HALLWAY TALKS: Oksana Vronska
Oksana Vronska: See this piece, to your right?
Rothko Centre: Yes.
OV: Who’s depicted?
RC: Well… An astronaut?
OV: My son in our kitchen, drinking water from a clear mug.
RC: Ah, that’s what it is…
RC: An astronaut, Gagarin, you name it… People develop potential plotlines into strings of associations, but the answer is right there, on the surface. With me, things are pretty straightforward!
RC: Your works, do they come from a carefully planned project or a flash of emotions?
OV: I guess I go with the flow – there’s a particular situation, I get drawn in and want to shout it out straight away, tell the world all about it. Let’s say I find myself in a blacksmithing festival but happen to see watercolourists painting nearby – how can I not pick up a brush and jump right in? (laughs) By the way, that’s how it started with watercolour – a spur-of-the-moment thing. I’d never have thought I’d get so thoroughly involved.
RC: Do you remember the pieces that were the first to make you think – now I’m an artist?
OV: I still think I don’t really qualify (laughs).
RC: But there must be some works you’re particularly proud of?
OV: Yes, but I only love them in the moment of creation. Any piece that I make and that I regard as finished for now I put away to rest. In a couple of days or maybe a week, I take it out again, and if I still like it, I’m good. Plus, I never think about the future “life” of each particular piece. If I have an exhibition, cool. If not, it just sits there waiting for the right moment. And then some works get made in ways I can’t really describe, I don’t quite know how to put it, but maybe that’s just how I chill. And, when I’m done, my inner greedy child switches on, and I don’t want to part from my work, don’t want to sell it or send it away to an exhibition.
RC: What are your personal quality standards for a job well done?
OV: I have this inner worm that’s eating away at me, that wants to have no concept, that wants to leave people guessing what I meant to say. So they can hang my work any way they like, depending on how they feel and see it. And, if my work is hung upside down, I love it! That’s when I think – I did what I meant to do. Plus, I really don’t get it when people praise my work; when they say “oh, beautiful!”, I’m not happy, no, not at all. Far from it (laughs). Praise isn’t always the reaction an artist expects. I like when people just come and buy my work and say nothing – it means there was something in there that caught their attention and resonated in their soul…
RC: Do you remember the first piece you ever sold?
OV: Yes. It was an oil reproduction on cardboard. I was still at school. I brought home my 25 lats and put the money down on my mum’s fridge, saying: “Mum, I’m gonna be earning my own money now, and I’m gonna run away from you soon, mark my words!” (laughs hard)
RC: And your mum?
OV: She took it in her stride because I’d had such a happy childhood (smiles). So happy I could burst! (laughs) I was brimming with the most genuine, the most sincere emotions – whooping with joy, falling in love, making mistakes. I could walk on rooftops, sit on my father’s lap and help him steer a massive KAMAZ lorry back when he worked in the construction team of a hydroelectric power plant and took sand from the construction pit, the now-famous Ruģeļi reservoir… I loved it all! And then dad passed away, and my life grew still for a very long time. Until I met my husband. I realised he was my kind of person from the way he answered my question about his ambitions. He said he wanted a studio. And I loved it! He didn’t say – go abroad, find a particular job or finish a specific school. A studio where he could materialise his ideas – still somewhat hazy but his own, on his own grounds! It was such a bold thing because I was a florist back then, and my husband was a factory worker. We understood we didn’t have nearly enough information, what with the general situation in the early 2000s, about festivals or artists… We knew we had to “stew” in the same pot with others, knew we needed a social circle. But how to get there? And we simply put ourselves to work.
The first material that we picked, I still don’t know why, was wood. We rented a space in some catacombs in Cherepovo (a neighbourhood in Daugavpils – ed.) and went to work. Until we went to a fair where I met my teacher, who asked – why aren’t you two training? He told us about an organisation in Rīga, called Auseklis, where you could get a blacksmith’s qualification, gave us the contacts of Vilnis Vincevičs, and we went to meet him. The master blacksmith looked at my sketches, learnt that Edgars was already skilled with the instruments, and said we could go two ways: “You can work together, Oksana will draw and Edgars will forge her sketches into metal, and you’ll live and work as a tandem. Then there’s another way – you build a studio and start a flow production model with people working for you; that’ll be your business. And then there’s a third way, where you do nothing.” So, of course, we went with the first option! And that was how we began to learn our craft, together. We joined the circle, and it became clear what we wanted to do, what we needed to work on and where we were going. We both got hooked! On the whole, I have immense respect for masters of their trade. When people don’t waste their life but do something worthwhile and share it with others. I’m really drawn to such people, and I learn from them.
RC: Do you realise you’re talented?
OV: This makes me laugh, I always think – pity there’s no such thing as “first aid art”, no such profession; I guess that would be my talent (laughs). But, you know, it’s hard for me to say no, there’s not above five people I’ve refused a commission. Someone needs a grill, I draw a grill. A chandelier? I draw one. Need a painting? There you go. But, in my soul, I’m a graphic artist through and through. Now that’s really my thing! The rest just grows on me, and I can’t shake it off. Or maybe I won’t? I’m not even sure (smiles).
RC: Graphic art?
OV: Yes. I always choose the time for it very carefully, because I know full well that I can’t just come in flying, stay an hour, do a spot of work and run off again. I need to sit down, take time to think, meditate on my idea, even sleep on it, then come down to prepare and actually do the thing, all in one go. I can’t put things off to finish later on; I need to do everything in one sitting.
RC: And your family? They accept you going off like that?
OV: Yes, I have a family, and that’s something to be reckoned with. There are tons of responsibilities that… well, they’re just there! And I’ve allowed my life to take this turn, where we have to be together, wherever it may be.
RC: “Allowed”, how do you mean it?
OV: I mean it was my decision. That we need this. As a family. To be always together. I can’t imagine going away for a month and leaving my men… I want to enjoy this family time. You can maybe compare it to a new-born baby – it’s here, and you can’t tear yourself away from it; you keep sniffing it, enjoying it (smiles). Well, this is how I feel about my family – it’s that important. And my boys are all for it. If Edgars is going to a blacksmithing festival, the organisers know he’s coming with his family, no two ways about it.
RC: When did you have your first success?
OV: I guess it all started with the international flower carpet festival in Ventspils. I really wanted to go there. So one day, I called up and applied as a florist. But since I didn’t have a company or credentials, they very sweetly promised to call me back and just disappeared… A week later, there was still silence, so I called again, this time saying I wasn’t planning to go alone, that I’d come with blacksmiths! (laughs) I guess that’s what swung the deal, so a week later, we got the invitation!
32 teams of 5, two days of work. A contest, and we ranked sixth! That’s when it hit me – yes, we can! The following year and the year after, we were top of the list! That’s when we met florists from Germany, Japan and other countries. We later went to Saint Petersburg, where friendships were struck between florists and blacksmiths – two very different disciplines that may seem poles apart.
RC: What’s the latest thing that’s surprised or impressed you?
OV: I’m impressed by powerful statement pieces. I met a Lithuanian blacksmith, Vytautas Jarutis. Sadly, he’s no longer with us. He once thought he’d give us a tour and show us his work. What we saw just can’t be put into words – in a regular small town, in a school backyard, we saw this massive, truly colossal sculpture. Three-stories high for sure. Made from a single piece, forged. And you just stand there, almost like at the foot of a big church. An incredible experience, all I could think of was – how?! How has he done it? … That’s my benchmark – if I understand how it’s done, fine. But if I don’t, I’ll absolutely love it! I’ll just stand there and try to guess the trade secret (laughs).
RC: Do you buy from other artists?
OV: We swap. Yes, usually like that.
RC: How do you price and value a piece?
OV: I used to judge by the amount of work and material. But now it’s just a hunch. If I allow myself to set a certain price, then that’s how I value the piece. And that’s what I want to sell it for. If it doesn’t sell, I let it be. We’re raising a son…
RC: Has he inherited your creative drive?
OV: Well, he didn’t have much choice, did he, growing up under the hammer, being put to sleep to the sound of hammering (laughs). His first plein air was when he was just six months old, in Lithuania. New technologies bring new opportunities. This is a bold new age that sets down new rules, and you have to keep up not to fall behind. You see, our son’s good with computer tech, and we already feel he’s indispensable in our family business.
RC: How do you feel when you’ve finished something big and meaningful?
OV: I sleep (laughs hard). I don’t know if it’s to do with emotions, but for sure, I go all-in when I’m creating. And I know full well how it is to feel squeezed like a lemon – I’m all gone (smiles).
RC: Do you feel it when the work’s not going as it should?
OV: Yes. I feel right away if it’s not working. Then I say to myself – girl, you keep going. If I accept it and work through it, and things eventually “click”, I know it’s going to be OK. Then again, there are times I don’t feel at home with the commission because our energies just won’t match. Yes, this too can happen.
RC: Can you call yourself calm and balanced?
OV: Well, not so long ago, my son taught me to scream.
RC: He said you may?
OV: He said I must (laughs). That it’ll probably do me good to channel away excess energy. I don’t overindulge, but I’ve resolved – if the time feels right, I give it a go (laughs).
RC: Is there a contemporary art trend, genre or author that you particularly love?
OV: I love rebels. Protesters and campaigners. Gearing up and throwing things out into the world! Lately, I’m drawn to this; I don’t know why. Take Vashkevich, the Belarusian artist. Some of his work makes me think he’s screaming at the world at the top of his voice. He does graphic and installation art. And he stands for his people. My work shows a similar tension and struggle, the yin and the yang. The controversies. I can’t say that’s the way it should be; I can’t say it’s right and proper. Everything is debatable and up for discussion.
RC: Do you have a global goal you’d like to achieve? A grand idea?
OV: I do. We only have one studio, and it has some potential. But, as of now, we still don’t have a smithy. So that’s our dream, our own blacksmith studio.
And I’d also want to see our artist blacksmith field develop like it does in Lithuania. Right here in Latgale, we have excellent masters who could compete on a global stage and do it well. We have so much talent.