Ukrainian-born artist Aleksandra Krasutskaya talks about her life in ceramics and fascination with aesthetics in society.
M: Would you mind introducing yourself to our audience? How long have you been involved in making art?
AK: My name is Aleksandra Krasutskaya. I am from Kyiv, Ukraine. As a child, I was often making things; toys, backpacks, clothing… I would rescue interesting fabrics from various old closings, and re-purpose them. We did not have many exciting things back in the Soviet Union. I think I’ve always been drawing and painting. I have some recollections of elaborate stick-figures from pre-school years. I started studying drawing and painting when I was 6, and by twelve, I was taking still-life drawing and painting lessons, learning various tricks and principles of the trade.
I came to America when I was 20 and after a few months started studying graphic design at the University of Minnesota, in Duluth. It was a fantastic design program with wonderful teachers. I had a chance to learn a lot about typography, layout, even video and animation skills. We had the best computers and a state-of-the-art digital audio/video lab that allowed media work across departments and disciplines.
While in college in Duluth, I made my way into a ceramic studio. I have noticed that ceramic studios are often buried somewhere in the basement or somewhere on the campus border. Maybe they are keeping dust away, or maybe it is a comment on a ceramist’s character that is disagreeable enough. I have stayed with ceramics for two reasons. On one hand, I thought clay students were a warmer, friendlier, and the more grounded crowd. I found there is truth to that over the years. Another reason was to get better at drawing. It was easier to build a human form for me than to draw it. By building, I learned to really understand the form and to better render the surface.
M: Is there a medium of art you prefer over the other?
AK: I think of media as means to arrive at a certain result. I choose the medium depending on what I’m trying to do. I like pencil and ink, line and contrast, I like implied space. I like the smell of oil paint. I think that when I create ceramics I try to replicate ink or pencil lines, I often learn something new.
M: Do you find yourself going through stages?
AK: I don’t think I go through stages, as much as I try to develop ideas, and find answers. Many galleries would prefer a series – it is easier to display and promote. I have a hard time working in a series and jump from project to project. I continuously try to find better expressions for fairly abstract ideas. I explore, reiterate, and revisit.
In my work, it is important to resolve spatial relationships between the elements. I work to balance formal and surface elements. I believe art needs to be attractive, and I am interested in this human curiosity to beautify something. I like the tension between what is considered beautiful and ugly. In some way, I explore this concept. There is certainty in ugly, isn’t there?
M: As an artist, what would you say your main influences are?
AK: I like narrative images. Once in a while, my brain generates ideas. To express them, I default to images rather than words. I am interested in politics and fairy tales and fascinated by the power of propaganda and religious imagery.
Influenced by other artists? I guess I find art inspiring. I feel artwork can create a world. Artworks become testaments of this world, making it real. I just like looking at them. It is like looking at fire or ocean; one can spend a lifetime staring at waves rolling onto the sand.
In December 2016, I was lucky enough to view Edward Eberle’s work in his retrospective show at Pittsburgh Craft Alliance. I found his work truly inspiring. There are not many ceramic artists that, while making traditionally ceramic objects, can be viewed as artists and not ceramists (when an idea of ceramic material is secondary, and it is all about the art of an object). Eberle’s drawing and line quality are amazing, and porcelain substrate makes them even better. You never think of his work as clay or pottery – it is art in the first place. Viewing that show gave me an impulse to create and to adhere to my ideas. Sometimes it is hard under the various pressures of artistic communities.
I like to hear feedback. Once in a while, people share what they see. I have been told that my work reminded someone of their dream of a thumb, and they remembered that dream felt very safe. At a different time, someone at Rose-Hulman complained that my fairly non-objective drawing “The Contour of Darkness” was too lewd to exhibit on the college walls. Both works were not specific, the shapes and the patterns have suggested for such strong responses. I love it, my work succeeded to provoke.
M: Does your work require any research?
AK: I research and learn often. Often, it is with technique or style. Recently, I was learning about how to paint letter signs. Other times, I research history or political events. I do create timelines and spreadsheets. It helps me to keep information accessible and organized.
I practice a lot and constantly distrust my own skills and knowledge. This makes work tedious at times, but I try to be true. I’ve learned that I regret sloppiness, and the world is already polluted with useless objects.
M: I particularly like your piece “Essence of Russian Soil: Study of Mystery”. It reminds me a lot of the Gilbert Wilson mural at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Terre Haute. There’s a splash of “Guernica” by Picasso in there too. How did this grand illustration come about?
AK: This panoramic drawing is a study. This drawing is a study for a vase carving. The image will wrap around a vase. Once on a vase, the picture will not have an edge, and will seamlessly integrate with itself. This idea is an outgrowth of an older idea from my series in 2009 on “Essence of Mystery”. It is was a comical statement about curiosity and knowledge. A girl is picking from the curtain to illuminate what mystery hides in the dark. She is searching so hard, but all she seems to find is her own behind on the other side of the world. I studied this humorous statement in a series of drawings and ceramic jars.
You are right to see social realism in this drawing. I think Gilbert Wilson was influenced by artists like Diego Riviera, who in turn was infatuated with Soviet Revolution and its art. I was born and grew up in the Soviet Union, in the birthplace of Socialist Realism. I choose this style to make a point – it mimics Soviet propaganda: there is a heroic woman; there is an unending call for war, call to overtake; there is a total consent of raised hands. In the shadows, we see corruption, dirty deals, blood. I grew up with a concept of exclusivity of “Russian Soul”. In this series, I attempt to examine what does it mean. Red is the color of the soviet revolution, it is also a color of bloodshed; gold is the color of opulence and color of sanctity in the orthodox church.
M: I notice a lot of your work incorporates ideas of power and authority in society. Care to elaborate on those?
AK: It is an interesting observation. I am interested in the idea of the individual against the society, and one aspect of it: communication. Desiring power, wanting to tell people what to do – it is surprising to me.
Being a woman in art and ceramics, you are against a couple of hundred years of male tradition. Once, I had heard from a bearded hipster that “you probably should NOT build, what you can NOT lift”. Other times – references to a quality of line as “feminine”, meaning weak, curly and limp, contrasted to the male line, as strong, powerful, and assertive. It is amazing how untrue statements can be paraded with such certainty.
In my political work, I deal with the historical inheritance of Ukraine, as a sub-colony of Russia. This historical struggle once again was cultivated into a war. This issue is a different statement of power. I was born in the Soviet Union, under an oppressive government. I grew up in a state of fear, that broke your individuality and substituted it with an ideologically correct version.
As a result, people developed dual personalities, and one never spoke from their heart, because it might get you and your family in trouble. What you can say, and what you think, were not the same thing. I remember feeling this fear as a child and young adult, and now I hate it. Fear is miserable, angry and petty. As a human being, you are stripped of decency and ancestral honor.
To the question “what is your favorite color?” you knew the only correct ideological answer – of course, it was red. You knew it by heart, it was repeated over and over all your life. It represents the blood of “working man” liberated by Soviet Revolution. In my work, I want to capture this hideous feeling of fear and powerlessness. It should not be forgotten. Right now, we lack a visual language for it.
A lot of my work is really about communication or, more precisely, about the problem of miscommunication. It is not merely a language problem, but it is more helpless than that.
M: Do you draw from your own experiences when creating art?
AK: Yes. Long ago I have decided that art is about sincerity. Best understanding comes from experience and being honest with yourself. I closely explore my sensations, and it is not to be confused with being selfish. To feel empathy and to understand, we need to project experience against our own body. In the end, I make art to find definitions for experiences.
M: Where can we find your work?