"Self-portrait of an artist as a young girl" or "Not so short biography of a contemporary female artist."
I remember a story about Hillary Clinton writing over twenty page long bio in a third grade. I remember thinking what the hell a little girl could possibly be writing about in her bio to made it so long. At that point my own bio was about a page long. …and that was at the age of thirty! One night, after a few glasses of wine, I set out to add some things to my pathetic artist biography page and ended up rewriting the whole thing. With wine giving me an added feeling of self-importance, I had to restrain myself because otherwise I could've ended up with a bio as long as a George Sand's novel. I apologize in advance for making it so long and seemingly whiney. Once again, let me blame it on the wine! My purpose wasn't to make people feel bad for me (I hate pity), but rather to make people understand that life is what we make of it, and no matter what kind of obstacles we encounter on our path, the final outcome is always up to us.
As a kid I knew how to dream big. I remember sitting in my mother's lap, when some random woman riding in a trolley next to us asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. "I just want to be awfully famous," I answered without hesitation. At the time I already considered myself an artist, however, I thought that being an artist was more of a hobby rather than a profession. In the Soviet Union, when one was a part of the so-called 'intelligentsia' (as I and my family were) one was supposed to grow up to be an engineer. I didn't figure out I could actually become a professional artist until I moved to the United States years later and my crazy parents didn't object to my crazy choice of a profession.
I started my 'art career' under my grandfather's supervision when I was two. Paralyzed from the waist down, he spent his days sitting in a chair in our living room. It was right next to a coffee table I used as my drawing board. When I was attempting to draw circles he would compliment me on drawing beautiful apples or beautiful stones, depending on how many angles my attempted circles had. Elated by my grandfather's compliments, I felt encouraged to keep on creating my crooked masterpieces. By the age of three, drawing and painting became my one of my favorite pastimes. My love of art and my desire for compliments meant I needed more and more paper to satisfy both. Finding tons of paper for a kid to paint on was not an easy task to accomplish in the early 1980s Soviet Union. If my dad wasn't teaching at the University of Engineering and Architecture where he had access to an endless supply of discarded student projects, I could've ended up being an accountant.
I don't remember the day my parents brought me to a prep studio for high-school students who wanted to apply to my dad's university. Apparently my kiddy portfolio and I made a good impression, because I ended up as a student there; I was four. As I started attending the studio, my father started wondering why I was allowed to paint whatever I wanted, instead of drawing from observation. He approached my professor asking why everyone, except for his little girl was required to work on their drawing technique. To my dad's great astonishment he was told that the reason why I'm not being forced to mindlessly copy from observation was because my professor didn't want to 'kill my talent' with something that anybody could be taught how to do. He believed that I'd be able to figure things out on my own, which happens to be my favorite approach to learning to this day. Needless to say, I felt like a star; a little four-year-old star that all the other students liked and treated like a baby sister.
My life was wonderful. It was mostly due to the fact that I didn't have to attend kindergarten, a place I hated passionately. I tried it for several months and ended up spending most of the time being sick in bed. Apparently I had a special ability to catch every type of sickness any of the other children had. …or maybe I just willed myself to endless sickness so I could stay home and paint. When my parents finally decided it would be better for me to stay home I was psyched. From then on, I spend my days perfecting my craft (as some pompous artist might say). I also had a new friend who lived in the house next to our apartment building. She introduced me to a fun and exciting way to spend time outside – tree climbing. Pretty quickly it became my second passion in life and for the next decade I ended up hanging like an apple from a tree every time I went outside to play. I would probably still keep on doing it, but I'd rather not freak out my neighbors.
My life changed drastically in the summer of 1986. Chernobyl turned everyone's life upside down. People were trying to get their kids as far away from Kyiv (where I lived) as possible. My parents entrusted me to my aunt who took me and my cousin to her mother who lived in Russia. My stay there was short-lived. I got really sick within a week and my aunt brought me to a local hospital. The hospital was over-flowing with Chernobyl refugees. I remember the first night I spent there as if it happened yesterday. I was seven, I was far from home, and I was all alone. In the room with me there was a woman from Pripyat, a town next to Chernobyl. She had a five-year-old daughter who was sick with the radiation poisoning. I still remember her name. It was Inga. I remember Inga's mother talking to a nurse. She was telling her that when Chernobyl started burning, the people were told to go outside to wait for the evacuation buses. They weren't allowed to take anything with them except for their passports. They waited for hours, standing outside, while the reactor was burning. I remember the woman talking about it sort of matter-of-factly. Nobody realized back then how bad things really were. I also remember her comforting me. Her own little girl was much worse off than I was, and she still took the time to make somebody else's child feel better. I often wonder if both of them are still alive. I pray that they are and that they are well.
The doctors didn't know what was wrong with me, so I was transferred to the county hospital the next day. It was in another city, and my aunt couldn't visit me more than once a week. My mother couldn't come right away, because by that time my grandfather had a second stroke and was completely paralyzed, while my grandmother just had a heart surgery. At first I was OK with a new place. There was a bunch of kids in the room with me, and despite our sicknesses we managed to enjoy ourselves. Unfortunately, there was also a lack of competent doctors in the hospital, and nobody could figure out what I had. Every day a new doctor accompanied by a bunch of new medical students would come to examine me. They took so much blood from me on daily basis that up until this day, I start crying whenever I have to go for a blood test. I was constantly poked with needless, and even though I was getting tons of shots I wasn't getting any better. My liver was going berserk and it was enlarged to a point I looked like a tiny pregnant person. It was decided that I should be placed into an isolation room, just in case. There was a tiny table there, a small bed, and nothing else. I had a window with metal bars on it. I'm still not sure why, because at seven years old people don't normally plan some great hospital escape. My only window overlooked a park where kids played, and watching them provided me with some sort of sad entertainment.
I had a daily visitor - a nurse who brought me food and gave me shots. One day, some good Samaritan who was visiting her child in a hospital saw my face pressed against the window, and after enquiring about me she gave a children book to my nurse to pass on to me. I read and reread it. I still remember most of it. Then my mother came. I had to spend another few weeks in the hospital, but I was really happy. My mother bought construction paper, scissors and thread, and we ended up making cute little animals that could move their limbs, because we attached them to their bodies by pieces of thread. My favorite one was a velvety brown cow, which I would like to think was a bit of an omen since I ended up participating in several Cow Parades years later.
When I came out of the hospital it still wasn't safe to go back to Kyiv. My mom asked our relatives, who lived in a nice small town at the shore, if I could stay with them for a bit. They took me in and the next couple of weeks were almost fun, until the day I overheard a conversation I wasn't supposed to hear. That day I found out my parents were already divorced for over six months, and my father was staying with us only until he would find his own place. Renting an apartment in the Soviet Union was more than a college professor could afford and to get a government apartment people had to wait for years and years. The news shocked me. I still wonder why I didn't figure anything out sooner, especially considering my father moved into my bedroom a while back.
I was still trying to come to my senses when my father took me to a resort with his new girlfriend. I guess it was better I overheard the 'divorce' conversation and already knew what was going on. Without being prepared, I probably would've had much deeper psychological damage. Fortunately, I only ended up concealing my parents divorce from all of my friends for the next seven years. I think the fact that on my first day of school that year, when my teacher asked for us to raise our hands if our parents were divorced, and nobody raised theirs didn't help much.
Towards the end of the "summer of Chernobyl" my mother and I went to Odessa (a seaport on the Black Sea). It was a very memorable experience because we got to spend wonderful time together, and she gave me one of the greatest gifts a mother could give to her child – she made me truly fall in love with literature. Up until that time I never really enjoyed reading. I thought books were boring, especially in comparison to tree climbing. My opinion changed on the night my mother started reading Bulgacov's "The Master and Margarita" to me. My life also changed. My mom read the book to me night after night. One day, when I couldn't wait for the evening to find out what was going to happen next, I just picked up the book myself and started reading, and still haven't stopped. That day, the proverbial flood gates were finally opened, and an unbelievable new world started pouring in. I barely slept for the next ten years. I was reading till four or five in the morning every single day, consequently ruining my eyesight and forever changing my sleeping (or rather not sleeping) patterns.
During school vacations I would read ten to twelve hours a day. I mostly vacationed in my father's summer house in a small village in the middle of nowhere. There wasn't much to do there for fun apart from swimming and reading. I was happy. I had my books. My paternal grandmother had an amazing library (a rarity for a Soviet citizen) with complete collections of works by a lot of famous authors. A lot of classics as well. I found thousands of her books pleasantly overwhelming. I invented my own reading technique. I called it 'reading by the shelf'. Once a week, my dad would go to my grandparents' apartment and bring me all books from one shelf to read. Once I was done he'd bring me all the books from the shelf directly below it, regardless of what kind of books they were. This way I actually ended up reading Victor Hugo and Guy de Maupassant a summer before I read Jack London and James Fenimore Cooper. In some cases my strict adherence to the 'by the shelf technique' made me really suffer. I remember reading George Sand's "Consuelo", and while I thought it was a bit boring and way too long to be so boring, I had to force myself to read "La Comtesse de Rudolstadt". A horrible read for a ten-year-old! Although it did spark in me enough interest in George Sand to read her biography by Andre Maurois, which was absolutely wonderful. OK, enough about books.
Let's move on to the next chapter in my life. It's called "Mom leaves for America". She left when I turned thirteen. By then my grandfather was already dead, my father remarried, and my mother had gone back to being an engineer. The times were grim and we could barely make ends meet. My mom, brave as ever, decided it was time for a change. The Soviet Union fell apart a month before she was supposed to leave for a visit to the States, and it made my mother's decision to seek asylum in the States even stronger.
Up until that point I was a somewhat quiet child. I hung on trees, I painted, I read, and I loved spending time at home. However, things tend to change when one becomes a teenager and has zero parental supervision. After all, both people I lived with (my grandmother and her sister) were well into their eighties, and sneaking out of the house at night was extremely easy. I became a grown-up overnight. I also became quite pretty, a surprise for me, as well as lots of neighborhood boys. Up until that point I looked like a boy. Growing up, even with long hair and while wearing a skirt, people still mistook me for a boy. It was upsetting, but I was used to it. What I was not used was the attention I started getting from the boys when I turned thirteen.
All of a sudden, everybody also realized that I was smart and funny, the fact that has previously escaped most of them. All of my classmates wanted to hang out with me, and in a year I was the most popular girl in school. I dated the upper classmen, and all the girls who previously looked down on me fought for my attention. I was very gracious as their 'queen' and never reminded them of all the previous abuse I had to take from them. I even became good friends with a girl who used to hurt my feelings on an daily basis when we were younger. I loved my life. It was a true ugly duckling story. I was a heroine of my own fairytale.
At that time I started hanging out with a girl who was to become my best friend for life. Her name is Tania, and I still can't think of anybody that I ever felt closer to. She also had a somewhat tough childhood and I felt like I could really relate to her. She was my pal and my partner in crime. We used to skip school together and had the most awesome adventures for a while. One day things changed. We were fifteen. The school year was almost over. It was a beautiful sunny day. The evening before we talked on the phone, and decided to bring our bathing suits with us in case the next day was nice enough to trade school for a day at the beach. We met the next morning and I suggested going to a lake that was located in the suburbs where my aunt lived. We hopped on the train, and got there twenty minutes later. The lake was deserted. Everybody was at work or in school. After having an awesome time my friend and I decided to head back to the city. It was a bit before 2 PM, and my grandmother was expecting me back from school by 2:30. As we were standing at the train station I looked up at my aunt's house. From the train station it was about a two minute walk to her house, and I suggested to Tania that perhaps we can stop by to see my little cousins. She warned me that it could blow our cover, so I decided against it. I was home a bit over ten minutes when the phone rang. I heard my aunt's voice. She was crying. My little cousin drowned in the lake fifteen minutes after we left it. There were no grow-ups there to pull him out, and by the time his friends ran to his mother it was already too late.
Several weeks later I found out that my grandmother had cancer. My mother rushed back from the States to take care of her. Mending my relationship with my mom after three years would've been hard any way. My grandmother's sickness made it much harder, because we didn't have time to spend with each other.
I remember the day my grandmother died. She had an operation a week before, and there was a tube coming out of her stomach that we used to feed her through. She was unconscious, and we took turns looking after her. It was my turn. I was sitting by her bed reading, when a woman in the bed next to hers told me that my grandmother was dead. I looked at her and she looked the same to me. I didn't realize right away that she stopped breathing. I remember coming out of the hospital room. I was very composed. I went to the lobby and called my uncle. My mother was due back any minute, so I went back to my grandmother's room and just stood in the doorway. I remember a very long hallway. When the door at the end of it opened, there was my mother carrying a huge watermelon she bought as a present for the nurses. She knew what has happened as soon as she looked at me. I remember her looking at me. Everything after was a blur.
My mother went back to the U.S. shortly after the funeral and I joined her in a couple of months. I didn't know what to expect, but by then I had enough self-confidence not to be afraid of the unknown. I thought that people will be friendly, and I'd have no problem learning the language and adjusting to my new surroundings. I started high-school in the middle of junior year and things didn't quite work out as I anticipated. Nobody talked to me. There was a mean girl in my home room who constantly tormented me, and I didn't even have enough vocabulary to say something back to her. I ate my lunch alone and felt thoroughly miserable. Pretty soon I asked my art teacher if I could spend my lunch in her classroom.
I've never felt so lonely before. Even when I was unpopular I still had a few loyal friends I could count on. In the States I didn't have anybody. A few months after I moved to the U.S. my paternal grandmother died and I couldn't even talk to anybody about how I felt. I studied instead. I would come home from school and study till midnight. I would memorize hundreds of words every single day. I entered my senior year of high-school as a regular student. I was done with ESOL (English as a second language program) in just a few months. I graduated high-school at the top five percent of my class with numerous awards. I was fluent in English, but still didn't have any friends. Back then I thought of my year and a half in high-school as the worst time of my life. Little did I know...
My college years were great. A lot of good and bad things happened, but I felt that at least I was living a full life. Being at the University of Connecticut taught me a lot about people in general, as well as about who I was, and what I could handle. I felt like myself again. I lived by my own rules and became a very strong person. I also started going out with Val, a boy whose face I drew for years before I even met him. We had a turbulent relationship with lots of ups and downs. We partied constantly, and after several years I felt like I wanted a different type of life. I wanted to paint more. I was tired of going out and drinking all the time. We parted after four years. Later on I found out from his mother that Val believed that he was dragging me down, and he thought he needed to give me space to become what I was meant to become.
I've always thought about myself as a woman that is very easy to be with in a relationship. I now realize that being easy-going and laid-back didn't make me into a good girlfriend. It must be hard to be with somebody who always has something else to do, that appears to be more important to her than you are. Sometimes, Val would tell me that I loved him, because he loved me. I would ask him if that was so bad. Now I know that it is. I was almost like Greta Garbo in her older years. I just wanted to be left alone. …so that I could paint. Try going out with that!
For a while after Val and I split things were going smoothly for me. I painted, I exhibited my works, I participated in a CowParade in West Hartford. Articles about me appeared in the newspapers, and people recognized me on the streets. Just as it often happens in my life, as soon as I find some inner peace, something bad would happen. I'm not complaining. I'm really grateful to God for giving me the life I have. I've learned more in my three and a half decades on this Earth than a lot of people do in a lifetime.
I was still trying to cope with Boo's death when one Sunday morning in February 2004 Val's sister called me to let me know that Val was in an accident. I rushed to the hospital just to find out that the accident was very serious, and he would probably never recover. I spent the next four days next to his bed. I was very hopeful the first day, the second day I knew that he would probably remain a vegetable if he lived, I knew he was going to be turned off life support on the third day, and on the forth day I watched him die. I wouldn't wish that experience on my worst enemy. I felt such despair I didn't think I could go on. The night he died I came out of the hospital as a different person. I spend next 7 years in a self-inflicted mental prison. I blamed myself for what happened to Val and didn't think I could ever be truly happy. I realize now that if I could survive Val's death and everything that followed I can survive anything. Nothing really bothers me anymore. All the problems people tend to get upset about have very little affect on me. If I'm alive it means things are good.
"Circumstances are beyond human control, but our conduct is in our own power."
"The color of truth is grey."
"The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd rather not."