Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Saha's B-day

About a month ago I went to Sasha’s 55th B- day party. You've seen the movie clip. The last two summers Sasha taught me and other students sculpture in his studio. He teaches with a humble gentle humor provides a much needed counter point to the harsh tactics of the professors at the academy. Despite the demands on my time I have started working with him outside the academy on the weekends.

The party was in his studio and it really strengthened my resolve to stay in Saint Pete. His friends are all artists and while they are accomplished in their fields they have no airs, no condescension, which unfortunately is the norm at the academy. They are fun loving genuine hard working people with bad teeth and wide smiles. No pretense, no glamour, all humor and love. Some of them have been struggling through together for some 40 odd years and its heartening to see them supporting and enjoying each other so much after so much time. The group included a couple of other sculptors along with some painters, some theater designers, an accordion player and his wife a singer. The musicians were the last to come and while we waited, people drank and Sasha opened gifts. His first gift was a set of fake ears. The whole night Sasha wore these gremlin ears and it gave him an impish look as he tore through wrapping paper and danced and sang. Most people brought artwork as gifts. A landscape depicting an autumn day with an impressionistic painterly hand, a couple of poems about Sasha which I hope to understand one day because they had people weeping with laughter, a sculpture of him and his wife as a sailor and virgin (which got a big laugh), a pair of binoculars wrapped in a box made to look like huge binoculars, and enormous merriment. When the musicians showed up the party really got in motion. The woman’s voice was powerful. When she hit the strong high notes and held them I could see her tongue vibrate in sink with the muscles in her high cheekbones. The studio isn’t large and the sound waves she created were enough for a large auditorium. I could feel them reverberate in my chest as well as hers. Her husband was extremely theatrical as he sang and played. Though he walked around the room more and more, his wine glass remained balanced on his accordion as he forced the air through the instrument’s lungs. There was a lot of dancing too. Some stomping sort of river dance that came from Moldova with many slow tongue and cheek pirouettes.
I understand about 1 in ten words now and I do a lot of guesswork, but when your clapping and swaying arm in arm with a group who is pretending to be on a sea ship as they sing there isn’t much to be translated. At one point the accordion player emitted a huge steamboat sound from his instrument, which added to the fantasy. With red noses and twinkling eyes we laughed and stomped and swayed and sang. It was quite a night for basking in the glow of our tenth round of vodka. I managed not to get sick though because of the food.
The table was spilling over with it. Hot buttery mashed potatoes. Two large plates of hard and soft salami cut in ovals and layered in circles on the borders of the dish. At the center of the salami was what I first though was sliced cheese in a circular array. I thought of the Jewish Russians I’d been with the week before who didn’t mix meat and dairy and mentioned it to Lena. She said with a laugh not to worry the whole plate was meat. It wasn’t cheese at all, but the star attraction – pig lard from Sasha’s mother’s pig at the farm. On closer inspection I saw that it was atop ham. The center included such soft succulent ham encrusted with pickled garlic – almost unbearably delicious. These high fat content dishes were not only delectable but also necessary. I soon realized that my vodka intake had to be balanced by meat in order to keep up with the Russians. There was also a kind of gelatin with pork and cabbage eaten with very spicy horseradish – my mouth is watering as I describe this. They had a layered dish with potatoes and herring, which I loved too. Also Pickles! Pickled cucumbers, pickled tomatoes, pickled cabbage, and pickled garlic –pickle heaven. Lena asked if I wanted salad. I thought good some roughage to work all this meat and fish and lard through. It turned out to be a salad of small cubes of meat, potatoes, mayo, croutons and who knows what else. There was anther “green” salad, which consisted of some lettuce drowned in cheese dressing. I was glad to get my roughage though. When I was in high school one teacher always called me slim Jim. I’d like to see him again after a couple of years of this.

New Model

So much has happened. Let’s start with my schedule:

There are few things more satisfying than seeing slow sustained progress. We work so many hours each day that I often feel delirious and its all I can do to keep the engines churning. I’ve found that routine helps. I’ve never valued 10 minutes so much. I’ve begun meditating 10 minutes in the morning and at night and I find it helps me fall asleep faster and helps me from waisting energy throughout the day. There are more reasons to be frustrated here than I care to enumerate so keeping from blowing one’s top can be crusial to making it through a day. A day goes as follows:

Classes are usually 45 minute stints with 15 minute breaks, but during the breaks I’m either eating stretching, sharpening my pencils, or sketching, usually eating. I always carry food with me. Sculpture, drawing, lunch, and Russian are all in different buildings. If you are late to lunch there will be a line so long and slow you will surely be late to Russian – this is only good if I haven’t finished my home work and am doing it online (so to speak) If you are late to Drawing the door will be locked and Claudia the matronly woman with the died red hair will make all kinds of groans before she heaves her weight from her chair and galumphs to the door to open it. When she does if you are me you smile and say excuse me. She gives a sullen look and lets you pass with a silent understanding and quietly you make your way to your malbert(G-d, I’m loosing my English). If you are anyone she doesn’t like which is everyone who doesn’t give her mandarins when she’s sick and asks about her family regularly she screams at you in Russian and threatens to tell the head of the foreign department that you are cutting class and not a serious student. There are many people like Claudia in the school. It’s unclear what her position is. She is a cleaning woman/ doorman/ superintendant. She actually wields a certain kind of power and is very good to know of you are looking for materials or trying to get past locked doors, but I digress. The point is its difficult and important to make it to each class ontime.

Here’s is the official daily schedule:

9:15 – Sculpture (two 15 minute breaks – at 10:00 and 11:00)
12:00 – rush to Drawing
12:15 – Drawing (one 10 minute break at 12:55)
1:55 – rush to lunch
2:00 – eat
2:20 rush to Russian Class
2:30 Russian (one 15 minute break at 3:45)
5:30 finished – with class.

At 5:30 the work really begins. We are expected to work for three hours a night on compositions. For the sculpture students this means making small maquettes or figurines – many of them. It’s actually quite fun and the exhaustion passes with food and tea. The work itself gives you momentum. The sculpture teacher rips them apart when he sees them- sometimes literally. For example – he gives us a themes – at first they were more abstract “a meeting of two people or animals” I started with an old familiar theme Cain and Abel, highly dramatic and for me overly conceived. I worked for uncountable hours trying to get all the proportions right and creating highly dynamic movement and even some facial expressions. He looked at it and said what I’ve heard more than anything else from him, “Eta, ni nada!” [Don’t do this] He took a knife and cut my sculpture in half separating the two figures which wasn’t difficult since they were composed independently. He took the two pieces and said here’s one sculpture and here’s another but they don’t fit together. Since the results were not pleasing to him, he choose a simpler theme- one person who is discovering something. I began making children since I’m working with them on Sundays fell on the idea of a tree stump. I made a lot of stumps and children around them discovering nature or each other. He liked one and told me to make a larger version which he was less than thrilled with. Finally he stopped making us think so hard and lowered the bar- just make people working – really simple carrying a pail or in the field – nothing too cerebral just make something simple that holds up as a sculpture. (Of course all in Russian – he is very good at pantomime and using the limited vocabulary we know) I made a woman neading bread. He took one look and drew a silhouette of what he saw. The woman was directly behind the table so the cutting board became the focal point and from many angles. This is a no – no. While it does have a main fa├žade a good sculpture must be interesting form every angle and “plastic” which is sort of the opposite of disjointed. The picture he drew of my sculpture accentuated the lack of these qualities. As I looked from his sketch of my composition to the actual piece I saw how boxy and bland it was I could swear his sketch resembled a tombstone. Sure enough he scribbled an epitaph on the stone and I finally understood the word he kept saying – my sculpture was dead. Well, I didn’t come to be coddled.

Sculpture is a small department here and our class has grown from 3 to 7. Each addition of Chinese students has made Gabriella the French/Cicillian roll her eyes and give me this look that says, “Fantastique! Now what we are going to do?!” The newest addition is half Korean and while he doesn’t speak English his Russian isn’t half bad. This is a huge boon for the Korean students who now have a translator. He also has some balls and hasn’t let Gabriella push him around which has made me respect him. He is very serious, but not so skilled. I’m snterested to see how he progresses. Unfortuneately I am still not learning from the other students in any of my classes. Many of them don’t listen to the teacher’s advice and continue to make the same mistakes. I don’t know why.

My mediation practice began the day I screamed at a developmentally challenged individual for being slow. Yes, I blew up at a retard. I walked into class late after oversleeping, in a terrible mood, preparing myself for castigation from the teacher and instead found no teacher and a new model posing for a portrait. Most models here are crazy like everywhere but they are amazingly still and stay that way for 45 minute stints - more than twice the expectation for the states. This one was different. I have a bad sense of smell (a great asset in this country) but even I could tell Sasha was in the room with my eyes closed. Maybe in his twenties, unshaven, portly, slovenly, hair in uncombed matted clumps, Sasha was unlike the other models. His eyes meandered through the room and his head followed his gaze. His hands rubbed each other incessantly and he was actually rocking in his chair. I looked at the other students and we shared baffled looks. For some reason I broke. Before I new it I was in his face screaming in Russian “Is this your first time modeling? Your first day? Can you stay still for even one minute?!” He said nothing, but seemed to recede within himself. “Don’t you speak Russian?!” I demanded, still no response. Soon after, the teacher came and asked Sasha if he’d had his breaks. As soon as I heard his clipped monotone speech and saw his eyes dart to the floor like a child afraid of authority I understood my mistake. At the end of the day he asked Gabriella to zip his coat for him. I decided I was going to hell.

I grew to like Sasha and felt so bad about the first day I began buying him his favorite yogurt drink on the breaks. Once I understood why he was moving I treated him like one of my youngest students, speaking softly and asking him to focus on a single spot on the room. Strange boyish smiles would creep across his face at times and no one new why, but he is always on time and tried his hardest to do what was asked of him.