Art Projects

back upThe 5th International Arts symposium of Yelabuga, 'Breath of the Epos'-Tatarstan, Russia 2010

In August 2010 I traveled to The Russian State of Tatarstan with artist Lynn Bennett Mackenzie of Gairloch. We had been invited to the 5th International Arts symposium of Yelabuga, organised by the Elabuga State Museum Preservation Area. The theme of the event was ‘Breath of the Epos, international artists would spend studio time creating art work on the theme of epics, culture, folklore and mythology. This was exhibited at the end of the symposium and it is hoped it will tour internationally and be followed with a book and documentary.

There were 33 artists, photographers and photo journalists. The artists came from many Russian states from as far away as Yakutia in Siberia, also artists from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia. Four of us were English speakers, us two highlanders and artists from India and Egypt; we were allocated our own guides and translators.

As the journey unfolded we found ourselves transported into an unexpected and completely new world.

our studio in Yelabuga
our studio in Yelabuga

We discovered that the Russians though initially appearing reserved were incredibly warm, open and hospitable. Strangers on the street would stop and ask who we were, what we were doing and where from, they would nod approval at us being from Scotland and visiting their beautiful city of which they were so proud. As international guests we had a lot of TV news coverage, press conferences and interviews.

The symposium had a very busy and tight schedule, as well as the studio time there were many formal events, excursions, press conferences and meetings. We soon got used to giving speeches and working through a translator. The more I learnt the more questions I had though. Yelabuga is an ancient city which was founded by the Bulgars. It is populated by a mixture of Orthodox Russians and Muslim Tatar's, these peoples have lived and worked together in harmony for hundreds of years. There are also many ancient beliefs and peoples. I was dazzled by the array of folk costumes still worn on the many special occasions; there was always a sense of ceremony, celebration and depth to events.

the artists
the artists
Official Yelabuga site information about Artists
Russian TV interviews
Being interviewed for TV with Translator Olga
folk singing
traditional singing at the Spassky fair
We were struck by was how free, safe, relaxing and content everything seemed. The Russia we see in the UK media is a far cry from what we found in Yelabuga. I felt safer and a greater liberty than in any British city. Everyone was very proud of their clean and beautiful town. While we are constantly being told to prepare for recession and cut backs at home, here the Town was booming and developing. Not by embracing the consumer driven economies of the west but by focusing on the cities beautiful museums, on culture, heritage, arts and handicrafts.

There was much discussion on the symposiums theme of epics and myths. It was felt that Artists were the guardians of cultures and that it would be completely wrong to freely interpret or change the stories, it was an artist’s duty to get every detail correct to preserve the culture. We tried to explain that the Scottish and Celtic mythology has always evolved, been re-told, fragmented, or pushed to the fringes. It became apparent that other cultures have managed to preserve and respect their cultures better than we have. I asked about the effect of the soviet era and oppression of minority cultures, using the example of the way Gaelic was oppressed in previous generations here. It seems that some of the cultures also experienced this but are now bouncing back with great vigour and nothing has been lost or forgotten.
Spassky Bell Tower
The beautiful Bell tower of Spassky Cathedral
Russia trip
Lynn and I getting a presentation at the Exhibition opening
The four English Speakers;
me, Lynn, Shinod from India and Mennat from Egypt

At home I had nearly given up painting or drawing the subjects of myth, folklore, ancient history, epics and traditional symbols and motifs, they generally get the labels of ‘kitsch’, fantasy art, or children’s illustrations. Only really modern interpretations of the landscape will get displayed in galleries, very little figurative work is ever seen in the North. However out in Yelabuga it was a dream come true as we were given respect alongside famous Russian painters and encouraged to paint these very things. We both drew from stories of seal-folk and selkies, stories preserved by travelers such as Duncan Williamson.

It was certainly a life changing experience, to be dropped into such a warm, supportive, kind, environment, to be given so much respect as an artist and to experience such a stress free lifestyle has changed the way I look at things at home. It has also changed the work I am producing as it has given me an international context and more confidence to work the way I want to.

meeting the Yelabuga Firefighters
meeting the Yelabuga Firefighters
My Symposium Art-work
The guardians
The guardians- Pen & Ink
journeyThe Journey- Acrylic on canvas
art exhibition
Two of my canvases and one of Lynn's (top) at the exhibition

Boudicca-A mothers duty. Acrylic on canvas 80cm x 60cm

Among the Waves- circular canvas
across the waves
Across the Waves- Watercolours
Press coverage
West Highland Free press article after Russia trip 2010
Ross shire Journal 17th Sept 2010- Russia trip article
Hi-Arts report After Russian Arts symposium BBC article about Arts Symposium In Russia July2010
Hi-Arts article before Russia trip Ross shire journal 6th August 2010.
West Highland Free Press July 2010 Art News winter2010
Nairnshire Telegraph 26th October 2010 General Press
Yelabuga Official website