Teaching in Russia

 

I have just returned from teaching two workshops in Russia through the organization, CEDRA . It was an experience nearly as vast and varied as Russia itself and difficult to sum up in one blog post, but I’ll try.

After landing in Moscow and being graciously driven to our hotel, David and I promptly dropped our bags and walked twenty minutes to Red Square for our obligatory first tourist photos. The brightness and vibrancy of St. Basil’s cathedral was a wonderful surprise, the first of many. Moscow itself is massive and with most signage in Cyrillic, a challenge to navigate. Fortunately we were well guided around and crammed in as much as we could during the days I wasn’t teaching, visiting the Pushkin Museum, The State History Museum, Contemporary History Museum (a personal favorite due to the large collection of constructivist items), beautiful parks and of course the Moscow Metro where each station is a work of art itself.

 

The real highlight was the many people I got to meet during my stay. The first of the two workshops was held at the International University in Moscow with 18 students. Some were undergraduates but the majority were professional designers and illustrators, including an art director for a theater company in Moscow and a professor of illustration along with some of her students. Similar to Mexico, the workshop was titled “Collage as a medium, design tool and a way of life,” but with every class I always adapt it to suit the needs and interests of those participating. The students were very focused, hard working and engaged, making it a pleasure. We started with a short presentation of my work through a slideshow and a box of originals and samples that were passed around. We then started the first of two projects with an assignment I have given before: an anthropomorphic self-portrait. I give the students the option of portraying themselves as their aspirational animal- the animal they wish they were or the animal they really are. They almost always choose their true animal and impress me with their honesty and ability to share visually and verbally their personal traits.
On the second day of the two-day workshop, we worked on the second project: a poster for a summer theater festival. I asked everyone to make a list of up to ten elements that were things they were inspired by or liked to use in their work and to incorporate at least one item from their list in the poster. Although most of the students spoke English it was still incredibly helpful to have a translator and Zhenya Kiverin, a designer himself, was great. Note to my RISD students, we could not find a Russian word for tangents. Both groups worked with great intensity and determination to finish both projects. At the end of each course we had a graduation ceremony.

I was invited to give a talk at the ad agency DEPOT. The audience of art directors from the firm was also very engaged and had lots of questions about my work and process. After my presentation, we shared pizza and conversation where I had the opportunity to ask about the design industry in Moscow, it was a wonderful exchange. Big thank you to Ekaterina Lavora for arranging it and for the press covering my visit.

Wednesday night we flew 2.5 hours from Moscow to Yekaterinburg for the second workshop. Nestled in the Ural Mountains, Yekaterinburg lies very close to the border between Europe and Asia and has a rich history including the execution of the Romanovs. There is a lot of interesting architecture ranging from Byzantine style churches and many fine examples of Soviet Constructivist buildings. The city itself felt very different from Moscow and St Petersburg with most of the cars coming from Asia.
Our flight was delayed a few hours and I taught the first day of the workshop on very little sleep but the students again were very engaged and enthusiastic which energized me. Similar to Moscow, the group of 19 students was comprised mainly of professional designers and illustrators alongside some undergraduate students. One professional illustrator traveled by train for 24 hours from Samara in the Volga region to attend. We followed a similar schedule to the workshop in Moscow and the group fully invested themselves in creating a lot of work in a short time period and asking lots of questions. For the lists of items to be included in the theater poster project, some included a soccer field, pink bunnies and an antique clothespin (which I was given as a present.)

I also enjoyed having lunch both days with some of the students and having the opportunity for casual conversation, along with the help of my translator, Anton. Our hosts took us out to dinner and yes; some vodka was consumed, but not too much since it was a school night. It was in the evenings after class that we had the opportunity to see the sights including the monument, which marks the actual border between Europe and Asia with Yekaterinburg being on the Asian side.

Very early Friday morning we flew to our final destination. It’s impossible to resist falling in love with St. Petersburg, a city so beautiful it seduces you at every turn. The narrow canals, bridges and brightly colored buildings have a very European feel but alongside the vibrant onion-domed churches and grey constructivist buildings maintains a look uniquely its own. We spent several days purely sightseeing: exploring the incredible Hermitage, churches and the Kunstkamera museum founded by Peter the Great which houses a collection of scientific oddities including two headed animals and mutant fetuses. Not for the squeamish.

On the flight home, I tried to imagine my grandparents and great-grandparents on the Atlantic crossing from what was then Russia to Ellis Island. My grandfather made the journey by boat solo at the age of 15. He was one of 12 children and the second to arrive on American soil. He began working as a tailor right away having had 6 years of experience as an apprentice in the small village he grew up in. He saved enough money to send home for the next in line to arrive and so on. My two great uncles that stayed behind met their untimely end at the hands of the Nazis. As a child, my grandmother would tell me stories of her own childhood, hiding in the forest from the Cossacks. It sounded like tales straight out of Fiddler on the Roof. She managed to escape from the Pogroms to New York with my great grandparents. Eventually they all made their new homes in Brooklyn, long before it became synonymous with writers named Jonathan or Girls. Reflecting on all this, it still seemed incredulous that I had to endure my flight without a little pillow or a watchable movie.

A heartfelt thanks to Eugene Kuprienko and Anton Mosyagin for the invitation and Katerina Rogacheva, Valeria Simon and Zhenya Kiverin for taking such good care of us in Moscow. And a very big thank you to all the students who participated and made it such a wonderful experience. I returned home inspired and ready to return to the studio and the fall semester to begin.