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The Etude

I’m not really much of a phone talker. Of course, I get butterflies whenever my boyfriend calls, and I don’t mind talking to close friends, or my mom and other family members, but generally I prefer to keep my phone on silent, because it provides a convenient excuse not to answer. And for someone with telephonophobia, having to converse in a second language for crucial information is even worse.

Whether I like it or not, I’m slowly being forced to overcome such anxieties. My art teacher, Alexander Alexandrovich, doesn’t text, so we end up communicating via cellphone most of the time. It’s much harder to understand, in part because I can’t rely on non-verbal communication, and also because his phone is much older and it doesn’t sound as clear, but he’s always very patient and will repeat things if needed. Still, setting up times and discussing locations for class makes me nervous, because I’m not as fluent as I’d like to be. I knew earlier this week, he suggested we meet at 13.00 (1pm). When I saw him on Wednesday, he said something about 10.00. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t praying for rain, so we wouldn’t have to meet, or that I would actually remember everything and not be a confused dork showing up late or in the wrong place. Usually we meet in Corpus 18, the same building where the international office is, but this weekend there is a holiday (today is November 4th, National Unity Day) and the University is closed, so we didn’t have a building for today, and remembering a different location was also a little scary. Fortunately it’s somewhere I’ve been many times.

A few days ago was when Alexander suggested we go paint down by the conservatory, in the park, if there wasn’t rain. I guess this is called an “etude”, although as I told him, when we use that in English, it usually means an instrumental composition, not outdoor studio sessions. He told me it’s not a Russian word, it’s French, but if etudes are short, difficult, and intricate musical compositions, then surely it’s also suitable word for the compositions we make when we paint outside. The weather is unpredictable, and there’s often very little time to capture and compose an image, but an artist must try to do so as quickly and skillfully as possible. How one can capture intricate details when their fingers are blue and unwilling to move is beyond me, so I guess that means I must learn to paint faster. Alexander has already told me stories about trying to capture images in the winter, and that his paint often freezes. If I understand correctly, he said he only uses oil paint when the weather is extreme, with a little bit of brush cleaning (turpentine?) to keep the paint soft. Basically he’s a badass, and not even the legendary Russian winter will stop keep him away from his paintings.

I think he suggested the etude on Tuesday, but he insisted I buy warmer shoes first, because painting outside means your feet get quite cold, since you’re not moving around as much. His wife (I think her name is Nastya) helped me find a pair. They’re lined with fuzzy grey fur, and are black leather on the outside, but they’re not stylish enough that I’d be afraid to get them messy, and not so ugly that they don’t work with my dublyonka. I was quite happy to have them today, since it was a little chilly. I made sure to wear an extra pair of socks, and a sweater as well, mostly so Alexander wouldn’t worry or fuss too much. I brought a hat too, but I prefer not to wear them, since my red hair makes me easier to pick out in crowds. It seemed like a better idea since we were meeting somewhere. And honestly I still think the Russians are babies when it come to the cold, but it is more humid here than at home, and it’s not winter yet, so it’s probably better to just take their advice when they say to bundle up.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding the time, I made sure I was up and ready to go at 10.00 this morning. Apparently, we were supposed to meet on the corner of Moscovskaya and Maksima-Gorkova at 11.00, so it worked well, and we made it to the conservatory one minute before eleven. Alexander said that today I am his Trinishka (it sounds weird, but it’s not creepy I promise, just a funny “Russian” term of light endearment) because I, the foreign student who “doesn’t understand, read, or speak Russian” showed up in the right spot, on time, with all the necessary materials, whereas all the Russian students said they were ill, or couldn’t come. Eventually one girl did show up, but she left a little earlier than we did. While we were waiting for them to arrive, I asked about the conservatory. Apparently concerts are held there, and there’s an organ there as well. He told me I can buy tickets there, and I think there was a flyer that said there would be an organ concert on January 13th, so I might see if I can take my Casey to it.

It was crowded and noisy at the park, but mostly only on the street that runs along the gate, at the end of Prospekt. They were doing something noisy for the festival, but it didn’t look too thrilling for me. There were some kids’ games, a few extra vendors’ stalls, and some very large speakers blaring some obnoxiously loud music. Alexander and I both agreed that rap is awful, although he said that rap done by African Americans (aka “real” rap) is much better, but it sounds awful in Russian. I think it’s funny that they often throw one or two English words in to make it sound “cool”. Alexander told me he had an extra pair of headphones, if I wanted them, but I have daith piercings, so earbuds don’t work for me (so be warned: If you want daiths, you can say goodbye to earbuds). And really, even crappy music is a good opportunity to listen to some of the language.

After scouring the park for a while, we both decided to paint the conservatory, albeit from different locations. It was hard to find a good view of the building AND nice trees to paint too, but we both ended up finding a decent composition. It was a lot of fun, especially since it was my first real “etude”. My painting wasn’t all that great, but one gentleman who was doing some sort of work at the park stopped by and said “Ah, othlichno (excellent)!” so that was nice. It was also fun to hear little kids say “Look mommy she’s drawing!”*. Some little kids did come closer to see, but scampered away when I noticed them. One little girl was directly behind me, and I think she was there for a decent amount of time. I had no idea she was there, so I when turned around, we both jumped, and her mother burst out laughing. It was neat, and it’s kind of flattering when people actually stop by to watch. It was also nice to be able to be out in public that long without anyone guessing I was a foreigner. A stray dog also kept me company, though I suspect it was just hungry. I wish I’d had something to feed it, because it breaks my heart to know there are so many hungry and cold strays here.

Eventually my hands got so cold that we had to call it a day, but I really didn’t notice I was that chilly until my fingers stopped moving. And that was with gloves on. My gouache was also getting a little stiff. The word I learned today was “zamyorzla” (замёрзло), which means frozen. People have said it many times when they see me (“Aren’t you freezing in that?”), because I dress lighter, but I only figured out the meaning today. The cold feels different here than it does in Laramie. Here it’s much more humid, and the cold sinks in, but it doesn’t bite the same way it does in Laramie. For example, I remember one time in sophomore year when I was carrying stuff back from the art building. It had been reasonably warm in the afternoon, so I hadn’t brought my gloves. In the ten or fifteen minutes it took me to walk home, my fingers had turned red and my nails were almost blue, and I could barely move my hands and also stung like crazy. Here, I didn’t feel a thing, but I think I was just as cold. Putting the lids back on my paint was probably the most difficult thing I’ve done all week.

After we finished painting, Alexander had me follow him back to a place that will eventually be a bigger studio space so we could have some coffee and critique our work. I remembered he had told me he was renovating a new workspace, and he had showed me some crappy pictures of it on his phone (he refuses to upgrade), but I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I don’t really know what to call the place either, but it’s sort of like an art guild. It had started raining, so I was eager to go somewhere warmer.

The way Russian apartments and other buildings are often set up is there is a metal door or gate that requires a key or a code to unlock. The door swings inward, often leading into a small courtyard and the main door to the building. The place we went to had two doors: on the left, there is a fancy glass door leading into what looks like a gallery or framing shop, and on the right there is a short metal door, about 5 feet tall, with a slightly crumpled pink sign that has something like “Home of the master artists” scrawled on it in fancy script. We ducked through the door on the right.

The inner courtyard was quite muddy, and we were greeted by the whirring sound of an large electric drill. Another artist (I think his name was Sergey) was standing in the middle of the yard, using the tool to carve an enormous stump, surrounded by soggy piles of sawdust. The building itself is red brick, three stories tall, and quite dilapidated. Apparently, the artists are repairing it themselves, with the hope of eventually hosting classes there along with having more workspace. If I understand right, the building is very old, and used to be a hostel, or some sort of dormitory for monks, and after that in was a grade school, but it has been out of use for quite a while.

Inside, near the entrance there is a wooden staircase coated with shiny, peeling paint. A long purple stripe runs below the banister, and there’s more enormous stumps stashed beneath the stairs. To the right of the stairs, a doorway leads to a separate hall, which branches off into other small rooms. The first one’s door was slightly ajar, and I could see pastel drawings on the walls, and piles of materials and typical art-clutter: another artist’s workspace.

The second room is Alexander’s. At the moment, it’s a large room filled with stacks of lumber. The walls and ceiling are coated in the same glossy paint as the stairs, and in several places the paint and the plaster are peeling off, revealing the brick underneath, and in the north east corner of the room, the ceiling is severely water-damaged, to the point you can see the wooden floorboards of the room above. There are two large windows facing the inner court yard, allowing natural light to illuminate the space, and there is also electricity: Alexander macgyvered the lighting himself, and the wiring leading to the light switch is suspended on nails to keep it out of the way. There’s a metal sink waiting for installation on one side of the room, and the only furniture at the moment is a chair draped in ornate upholstery material. The room is in desperate need of repair (although demolition might be wiser) but it’s a glorious place. My instructor is quite proud of it, too, and you can tell that the other artists there (there are either 22 or 12 total) are very happy to be there fixing it up, and to be working so close to other “master artists”. I snuck a video of alexander’s room while he was getting water for coffee (he has an electric kettle and a small hotplate in his “studio”) so that I can send it to my friends.

After we discussed our work from our painting session, I asked about the renovation plans. Apparently he’s hoping to put wooden paneling up on one wall, then install the sink and a small bathroom, so that students aren’t having to use the one at the end of the hall (it’s quite small) or the one upstairs (the room above Alexander’s, where all the water damage came from). I’m not sure what he intends to do about the ceiling, and he isn’t either; he said it’s all very interesting because he has no idea what he’s doing. In a weird way, it kind of makes me think about my dad’s remodeling methods.

I also got a tour of the building. On the second floor, there are more narrow corridors leading into what used to be classrooms, and in one corner, there are old, brightly colored tables and chairs, presumably left over from when it was a school, and there’s also a small, dusty upright piano. The keyboard was locked, so I wrote “Трина была здесь (Trena was here)” in the dust instead of messing with it. On the third floor at the top of the stairs, there is a small window with a view of the courtyard, several buildings, and one of the gleaming orthodox churches. If you stand to the left a little, you can also see the green, crescent-topped spire of one of the mosques, which seems twice as colorful silhouetted against the cold gray sky. It’s neat seeing the two places of worship so close to one another as well, and it reminded me of Kazan.

The hallway on the third floor is also flanked by small rooms, and on the wall space between each door there is a child’s drawing or painting. Most of them are framed, or at least matted, and the one that isn’t (a large, colorful painting of a bird) has a small, empty frame hanging humorously above the painting. Alexander said that children are in many ways better artists, because adults often worry about perfect accuracy, whereas children are free, and will often use more interesting colors just because they know “потому что это должен было быть” (that’s the way it should have been), rather than focusing on making everything perfect. It’s a good idea to remember that as adults.

He also has one of the rooms upstairs, which are quite small, maybe 9x14 feet, with a single window overlooking the courtyard. There’s a small metal heater under the window (only half of it works) and the lights are functional, so it’s not bad. The room was mostly serving as a stash place for Alexander’s renaissance gear. In addition to being a Tolkien fan and a nerd, he’s also a history buff, and believes that reenactment: living in medieval style camps, hunting, fighting, cooking and making things the way people did in the past, is the only way to really understand history. He has chain mail and a suit of rather heavy Spanish armor that he made himself, along with a hood, two swords (a rapier-like blade and a long sword), a doublet and a capuchin hood. He also has a bright yellow banner with the two-headed eagle of Russia emblazoned on it, which serves as his battle standard. Although the swords are blunt, they have obviously seen many battles: there are several nicks on the blades from whacking other weapons, and given their heft, it wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve tasted blood as well.

He had shown me some pictures from a recent reenactment camp, but it’s a very different thing to see such equipment in person. The swords are rather heavy, and I told him I didn’t think I would be strong enough to use them for very long. He said some thing along the lines of “nonsense. You’re just holding it wrong. Not like this”, he explained, holding it like a baseball bat, “but like this” he lifted the sword in one hand, palm up, balancing it the way a fencer would. “See? It’s just like a big paintbrush”. I wanted to ask him “And what do you intend to draw with it? Blood?” but the unfortunately I think the pun only works in English. He also balanced the sword on his finger to show that it was a good, well-balanced blade. In summary, you know you have a cool art instructor when he shows you his sword collection after class.

It was a very good day, possibly the best one I’ve had since I arrived. While it’s a long walk away from the dorms, when we switch to oil media, we will be painting at the Art Guild, because oil is very messy and it’s not a good idea to use that in the office building. I’m excited, but I hope I can avoid using the bus or mashrutkas (mini-vans that are high speed and stuffy), even if it’s cold outside. Both Alexander and Anna have told me that I will learn to love public transportation, because winters can be quite nasty, but I suspect they don’t know the depths of my stubbornness. But then again, I also haven’t seen a Russian winter. We shall see I guess.

*Regarding the Russian word for drawing: in Russian, there is one verb that means both drawing AND painting: Рисовать. So if a person says Я рисую, you don’t know if it means with paint, or dry materials. On the bright side, this answers a philosophical dilemma I remember discussing with Shelby Shadwell at UW when we started working with pastels: at what point does drawing become painting, and vice versa? In Russian, drawing and painting, linguistically, are the same thing. I have no more questions.

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