Favourable environment for ‘misfits’

[b]Ivan Akhremchik Arts Gymnasium-College (Minsk) encourages students to show their feelings in their work. The question of why they need art never arises — clearly, it’s essential for their souls[/b]Even the youngest feel the life-giving force of art, stresses Galina Bogdanova. “This energy is reflected in their bright eyes and faces full of inspiration…” The former journalist has surely gained insight through experience. For more than twenty years, she worked for a monthly edition called Iskusstvo (Art), helping from its earliest days of foundation. She used to write a lot about folk and fine arts, cinema and theatre. She also taught Art History at the Academy of Arts, where she successfully finished her post-graduate studies. At the Journalism Institute of the Belarusian State University, her work is still in demand. However, her main area of expertise is in teaching the subject at the Arts Gymnasium-College — the Akhremchik School, as it is often called.
Ivan Akhremchik Arts Gymnasium-College (Minsk) encourages students to show their feelings in their work. The question of why they need art never arises — clearly, it’s essential for their souls

The college student Katya Shimonovich worked with pleasure at the portrait of her great-grandmotherEven the youngest feel the life-giving force of art, stresses Galina Bogdanova. “This energy is reflected in their bright eyes and faces full of inspiration…” The former journalist has surely gained insight through experience. For more than twenty years, she worked for a monthly edition called Iskusstvo (Art), helping from its earliest days of foundation. She used to write a lot about folk and fine arts, cinema and theatre. She also taught Art History at the Academy of Arts, where she successfully finished her post-graduate studies. At the Journalism Institute of the Belarusian State University, her work is still in demand. However, her main area of expertise is in teaching the subject at the Arts Gymnasium-College — the Akhremchik School, as it is often called.
Ms. Bogdanova once visited the school as a journalist, to interview Director Lyudmila Shakhova. Everything impressed her: the director, the creative lifestyle she had heard so much about and, especially, the children. Galina rightly says, “They are kissed by the Lord.” Accordingly, she decided to stay close, sharing her accumulated knowledge of Art History. Her husband, artist Piotr Bogdanov, was already working at the school, teaching painting (he now heads the Arts Department). Naturally, he told her much about the school environment and encouraged her to begin her new career. For more than a decade, she’s been teaching the history of Belarusian and world art, with a course in material culture for those who can’t imagine their lives without painting.
Galina recollects the names of all her students without exception. She notes that each combines fine arts talent with a rich inner world that she finds ‘enormously enriching’ on meeting them. Indeed, it’s a joy to observe the growth of the creative soul, opening like a flower in sunlight. I admit that I enjoyed talking to the children, who view their world with unique eyes, realising themselves through music, as well as fine and applied arts. I wrote about these young artists on seeing their works in late May. Every May, the Akhremchik School opens its doors, allowing students of all ages to put on a display of their creative works, for evaluation by teachers, parents, friends and anyone invited as a guest. It’s a chance to see our future cultural elite. This building in Makayonok Street raises the next generation of artists, designers, sculptors and heads of creative studios…
Truly, these children are special. You can’t lie to them; their acute feeling for life sees through pretence. I would even say that they realise the truth much faster than any adult, owing to their feeling for the environment and other people. They have a constant desire to reflect what they hear and see through artistic images. I recall Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, where Pontius Pilate speaks to Jesus. He asks, “What is truth?” and receives the reply — ‘At this moment, the truth is chiefly that your head is aching…’ By virtue of their natural sensitivity and spirituality, they can distinguish truth from a lie, subtly sensing the essence of existence.
I remember a young female artist from the Akhremchik School listening to my critique of her still-life work. I noted that it wasn’t perfect, her colours being somewhat toneless. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her shrinking…and realised that she’d rather accept my constructive criticism than blank approval.
Naturally, all children, however talented, are different. Some are less sensitive and less vulnerable. Some like critique more than others. Most, as Galina Bogdanova says, are unlike their peers. I hope the readers of our magazine will find it interesting to hear her thoughts on working in the thick of such talent.

Galina, what influenced your decision to work at this school… what impressed you?
The atmosphere swayed me. I began as a temporary employee and decided to stay. Since childhood, I’ve lived in an artistic environment. I know its aroma and energy. It’s a pleasure to recall my father Boris Sachenko — a well-known writer in the country — and my poetess sister, Svetlana Yavor. Of course, my husband is an artist. Our children will most likely become artists too. Alexander is already finishing his first year at the Art Department of the Academy of Arts, while Yanka is taking entrance exams at the same university this year. All my friends are very creative people: painters, musicians and famous artists. I’m convinced that art allows us to rise above the routine, to look more optimistically at the world. It also gives us the chance to bring relief to ourselves and to those around us.

As a journalist, can you describe the atmosphere at the school and the most characteristic feature of your talented young students?
A gifted person is always unusual. I would say that our students are misfits existing in a favourable climate. I’ve noticed that children ‘kissed by the Lord’ don’t always feel comfortable in a regular environment. They’re searching for the deep essence of being. I often read them the poem of ‘The Albatross’ by Baudelaire. Like Baudelaire’s albatross, which is at ease in the sky and feels uncomfortable in other surroundings, since it longs for heaven and the eternal, they are drawn heavenwards. In the sky, the albatross is a brave and beautiful bird; on deck, it cannot walk, hampered by its unwieldy wings. Our students can feel similarly like misfits in real life. Their feelings are so much stronger than those of their contemporaries who are unrelated to art. On the surface, they are adapted to life; underneath, they have such a well of emotions.

How do you manage to steer their teenage energy without losing touch with reality?
We try to direct their energy down creative paths. When teenagers begin expressing themselves through art, they experience catharsis. They discover something about themselves and reveal their soul. We try to guide them to compare their own works with those from the past. It’s important to direct them to see their work in relation to the history of their country and the modern age. They should understand that today’s world has not occurred at random. We are products of our environment and of time.
Besides having knowledge of a subject, a teacher needs to understand child psychology. Do these talented youngsters ‘know everything themselves’…?
Our teachers are very tactful in advising students. When someone comes for interview, Director Lyudmila Shakhova tries to discover if they will be a good fit for the school. Our main condition is kindness — a principle set when Lyudmila’s mother worked here. We’ve continued this approach. Those who don’t treat children this way don’t stay for long.

I heard that your gymnasium-college is proud of its individual approach to students…
You’re right; we treat everyone individually. What’s more notable is that teachers don’t try to influence students to replicate their own idea of art. At some children’s exhibitions, you might see the style of the teacher; they’ve clearly imposed their own ideas of what’s desirable. We have a different aim: children study painting, sculpture and composition before creating high-quality, new work. I’m proud that we employ only the best artists to teach these specialised subjects, thanks to the administration. All teachers have their own portfolio but most have taken part in international exhibitions and are members of the Union of Artists. I’d like to emphasise that they all have teaching talent too.

The displays are evidence…
Yes, we orient towards developing children’s individuality. No single work is like any other. Even if everyone is drawing still-life, each work will be different.

Today, there is a popular theory that we should accept the child in every person. Psychologists recommend that we em-brace this part of ourselves. Do you think that artists and teachers of art remain more childlike than the rest of us?
Absolutely! I’d assume that our teachers truly fall into this category. Who can better understand a child than someone who remembers their childhood and youth, who likes games and art? All our teachers of art subjects, without exception, are interesting people. They preserve the tenderness of their own childhood. I won’t name names, since I’d be obliged to say so much about each of these bright personalities. They include sculptors, graphic artists and painters. Some took part in the International Delphic Games, winning many times. Similarly, their students also participate in these competitions and take prizes. It’s continuity.

Do you encourage competition between students? Do you see it often?
Most likely, it exists, but is exclusively of an artistic character. Wonderful work can inspire the others. When I began teaching here, I was impressed at how comfortable the children were, and how supportive of each other. They are generous in their feelings and in everyday life. There are no age barriers between them either; the older ones treat the younger with great respect, while the young feel at ease with the older.

What is the main criterion for selection to the school?
We take children not only from Minsk, but from all of Belarus. We have two departments: musical from the first grade, and arts from the fifth grade upwards. Many children are from single-parent families and some are talented orphans. Our school is also unique in providing boarding facilities for those who need them. What’s most important is to allow access to workshops and music classes at any time of the day.

What attention is paid to general subjects?
They’re taught at gymnasium level. Our daily timetable gives the children enough time for art; we know that musicians and singers usually make their most genius discoveries at a young age. A talented child in our environment can constantly improve his or her professional level. I’m delighted, as I not only take part in the creative process of teaching my subject but can observe everything that happens — like a chronographer seeing the unique atmosphere that these children are raised in.

Many schools in the country offer an artistic education…
You’re right, but there is no other school like ours in Belarus. It’s no exaggeration to say that there is nothing similar in Western Europe, which is known for favourably state educating young talents. Of course, there are private schools. There are also schools for gifted people in the sciences. There are similar institutions in Russia and in Lithuania, but none unites music, fine arts and general education. Interestingly, in winter, our children can easily reach the shops from their dormitory without putting winter clothes on.

Which famous artists studied at your school?
Victor Olshevsky, Felix Yanushkevich, Alexander Ksendzov, Ales Dranets and Svetlana Gorbunova — all are the pride of Belarusian fine arts. Thinking of musicians, we have Nastya Tikhanovich — the singer and producer. The twin-girls from ‘Three Plus Two’ — which performed at ‘Eurovision-2010’ — also graduated from our school. Their grandmother brought them. Later, they also finished the conservatoire. By the way, the costumes for young singer Yuri Demidovich — who last year represented our country at children’s ‘Eurovision’ — were made by our alumni Valentina Piskun, who has become a designer. Among our students, there are many scholarship holders of the President’s Special Fund for Support of the Talented Youth. Our children need material assistance and no money is wasted. They buy materials, albums, colours and paints, while the musicians save for new musical instruments and stage costumes.

After graduating from the gymnasium, which gives primary education in the arts, not everyone goes to your college, do they?
As a rule, most continue studying at our school after attending the gymnasium. Our college offers three majors: decorative and applied arts, sculpture and painting. College graduates who have obtained secondary vocational education may start teaching in the primary grades of the secondary school, or may continue studying at higher educational establishments.

How many of your former students now study abroad?
There are some examples, but not many. Some attend the famous Surikov School in Moscow, some are in St. Petersburg. Also, some go to Vilnius. One girl studies in London. Most stay at home. I’m pleased that our graduates make up the majority of students at the Art Faculty of the Academy of Arts.

What qualities of your students impress you the most as a teacher and a very creative person?
It is their diligence. No matter whether there is a teacher nearby or not, whether their work is graded or not, all of them go to shops to work after the daily curriculum. Even on weekends. For them creative work is their natural condition. Sometimes when a child comes from another school and the first feeling is that of freedom, but then he or she starts having a constant stable desire to create. Hardworking brought up with years and teachers’ example is a very valuable thing. It is owing to tenacious work that our children become bright representatives of the country’s culture. Even if they don’t manage to become famous artists, I’m confident they will build their own creative world no matter where they will work.

You maintain creative ties with foreign partners, don’t you?
Naturally, such creative contacts help us move forward. We’ve established connections with an arts school in Torino (Italy), whose students come to us to study. Our children have also visited Torino. The Italian delegation was greatly impressed by our very serious approach to education. They asked whether such academism is needed in a creative environment. We explained that, in order to fly, you need to push off from something. In our view, the classical school gives this foundation. We also have ties with the UK and Germany. One German charity organisation once presented tents to our school. They are now often used when our students go to open air classes. Embassy staff are also frequent guests.

It’s obvious that your students often win prizes at various contests and take part in exhibitions.
It is more a rule than an exception. For instance, there is the ‘Chernobyl Children’s’ exhibition in the USA. We regularly send them our works, and they regularly send us diplomas. One of our students, Vitovt Kashkurevich — the grandson of prominent artist Arlen Kashkurevich, won a prize. Another girl won a contest in India. Our graduates have represented the country at the Delphic Games in the CIS, hosted by Astana (Kazakhstan), and at international games in Saratov (Russia). Two years ago, Minsk also hosted the Delphic Games and one of our girls took gold. They don’t enter contests purely to win; they rather want to share their vision. Owing to their teachers, they can do this professionally. By doing this, they create the image of our time. We try to organise exhibitions in small and large towns in Belarus: our children are very open to dialogue.

In your many years of work, which students do your remember the most?
I remember the names of all my child-ren, because they’re so bright and sensitive. They perceive the world’s colours and sounds with subtlety! Who could forget? I love them all. Each helps me to understand the present. We discuss art works and they make surprisingly acute observations. Our classes are always very interesting. We have many exciting projects. For instance, one was dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci. I remember my first graduation class: it included children born in 1985 — I call them ‘perestroika children’. Perhaps, something found its way into their genes, influencing them and giving an open perception of life. I recollect, on the 8th March, I come into the classroom and saw a ‘beehive’ attached to the ceiling — a box entwined with threads. It was their greeting to me for the holiday. Later, we began discussing the meaning of this installation and came to the conclusion that it was a symbol of the diligence so characteristic of bees. It symbolised our desire to stay together. When hard times arrive, it is your friends and teachers who will give you a spoonful of honey. This beehive was a symbol of our arts school and remains in my room. This year, my graduation class is also very bright. Every child has prepared an unusual diploma piece of work.

You noted that the older children easily communicate with the young. How do they get on with adults? Have you ever heard them deny the values created by their elders? It’s a common thread.
We have continuity, as our institution encourages dialogue between the genera-tions — between teachers, students and families. I was recently impressed by a portrait drawn by one of our students, aged 16. She’d created a wonderful picture of her 90 year old grandmother, a war veteran, for her birthday. It was so optimistic and bright, while being bold and respectful. This is the dialogue of generations, our dialogue with history. Denial is natural but it is also creative. Just as there are people who live with a ‘philosophy of being’, others appreciate material values more. Neither is good or bad, they just exist. Everybody makes their own choice.

By Valentina Zhdanovich
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