A big yawn and outstretched arms start my morning as I look around and see familiar surroundings. Eagerly I make my way to the kitchen to brew a cup of coffee and walk the squeaky wooden deck of the porch to my little brown wicker couch with red cushions in the corner. I sigh, take a deep breath, and tell myself that the world has much to offer, but home is still the best place of all.
Deer stare me down, then skittishly run off into the thicket of distant oak trees and brush, leaping gracefully as if to give me a ballet more beautiful than the Bolshoi in Russia. The symphony of birds cannot be topped by anything man made.
After two weeks away in Russia, I’m where I belong. Though on my last day there, I felt like I belonged in Russia.
“You must come to my village,” said my friend Andrey Lyssenko, a Russian artist whom I met over a decade ago on Facebook. Knowing it was an hour and a half outside Moscow, and knowing that my calendar was full of interviews for two upcoming documentaries, I politely suggested I’d have to wait to see if everything got done ahead of schedule. But honestly, I was mentally ready to head back to Austin after nearly two weeks in his beautiful country.
A Gentle Nudge
A nagging feeling, his strong encouragement, and his telling me that his small village was home to hundreds of artists in the 19th century created curiosity. But why had no one told me about this in my research when I studied the great artists and their painting areas? Frankly, I was skeptical. But as a couple of days passed after he graciously showed me his Moscow studio, in one of Moscow’s 11 Artist Union studio buildings, which house hundreds of artists, I decided to try to go.
Should I Cancel?
As my producer Bryant and I were out in Moscow on our last full day on the ground, shooting footage of the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Church, and the Bolshoi Ballet, and as I recorded “stand ups” on camera, the day was dragging on. Though my estimated departure had been 11 o’clock, we finished at about three. Cancelling crossed my mind, but when Andrey told me that they had been waiting for us with lunch, I felt bad and said we’d had no idea they were waiting lunch.
A Moment of Arrogance
Our plan was to paint together, and with two hours of daylight left, our car arrived in the village, where we met at a local museum. On the way, by text, Andrey had mentioned that the small town’s museum director would want to meet with us. Selfishly, I’m thinking that I had just interviewed the heads of Russia’s two great museums, the heads of the top graduate art schools in Russia, the head of the Artist Union — and now I have to take time away from painting for some small-time museum director? My plan was to rush through it and hope to get some painting time in before we returned to Moscow. I wanted to spend part of my last day behind my easel.
Snow and More Snow
As we drove into the village, the snow along the roads got deeper. Exiting the car, I stepped into a mixture of snow and mud in front of the little museum. I was greeted by the artist with his Russian easel on his shoulder, in a “Blick” bag from the U.S. He makes a point of telling me he bought the bag when he visited the U.S. for the first time.
Russian Soldiers at the Gate
As we enter the gates of the museum property, I’m seeing nothing special — just a couple of log cabins that could be anywhere in the U.S. The only difference is that this gate has three big, burly, mean-looking Russian guards, which seems out of place for a small-town museum. Upon entering, the museum director greets us, asks if it’s OK if their photographer documents our visit, and suggests we see the museum first, then go out painting. Knowing the light is not going to last long, I suggest we paint, then see the museum. And that becomes the plan.
What Is This Place?
As we wander the property, we get deeper and deeper into what appears to be 50 or 100 acres of trails lined by trees. There is a big house, then another, housing their collection of local artifacts (I assume). Deeper into the woods, we see charming Russian folk village buildings. I’m thinking they brought them in or built reproductions and that this is a living museum, but I’m told they are original, and that they were built by a wealthy man who wanted to create a retreat for artists.
The Home of Masters
“Repin lived in that home down the hill,” the director says. “Levitan rented that one for several years.” And, “See those woods? That is the famous painting done by Shiskin.” Suddenly my blood pressure increases and I start to realize Andrey had urged me to visit because the property had such historical significance. I had not understood that as he tried to communicate it to me before. The man who owned the property loved art and artists and wanted to give them a place where they could paint. He even built a studio for one great Russian artist that was so beautiful I want to copy it and build it on my own Adirondack property, and turn my own property into a place our best living artists can paint.
My Ultimate Studio
The studio is so charming that I decide that will be the painting I will do. Andrey suggests, “My grandfather painted this many times when I was a boy. The best view is from down the hill.” He’s right, so I set up my easel and I’m ready to paint. But I realize I’ve forgotten my brushes. Andrey gives me two of the three he has with him, and with freezing cold hands and feet, standing in the snow and ice, we begin to paint.
Russian paintings are often filled with thick paint, and I realized that’s what I would do today, if for no other reason than to honor the past, but also to get out of the freezing weather as fast as possible. We paint for about an hour, then go into the studio to warm up.
An Unexpected Pleasure
As we enter the museum, which is the old mansion on the property, we place little booties over our shoes so we don’t wear down the original floors. Soon, going from room to room, I see the significance of this house. Paintings and drawings on the walls reflect not only the collection, but the brilliant legends who created them. The walls are filled with original paintings by the greats. “This still life of apples was painted in this room by Repin and his student Surikov.” (The two greatest artists in Russia and considered among the greatest in the world.) As we walk into the giant dining room, I see a big long table that seats 12, and at the end of the room is a print of a famous Surikov painting of a woman sitting at a table. I had just seen that, one of the great iconic paintings in the museum in St. Petersburg or Moscow. Why was there a print here? “This painting was painted in this room at this table. See the windows, and the ceramics on the wall and the little statue in the painting? Look over there. They’ve been there since before the painting was made.”
I Was Amazed
I had chills. I realized this was like Russian art Mecca. I was standing inside history. Graciously they kill the lights in the room so I can photograph the paintings, covered in glass for protection, so I can lose the reflections. A portrait by Repin, two studies by Surikov used for larger museum paintings, and a giant still life of flowers, which they say Repin painted in one hour.
Another Wonderful Moment
It was hard to tear me away, but we left this historic place in Andrey’s car. “I will drive you home, but first you must see my house.” After his other recommendations, I trust his suggestion. Upon arriving we see a big house, some smaller old cabins, and probably about five acres of land. “This is where many of the artists also lived. This land was so important that Stalin wanted to keep it in the hands of artists forever, so it was willed to my grandfather [also a famous artist]. I’m the third generation who has lived here, but there were many other artists who lived here before the land came to my family.” I could have spent a day painting there. You can see a video I did from there, here.
Had I cancelled, I’d have missed a brilliant lifetime experience. My brief moment of not wanting to be hassled with the trip or not wanting to meet a “small museum” director was wrong, and my experience was rich. I’m thankful I followed that little voice in my head.
Out Comes the Vodka
As we enter the old brick three-story house, we are greeted by his family, then asked to sit and dine with them for a traditional Russian meal. Vodka comes out, wine comes out, juice from local berries, and then plates and plates of foods to try. We’re there with Andrey’s mother, who is the daughter of an artist, his father, who is a well known Russian artist, and his wife and children. Following dinner his son brought out a local guitar-like instrument called a balalaika and serenaded us with a Russian folk tune.
Hanging on the log cabin’s walls are paintings by the grandfather. “That’s me as a teenager with my mother, painted by my father,” says Andrey’s mother. “And that one over there is Andrey when he was a baby, painted by my father.” Every painting has a story that ties to the family. “That was painted when we were on vacation to the Black Sea when I was a little girl,” says the almost 80-year-old woman. “He was happiest when painting, so he took his paints everywhere. Now we have lifetime memories of our vacations and our life.”
A trip up the long skinny wooden stairs puts us in the third-floor studio of his father, littered with hundreds of paintings. More stories are told. Then a trip to Andrey’s studio, where he proudly shows a painting his son had copied that he had seen on Instagram, by artist Michael Klein. “He did this without training. Imagine what he could do with training, but he instead wants to be in mathematics,” Andrey says. “But my daughter will carry on the tradition, and he will come back to it when he is older.”
Advice About Life
Sadly, our evening had to come to an end. It was one of the great experiences of my life, because these were the happiest people on earth. A family filled with exuberance for life, joy, and a love of art. His mother said to me, “The best way to live a rich life is to live a life of art, which is what my father encouraged me to do, which is why I married an artist and is why my son and grandchildren will be artists. It’s the best life one can live.” Andrey chimed in, “I know a rich man who owns a big company who is not rich at all because he lives for money. His life is empty. We are the richest people in the world because of art and family.” He was right.
Upon leaving we were given gifts of books, and I was presented with a painting by his father. It’s a gift I’ll cherish and look at in my office daily to remind me of this wonderful night.
Maybe it was the vodka, but that moment was one of the happiest I have ever experienced in my life. These people lived with exuberance because they were doing what they loved, living in a place they loved, and richly enjoying one another.
To live a rich life, we need to live with exuberance. We need to drop what we don’t love and only do what we love, and we need to embrace our families. I wondered what someone would say if they visited my household. Would I be as gracious a host? Would people feel as welcome? Would I give them the experience of a lifetime? You can bet I’ll work harder at making sure that happens.
You may be reading this and thinking you’re not an artist, but you can find your art in anything you do. The key is to be doing what you love. If you’re not, maybe you’re cheating yourself out of the richness life can provide. And if life and business are getting in the way of keeping your family close, that too deserves your consideration.
The richest people I know are people who are doing what they love. They are truly passionate. They don’t go to jobs, they do what their soul craves.
What about you?
PS: I feel so honored and privileged to have taken this trip, been in the homes of many great artists, been in the homes of people who want to host our artists on my September 2021 Russian art trip. I love Russia; it’s not the place our movies and media make us think it is. Oh, you can find that there, too, but its people are happy and rich.
PS 2: As the fears and panic over the coronavirus heat up, I want to remind you of all the fears in the past. The world did not come to an end, and hopefully this won’t become the pandemic some are predicting. I ask you to consider being rational. Do your homework. Keep your immune system strong, and don’t panic. Panic causes panic, which causes more panic. I refuse to become a victim of panic. I’ll be cautious and prudent, but I won’t panic. I’m not stopping my life, my travel, my attendance to things. I refuse to sit inside cowering in fear.
If you have decided to stay inside, remember that my goal is to teach a million people to paint. This would be a good time to watch my free tutorial or one of the hundreds of videos we’ve created. We are moving forward with the Plein Air Convention in Denver this May, but we’re keeping an eye on the situation and are keeping our registered attendees informed. We are also going forward with FACE, the Figurative Art Convention & Expo, in Baltimore this October, and the Publisher’s Invitationals in the Adirondacks and New Hampshire.
PS 3: I am so grateful to be in a position to take trips like this, and I want to thank you for making it possible. I hope to devote the rest of my life to creating trips for you, events for you, and things to make your life richer and more rewarding.
PS 4: I want to publicly acknowledge my wife and my kids. They make sacrifices as well, because when I’m out in places like Russia planning trips or creating documentaries to hopefully change the art world, I’m not there with them. Thankfully, they miss me, and I certainly miss them. I feel like I’ve been deeply blessed with an understanding family who knows that I have to live with exuberance and that I am driven to help others, even if it means an occasional sacrifice. By the way, if you read my story about Brady and his heart attack, I’m going to try to talk him into coming with me to the Plein Air Convention so I can put him to work helping out. That’s all dependent on graduating high school on time, and that’s on track to happen.