Ellina Chetverikova is an artist from a little town, Severodonetsk, Ukraine. She is currently based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Ellina moved to the United States in 2007 at the age of 17. She earned her BFA at the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 2012 and her MFA at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. Ellina’s work is autobiographical in nature, summing up and expressing important moments in her and close friends and family’s lives.
She works with a variety of mediums, usually attempting to correlate media and subject. Ellina uses painting as a visual diary. Her latest series is a reflection of the world as a foreigner, seemingly suspended in between two cultures but not completely belonging to either. Although Ellina considers herself a realist and a naturalist— one could argue that her desire to utilize visual metaphor and symbolism would place her into a neo-surrealist camp. She uses these visual metaphors and symbols to make her experiences relatable to people at different points in their lives. She intends to make work that connects people, and hopes that it helps her to further understand the world around her.
FIVE-DOTS: Where in the Ukraine are you from?
ELLINA CHETVERIKOVA: I’m from a very small town on the eastern side of the Ukraine. Its about 12-14 hours on the train from Kiev, which is the capital of Ukraine. Mostly people on Eastern part of Ukraine are Russian speakers. Our first language is Russian. But I speak Russian, Ukrainian, and English.
F-D: So you speak 3 languages?. . . That’s so cool. . . I’m so envious of anyone that can speak multiple languages like that.
EC: It’s so much easier when you grow up with it! It’s much easier to learn when you grow up with it.
F-D: I’m sure!
EC: Because when I first came here I couldn’t speak [English] at all. It was really hard. .. to learn all of that.
F-D: When did you come over here?
EC: In 2007, in August.
F-D: How old were you?
EC: I was 17. So almost 18, I had several months until I was 18. I can’t believe it was almost 10 years ago!
F-D: You wanna tell us about these two paintings?
EC: I’m interested in portraiture. Pretty much all of my pieces have faces in them, I’m studying portraiture so that I can understand people a little better. I’m trying to emulate [through portraiture] the kind of ways in life we are choosing, what we are doing with our lives. Some people sacrifice one thing so that they can do another. For example: I think artists take a lot of financial risks because it’s hard to make work that interests me and to make work that will sell on the market. I’m trying to portray what kind of sacrifices the person has made in their lifetime for their work. I have just started two portraits of people I know really well.
In this first painting I have my brother, Vladav. I was talking [with him] through Skype one day and I decided to take a screenshot because I thought the light in his room was really beautiful. For the last six or seven years I have been seeing him through the computer or phone screen and also seeing the room behind him that I grew up in, and seeing it change.
F-D: So you’re having a purely digital experience with your brother and your childhood home?
EC: Yes, and I’m seeing things stay the same, and I’m seeing things deteriorate and I’m just watching. When I left the Ukraine I was only 17 and so I didn’t bring a lot of things with me-- just some pictures and other things like that. I wanted to create a window to my brother as I have seen him, just staring at the computer screen and thinking about something. I don’t know how the piece is going to end. A lot of things have happened [since I left]-- people have died, other things have happened. So seeing that room has a lot of importance for me.
F-D: Do you think this work is perhaps also a commentary on the refugee crisis or the state of immigrant lifestyles in this country?
EC: Definitely. And I definitely think this work is me trying to cope with my move over here. I’m so accustomed to this place [United States] and it’s my home now, the Ukraine isn’t really my home any more. And I know that when I go back over there I’m going to have a culture shock. That part of me that I’ve had back there, I had to put away in a box because when I came over here everything was different. I had to start over. Especially when I realized that the language changes-- everything that you learned is wrong. You have to start over. You can’t just be translating it in your head. It doesn’t work that way. . . so that was interesting.
The next piece is of my friend Sea, a lot of things have happened with them too throughout their life. I wanted to keep this painting very simple with just a bright light in the front center, illuminating their face. I can’t verbalize it yet, but I’m really interested in the limited lighting. It has a big significance for me. I’m planning on making more work in that direction.
F-D: What do you think that significance is?
EC: I think that it is purely the lighting [in the studio]. The light is very harsh during the day. But it is shifting now that we are getting into fall. Right now its really difficult to paint during the day. So at night I don’t have contradictory warm and cool lighting coming into the studio.
F-D: How long have you been in this studio?
EC: About two months. I just moved in here.
F-D: When you moved into this space did you have a set plan for how you wanted to lay it out, or did it develop organically?
EC: It just developed. I don’t like to plan things-- I just looked at the space and felt it out. I have moved a few things around after living in it for a while, but other than that it has stayed the same. We also have open studios with every gallery opening at Manifest, so we want people to be able to walk around. I was also considering how much wall space was available. I like to see what I am doing; so putting up the work on the wall is kind of that last step to see what I’m doing. Even if they're really shitty pieces that I just can’t look at--I put them up-- because sometimes after I have looked at them for a while I start to find things that I really enjoy. It changes-- I see new things about them.
F-D: Has the location influenced any of the work?
EC: Definitely. So, before I got the residency here at Manifest I had a really difficult time painting. It was right after I quit teaching, I got a Bridge scholarship from Manifest-- they give scholarships to recent grads so that you have breathing room to keep painting-- they're free drawing classes at the Drawing Center. I realized that drawing and painting from life was very important for me. I like looking at something, gaining a connection with it, and then getting to represent it. Also, I had visited the area before, but I never really hung around here and Woodburn [Woodburn Ave, Manifest’s street address] is really similar to a city in Ukraine, Lvov. It’s a very beautiful city, its very old and has a lot of old Austrian buildings-- Gothic style. It reminded me of drawing with my art school back in the Ukraine-- and painting outside. It was one of the best parts of my life. There are also a lot of parallels between Manifest and my art school back there-- just the support system and the stressing of developing your skills and studying. They both believe that nature is the best teacher-- and remembering not to over conceptualize everything. There is also a clock tower-- it goes off every 15 minutes, and it sounds exactly like a clocktower back in Lvov. It also pushed me outside. I try to place a 50% outside and 50% inside rule to my studio time. I notice that if I work in the studio for too much time I become stale, while if I go outside to work I become more active and attentive.
F-D: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
EC: I’m trying to express what it feels like to be living here, and from another country--what it’s like to be a foreigner in this country. I have basically felt like you don’t belong in either country. I have been Americanized a little bit, but I feel I will never be an American. I’m also not quite a Ukrainian because I have been here for so long. I’m like a mold of something in the middle. The best way for me to explain it is the feeling you get when you are submerged in water-- everyone has been in water, at least once in their life. I notice when I float in the water, that I am never fully submerged, but I am also never floating above the water.
F-D: What were your biggest challenges?
EC: Obviously language, and transportation. Everyone drives here. If you don’t, you feel disabled.
F-D: What mediums do you work with?
EC: Oils were my medium for a long time. I am trying to mix it up-- and so I have been working with watercolors and gauche-- they're just more portable than oils, and I have been working outside a lot. It's funny, with the humidity during the summer, the watercolors aren't drying.
F-D: I love them-- the paints are blending beautifully because of the paper not drying.
EC: With watercolors-- it’s always a risk. You never know if the next mark is going to work or not.
F-D: Can you tell us about your process for working and how it has evolved?
EC: Well, for years I battled gessoing canvases with every new painting. So I one day when at my little day job [back when I was in school] I found all of these aluminum pie tins that they were going to toss-- so I grabbed a bunch of them and started painting on them. After a while of experimenting with the aluminum tins and finding that I really enjoyed them, I went and got some large aluminum sheets and started working with them for a while. From there I evolved back to more traditional mediums. I am beginning to find that I am pretty cyclical with my processes. Going back and forth between traditional and experimental mediums.
F-D: Are there any procedural changes that you have made since you were in grad school, do you read anything or are there any practices that you do before you start any painting?
EC: One thing that I do at the beginning of every week that really helps me is make a to-do list for the studio on either Sunday or Monday. I also keep this book, Oil Painting: Secrets from a Master close. It was written by Linda Cateura, a student of David Leffel. She created this book of notes and tips on traditional ways of painting. I just find it really useful. I also listen to Savvy Painter, and it kind of gets me motivated and gets me moving.
F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself?
EC: I kind of snake around, and don’t have a typical schedule. My painting days are Sunday through Wednesday. Sunday I make my lists for what I need, what I need to get done, all that stuff. Thursday-Saturday I am working at Plaza downtown all day and then I head over here.
F-D: Do you have any tools outside of painting equipment, that are important and unique to your creative process?
EC: I don’t have a good answer for that question. I do have Sanders here, my sander. I use it for preparing and sanding down layers of paintings.
F-D: Do you think having that tactile act that isn’t painting is helpful to your process, meditative perhaps?
EC: Absolutely. When I am sanding down layers of paintings, I have to deal with and accept that that image of that painting isn’t going to be there any more. It’s a really strange thing for me to do because I’m an alla prima painter (a traditional means of painting, in which you mix wet paint into wet paint). I always want to paint it once. I’m trying to add layers after layers. Working from outside and from life really help me get that fix to finish paintings in one session.
F-D: Do you think there is any projecting that you do onto your portraiture?
EC: Yea, for sure. Everyone looks like me. I end up making everyone look like me a little bit. I'll be painting and then all of the sudden I'll realize, "Oh! That's my collar bone!"; and then I'll fix it. Everyone I have come in here to model, I asked specifically. I want them in here. Usually the painting returns to resembling them after I have gotten to speak to them for a while.
EC: What are you influences outside of the visual arts that impact your approach to making work?
EC: That's a difficult question for me to answer, because I kind of feel like everything is art in a way. I just started reading this book called Be Here Now, by Ram Dass.- he was a psychologist and professor who ended up moving to India when he began to disagree with his own teachings. The book is about his journey, and his discovery of buddhism. It includes some drawings, and poetry. It calms me down. It gets me back to my painting process, painting calms me down when I’m overwhelmed. I also love film, especially Audrey Tarkovskii-- his films are very stretchy. They are filmed in real time, and they aren’t as flashy as contemporary movies. He wants you to create opinions. He draws from from his own life as well as fantastical
F-D: What does having a space mean to you?
EC: It means a lot. It’s my own little cave. It’s the best space I’ve ever had-- and I can just drag things off the street, bring them back here and look at them. It’s not just the structure [of the studio]-- it’s so quiet, and the lighting is really nice. I can come in whenever I need. I know that no one is going to just enter, and I’m not going to get distracted. I also love that I can hear the clock-- it helps me know that time is passing.
F-D: How do you make the space work for you?
E: Even though it isn’t that large-- it’s the perfect space. It forced me to bring only what I needed and to toss whatever I wasn’t using-- if I’m not using it, why keep it? I only required that I have my painting table, my desk, and I needed this area to be wall space and I needed that area to be a place to seat my model. I also wanted the space to be functional for openings. I wanted people to be able to move around, talk, and interact with the paintings.
F-D: Is there anything that you are about to start on that you can tell us about?
EC: There is a piece that I am about to start-- it’s from a photograph of my father. I’ll probably make a study of it in gauche before starting the finished piece. My parents got divorced when I was five years old, and they hadn’t lived in the same city for a while. He now lives in a village, and there is a lot of fighting over there. And I haven’t heard from him in quite some time. So I wanted to paint a portrait of him. He has a small farm and has a lot of cows-- he likes to walk around the fields with cows. My brother took a photograph of him wearing a coat and hat, standing amongst his cows in the field--and I will be painting from that photo.
I’m also going to be doing a self portrait in a similar style as the portrait of Sea. I’m still not sure of size-- it will probably be larger. But I’m still unsure.
F-D: Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture?
EC: I call myself a naturalist-- I work from life or photgraphs. I want to represent reality, but have the ability to project some of myself onto the subject, I also have expressive tendencies. I attempt to depict myself interacting with reality. I had always been told, or felt I was being told, whilst in school that realism was dead-- and it died in the 50’s and 60’s. But I never could stop [painting in a realistic style] because that is what I am attracted to. Actually; with Instagram it has become a lot easier to connect, learn, and interact with other realist and naturalist artists. It’s actually kind of distracting because I’m following like thousands of artists. It helps you realize that your not working alone, and there are so many talented artists, everywhere.
F-D: Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
EC: There is a Brazilian artist Joao Ruas, a graphic artist and works predominately in black and white. There is also Felicia Forte, she is an alla prima painter as well. Then there is Brad Kunkle, who is out of New York, and with the Arcadia Gallery. Which just moved to California-- which makes me sad-- I had wanted to go see his work the next time I am in New York, so who knows when I will be able to make it out there now. I’ve also always felt a kinship with 19th century artists-- so it’s always been a struggle of mine to go out and find contemporary artists that influence me.
F-D: Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?
EC: One of my teachers in grad school, he was a little guy, and a great teacher. He had a saying: “work comes from work”; and I just loved it-- it’s so simple! Sometimes I overthink things, and it reminds me to just make the work. You have to work on the paintings while you think about them. And then you just need to show up-- just be there. Get in the studio. I also tell myself to ‘paint like I have nothing to lose’. Fear really makes me stiff, and telling myself that just reminds me that I can always paint over something, I can always fix it, it’s ok. There is also a quote from [Audrey] Tarkovskii, and it’s out of his film, Stalker:
“Let everything that’s been planned, come true. Let them believe, and let them have a lot of their passions; because what they call passions actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless, like children, because weakness is a great thing and strength is nothing. When a man is born, he is weak and flexible. When a man dies, he’s hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing it is tender and quiet. When a tree is dry and hard it dies. . . Weakness is the freshness of being, what has hardened will never win.”
That sentiment has been with me for many years, it means a lot to me.
F-D: Why do you think it’s so important to you?
EC: I think it’s important to me because it’s a reminder for me to relax. I’m really sensitive to things and I take things too personally sometimes. It helps remind me that it’s ok to show your weaknesses to others. We don’t have to be so protective of ourselves. Most of the time we can read each other’s weaknesses anyway, so there is no point in putting on these masks and hiding ourselves.
F-D: How do you navigate the art world?
EC: When I came out of graduate school I found that I was alone, I didn’t have a community-- I didn’t have a bunch of studio mates or teachers coming and talking to me. So that was hard, but when I came to Manifest we would have quick critiques in our drawing classes, we’d look over things and say, “oh, that’s working” and “that isn’t”, or “this looks like shit, but it’s ok, what can you do-- just erase it or get rid of it”; and that healthy encouragement came back into my daily life. I have a tendency to get overwhelmed and begin to use painting jargon when speaking to people who may have never painted before, they might not understand me, which obviously is an issue. I just try to stay aware-- I try to explain things in a way that is approachable, and everyone can understand.
F-D: What risks have you taken in your work or for your work?
EC: I think the biggest risk is just sanding the work, especially right before a show, or when it’s almost finished. Because I never know if it’s gonna work out. Every time I paint new layers, it is a risk.
F-D: Do you think you have taken any financial, social, or other risks in being a painter?
EC: Yes. When you work so hard on your skills, you sacrifice a lot in your life. You don’t get to spend a lot of time with the people that are important to you. When you choose that kind of life, you need to spend a lot of time in the studio. I also can’t have a full time job because I need to be here. There’s a lot of sacrifices. You have to work for twelve hours a day. You have to.
F-D: Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events?
EC: I haven’t been applying to a lot of shows because this work isn’t quite ready yet. But, the studio is open every time Manifest has an opening. We had a gallery walk through September 30th with the opening of Real-Photo, which was apart of FotoFocus Biennial here in Cincinnati.
F-D: Are there any specific items here that have significant meaning to you?
EC: I have this portrait of my grandmother that I made when I was in the Ukraine. I remember what was happening when I was painting it, I remember what she was saying. She as complaining that she didn't "actually look that old" and other things that you say. It was a really quick painting. She died while I was here-- I think it was three years ago.
I also have this letter from a friend of mine that attended the art school I went to in Ukraine. I haven’t spoke to her in a long time, but she sent me this letter saying that she had been keeping track of me and looking at my work evolve, she said she was proud of me. I used to really look up to her, and here she is saying that she is now looking up to me. She was saying, you know, look at how far you've come. She reminded me of everything that I’ve overcome-- and it made me feel good. There’s also a few photos of from the Ukraine that I keep on my computer. But that letter really means a lot. It feels good to hear that stuff.
F-D: Yea, everyone needs a little bit of that from time to time.