Published: 19/02/2010 00:00 - Updated: 25/11/2011 11:48

Russian artist is now a happy Highlander

Renowned artist Eugenia Vronskaya tutors a pupil in still life at Magnus House, Aigas.
Renowned artist Eugenia Vronskaya tutors a pupil in still life at Magnus House, Aigas.

EUGENIA Vronskaya admits that initially she was a very reluctant Highlander.

"I grew up in Moscow and then lived in London for seven or eight years. I couldn't imagine living in the middle of nowhere," she said.

The Russian artist recalled arriving almost 11 years ago and then looking around, shaken at the place she had been brought to by her then husband.

Shortly afterwards, soon after the birth of her second son Shamil, her husband left, leaving Eugenia alone in the Highlands with two small sons.

"I spent the next two or three years trying all sorts of things," she said.

"I ran back to Moscow and London and I fantasised about living in Italy. Then one day, after I'd been away, I went for a walk up the hill. Everything was so stunning that I just thought: 'It's so nice to be home.'

"That was it. I realised I thought of this place as home and I haven't looked back."

Artist Eugenia, who stayed at the former Teannassie school house before moving a couple of miles further along Strathglass, cites the area's close sense of community as another reason for deciding to call the Highlands home.

"I grew up with a big extended family and always felt sorry that my children didn't have that, so I've made sure our community is our extended family," she said.

Yet though the Highlands have proved an inspiration for many artists, that is not the case with Eugenia.

"Because I'm an artist, people imagine that I rush out the door and start painting landscapes, but I don't," she said.

So though Eugenia has begun a series of paintings based on the river view from her home, it will not be a simple attempt to reproduce what she sees.

"It sounds pretentious, but I paint not what I see, but what I see in each object," she explained.

"We all paint similar things, but some paintings become Paintings with a capital P because they have that extra fourth dimension. That's what I aim for when I paint, I want to transmit the something I see behind it."

Which makes the act of painting something of a voyage of discovery.

"I think that to have the finished product in your head when you begin anything is death as an artist, definitely," Eugenia said.

"It's a conversation between yourself and the canvas.

"That's what people misunderstand. Painting is not just about trying to recreate a three dimensional object. The idea it must look real is dead and gone and not interesting.

"What makes painting interesting is where you don't have a formula and work on something you create, which is yours alone."

Eugenia was 13 when she announced to her parents that she was going to be a painter.

"It was like this waterfall was being unplugged," she said.

"I didn't go to any parties. All day long I just wanted to be in front of my easel. I remember being terribly frustrated when my mother would come in and put her hands in front of the canvas and say: 'Food!'"

Her dedication paid off when at 16 she became the youngest in her year to study at the prestigious Moscow School of Art. Six years later she came to London to study painting at the Royal College of Art, which she found something of a culture shock when compared with the rigid teaching she had undergone in Moscow.

"In England the concept of teaching hardly exists," she said.

"At the Royal College I was studying a Master's Degree, so you were expected to be a competent artist, but you were left to your own devices."

It is not an approach that Eugenia favours.

"I teach myself and people don't have an understanding of the basics," she said.

"You don't have to carry on with them, but at least you know what you are rejecting."

Though she admits that she never particularly wanted to teach, Eugenia does find satisfaction in some of the courses she has taught, such as her recent lessons at the Aigas Field Centre.

"It's exciting to see what a difference a day makes," she said.

Eugenia's own work can be seen at the Pushkin Museum, Mars Gallery and New Trtyakov Gallery in her home town of Moscow as well as in the Tate Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, while other examples can be found in private collections as far away as Russia, China, India, the USA and Africa.

Much closer to home she has been commissioned to create a fresco at Aldourie Castle using the same techniques which would have been employed in renaissance Italy, using egg tempera, real gold leaf and her training in icon painting for the fresco, which is based on the life of St Columba.

Iconography is something Eugenia returns to again and again and provides another way of keeping in touch with her Russian heritage. Both her sons, Sal and Shamil, speak Russian and she tries to get back to Russia with them every year.

"I feel different from people here, but I feel very comfortable," she said.

"When I'm in an alien country and I feel like an alien, it's OK. When I'm at home and I feel like an alien, it's harder!"

Eugenia's feeling of alienation in her homeland is certainly not helped by the massive changes Russia has experienced since she came to Britain.

Though she does not mourn the end of the Soviet system - Eugenia would take clothes to the dissidents her father helped shelter - she cannot help feeling that Russia has lost much in its transition from Communism to capitalism.

"I can't feel at home there any more," she said. "I don't long for the old regime. I long for Russia to rediscover its true values, not get caught up in this materialistic rush that is killing the planet we live on."

Brought up in the Russian Orthodox Church, Eugenia later converted to Islam and first moved to the Highlands to live in a Muslim community with her then husband.

Spiritual values are still important to her, though Eugenia says she is not religious.

"Some people spend their lives looking for God, but I have my painting," she said. "I have my own system of belief which is to do with creation and nature. I can take elements from Islam, which I still love, and Orthodox Christianity, but I can still pray and love without having to nominate myself as an 'either or...'"

For many people and certainly regular visitors to Eden Court, Eugenia will be best known for the series of portraits she has been commissioned to paint by the theatre marking its recent renovation and commemorating some of the most significant artists to have visited since its reopening. She calculates she has painted around 100 of these portraits by now, a selection of which are on display in Eden Court's foyer.

It is a project she loves and would like to continue.

Painting a portrait, Eugenia adds, can be a very intimate experience, with her subjects opening up and telling her unknown details of their lives.

"It's really special, but I would never betray any confidences," she said. "You never really have that intimate time with a stranger. But when having their portrait painted people are at ease and want to open up. That so much contributes to the way that I paint. It's not just about the surface."

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