Different strokes: Once a Soviet scientist, artist sharing a life of lessons by blending her colors with Svalbard’s waters

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Anna Mikhailova was born during the last days of the Soviet Union and baptized in science.

Story by staff writer Marion Prudhon. Like it? Donate!

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Anna Mikhailova shows one of her paintings of Svalbard to a class in Longyearbyen in October of 2015. Photo courtesy of Anna Mikhailova.

“I’m educated as a physicist, it was sort of a tradition in the family,” she said. “I always wanted to be an artist, but I thought it would be like a hobby.”

According to Mikhailova, if scientists did not earn a lot they had a stable life that allowed all kind of hobbies.

“Many bright, creative and active people worked in science – many of them had other interests as well, including art,” she said. “But then the USSR collapsed. When I actually graduated it was not a good idea to combine physics with painting. Actually, to survive as a physicist, one should either go abroad or work very hard looking for financing.”

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The cover of a children’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” is illustrated by Anna Mikhailova. Image courtesy of Anna Mikhailova.

To earn a living, Mikhailova did many jobs, among them guiding and freelance translation. She kept painting, this also being a family trait since her father taught her how to paint. Finally she became a full-time artist and for the past three to four years has been involved in “mainly just painting, doing exhibitions, teaching.” Among her projects was illustrating the cover of an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” for children.

She’s now hoping to share those life lessons with watercolor master classes on weekends for the next month in Barentsburg, which will focus on images of Svalbard using materials from her homeland.

A lifelong passion for the Arctic

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Anna Mikhailova paints a watercolor of a Svalbard landscape in Longyearbyen in October of 2015. Photo courtesy of Anna Mikhailova.

“I was always dreaming of going to the high Arctic.” she said. “During Soviet times our presence in the Arctic was very pronounced and many people worked or travelled there. But in the ’90s the Arctic was abandoned and it was difficult to find any official way to come there. So I travelled by myself as close to the Arctic as it was possible for me – in Polar Urals, Kola Peninsula, Laplandia – hiking, ski tours and kayak trips. And I always wanted to combine my passion for the Arctic and my work as an artist.”

Discovering Svalbard and Barentsburg: From frenzy to serenity

Knowing about Barentsburg and Grumant as a travel company, Mikhailova sought work here. Having worked as a guide for an international company, she applied for and started a similar job in August of 2015, beginning at the museum.

“There was not many tourists at that time so I had a lot of time to examine the museum collection and read some books about Svalbard,” she said.

Naturally she ventured out, filling her eyes and sheets of paper with pictures.

“It is natural, when you travel a lot and see new beautiful landscapes, that they inspire you and you want to paint them,” she said. “So when I came here first time I wanted to see as much as possible. I wanted to go to glaciers, I wanted to go to mountains, I wanted to see all these beautiful things. I thought that I should paint different places, different objects.”

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A painting of a Pomor home as it appears in April of 2016. Paintings by Anna Mikhailova.

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A painting of the same home in August of 2016. Painting by Anna Mikhailova.

“But now, actually, I understand what Andrew Wyatt meant when he said that it is not really interesting to paint new things.When you paint one thing, one place, on and on again, you become  very sensitive to it, very responsive, you are able to discern very tiny differences in it. You kind of fall in love with this place and you feel much deeper about it. So your paintings are better when you paint the same place on and on again.”

“For example, this time, in August of 2016, I did not go anywhere from Barentsburg. I just stayed in the settlement. It’s not big, it’s a small place, but I never found it boring. First of all, you have different light, the weather is different, your feelings are different. And of course you can find different views in the same place. So now I enjoyed just staying in this place and looking at it every day from different angles. That’s my feeling. And really for me as an artist, it is a very important step in my professional growth. Because before, I was like a young animal that is running everywhere and does a lot of mess around, and now I feel a more balanced and, I hope, I can produce more meaningful things.”

Master classes: How sharing passions leads to self-made souvenirs

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Barentsburg residents paint during a watercolor workshop in 2016. Photo courtesy of Anna Mikhailova.

While alone in the museum and painting for herself in the wilderness, another idea came up, about how she could be useful in Barentsburg: doing watercolor master classes for locals and tourists. While that might sound ambitious, she said Svalbard is an ideal place to inspire novices.

“My idea is that Arctic landscapes are really simple because you don’t have many different objects – what you have here is a lot of sky, lot of water and some mountains,” she said. “It’s not like a human figure or animals or architecture. It does not involve a lot of drawing. You just have to draw basic outlines. It’s more about your feeling of colors and your understanding of the technique.”

Being a true sharer, she wants to teach watercolor technique “so that people can produce their own pictures of the Arctic.”

“It can be a nice souvenir for the people who come here for a short period or those who, like most of Barentsburg inhabitants, spend two to three years of their life here. Normally, the people who come are very full of emotions and feelings about the Arctic, they usually enjoy it and I thought that to produce their own picture would be a good way of expressing their feelings about it. And of course for local people who chose to live here – probably because they love this place and have their own understanding of its beauty – it also would be interesting. I provide paper, and watercolors  and brushes, everything from Russia.”

Developing and plans for the future

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Barentsburg youths learn watercolor techniques during one of Anna Mikhailova’s classes in 2016. She said Svalbard’s Arctic landscapes are ideal for beginning painters. Photo courtesy of Anna Mikhailova.

The lessons started with two evenings in Longyearbyen in October of 2015.

“Every evening we had six or eight people, it’s a good number for such a small place,” she said.

Then followed masterclasses for children and adults in Barenstburg in April and August of 2016.

“In August we had the first Russian cruise and a master class on the last day of it,” she said. “It is what I want to continue.”

She plans to offer classes during weekends from March 31 to April 27. She’s already brought her materials from Russia and said she feels confident.

“I don’t expect many people to come,” she said. “I expect maybe five to six people every weekend. It would be already quite a good number. I have brought a lot of paper actually when I came first time, and I still have some amount of paper here in Barentsburg. I use only professional watercolor paper, it is very important to get a good result.”

As for her own paintings, they can be found at the souvenir shop in Barentsburg. Moreover, she is interested in the upcoming relocation the museum to the renovated old embassy: this building will also house an art gallery and she will participate in its first art exhibition.

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