Artist Interviews 2021
by Johnny Otto
You grew up in Estonia, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. Your home country was part of the Singing Revolution, as it is called. Do you remember much from those days? How old were you then? Would you say those were turbulent times, happy times or a mixture of both?
“Iron curtain” - a political boundary, I was still a child, when it collapsed. As children, we don't see everything that is happening around. I do remember some Russian natives did leave for Russia, some stayed and made a new born country their home. My mother also stayed, she took a course to learn Estonian language and some time after that, became an Estonian citizen. At the age of 11, we still see the world through the prism of our parent’s vision. My Mom or Grandma never talked about politics at home. We also did not watch TV. We walked a lot, played and came up with ideas to create our own toys. I remember living in my imaginary world.
It was a different time, albeit rapidly changing, and yes - it was not always easy for my mom to raise two children on her own, but nevertheless my older sister and I had a happy and carefree childhood. It was definitely a peaceful time.
How has the history of art in your culture contributed to your art?
When people ask me where I am from, I say “I am Russian”. To answer your question, I believe that I am multicultural. I was born in the USSR, on land with Nordic cultural influence, and lived a second half of my life in the USA, maintaining my living with an approach of a Russian soul. So what does that make me?
I never truly felt that I belonged anywhere, nor that I was a part of any culture. I feel that I have created my own cultural identity.
My work is influenced by my personal taste and of course by feelings - human features. My art is about those feelings that are subjective, they are personal experiences, or “the affairs of the heart”.
When I see an artwork which gives me an emotion, my eyes naturally capture the intricacies of the piece. I am always trying to break it down as a detective figuring out a crime scene, step by step putting the pieces together, wanting to know how it was created.
“Demain C’est Toi” 2021 188x122cm (72x48 inch) acrylic, oil pastels, modeling paste on canvas.
"A woman-mountain, looking into the infinity of the horizon, her golden braid is her dream of endless freedom,
it embraces the hills,
and disappears into the distance. Fence marks on her body are the scars that will always remain, no matter how free she becomes."
How has having a child changed your view of the world and how does it inspire your art?
When Kai was born I remember an ever present lasting emotion, it was about me being entrusted with a human life ! Such a big, exciting, overwhelming feeling. But I can not say that it changed my view of the world. I have always looked at the whole world with a curiosity ofGeorge, the monkey. Having become a mother, rather changed my view on myself, as if I fall into a vortex of ongoing changes and growth. And yes, Kai’s presence in my life definitely made a difference and led me to make some interesting turns in my artwork.
When Kai was 3 - 7 years old he made some amazing drawings, in which you could spot an absolute freedom from fear, without worrying about being right or wrong. Those works inspired me to create a “Mom and Son” Art-show. I wanted to promote creativity in children, so I implemented a Kickstarter project with prizes where my son Kai (who was 7 then) and I would together create large scale artworks on canvas. The Kickstarter fundraiser didn’t go as we hoped. But, this idea led me to think of my whole parenting approach in the sense that it takes a village to raise a child. That is when I realized how much I had to say in regards to what I now understand, starting from my childhood all the way to becoming a mother myself. And I must say that my incredibly strong and loving mom shaped me to become the woman, the mother, the artist I am today.
Your art is at once abstract and figurative, but it can also be seen as a sort of emotional landscape.
Instead of painting the horizon, you paint the view within? Is that accurate? Please elaborate.
You described it in such a beautiful way, thank you! And yes, if this is what you see - it is all the above. I am going to tell you a little secret: the hardest part of all the process from the beginning to the end is my signature. I think it is so, because I have a preset idea of how it is supposed to look. Sometimes I have to redo it several times. What I am trying to say is that, what the audience sees in my artworks is what happened almost by accident, besides the body shapes and the title. I never know how it is going to look at the end, or what we are going to see within. Invisible to the eye, or the message between the brush strokes that is what my art is about. Every painting is telling an emotional moment of a story. The body postures and the title is where the story begins. The color flow or a drop - is the climax of a story. The ending is always up to the audience. I collect words, watch dancers, mix colors and pay close attention to emotions. All these four aspects always meet together on my canvases.
Are you self taught or did you attend some sort of University? Who do you blame for your passion and technical skills?
Yes, I am a self taught artist. I think I started drawing pretty much around the same time I realized myself as an individual. My first art piece was a portrait of my mom Tatyana when I was 6, then a self-portrait. Up until now I remember our round shape mirror, with the reflection of my face where every single line mattered. I was 8 or 9 years old. For the next few years, I would express my emotions on paper, mostly drawing eyes and faces. My art infiltrated my dreams, which translated itself on paper. It was rather dark. I stopped drawing when I was around 16 years old. I was no longer inspired, something was missing. That is when my journey as a
traveler began, which eventually brought me to the USA. I realize now that for about twenty years I looked for experiences, the highs and lows of emotions, love and lust that would break me, so I could build myself back again. . , . Around 5 years ago, my dear friend Natasha helped me to reopen the door to the art world. She asked me if I could paint an abstract art for one of her projects. I agreed, but was terrified... This was the moment where I had the “Knowing”, but forgot the “How”.. The art piece came out terrible. I cried (literally). But, that is when a new emotion was born - I wanted more. Here my journey as an artist restarted. The last twenty years of my life have given me abundantly what I was looking for. It was time for reaping.
I am fascinated and completely taken by people, their faces, bodies and feelings. I myself live on raw emotions and strive to capture them with my brushes. I also enjoy exploring different subjects but, we - the people, remain my true obsession. Passion and technical skills.. I think a good example is Love. I believe that Loving someone - a lot of it is a choice. Same with everything we choose to do in our life. So the days when I am painting, it is my choice to get to know my “Love” a bit more, building a relationship stronger, more beautiful, more understanding, more trusting and passionate with every brush stroke. The reality is that I am building this relationship with myself as well as with my audience....
“The Outside Time” 2019 182x91cm. (72x36 inch) Diptychs. Acrylic paint and oil pastel on canvas.
"Third World countries are this painting's main inspiration. A smiling Ethiopian girl, the camp and the people waiting their turn for a share of clean water...
We all spend time outside, in our own unique way, but there are places where the outside time is a shocking contrasting to our reality."
Any dark, secretive things that you’ve never shared that you’d like to share?
If I never shared it, most likely I never will. Russians often use analogy, comparing life to a zebra pattern, in a sense that it is ever changing, every phase has its ups and downs.
I live, I learn and I move forward. I always try to see my experiences as if it is a video game, only I would never diminish the sensitive part of it. I try to embrace the emotional roller coaster, knowing that it is only a “3 min ride” - this too shall pass. I've learned to accept things which I can not change. I appreciate the hard-core lessons that were given to me, because I have always come out of them wiser and stronger. I know that we all have the power to change certain things in our lives, but by far not everything. We must trust that all that is given, is here for a reason. Therefore, all the “dark” experiences that I have lived through, I can no longer call them dark, simply because now I know why it all happened.
“While Still Innocent” 2020 48x72 inch (121x182 cm), acrylic, oil pastel, modeling paste on canvas. “Two newborns, still connected to a different umbilical cords, they are holding each other’s hands - the moment right before we are taught by the outer world how to treat ourselves and others”.
Which living Artist would you most like to collaborate with?
This is a tough one, there are so many admirable, talented and outspoken artists out there. I definitely would love to collaborate with one who has similar emotional resemblance, but the one who expresses it in a different form of art. Zaz, an amazing French singer, is one of them.
Her lyrics always set my soul on fire. A lot of artworks I have created while listening to her songs on repeat. I can almost say that I am already collaborating with her
I truly appreciate when there is a message that an artist expresses through his/her work of art. Among painters, one of the most admirable for me is Kobra. He is a street artist, who spreads so much love in different corners of our planet, delights the eyes with colorful patterns, and touches so many hearts with his message of unity and love - that, in my opinion, is a true power of art.
“Fertility” 2020 152x182 cm (60x72 inch) acrylic, oil pastel, modeling paste on canvas
“Life is fertile. Continuous novelty eternally consumes our attention. The birth of love, connections, breaks; everything that leads to all of the above
and everything that follows after. We are the fruits of Life, and at the same time we are the Life itself”.
Any shows, events, or other things coming up for you?
“Fertility” is my upcoming art show. I have participated in art fairs in the past, including Art Basel Miami, but this time it will be my very first solo exhibition. The excitement is triple!
It’s been about 3 years, since the day I woke up with the idea to do a solo show. At some point the whole puzzle suddenly got connected somewhere in the center of my soul. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. The name “Fertility” was born when I was painting my very first art piece for this exhibition. An abundance and diversity of emotions, unexpected consequences, mixed with the deeper discovery of my personal identity - that was a pretty powerful fertilizer.
Emotions themselves are a fascinating topic to explore. And, based on what I know about relationships between people (be they lovers, parents and children, or people whom we consider the “ghosts of our past”), the relationships will always grow the roots from our perception of ourselves. One of my favorite quotes was written by Erich Maria Remarque: “Everything that you see in me is not mine, it is yours. Mine is what I see in you”. After all, many situations can be seen from the point of view of love. But unfortunately, very often, we confuse self-love with an unbalanced ego.
At the New York exhibition this year, I am going to present 11 medium to large-scale works, each of which tells a story, different stories from my life mainly from the past 12 years. Painting the unobtainable, telling a story though body postures, colors and connections of lines.
While looking at my work, there is a possibility, you will feel what I felt, or maybe you will remember something from your life experience. As said Lev Tolstoy:: “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And yes, these are very true and profound words, nevertheless, we all have the same list of basic emotions.
“La Mujer Que Pintó El dolor” 2016
127x92 cm (35x50 inch) Acrylic on canvas, Dry brush technique