I am about to direct a play in a theatre and I only have one chance to explain to the actor which imaginary world we are traveling to. I compile the mood boards, prepare costumes, props, character briefs, music, etc. All of it comes in handy when the “performance” starts. The most beautiful thing is that no matter how well I prepare, the direction of these sessions always evolves with a life of its own and brings wonderful visual and emotional results.
Another thing that fascinates me about the theatrical approach is the indoor-outdoor feeling of the environment. When you sit in a theater and the play on stage is about an outdoor scene – it’s a mind-twister that lets you hover between two physical realities – from the one that belongs to your seat under the roof of the theater and the one that is shown on stage. In another example, the set is presented as an indoor scene – you, again, find yourself “outdoors” in relation to it, looking into the other people’s indoor word. Yet you are back at your audience seat, under the theater roof – it’s a wonderful mind bender!
In addition to being an accomplished fine art painter, you’ve also had a successful career as a concept artist working on many of the major blockbusters from the last few years. Are there any standout projects where you really felt like your artistic vision for a character was in the final film?
I guess the best way to describe it would be not highlighting one project, but looking at all of them at the same time and outline the beauty of working on many of them simultaneously. For a while I was a part of an art department and my favorite thing was the surprise of the creative endeavor that comes your way every morning. There is no way you can predict if you will be assigned to design a spaceship, a utopian city, a fantastical creature, an evil witch or anything else… It was the most exciting and challenging thing, which kept me on my toes, retaining mental agility and exercising my technical versatility.
Has your approach to storyboarding and shooting reference images been affected by working in film and TV?
I think it would be silly of me not to use that uniquely powerful experience I gained working as a concept artist. I always begin preparations for the photo shoot with mood boards, which is a common practice when I start a conversation with a production team about a certain concept. Further investigation always proves that no matter how amazing the initial idea is – it will always be better if I spend a good amount of time researching it.
The “post-production” part of my reference preparation is often similar to the way I approach my concepts too, just not as involved finish-wise. I only make my references good enough to make a smooth transition into the physical painting, but never finish it completely as I like to leave certain areas to be discovered when I am painting at the easel and keep those decisions fresh. Of course that way there is a risk of things going wrong, but this keeps the process thrilling all the way till the painting is complete (or cut up and thrown away).
You’ve also taught painting and drawing. How has teaching affected your approach to making work?
Everyone can learn the foundation skills at the art schools and on their own, but one thing I found that is often overlooked in such education is a focused and intense self- investigation. In our rapidly moving life people barely get time to be alone to reflect on their past, present, future, things that bring them true joy and thrill them, things that hurt and move, things that fill their life with meaning. A prolonged dive within oneself is a necessary part of being an artist. Of course, one has to learn the foundations and rules of art making (there is a fair reason why art used to be presented as a sibling of science), but the skill and experience is only a key to open the door, which only you know where to find. Most likely, if you haven’t visited that obscure place of you, it might take some time to find it and it is not going to be easy to strip back the thick layers of emotional armor one builds over years, but it’s possible. One just needs the peace and quiet of prolonged solitary time and space to think. There is a reward behind that door once found – an endless source of inspiration that the world has never seen before and the pure honest joy of being able to visit that universe again, and again, and again, and afterward telling others about it. That said, at the workshops I share the approaches I worked out for myself to go on such journeys to inspire artists to look at their own approaches at a different angle, discuss the philosophy of being an artist as a way of life with all its raging storms and unspeakable beauty. And all of this is reflected in my own artistic existence.
Creating community around not just your work, but also the craft of painting seems to be important to your practice whether it’s hosting drawing salons with friends, teaching workshops or doing the drawing giveaway for the exhibition. Is that off base?
I tend to connect with creatives who are tickled by the imagination of similar themes and moods that are keen to my own sensibilities. Such artworks can’t be tagged with specific genres or spelling out the concrete narrative. I feel that these people belong to a brotherhood of mutual creative understanding that goes across any genre. When you think you are on your own in your creative whirlpool with all its troubles, joys and thrills – you occasionally bump into like-minded people. Sometimes I meet them in person, other times I discover such individuals across the history and time of art and it soothes my soul to know I am not alone. My recent discovery was the work of Pina Bausch – I watched a documentary about her and I could not help exclaiming while watching her choreography and the interviews with the dancers – “These are my people!” “My people” with the certain sensibilities in a world of imagination and emotion.
The poetry I wrote when I was younger was the metaphorical world that my paintings are now. I do not know English fluently enough to write poetry, nor do I think the translations of my older poems will be a faithful portrait of such abstract motives, but the language of painting is perfectly universal! It is also a tangible, one-of-a kind, non-verbal manifestation of something fleeting than the words sometimes cannot handle.
I am also a hopeless romantic – I enjoy stories of the nineteenth-century salons and the way people would dress up to celebrate the art events such as gallery openings and theater premiers. So the fifty original sketches (I would have done many more if only I had all the time in the world!) are my tokens of gratitude to the people who come celebrate art and life in an elegant fashion, to raise a glass to artistic togetherness and exchange a smile as a jubilation of creativity.
The full immersive environment of seeing an exhibition in person is something we’ve discussed a lot in the past and you put a great deal of consideration to every sensory element of a show. What are you hoping people take away with them after seeing “Lukomorye”?
I have a heartfelt gratitude to those who can come to see the exhibition in person – painting is more than a two-dimensional experience on a digital screen, it is an artifact and hard proof of one person’s journey inward that should be seen life-size and in proper lighting, on the walls of the beautiful space that the gallery provides. I hope that those who come will enjoy the journey through the motives of the show on their own accord with the clues offered by the paintings. After months of treading the path to the land of Lukomorye through my paintings and drawings, I hope that they will find this journey joyous and inspiring.
Lukomorye opens Saturday, August 4th from 6 to 9 at Spoke Art San Francisco and runs until August 25th. The artist will be in attendance at the opening and the first 50 elegantly dressed up attendees will receive a complimentary original drawing by Nadezda.