A Story About Grandmothers or How to Become an Artist

It is hard for an artist to talk about his own work. The intangible precious life behind the canvas is devalued with attempts to verbalize the unspoken. It's much easier is to tell a story of how one becomes an artist.

To become an artist is easy. All one needs is two grandmothers: one kind and the other one strict. Both of them should consider you the center of the universe. At least that was the way with me when I was a child.

The name of my maternal grandmother was Rose. Rose was pure love without any urges to teach me but at the same time she never interfered with my experiments.

Once I have broke the tail of the hollow rocking horse I had. Feeding the horse through the appeared hole was much more exciting than riding it back and forth. In one week (during witch horsy has swallowed most of the silverware, many small household items and part of my half-eaten sandwiches) it began to emit a horrible stink. As expected the bad smell was coming out of the rear end of the horse. To say that I was exited is to say nothing! I believed that horse was turning alive.

And then there was a day when the crime was exposed. My father had to open the rocking horse with a big knife while I was held back by seven women-volunteers living in our communal apartment at the time. My cries were heard several blocks away. Only grandmother Rose was on my side. Sincerely believing that the human rights were violated and not wasting any precious time on explanations she was baking my favorite nut pie as a cancellations prize.

I have to clarify: the women-volunteer were also sort of my grandmothers (sisters of my real grandmother) and the communal apartment was our home. Each room was occupied by one of them except for a shared dining room. Some of them lived alone, some with husbands. Although "alone" or “lonely” is an absolutely wrong word and did not apply there since we all lived together as one big and happy family. I was the only child in the whole apartment and enjoyed all the love and care as the only heir to the throne. I have to admit that I was allowed to do anything I wanted with very limited exceptions. 

In the mornings I was walking thru my “kingdom". The rooms were all different just like their occupants. Auntie Dora had many books. They were boring to me because there were no pictures inside. However their quantities were very amusing to me. The thought to read all these books did not cross my mind but to count them all was the biggest dream of mine.

Auntie Ida had a crane bird that could drink water. A little bowl of water would be placed in front of him. With my index finger I would “help” him with a first “sip”. The water climbed up the feathery body through tiny neck-tube inside until the torso became heavy with moisture. Eventually the body weighed more then his head, crane would stop drinking and would straighten up his body. In a couple of minutes he would become thirsty again. That process would continue for ever. I would quietly observe it and nobody would dare to disturb the trance I was in. The door to this room had small windows of stained glass and I’d often stare through them into the room from a dark hallway: a bamboo grove, blades of grass and storks.

Auntie Sara had a husband. He had an old mandolin. Every day in honor of my visit the mandolin was taken off the wall. I’d sit on a chair and with a help of a pick would entertain the ears of my kind, patient and humble servants with the most unforgettable sounds.

From the dining room I would sneak into the dark room of Antie Cecilia. She never talked and she never got out of the bed. Next to the enormous bed which was so high I could only see a puffy hand on a sheet, there was a side table with many jars and bottles of medicine. The curtains were always drawn down. It smelled of something complicated, sweet and scary. Being quiet was my only task and I always succeeded in accomplishing it. Quietly, barely breathing I liked to stand in the corner of the darkness of this room.

There were other aunts... But the most important one was of cause grandmother Rose. The life revolved around her. Whenever an unexpected visitor would come in her absence, he or she would look at the rest of the family members as if they were phantoms and exclaim: "So no one is here? I’ll go then.” And no one was offended by this treatment.

I remember a lot from those days. I was only ten when Grandmother Rose passed away, but I still remember the aroma of piroshki with potatoes and onions that were brought to my bed for breakfast accompanied by words of love and tenderness.

The name of my paternal grandmother was Vera. She had a very different approach to upbringing. I even remember being slapped on the face with a broom. However! This strictness was well worth bearing, since in return I’d get the most interesting stories from her life as well as from the lives of anyone Vera met on her journey.

Some of her stories and treasures included a young cadet in love, a pin, a ring, scrapbooks, old letters, a mysterious cursed amethyst brooch, a sabre, a poem about solders leaving for war, a Chinese statuette made of delicate porcelain with a basket of flowers in one hand and broken (not by me) fingers on the other, a little bronze vase with a music box inside and a very worn Lionean gobelin tapestry depicting Versailles park, two playful mademoiselles with a butterfly net and two messieurs hiding behind a lilac bush.

There was also an exile to Tomsk where all precious things that I never laid my eyes on were exchanged for firewood, flour and soap. There was a hand fan that survived the exile: an exquisite object from the Romantic era that was said to be hand painted by Watteau himself. At five I was already admiring the way Vera elegantly, modestly yet with a bit of flirtation would flutter the fan.

She lived to be a hundred. Fifty of which I was lucky enough to enjoy her stories and knew every word of them by heart. I would gently correct Vera if her memory was failing her. The stories would bring back to life a whole world that existed so long ago that it left no witnesses. The characters spoke a language full of archaic words and expressions and used things which were no longer in use or need (such as Porte-bouquet for example….)

Later in live when my parents moved to a small but separate apartment I experienced real shock. I was deprived of my kingdom, separated from the multitude of familiar faces, of the nooks and crannies that used to create a perspective, a volume of space and time.  Ever since my whole life is a trial to recreate THAT world in my thoughts, my stories and my art for I feel the need to go back THERE as if I need to finish something important THERE.

Time goes by but my attempts to recreate the lost precious past I lived in as a child remains unfulfilled. People from that life are gone and it’s impossible to breathe life into a mirage. I change apartments but none of them feel like home.

An artist is a lucky creature for he can express an idea, make it visible and touchable. For me each work while it’s being created is in a way a “house” in which I live and surround myself with unusual objects of choice. The objects are old, ancient, strange and sometimes crazy. But they all share one space harmoniously. There are no rules and no restrictions. There is only one law: Gratitude. My gratitude to the mysterious act of creativity and the gratitude of each piece (no matter how minute or miniscule) to me for finding an appropriate place within the frame where it truly belongs, for assigning it an important role.

I watch these unanimous objects coming to life and for a time I come to terms with my own limitations, silliness, with the banality of life, with the childhood gone. I dive into memories which according to Grandmother Vera are a paradise from which there is no exile.

Sergey Meytuv