Inara Petrusevich: – If you want to ask me “how do you do”, I can answer right away in the words of my son when he was only four: “Why ask me “how do you do”? I know perfectly well that I’m fine. So please don’t ask me.” (laughs) He’s all grown up now, but I still remember it and agree with all my heart (smiles).
Rothko Centre: – OK, we’ve cleared up the essentials, now just to go over the details that define “doing fine”.
IP: – I’m an open book. I don’t know how to hide or keep things to myself, so I’m bound to spill all the beans (smiles).
RC: Do you prefer working alone or do you need company?
IP: It depends. I’ve been to plein airs with several artists sharing a workroom. Then you know that you’re given two metres, and that’s your entire workspace. Now, if I’m distracted at home, that’s a different matter. On my own grounds, I prefer to play by my rules. Here, rather than dodging irritants, you must stay away from seducers (laughs). I love company, and I adore exciting adventures. Going places – when I’m invited to come along and see this beautiful lake or a forest… That’s when my inner voice pipes up, saying: “That’s alright, I’ll get things done! I’ll get back, and I’ll have four whole hours to paint!” But in real life, when I get home, I’m so knackered I just put things off for tomorrow (laughs). But then the next day, it’s strictly work and no distraction. I ignore phone calls and refuse all offers… There’s a firm schedule, and I keep to it without jumping to and fro.
RC: Are you a process- or results-oriented person?
RC: And what about a commercial streak, do you have it?
IP: No, I’m a creator. If I were commercial, I’d be more careful about keeping my work, more responsible when it comes to structure. I’d have started to work for profit some twenty-odd years ago. I’d have saved loads of my paintings and shown them in a grand museum to make some good sales. But, no, I just kept creating, and my work kept trickling away almost without my noticing. Of course, I had financial perks, occasionally some really great ones, and they did feel nice. But it was never a plan.
Or there was this time when I took part in a Marc Chagall plein air in Vitebsk and got one of the prizes, this lovely statuette. I can’t deny it was delightful.
To really put yourself out there, you need connections. It’s a web you need to weave, and you must know how to spread it, estimate the potential size of “prey”. At the same time, I think no artist should go hungry and live forgotten, starved of the bare essentials. Because then it’s hard to be creative and stay in good spirits. Such is my personal opinion because my concept is downright simple: I want people to live with my art. Be it a postcard, a handbag, a T-shirt with my print or a painting. Is there another way? I’m not sure there is. After all, if you’re having a bad day, you can’t just sit and wait for it to end, right? You’ll will it to go away, won’t you? In any case, I’m sure we’re all looking forward to some positive emotions, right? Certainly, nobody wants pain and suffering to go on forever. So, I say, the only type of hungry there should be is information-hungry. Hungry for new experiences, new personal discoveries that make you go, “oh, there’s so much more I can do!” Hunger to learn, that’s my thing. This type of hunger is cool.
RC: Do you have a favourite topic?
IP: No, I don’t have a pattern. I don’t churn out stuff in a single theme. I mean, I’ll have different mental states and different topics. Once when I was making my solo exhibitions in Denmark, a gallerist told me: “Inara, I sometimes think your exhibitions are made by entirely different artists. They’re so unlike!” But that’s just the point! That’s exactly what I want. I don’t want to feel bored. So I can’t imagine myself in just one theme or direction. Sure, there’s a risk. If you follow a straight line, it’s all pretty clear, and if things go well, why change them? Why look for something else? In my case, there’s always a risk – will it work out or not?
RC: Aren’t you afraid your fountain of themes will dry up? That your bank of ideas will get empty?
IP: I haven’t thought of it like that… I guess only if I switch to something completely different (gets pensive).
RC: Then maybe don’t?
IP: Right now, I don’t plan to (laughs).
RC: Are you a risk-taker up for a challenge?
IP: Yes, that’s me alright (laughs). The way I spent last winter is a good case in point. You see, last autumn, I went away, presumably just for a while, but I ended up staying till spring. I met a wonderful man, and as we were chatting, I thought why not go away for a few months, go to Austria and see the mountains. And then everything got closed off, and I had to decide if it was worth the effort, jetting to and fro. So I stayed the entire winter. Josef is a novice photographer who’s just making his first steps, and I thought I’d support and inspire him. We ended up holding a joint exhibition!
RC: Did you miss home?
IP: No, I didn’t. Because the mountains crashed over me (laughs). It was something magnetic… We lived way up in the mountains, and to wake up in the morning to those vistas… Here, in Daugavpils, I’m used to my street, the view from my window, the city. And I really love it! But I wanted fresh impressions. Besides, out there, I was heating the place with wood – just like back home. That was one of the many tiny threads that kept me connected with my flat and my studio (smiles).
RC: Apparently, that’s what every artist needs – a change of scene.
IP: Yes, we all need that! To break free from what you’re used to and experience something new. I think if people truly want change, they will make it happen.
RC: No traveller comes home their old self. How did you change after such a long time away?
IP: I’ve gained extra courage and confidence. I mean, I couldn’t have imagined I’d ever curate an exhibition! It’s only now that I understand what it really takes to put together a show. To consider the layout, the partitions and the lighting. How to highlight the photographer rather than hog all attention, how to enhance his contribution. Because I’m good as it is, I’m self-sufficient, I can be the backdrop for his work. After all, that’s his first-ever show, his debut. And he felt so shy to put himself forward in this new capacity. My goal was to have people linger at the show rather than just walk through the setup and be gone before you really know it. I thought very carefully about the placing of every chair in front of the photographs, every detail to hook our guests’ attention.
Local artists were sceptical – now’s not the time, no one will come… no-no, not right now… And I said we go for it and lead the way! Even if ten people should come. We’d planned three hours for the opening but ended up staying three times that. Because people kept coming, so we couldn’t just up and leave. We called our exhibition SCHRITT FUR SCHRITT (STEP BY STEP). At that point, I’d already been to the mountains and experienced the sheer pleasure of wading through snowdrifts – when your boots get heavier with every step, but you keep going. And you feel such a thrill, such tremendous joy, such a sense of gratitude for the hard climb. I guess that’s what suggested the title.
RC: And how did you find the result? What was the aftertaste?
IP: We took everyone by surprise! He’s a sound engineer by profession. Photography’s just his hobby. We both felt proud and contented (smiles).
RC: You seem such a cheerful and open person who attracts like-minded people.
IP: Yes, we’ve always had a houseful of guests. I love company.
RC: All a creative bunch?
IP: Mainly artists and my Buddhist friends.
RC: How does the Buddhist philosophy affect your creativity and your life as a whole?
IP: It’s a worldview that you can test through your own experience. A teaching about the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. We’re all interconnected. After all, what we perceive and how we do it depends on our state of mind. Buddhism is a school of thought about the true order of things. A state of mind that leads you to the better version of yourself not just for your own sake but for the good of all Life. And the best part is that you can be a student all your life. There’s no end to self-perfection. We are all learning to reach a state of no hardship or pain and stay there forever. A state of ultimate joy with no suffering.
RC: Your paintings and drawings, do they represent a fictional world?
IP: No, they don’t, can you believe it? They’re all related to my personal anecdotes and those of my friends. Each image represents a specific person. And you’d be surprised to learn who the prototypes were for some of my pictures! But I won’t tell you (laughs). For instance, this drawing of chickens (“Date”), it’s not an impression of actual chickens I saw. No, it’s a pair of my human acquaintances. And these people know I’ve drawn them. But we agree to keep it our secret (laughs).
RC: How did you develop your signature style, the style of Inara Petrusevich?
IP: I’m not sure… So hard to explain. It’s an inherent trait, almost like a gait. I guess I was born with it. I sketched more or less constantly as a child – in kindergarten and throughout the school. That’s when my art teacher noticed me and suggested I attend an adult studio (in the Chemical District of Daugavpils – ed. note). Ludmila Procenko taught there. I came to a group of adults who already knew what they wanted to do in life. But I was a complete neophyte, and my first piece was called “Fountain”, after the one in Dubrovin Park. The picture had so many things going on there because I wanted to show everything – the water splashes, the sky and the depth. That’s when things took off in earnest.
RC: What do you prefer as your subject, people or inanimate things?
IP: The inanimates… (gets pensive). Up there, in the mountains, I can’t say I painted inanimate things. I transformed the mountain imagery, giving it a personal twist. One might say I painted the mountains that look at you, not the mountains you look at.
RC: Can you name a few artists who’ve impressed and inspired you?
IP: That would be illustrators. I’m always told I should move to graphics. And now, as I skim over my work from different periods, I see it’s not that far off the mark of real graphic artists. And that’s something I’ve always been good at. My recent personal discovery is artist Viktoria Semkina. In spirit, we’re so alike, and I just love her improvisation and spontaneity combined, perhaps counterintuitively, with such careful and thought-out detailing! I love the Canadian Inuit artists. David Hockney, the Englishman, now in his golden years but soooo bright when it comes to palette! Quentin Blake, the illustrator. From hereabouts, I’d say illustrator Nele Zirnīte. Dashi Namdakov. Kenojuak Ashevak from Canada. Such a cocktail! (laughs)
Seeing Gustav Klimt in Vienna was cathartic… When you see his work digitally or in books, you don’t get all the rage. His work is almost breathing! It’s translucent, not as dense as I thought before I’d experienced the originals. The delicate layering, the softness of his brush touching the canvas when he was painting women. These pictures are over a hundred years old, but they seem almost alive and talking… Sometimes paintings carry visible traces of the passage of time, but his work does not. As to Egon Schiele, I pored over his canvas from twenty-odd centimetres away. It was breathtaking.
RC: Would you like to illustrate a book? Which one would it be?
IP: Maybe I would. But it would be my own story, something I’d have written. Still, to do it, you need time to get fully immersed in the process. I love visiting bookshops, and I always go to the children’s section to see the work of children’s book illustrators. They specialise in different age groups – under three, under seven, etc. I’m drawn to those who draw for older children, almost teenagers. By the way, I’ve a good deal of drawings on scraps of paper that no one has ever seen (smiles).
RC: So maybe you’ll breathe some life into them?
IP: Yes, some drawings are lucky – they get a new life as murals. Now and then, I’m approached by companies and businesses. As it happens, I’ve just finished decorating a garage office, and it was such a blast. The people there are amazing, not your run-of-the-mill mechanics. They trusted me completely and agreed to everything I proposed (laughs). It’s such a thrill when your drawings end up on a wall to live on in a new format. And get seen by so many people!
RC: Inara, you have a number of students. Can you spot talent right away?
IP: I can. And it’s crucial not to smother it. A student’s parents have thanked me for advising them not to teach the girl new things but nurture her own imagination and skill. Not to erase what she already has and cover it up with something else. Because I was so excited to extract what she already has! The authenticity and power of her talent. Her parents thanked me for persuading them to let the girl explore her gift. If her mum wouldn’t have heard me, I’m not sure that her parents’ initiatives wouldn’t have snuffed the little flame. But her pictures are so cool! For a girl who’s never been to a world-class contemporary gallery to draw with such a modern twist is incredible.
Actually, in my masterclasses, what I share with my students are the things that I love. There was this time when my friend said – oh, you’re so good with children – and offered me hers for a practice run. That’s how it all started, and now, many years on, I keep going. I love giving away and sharing everything I can do.
Some of my students are slow bloomers. They open up in the atmosphere of my studio – that’s where they feel at home and can learn.
RC: And who was the one to see the flame of talent in you?
IP: The groundwork was laid by Grigory Mikheev. We talked a lot, we’d spread my drawings on the floor, and I’d hear his feedback. Sure, he could be strict, but everything he said was always so on-point and constructive that there was no way I could feel hurt. I was never offended. He said we were colleagues, and I felt all grown up and important.
-RC: And what about now, do you get any criticism now that you’re Master? Does anyone dare?
IP: My brother (laughs). No, indeed! He’ll always find ways to improve a picture. I say, wait, it’s not finished! And turn it away. I guess it’s because he’s so bright and clever. Maybe that’s what makes him so confident he’s also an expert of the arts (laughs).
-RC: A day in the life of a creator. What’s it like?
IP: First, there should always be something sweet to snack on (laughs). After all, it’s such an active mental process, very energy-intensive, so I need it. Let’s say, to get into the mood of things. And I never work in the mornings. Until one p.m., I’ll just potter around, think about stuff or read a bit, and then I’ll shut myself away until evening. You know, I can work for five hours straight! Or literally live in my studio for two or three days if I’m caught by an idea. But one thing’s certain – I’ll always find time for a walk. In the city or in the woods. Or the way we did it in the Austrian mountains – at night, with a flashlight. I’m a great walker. For me, fresh air is a must.
RC: The Danish gallery. It’s been such a long cooperation, but how did it all start?
IP: It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. Some ceramicists from Haderslav came here. I met them and jumped right in with a straightforward question – how do you make an exhibition in Denmark? They saw my work, appreciated it, and, I won’t deny, it felt great to have Western artists notice me because back then, in their eyes, we were still pretty much a Post-Soviet zone. In the end, a group of local artists, me included, offered ourselves to the Danish gallery, but they discussed the matter, and I was the only one to be chosen. They took two works for a start, just to see how they looked in real life. Turned out they loved the effect and offered me a solo show straight away. And it was a success! It was clear that the Danish public was intrigued, and my work started selling. And so we keep going, 25 years and running.
RC: Do you have some abstract works besides illustrations?
IP: Yes, lately I do. Last summer, I returned to abstraction. For me, it has a magical quality, almost as if you were painting music. Your head is all light and airy, and you play around with colour… as though writing music on a canvas.
The two pieces now on show in “Legalised Fantasies” (an exhibition at the Rothko Centre – ed. note) were painted after my trip to Venice. The entire thing was something of a windfall. These colours capture my impressions from Venetian swelter.
Rather than working from a theme or a mood, I always choose a colour to fit the moment. Maybe the next day I’ll come to the picture and decide that what I had picked needs changing. These two from Venice were made in a single day, almost in one go. They were perfectly finished, and I didn’t want to correct anything or even touch them.
For all that, things don’t always go as smoothly. I’ve a picture that can’t get finished for 14 years – a perfect frame and canvas, but it just sits there for years and years and seems to be stuck. I guess it still waits for its golden hour (laughs).
In general, I’m always excited to hear people comment on my work. The stories they tell can be quite surprising. It’s almost like a peek into my subconscious. So when that happens, I’m all ears.
Things are pretty much clear with the drawings. But in complex paintings and abstractions, I’ve no control of my hand or brush. This is precisely why other people’s opinions are so fascinating.
RC: May I ask about your plans?
IP: No, you may not! (laughs) As far as I’ve noticed, no sooner I start talking about plans, it’s as though a floodgate opens and sweeps everything away. I spill my precious energy, and it’s just gone. Enough to say that I do have plans, and that’s what matters.
I know one thing – you should never put things off for later. What is this thing – later? When will that be? If you’re well past 25 or 30… Why put things off? This is the moment, so go and do it! Right now!