As I opened the door, I was greeted by the nasty smell of black mold in the air, a smell so thick my eyes instantly started to water and I wanted to put my handkerchief over my nose.

I flicked on the light, and the single fluorescent bulb dangling from a cord began to buzz loudly — and my suspicions of mold were confirmed visually. The once-white walls were black with mold, the paint peeling, and the plaster crumbling from moisture.

An old Soviet-era refrigerator stood guard at the front of the huge room, doors wide open, and the smell of Freon and decades of food gone bad mixed with the smell of mold.

At the back of the room, there was a stained old iron sink, equal to the ones I’ve seen at the worst gas stations, with flies swarming around its leaking water supply.

A door by the sink leads to the restroom. As I step in, the rotting floor gives slightly under my weight and I see the 1970s yellow floral linoleum is water-damaged and peeling.

Formerly beautiful green ceramic tiles barely hang on to the walls of the shower. Many have already fallen and the rest are sticking out, making the walls uneven.

The throne room, well, let’s just say it was beyond disgusting.

The place I’ve just entered is an art studio, with 20-foot ceilings, 20-foot-long walls, a once-trendy 1970s-era vinyl floor, and a row of giant, 10-foot-tall north-facing windows.

The Home of Great Artists

This studio and 26 others like it have been the temporary homes of some of the world’s great master artists, and they are where some of Russia’s most important museum masterpieces have been painted.

“Welcome to your home,” says my host. “We have given you our best.” This is to be my home for the next three nights, but he says, “If not good enough, we can get room in local hotel for you.”

I’m feeling instantly conflicted.

I know these people have made an effort to get me into one of these coveted studio spaces.

I know this is a special place where great paintings have been done and great artists have lived.

I know my host put out his own hard-earned money to have me there.

I don’t want to be ungrateful, and though I love the idea and romance of staying in one of these old studios, I also know doing so will test my limits. But because mama taught me to be kind, no matter what, I say…

“This is wonderful. I’m honored to stay here. Thank you.”

Busted in a Lie?

Have you ever had one of those moments when you knew you were lying through your teeth because you didn’t want to offend someone?

Though I wanted the experience of being there, I could not fathom the idea of breathing that moldy air for three nights.

Keep in mind that I had just been on a luxury trip (our Fine Art Connoisseur Fine Art Trip to Russia), spending 10 days in the finest hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Stark Contrast

The contrast between the luxury hotels and this studio was massive … the hotels had heated marble floors, thick robes, and beds to sink into that surrounded you like a giant cuddle … versus having to have your shoes on at every moment so your feet don’t touch the floor, waiting 20 minutes for the hot water in the shower, and sleeping on a sagging Soviet era-military cot that wasn’t long enough to stretch out in, with a thin lumpy mattress and hard springs. Plus long nights shivering because of the thin blanket, and needing to tuck my water glass into a ziplock bag so the bugs don’t land on it, and putting my clothes in a plastic bag to keep them from the mold.

This was a mindset moment.

This was a time when I had to rapidly shift my thinking … was I going to be a spoiled American and allow this to ruin my experience?

During that first miserable night of tossing and turning and shivering and waking to the feeling of mold in my lungs and the smell of cigarette smoke and turpentine from the neighboring studio, I convinced myself that I needed to move to a local hotel.

But daylight has a way of changing our perspective.

Once I got through the somewhat difficult task of getting the shower to work, then got dressed and ready in the freezing, unheated room, I could see the light streaming through the giant windows, filling the studio with amazing light.

This Is Truly an Amazing Place

As I walked outside, my first view was of a painter in the distance using a Russian easel, set up next to a quaint old wooden cabin and painting the distant poplar trees, in full fall colors, by the lake.

I quickly forgot my troubles and realized I was in plein air heaven.

“Oh, you speak English?” said a man who was painting as I walked out the door into the warm morning sunlight. “Sergi is my name. I was ship’s captain in America. Now I’m painter.”

My New Friend Sergi

Sergi was from the East of Russia, so far away it took him and his friends longer to get to this place than it took me from America. He quickly introduced me to his friends, all painters. Then he took me into their studio to show me their paintings from the week. Dozens hung on the walls, and all were high-quality.

Moments later I united with my host, a great master painter and instructor from the Surikov institute, part of the Russian Academy of Art, and a friend since 2004. I was there to paint at the Academic Dacha and in the surrounding area as his guest.

What If We Had This in the United States?

Imagine for a moment if such a place had existed in America, where all the great masters would gather and spend summers together. You would have Wyeth, Redfield, Rockwell, Payne, Bierstadt, Cole, and Church. Imagine if they’d had summer cabins nearby, and they lived there much of the year.

In Russia, the Academic Dacha was created by the Artists Union. Because they knew that plein air painting was critical to an artist’s development, they sent their students here to spend summers painting outdoors. These students would be around great masters who were also there to paint all summer. The surrounding cabins were owned by the great masters of Russia past … Repin, Levitan, Surikov, Shiskin … and they all painted on the property where I was staying. This tradition has taken place for over 200 years, in this same place, with every generation of artists.

Did I mention this is plein air heaven?

Among Painting Legends

It’s humbling to know I am standing and painting exactly where these amazing Russian legends had painted summer after summer.

The property, probably about 50 acres, is a postcard view at every turn. It’s poised on a beautiful lake, with a wonderful old bridge going across a small river (Repin did a famous painting there) and a little red house where Repin stayed that later became a small museum featuring all these artists’ work. The trees are changing color and are amazing.

A Home for Royalty

Next to the red house is an octagonal yellow house, built to give royalty a place to stay when traveling between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Inside, there is stained glass so intensely rich in color that the walls were flooded with vibrating hues unlike any I’d ever seen. Catherine the Great came here often. She loved spending time around the artists, I’m told. So did the czars.

Though I dreaded the cold, mold-filled nights (I’m still wheezing), this place was magical. My days were spent either painting or talking with the artists.

Creating Giant Paintings

Inside one studio was a great Russian master by the name of Igor Zeitza, who was working on a canvas that had to be 30 feet long and 20 feet high. “I don’t have room to do this in my studio in Moscow, so I come here to paint,” he said. His last giant painting had dozens of figures and took 10 years to complete.

The one he was working on was of a great moment in Russian military history, with about 10 life-size figures, and he estimated it would take another two years of work. He showed me the dozens of studies he’d painted over the past decade in preparation. All were masterpieces and reminded me of the studies in the Russian Museum that Repin had created for his monumental painting there.

Next door to me was the great Russian master Cederoff, now in his 90s and, like his neighbor, working on a huge painting because his home studio wasn’t large enough. With my translator I learned of his life, his history, and his passion for painting. “All of my paintings are of my life,” he said. “Even the big ones in the museums are memories of my childhood.”

I asked him why he paints, and his answer was unexpected. “I paint to give people encouragement and hope. I try to make everything I paint uplifting to the human spirit.”

He then pulled down two coffee-table books, flipped through them page by page, and told me the story of each painting. The one he was working on in the studio was in the book, but, according to him, “A painting is never really done.” The painting was of a peasant laying out stems from a crop on the grass. Another woman was staring at an orange full moon. “That’s my mother. We were working in the fields and the moon rose, and my mother said it was evidence that God was with us and supported our work.” He went on to tell me the painting was especially important because the crop is used to make linseed oil and the canvas we paint on.

Cederoff had 20 very large canvases stretched. “I have a show in May that I’ve not yet started. I have to make a painting for each of these. After that I’ll start working on my next big show to celebrate my 100th birthday.”

I could have stayed and listened to his stories all day, but I didn’t want to lose my light, so I did a painting of the yellow octagonal house from the bottom of the hill, looking up.

Meeting Up with Old Friends

Later we walked down the lane where I had walked in 2004, during my first visit, and where I met the great Russian legend Yuri Kugach, who was 91 or 92 at the time. Though he is gone now, his grandson Ivan, another amazing artist, had us in for dinner by candlelight in his grandfather’s house, which is now Ivan’s studio. We talked about art and sampled the local herb-infused vodka for hours. The next day we visited the dacha (cabin) of Ivan’s father, Michael Kugach, which I had visited in 2004. I had a chance to see his studio and the pieces he was working on.

Did I mention I was in plein air heaven?

A Village Like a Movie Set

Later, we drove an hour through the bumpiest and muddiest road I’ve probably ever been on, thinking we would get stuck at any moment. The car was sliding around, the tires were spinning, and rocks were thumping on the undercarriage. At the end of the road was a quaint small village of about 10 dachas, most of which were decorated with bright colors and beautiful wooden carvings. The area was used in a movie, though I don’t know the title.

The village cow wandered around curiously and was followed by her best friend, a sheep. As I was painting the intense afternoon sun on the face of the dacha in front of me, the cow came up to my paint box, took a sniff, looked up in apparent approval, and walked off with the sheep behind her. I’m thankful she wasn’t tempted to snack on my paints.

These are the moments plein air painting is made for. You can’t make this stuff up.

Opportunity Almost Missed

Had I not stayed at the studio at the Academic Dacha, I would have missed the most special moments of sitting with friends, sampling vodkas, eating fish caught earlier in the day and fresh apples off the tree down the road. We talked about paintings, painters, and the life of an artist … which I realized at that moment I was living, if only for a brief couple of days.

Tears were shed by my Russian artist friends and I when I departed for America from the airport in Moscow the following day. We had a wonderful memory in our three days together, did some great paintings, and wondered if we would ever see each other again.

Two weeks in Russia is not enough, and my next trip, if I can ever make it happen, will be nothing but painting … and who knows, maybe I’ll take some friends with me.

My moment of decision to accept my circumstances and not be a spoiled American made my trip a very rich experience. Instead of insisting on a change (and risking insulting my host) to have a better place to stay, I tolerated some conditions that were pretty harsh compared to my cushy life. But I just told myself it’s like camping.

The Spoiled American

I learned a lot about myself on that day and realized how fortunate I am, how spoiled I had become, and how the only things that mattered at that moment were the rich human experiences that can never be repeated. After all, how often do you get to paint with a couple of Russian masters, visit the cabins of some of the greatest living artists in Russia, and just hang and chat with one of the most important artists in the world? It was a great couple of days.

Turns out all 27 dachas didn’t have mold, just the one shared by me and Cederoff, next door. He told me he thought the ceiling might cave in, so he moved his paintings to the other side of the room. It appears there had been a leak in the roof in this old building, and it needs care and money, neither of which is readily available.

In spite of harsh media coverage about Russia, the experience of visiting is rich, not only because of the cultural experiences and the amazing paintings, but because of the warm, welcoming people. Though their nation, like ours, has its problems, those problems affect the people but don’t define them. These are special people, and my friends there share my passion for painting.

A Dream for an American Artists’ Retreat

I can’t help but think a wealthy donor will step up and help me create a special place like this in America, almost a commune of sorts, where we all live nearby and spend our summers painting together and working with students. Hey, it’s a dream. If Russia can have this, why can’t we?

I’m sure I’ll have many stories to share from this amazing trip over the coming weeks. But for now, enough about Russia.

Next Stop, Maine

Next Friday we start the Fall Color Week Publisher’s Invitational in Maine. About 60 painters and I gather to paint the amazing scenery for a week. We might still have a bed or two available, and the accommodations and food are really excellent if you’re feeling spontaneous and crave a week of painting fall color, crashing waves, and lobster boats.

Now that I’m back in my home, I look around, take a deep breath of crisp clean air, and value what I have in my life. They say difficult moments make great memories, and I’ll never forget these amazing days in brotherhood with artists from a different land.

I often don’t stop to appreciate what I have, but my perspective has recently changed. Have a great week.