Life’s rich path

[b]Nina Kukharenko is an artist and pottery designer, already boasting a beautiful treasury of works. Her latest commission takes her back in time though, restoring a huge ceramic panel she made for the Belarus Hotel in Minsk. With the hotel itself being restored to meet the demands of our modern times and to prepare for the 2014 Hockey World Championship, Nina Kukharenko’s gorgeous art work is being given pride of place in the central lounge (moved from the hotel sauna). In fact, the ceramic panel featured recently in an illustrated anthology of works by the best Belarusian artists.[/b]Of course, Nina was married to the late People’s Artist of Belarus Alexander Kishchenko — the much-loved painter, muralist and unique master of tapestry. His legacy hangs in the UN headquarters in New York. Each day spent in her studio brings back memories of her marriage and of the wonderful works created by her dear husband. She is proud of all his achievements and is eager to ensure that future generations worldwide are able to admire his works.
Nina Kukharenko is an artist and pottery designer, already boasting a beautiful treasury of works. Her latest commission takes her back in time though, restoring a huge ceramic panel she made for the Belarus Hotel in Minsk. With the hotel itself being restored to meet the demands of our modern times and to prepare for the 2014 Hockey World Championship, Nina Kukharenko’s gorgeous art work is being given pride of place in the central lounge (moved from the hotel sauna). In fact, the ceramic panel featured recently in an illustrated anthology of works by the best Belarusian artists.

Of course, Nina was married to the late People’s Artist of Belarus Alexander Kishchenko — the much-loved painter, muralist and unique master of tapestry. His legacy hangs in the UN headquarters in New York. Each day spent in her studio brings back memories of her marriage and of the wonderful works created by her dear husband. She is proud of all his achievements and is eager to ensure that future generations worldwide are able to admire his works.
Throughout his life, Alexander Kishchenko’s grand plans impressed the world. His talents spanned various genres: from easel painting to monumental mosaic compositions and unique tapestries. However, he was also a wonderful, though little-known, poet. Among his lines, he wrote:
‘The Creator writes time, Drawing with a brush skies blue and the pollen of flowers, Looking into the blue eyes of lakes’.
Ms. Kukharenko says that her husband’s writing of quatrains helped him envision new art works in his ‘signature style’. Words, dictated by inspiration, then found embodiment in colour...
Belarusian and Polish filmmakers have devoted works to Mr. Kishchenko’s life and legacy. The twice winner of the State Prize of Belarus (1980 and 1996) was awarded the Frantsisk Skorina Order in 1993. One film captures the process of hand weaving the great Tapestry of the Century, which he wove at the Borisov Arts and Crafts Centre (named after Mr. Kishchenko). He actually made a huge loom for the rug, which weighs 300kg and is as long as a six-storey house is tall. This huge work of decorative art is unrivalled worldwide for craftsmanship. Moreover, it took almost six years to complete. He admitted in 1995, “Maybe, Tapestry of the Century is my swan song.” It seemed that it summed up all his talent and love of life. Sadly, it has only twice been on display to the public: both times in Minsk. Although, being included in the international Guinness Book of World Records, it deserves to be seen by all.
Ms. Kukharenko remembers, tremblingly, the opening of the exhibition which marked the anniversary of her husband’s death, hosted by a pavilion at BelEXPO, in 1998. She recalls, “The demonstration of Tapestry of the Century was a grand, breath-taking affair: choirs sang and candles were lit as the tapestry was slowly unfurled and raised, being revealed gradually. You saw the majestic image of Jesus Christ, the Virgin and Child, and the fallen angel — the Antichrist, symbolising all non-believers (according to Mr. Kishchenko). Over 70 prominent politicians, creative and religious figures were depicted, spanning the 20th century, alongside allegorical characters: the woman of the universe and the man of the universe...”
Ms. Kukharenko, as a professional artist herself, helped her husband to create Tapestry of the Century at the ‘technical’ stage, preparing sketches on cardboard, which were used by the Borisov masters. Today, she worries for the fate of this world masterpiece, which lies folded in the studio. However, Borisov Arts and Crafts Centre is soon to examine the rug and conduct any necessary restoration, which she is delighted about.
Ms. Kukharenko was her husband’s muse, drawn many times in his works; Nina was his pupil, apprentice and assistant, his friend and wife. His creativity was amplified when resonating through Nina. Now, she is the keeper of his huge legacy and mother to his second son, Maxim.
Here, Nina tells of her early life and her own career as an artist.

How did you become an artist? Was it a conscious choice or did everything happen spontaneously?
It was my conscious choice. How did it happen? On my mother’s side, everyone painted very well. My dad was a military man so we travelled the world. When vacations arrived, we used to go to the village of Liski, in the Gomel Region, where my mother’s parents lived. There were many pictures in the house, hanging on the walls. I copied those pictures and, when I grew up, found out that my mother’s brother had painted them. He died during the war, but his legacy remained. I made copies every year and so prepared myself to become an artist.
My father was a lawyer, having gained a law degree from the BSU, while my mother was from a very large family. All the children had received higher education though, and the family was very cultured.
‘Ogonyok’ Magazine was popular at the time, showing reproductions of Russian and foreign artists, and we’d place these reproductions into frames. Village homes tend to have reproductions of Shishkin and Levitan.
When my father was serving in the Kirov Region, I had a choice of entering a college or university but military camps don’t offer a wide range of courses. I didn’t have the opportunity to go to an art school or to a studio but our neighbour had attended art school in Abramtsevo — between Moscow and Zagorsk. He recognised my talent and asked me to aim for college. I began to prepare myself by drawing cubes, diamonds, pyramids and balls — all in proportion. Lacking mouldable materials, I made them from cardboard. I didn’t enter college in the first year but gained experience and found out what was required for admission. After the ninth grade, I entered the college’s porcelain faculty and found that I loved painting on porcelain. I graduated from the college with honours after four years of studying. My graduation work was inspired by the theme of circuses, which I love.
I then thought about entering university. I had to decide where to apply and I knew that it was very difficult to enter Stroganovka (the famous Art Institute in Moscow). It took students from across the fifteen republics of the USSR. Even after graduating from the college with honours, some my friends had applied five times without success. My father had retired and had an apartment near Moscow — in Vladimir — so, for a year, I taught at the central school of arts in that city. I came to realise that, as a Belarusian, I should return to the Fatherland. I came to Minsk and gained entry to the Theatre and Art Institute, taking my exam in sculpture instead of painting. I was very good at sculpture. So, this is how I acquired my favourite profession!

When did this happen?
In 1974, I graduated from Abramtsevo Industrial Art College, then worked for a year and, in 1975, entered the Theatre and Art Institute, studying ceramics and porcelain. I could choose to take my exam either in sculpture or painting. In Abramtsevo, there was only gouache or decorative painting. In Minsk, I had to pass an exam in classical oil or watercolour painting. I was very good at sculpture, and could change my application from painting to sculpture, so I did so, and I passed the exam with the highest mark.
Mr. Belyayev and Mr. Gavrilov were my professors. In the second year, I was introduced to Alexander Kishchenko, who arranged for me to work with monumental ceramics: a difficult sphere of sculpture. You have to understand the techniques of drying, hand moulding and baking.

I’m surprised by the amount of work involved. Weren’t you deterred?
It’s really hard work, but nothing deterred me, as I enjoyed it. One of the most difficult aspects was loading the furnace single-handedly. You have to keep a close eye on it, as excessive head damages the glaze, which is unsightly. Of course, others wait their turn with the furnace too. You have to wear protective gloves to retrieve your pieces from the oven...

Tell us about your Spate, being restored for the Belarus Hotel...
I made a sketch first, then used cardboard to decide where each element should be. The panel is large so I made it in cardboard first, with wet paste, deciding on the position of the coil, the tree, the stork and the fish. I then began hand-moulding.
It was made for the Belarus Hotel, which had just been built at that time. In those days, the tradition was for artists and architects to work together on hotel interiors and every major building was adorned in this way — from the Palace of Culture to a kindergarten. State budgetary funds were allocated to allow culture to be everywhere. My work was commissioned for the hotel sauna and was inspired by water reflections.
Minsk City Executive Committee recently decided to move my work to the main lounge of the hotel, to be more widely appreciated. In moving the panel, it suffered chips, so we’re restoring it with cold technology, since it can’t be re-fired. I’ve invented a method of restoration and it’s wonderfully nostalgic for me: a return to the past. I remember making it the first time round and the joy it brought me. It features in a book about the best Belarusian decorative artists — as an example of my creative work.

Pottery design takes so much effort. Is this why you tend to paint now?
Before I married, I was free to pursue my own path but, on marrying and having my son, I had less time for sculpture. I also wanted to help my husband make tapestries. Of course, it was a change from ceramics but orders for my own work also fell off in the 1980s, after ‘perestroika’. Huge works became less common and, as factories closed, the furnaces and technologies were lost. Many pottery designers continued but I switched to canvas. Today, I tend to limit myself to organising my husband’s archives and exhibitions.

When were Belarusian ceramics most popular?
They’ve existed for centuries but the 1970-80s were their modern heyday — not only for ceramics but for painting, monumental art and tapestries. It was easier for artists then; you could realise your potential more easily. Now, it’s so expensive to have a studio. You have to pay for it yourself, usually by having a teaching job, which disrupts the creative process. Mr. Kishchenko left his job at the university so that he could devote himself to art. I think artists need freedom from the necessity of earning money; it’s annoying to have to think about a salary. The artist’s soul should always be focused on creation.

What fascinates you most of all regarding ceramics?
The material itself is interesting, being so malleable in your hands. I’m inspired by life and love art, so I always wanted to express myself.

Why are ceramics less popular today?
Ceramists have moved out of the limelight; we don’t tend to see monumental ceramic exhibitions, as technology has changed. There’s no scope for this anymore.
Ceramic works used to be widely commissioned.
New buildings were always deco-rated, with ceramics, mosaics and tapestries. It’s rare today, with original artwork decorations kept to the minimum.

What qualities do ceramists need?
The main thing — for ceramics and painting — is to be committed to your creativity. Always do your utmost. Ceramic is an amazing material.

If you had a chance, would you like to create something in ceramic today?
I have a dream, but I lack time. If God gives me health and strength, I may achieve my dream. I still love sculpture and working with porcelain. I retain the desire to create compositions.

Does time impact on creativity?
Yes, it certainly leaves its mark. New technologies are being developed, so new images appear.

Do you like to include folk motifs in your works?
I was raised on folk images. In Soviet times we studied all crafts: Dymkovo toys, Gzhel, wood, stone and bone carving. I always wanted to work with more realistic themes.

Are you concerned about preserving the traditions of Belarusian ceramics?
I think that Belarusian ceramics should be developed and that they can appeal to young artists.

Do you imagine the audience’s reaction to your works as you create them?
I don’t think about this, just focusing on making something beautiful. When this panel was first finished, it was admired; however, my own name was not placed upon it. People assumed it to be the work of a Russian master; nobody knew a Belarusian master was responsible.

As the keeper of the heritage of People’s Artist Alexander Kishchenko, how do you find this job? Is it troublesome?
It’s very difficult but also very important. I hold a large burden of responsibility. It’s a lot for one person to cope with. I write to the Ministry of Culture and to museums, trying to organise exhibitions. Mr. Kishchenko was a prolific artist, leaving about 400 paintings in his studio, in addition to tapestries. The ‘Tapestry of the Century’ is an historical and cultural treasure. People ask to visit to view it, also coming to drink tea, and they always leave happy. All my husband’s works have a positive energy, as he loved life and admired so many things.
On May 13th, it will be 85 years since his birth. I’d like the Artists’ Union to help me, alongside the Ministry of Culture, in promoting his legacy. I’m often asked for materials on my husband: a film was shot recently about him and his creative work is in a textbook on the history of Belarus — in the section about culture. His ‘Tapestry of the Century’ and ‘Chernobyl Tapestry’ hang in the UN headquarters.
After his death, I held exhibitions regularly but the last was in 2009, at the National Art Museum, on two floors. I can’t organise any more without the help of the state. His creativity was multifaceted. Many think you simply graduate from university and are an artist! However, my husband believed that it took years to understand his artistry fully.

Your image appears in many of his paintings.
I was always with him. He needed a Slavic image and I was introduced to him. The first portrait was small but it was bought by Moscow. He painted me a great deal, as he loved me. When his son was born, he painted me with our son. He said that one should paint what one loved and understood. He liked to paint nature and still life paintings. Sometimes, I asked him if he tired of my image, as he had painted me so many times. He answered, “I know you well so when I need to find a new image, I use yours to help me generate ideas quickly.”
Is your son Maxim creative also?
Like Alexander, his father, he is optimistic. I become upset over things but Maxim doesn’t. I didn’t want him to become an artist simply because of his parents doing so. You often see artists sending their son or daughter to university to study art and they lack true talent, so never find their true path in the profession. However, Maxim is naturally artistic. From the age of 8 or 9, he would write poetry — about sadness or the sun. His head is full of powerful poetic images. He hasn’t been trained professionally but is creative and thinks in different ways about others, which is a talent in itself.

Is there anything that distinguishes female creativity?
We are subtle and can rival men when we have the opportunity. However, the demands of family restrict our freedom to spend time creating. We become distracted by other elements of life. Where women are talented, they can surpass men.
I’d like to make an album dedicated to Mr. Kishchenko, showing his monumental works and paintings. Students need such an album, so that they can see that Belarus had a unique artist. My goal is to promote his legacy. If we destroy works from the 1970s, what will be left for the future? What is life without culture? If we lose it, it will affect what grows in the future. Culture needs to be nurtured. I’d like his mosaic in the Intourist Hotel in Minsk to be restored, as it’s such a unique piece from the 1970-80s. It’s priceless, as unique artists like Mr. Kishchenko are born once in a hundred years.

By Victor Mikhailov
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