We were drawn to Maria Kondratiev’s whimsical works on paper, which incorporate detail drawings with color washes and etchings. She creates a fantasy world; for subject matter she draws upon her own life’s adversities, which has lead her to pursue a masters degree in art therapy at NYU. We visited Maria just after she returned from a month in Brazil spent volunteering at an orphanage.
NNNY: Describe your studio practice.
Maria: I get some ideas for drawings from dreams, like this one: I used to waitress, and I had a dream I was climbing around on a floor and handing plates to customers. My subject matter is abstractly narrative and illustrative. I combine painting with drawing and printmaking. I started painting gymnasts last summer; it seemed like a good subject to work through what I was experiencing; going to school, reaching for a goal. It was also during the Olympics – so I started making these over-weight, out-of-practice gymnasts, trying to reach a goal that seems impossible.
I feel most confident with drawing, but I love painting. I don’t like rendering; I like using minimal strokes to make a landscape or form.
I put a color wash over paper with a foam brush, then go into it and draw some details based on the shapes made by the paint. I’m trying to get away from working in an illustrative way; I’m trying to define a body with just a brushstroke, more abstract and simple. I rely on the white space of the paper a lot. I never plan my drawings out. I make around 20 sketches until I get something I like, because I like to draw fast, that’s what’s exciting to me. Sometimes I work with an accident, like a paint drip or spill, I see a form in it, like in this one, I saw a jellyfish face, then I go in and draw details. When that happens, that’s when I like it the most. So I never plan out the drawing. With prints, I plan a little bit more, I make sketches, then I draw on the plate; but not with drawings. With intaglio, I add texture and selectively aquatint areas, then I might paint over it later, to add depth to the background or the subjects. For the most part, the prints are original pieces of art, not editioned, because I add paint and drawing elements later; they are usually one-of-a-kind.
The titling is a big part of the process – the titles indicate the story. For example, this one is “Flood;” everyone is floating away but him, he’s safe. And that one with the waitress on the floor is “I know what you need.”
I use grays and washed-out colors a lot. I sometimes find images on the internet, and start with doodles, and the drawings evolve from there. I really identify with the Russian gymnasts and athletes; I like that they have a goal, and there’s nothing else, starting from their childhood. It’s really hard work, and they give their whole self to their goal. I really like that about the athlete’s mindset. Trying to grow in a way that makes you more strong.
NNNY: What was the evolution of you becoming an artist?
Maria: My mom encouraged me to make art as a child; she got me watercolors when I was little, and that’s something I still do. The walls of the house I grew up in (in Russia) were wallpapered; I covered them with drawings and paintings. So when my grandmother sold the apartment, she had to cover up all the little drawings with icons because she didn’t want to re-wallpaper.
I grew up with my grandparents and mom in St. Petersburg until I was ten. Then my mom filed for refugee status, so we had the choice of living in Israel or America, and she said, “well, my best friend lives in Colorado, so I guess we’ll go to America.” It was random.
It was horrible when I moved here; my mom and I didn’t know English. I learned English watching the Simpsons. It was a really hard move; we moved to Cleveland, Ohio. We were the first wave of immigrants there so it was really stressful, people were so closed-minded.
St. Petersburg is filled with art and museums. They designed the city to look French; it has a magical feel to it, built on a river with small streets. It’s really gray there, lonely, but always things to look at. There’s a history that is evident. You can get lost in the alleys. The colors are grey and pastel, buildings are yellows and pinks and greens that are dirtied with time. There’s a river: the Neva; it’s very romantic.
No one in my family is an artist, but my grandfather, he wrote all the time; he was obsessed with perfecting his handwriting. So I think maybe there is something there, because I’m obsessed with line. I just always drew, I had a lot of art books; I wanted to be a famous artist when I was little. But when we moved here, my mom was working all the time, she was working at McDonald’s and putting herself through college at night, and we had nothing. I was alone a lot when she was working, so I drew and painted all the time. Another thing is that we didn’t have anything, so for New Years, our Christmas, I would make a bag of drawings of everything we needed or wanted. So art has always been very nurturing for me. I think that’s why I’m interested in art therapy; that’s how I’ve always found refuge. It’s always been more of a spiritual experience for me.
When I was a senior in high school, I was able to take classes in commercial art, and I went to a different school for four periods to work on art for my portfolio. The best part is that whether you had money or not, you can take art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art. So on Saturdays I would take art classes, like figure painting, figure drawing. That was great.
I first went to Parsons because I got a bit of a scholarship, but I hated it. I had this drawing professor there who suggested I go to SUNY Purchase because there are great professors, it’s surrounded by nature, you can easily visit the city, plus it’s cheaper to live there. So I transferred, and it was good because it was isolated yet I was able to come into the city and go to shows at galleries and museums. They prepared you for what it will be like outside of school, I learned to work really hard. I had a really good experience there.
NNNY: What successes and difficulties have you had as a foreign–born artist in New York? How has moving to the United States influenced your art?
Maria: In college, it was really hard, because the school and the teachers are more interested in abstract painting; they didn’t like the figure, and in Russia, it’s all about the figure. You have to be able to draw the figure to get into school. So I started out a very traditional artist because I did so much figure painting and drawing. In the long run, I’m happy that things turned out the way they did, but at the time it was very hard to explain to them where I was coming from.
They didn’t teach us how to paint or draw; my studio classes weren’t technical, while in Russia it’s all very technical. My mom’s Russian friends who are artists can draw portraits perfectly. But I realized later that I don’t really care about that; I care more about being intuitive and reconstructing the model in my own way. Also, the romanticism – Russians are so romantic and nostalgic. So my art initially was so romantic and they didn’t really understand that, but later I was able to express myself in a less forced way.
NNNY: What are your upcoming shows, projects, etc?
Maria: I am part of a show related to the Art Therapy program at NYU, the Psychoanalitic Self, and I was part of Bushwick Open Studios. But right now I’m really concentrating on classes and making new work.
For more information on Maria Kondratiev please visit her website:
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