Like most of my paintings, I planned this work far in advance. My initial desire was to explore Russian culture through a serene wintery landscape. I was born in Moscow and have fond memories of living in Krasnodar, southern Russia. I still remember the beautiful onion-domed cathedrals, silver birch trees, and folk tales with Mishka the bear.
As I began painting this work, Russia's war on Ukraine broke out, sparking worldwide sanctions and resurrecting Cold War sentiments. Considering all this I wondered how my painting would be interpreted. As I detailed an old Russian Orthodox church, I thought it might represent the Orthodox patriarchy complicit with former KGB-head Vladimir Putin and his war on Ukraine. This abandoned wooden stave church and grave markers symbolize millions of Christians and political dissidents exiled to Siberian concentration camps under Stalin and the Soviet Union.
My parents are still in touch with Russian and Ukrainian colleagues, and their former students living on both sides of the border. They are all praying for and promoting peace through humanitarian efforts. War is a horrific atrocity. Especially troubling is that innocent civilians are often the casualties, whether Ukrainians caught in the crossfire or Russians jailed for protesting their government's actions. The global community picks sides, demonizing whole swaths of people, failing to distinguish between them and their totalitarian dictators. My painting represents a more nuanced approach.
Depicting Sophia meeting a wild Kamchatka Brown Bear (Russia's national emblem), my intention is for this tender connection to be seen as a gesture of peace that is on offer when Lady Wisdom is heeded. The title for this painting comes from a famous poem written by Nikolai Zabolotsky, "In This Birch Grove" (1946), a reflection on collective anguish and misery, but also the future hope when all wars will cease.
In This Birch Grove is a new work from my painting series Vanitas and Viriditas, which will debut at Rehs Contemporary Gallery NYC in Spring 2023.