Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Life in Russia

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 façade 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.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

First Year Sculpture Class (Good ol Boys)

House is clean

Been here a month now. Got a temperpedic bed and loving it. 2x as expensive as in the states but I spend too much time on my feet and too little time horizontal for it to be anything but good sleep. We live across the street from school in a very spacious apartment. I have a large room as do Kaspar and Iliya and we also have a small eat in kitchen and a very large living room, which we use to entertain a little but mostly to work in. I draw and work on compositions (little mackets) Iliya and Kaspar paint and draw. It’s nice to work with others. We help each other a lot: giving ideas, reminding each other to get away from the work so as not to miss the obvious. I hope to finally begin to learn to model form with better hatch work and a better understanding of how light plays on the form. It’s very delicate work to find the hundreds of variations of tone within the light and then the multitude of shadows mixing with reflected light. The trick is in part to keep the darks and the lights separate. We all have a tendency to forget that the reflected light, say under the jaw on the neck, is in fact darker than the darkest part of the forehead. Anyway, my class consists of 14 guys and 1 girl. The girl is from Siberia and very sweet but quite insane. She recently shaved her head and looks a lot like a very skinny Sinead O’Connor. She has very bony features, which makes everyone want to draw her because the anatomy is so well defined on her. She also carries a gardner snake around and kisses it often. She works late into he evening with me in the studio and likes to listen to Radiohead. She asks me to translate but I often don’t understand the lyrics myself. She is helpful, keeping me informed of changes in our schedule and I like her ambition. She works hard and has tried to double all of our assignments. She burns out though and stays up all night only to miss a lot of class because she is so tired.

There is Andrey who is very kind and patient and knows English well enough. He is very centered and has learned sculpture from his parents. He’s not bad but not as good as he thinks. Our sculpture teacher is wonderful and comes consistently 3 times a week and stays for 2 hours helping each student. He has specific comments and I understand on average half of what he says – I miss a lot of specifics and sometimes loose the train but he speaks with his hands and face and brings an electricity to the room. He’s in his fifties with young bright eyes. I think he enjoys teaching. He is unusually open and supportive being sure to tell us what’s effective about our work before telling us what needs improvement often with a comforting hand on the student’s shoulder.

Our drawing teacher is very famous but hasn’t arrived at school because his mother is very sick. Instead we have a teacher who I sat in with last year so he knows me. He’s in his tale 30s or early 40s and very serious. He also gives good specific advice and is patient, drawing when I don’t understand what he’s trying to explain.

The other students are horrendous draftsmen. It’s strange. they are generally lakadaizical about their work. The whole department is this way- I don’t understand. They are always late to class and often hung over. There are a handful who are serious and I spend more time with them. There is one particularly irksome character form a small country village. He has dark hair a large square jaw and a physique born of physical labor. He also has a chip on his shoulder and is probably an alcoholic. He comes in hung over often in the morning and drunk in the evening. I ignore him and work with my headphones but have had to shout at him once when he was making fun of the Chinese student very loudly during class instead of working. They are all in their early 20’s except one guy who is 30 and who I can count on to keep everyone in line – Arkadi. He has a large brow hanging over small dark eyes and an unkempt scraggly beard. He is generally filthy but a good worker and very helpful I’m glad he’s in the class.

A mime is a terrible thing to waste.

So last year there was a model who I started to fancy. (This story doesn't end well just so you know.) I had painted and sculpted her at the academy 2 summers previously and we remembered each other. This was early on and I still didn’t know much Russian but I had been listening to language tapes and I knew how to say “why don’t you have dinner with me tonight?”. I found myself walking to school with her as we lived close to each other and she was very patient with my language - even buying a small dictionary for me after a couple of difficult conversations. So one morning I figured why not and I used my one Russian phrase, “She looked shocked” which I thought meant I had made a mistake but she told me she would love to and complimented my accent.

A few days later we met in the evening and she looked quite beautiful with makeup and a nice floral dress. She took me to a club and on the bus there I learned through the dictionary that she had been married but was divorced and she seemed very happy to be out. She kept using a word I couldn’t find in the dictionary that I later learned meant deserve. She felt that she deserved a night out on the town. I also learned that she had been a dancer during Soviet times but after Peraskroika like many people didn’t know how to find a job and was now modeling to help make ends meet. It was actually rather easy to understand her and it slowly dawned on me that her training was not just dancing but miming. She was a bit older than me I think and had very light blue eyes and high cheek bones with short blond hair that displayed the curve of her well formed skull which I had already spent countless hours trying to replicate in clay.

We got to the club and I tried talking over drinks. I told her I liked her blouse but mispronounced it. She laughed and blushed and showed me the word I had said which meant chest. I told her I liked that too. I asked if I could “write” on a scrap of paper she had but put the emphasis in the wrong place which changed my verb from “write” to “urinate” which she couldn’t stop repeating and giggling about. Having proven my willingness to humiliate myself in the name of communication we began dancing. Now the club was filled with people younger than both of us, scantily clad and drunk. They dance as they do everything, without subtlety. Halter tops are very high. There are a lot of bad mullets and overdone poorly coordinated dancemoves from an MTV video. I tried to focus on her. Her moves were well executed and practiced but somehow anything but sexy. She reminded me of an extra from a Eurythmics video but with a sense of humor she kept breaking into mini mime routines and then laughing. I laughed too but was beginning to be a little horrified. There was something very sad about her. Her eyes didn’t smile with her mouth, they remained languid and made her look ill at ease. I later asked her what she did when she wasn’t modeling and she said it was a secret, but I think she was a stripper. I began having nightmares about her as a marionette and decided I probably shouldn’t see her again but she kept SMSing me on the weekends and when I finally stopped replying she stopped showing up to class. Everyone was very angry with me because they hadn’t finished drawing/painting her and she just one day didn’t show up and never came back which I was blamed for – perhaps rightfully so.

From Russia with love

So on my way to Estonia. I try to avoid mishap. I buy my ticket 2 days in advance for the 7-hour bus ride. I ask the woman who doesn’t speak English to draw a little map to show me exactly where to catch the bus.

Two days later I arrive at 8:45 am. I’m nervous because I don’t see any bus that looks large enough to be mine, but after circling the area twice I see a group of people forming that look too happy to be Russian and sure enough I hear that elfin sing song of Estonian. I see one friendly looking young man with a cello case and ash him “to Estonia?” in Russian and he smiles and nods (Estonians speak Russian for the most part) – having been under Soviet rule until relatively recently). It’s the smile more than the nod that tells me I’m in the right place. It’s already cold but I don’t mind. I’m heading to Estonia to meet my new roommate Kaspar and his family there. I just found a new apartment in Saint Petersburg in remarkable time - 1 day and its across the street from the academy so I won’t be battling the swarms of commuters on the subway each day and will hopefully get some more sleep this year. Things are looking up and it’s actually sunny.

I get on the bus after some confusion with an old lady who doesn’t know where to go, where to sit, where to put her baggage etc. The bus driver is very kind and patient with her and the other passengers are too. I’m shocked but remind myself that these are not Russians. However the bus driver leaves and a new one who is Russian arrives with the familiar dour expression of resignation on his face. I settle into my seat and fall asleep. I awake 2 hours later as we pull into a gas station and suddenly remember 15 years earlier being on a bus in Spain and having the bus leave without me because I spent too long in the bathroom. I hesitate for a moment before deciding to leave the bus to buy something to eat. I follow the bus driver into the small convenience store and get shoved aside by a large gruff man who looks like a little kid who needs to go to the bathroom. He’s sort of hopping around from foot to foot looking feverishly at the baked goods and cutting everyone in line a clumsy rush for first dibs on the coffee. I see another young man sitting to eat his breakfast and figure we have more time than I thought. I decide to but one of each kind of baked goods because it’s a long ride and I can’t figure out what they all are anyway. In the corner of my eye I’m aware that the bus driver has left with a large bottle of water, but I still see the bus and the guy eating so I’m relaxed.

The woman gives me the wrong change and I ask her to check it again and she realizes her mistake and fixes it and I walk out side feeling good about my communication skills.

Adrenaline floods my system as I see a large empty parking spot where my bus used to be. I look left and see the bus pulling away and start running as fast as I can. I do a mental check and realize I have my passport but not my bag. Thank god I didn’t bring my computer. Then I try visualizing myself reaching the bus before it gets back on the highway, but it dawns on me as my legs begin to ache that I’m not going to catch it and suddenly I’m running top speed on the highway’s dirt shoulder screaming and waiving my arms frantically (somehow not dropping any baked goods). I start considering my plight with a useless out of range cell phone and I hear honking behind me but ignore it hoping for some response from the bus. It only accelerates onto the highway and speeds away. The honking continues persistently behind me and I realize I’m probably blocking traffic and risking my life. I look back and see a large black car pull up and the window roll down. The man asks me something in Russian that I think I understand and I say yes that’s my bus. He gestures for me to get in and I do. I catch my breath and he starts speeding up, passing car after car on this bumpy two lane high way that probably hasn’t been repaved since it was created. Despite the billions Russia is making on oil, like the US it’s government is not terribly interested in maintaining infrastructure.
The driver gestures for me to roll down the window and flag down the bus driver. As we pass the bus I see the bus driver’s blasé reaction to my frantic gesturing. He frowns and shrugs and pulls the bus over to the curb. I thank my driver think about offering him money but realize it might offend him. He smiles and I consider trying to tell him he’s an angel, but figure I showed just get to the bus as fast as possible. As I get on people look confused and the young man who was sitting next to me with the cello asks in English where I was and I explain. “Oh I was wondering where you were,” he explains.

As my heart rate returns to normal I remind myself that the man in the black car was Russian too and then promptly devour my flaky baked lunch.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

inner peace

The level of lunacy here has reached such heights we don’t notice it any more. It’s like indigenous people in the Andes who have developed barrel chests to allow more oxygen in their lungs to account for the lack of oxygen at higher altitudes. People here have a larger category of what’s funny in order to metabolize the lack of mutual base respect people have for each other. I recall my Russian teacher in NYC telling us horrendous stories of death and calamity between cackles at the humanity of it all. I never understood how she could laugh but now I’m starting to see that there is sometimes nothing else to do. My first Russian friend here from the synagogue told me a story of his first landlady. He was giggling before he uttered his first word and crying, he was laughing so hard by the end. It seemed he had an ever-escalating series of quarrels with her that led to her stealing most of his furniture, but he kept living there and they are still acquaintances somehow. This story was in response to my problems with our new landlady.

She is named Maria (the most common name here strangely) early to mid twenties, pretty, fond of plastic rubber duckies, square – pants sponge bob paraphernalia, and lying. Married to a 50 something burned out hippy from Oregon who told us a twenty-minute story about trying to find good cinnamon buns in Saint Pete. Anyway, we were eager to move into their apartment. A sponge painted firelight fresco of yellow and orange usher you into a large sun drenched kitchen overlooking one of the main squares right next to the subway and with a splendid view of the ever present golden arches. Mickey D’s in the house – so to speak. They even let us pay in dollars and included all the utilities even Internet. Sounded perfect. They would be moving to the states and it seemed only fitting to rent their flat to compatriots. (She would soon become an American citizen)

The catch was that there was a lot of stuff they needed to move into the “storage room” (their bedroom) and Maria would be doing that for the first few weeks after we moved in. Fair enough. Those weeks stretched into months. She came three times a week and rearranged our dishes, left the vacuum out as a hint I assume to vacuum more often. It was true that we could have been keeping the house tidier but with our heavy schedules it was very difficult to motivate to mop. It wasn’t so bad if we didn’t see her, but that changed too. . .

One Saturday night I stayed late at my studio working on compositions for our upcoming abxot which is like an exhibition of our work for the teachers to grade. It was 9 pm and I hear an unfamiliar loud and slurred form of Russian. I look up and see a wet smile spread across a pockmarked ruby face as a drunkard takes three unsteady steps into my workspace. Behind him I hear the high-pitched shrieking of the babushka who may live in the room next to my studio where they fire the sculpture. She is lucking at the staggering man to get out at once! He reaches a grimy gnarled mitt into a paper bag and retrieves a bottle of wine. In retrospect I think I should have noticed Bacchus knocking and invited him with open arms after my 12-hour work day (on Shabbat no less) , but instead I was filled with furry which I barely contained. I politely declined his offer and gently ushered him to the door. He never spoke and never lost his smile except once. Five minutes later I had settled back to work trying to learn the anatomy of the bull for my composition of Gilgamesh’s battle with it. I heard the familiar frantic fretting of the babushka and the shuffle of unsteady feet. I was using a knife to better model the heavy musculature of the bull’s shoulder girdle when he entered the room again.

Someone is angry with me every day. The teachers for having to repeat themselves, the models for having to sit still, the woman behind the counter for having to count out tokens at the subway. They hate you for making them work. They hate you for making them take your money and give you change. If your currency is in too large a denomination they sometimes will flat out refuse to sell things to you. Lines are not the shortest distance between to points here, they are a mass of people pushing and elbowing like school children. It is difficult to overstate the lack of common courtesy here. It just doesn’t exist. In the face of this onslaught of stress, work keeps me sane and my studio is a sanctuary.

With the defilement of that sanctuary a floodgate of frustration loosened and impulsively I rose to my feet, knife in hand. My opponent’s wet smile dried up quickly. The man regained his brand of composure and implored me to join him in revelry. Again I should have seen this as one of the many pies in the face we receive here and hastened to taste the burgundy custard but instead the bull sculpting knife led the way. I bellowed for him to get out now, speaking more with my blade than my tongue! Finally I had to physically throw him out of the studio and slam the door shut, frantically locking it as he pulled and twisted the door handle from outside.
To me it was Russia on the other side of that door jerking the handle trying to get in. I felt invaded in the one place where my treasured peace and focus in work can go largely uninterrupted. 10 deep breadths later I was trying to channel wrath into the bull’s attack stance. The subway stops running at midnight so I went home eventually looking forward to a little peace there finally.

10 minutes after getting home and starting to work on a drawing I needed to finish by Monday I hear the peculiar and familiar noise of the door unlocking. Now Ilya my roommate is on vacation in NYC and the only other person with the key is Maria. Did I mention that personal space is also a rare commodity? “Surprise” is how she introduces herself and her friend who will be spending the night. Now in retrospect I see that again I could have played this differently. By now I could have been drunk and here are two young Russian girls at my door after midnight on Saturday, but all I’m thinking is I want to work and why am I paying this woman rent if she thinks she still lives here. At this point I completely flip out and scream at Maria telling her she has put me in a terrible position as I don’t want to put to young women out on the street on Sat night, but this can never happen again. She has the expression I’ve seen on many 3rd graders after I’ve told them to go to the principal’s office and the two quiet girls apologize and tiptoe into her :storage room”

Gabriella, the French/Italian girls, had her own housing problem, which makes mine pale. She lives with another young French girl in a flat with a shared bathroom. They share it with a crazy old babushka. Many of the old people here are truly insane as their world has changed too fast and perestroika left little room for social welfare and really created the worst form of capitalism here. At any rate this old woman began to believe that these young French girls work for the KGB and were spying on her. As a good citizen I suppose she decided to call the police who actually showed up and demanded to see their documents. In the end they had to move and then move again 2 days later because when Gabriella went to brush her teeth in her first new place her sink crashed to the floor killing one of the many rodents in her new abode. I haven’t seen her newest place but I hear its more fitting for a couple of French/Russian spies.