Vsevolod Shvaiba

Insights in self-exploration, artistic academic training, contemporary visual arts

Authors: Andrei Golub, Yury Hlaponin

Ph: Andrei Golub

Translator: Helen Korobova

Vsevolod Shvayba is a Belarusian artist, Academy of Arts graduate, lecturer at Belarusian State University (State Institution of management and Social Technologies). He held a number of personal exhibitions including Berlin and National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus.

We met in Vsevolod’s studio and started the conversation with how he began to dive into the world of art:

     V: “Nothing special. I had been drawing since childhood. My parents noticed my artistic abilities and sent me to the art lyceum which then was school 26 with emphasis on art. Nowadays it is an art gymnasium-college. First it used to be a usual Jewish school, then it was turned into a girl’s high school, and only after it became a high school.

Since 1970s the school started gaining its artistic emphasis. A new teacher Evgeny Sakovich took up the whole management process and thanks to him the school gained recognition. At the moment one third of Academy of Arts students are graduates of this art gymnasium-college.”

An interesting fact is when I went to the second form the school building was on Oboynaya street. Then it moved to another building. In many years I got a job at BSU which was moving into the very same building. So it appears to be an endless circle – graduates’ exhibition was held in the place of my first workroom (Savitsky’s workrooms) and I’m working in the old school building where I used to study.

Many things are connected with college for me. The college as if magnetizes me – my daughters are studying there now. As for that exhibition I was the one to coordinate it: management, making the poster and invitation cards.

Andrei: What role did your parents play in your artistic growing-up?

     V: My mother is an architect. My grandfather from the mother’s side is an artist in Gomel. His name is Nikolay Kozakevich. Five years ago he was awarded “The honoured artist” title. I think my mother took it after him: she used to draw and was even thinking of entering the Art Academy. However she had doubts because the number of candidates competing for one place was extremely high that year. Moreover women had difficulties entering the Academy as artist considered to be a purely male profession. There used to be two girls a year, nowadays the situation is reverse – there are only girls, just about two boys a year.

А: Why so?

     V: Firstly, in Soviet times when my mother was entering a higher educational institution, artist was considered a highly prestigious profession. Being an artist means being wealthy - they used to earn pretty much. It goes without saying that if you’re a member of Artists’ Union, you’re on board – you may take orders to draw a portrait of Lenin, for instance – and that is it! The state gave large orders. For example, you’re a landscape artist and you’re given a task to draw 500 landscapes for Soligorsk (a Belarusian town). What for? A health resort or school or kindergarten is about to be opened there – pictures are needed everywhere. As you may get, it was a constant flow, that is why the job was popular among males. Then the Soviet Union fell, there are no more state orders and the artist profession is somewhat different nowadays.

Generally it is all the same: when a person can, knows and is able to find, everything is fine. But general public treats this profession as miserable. Who is an artist in the minds of most people? It’s a kind of boozer, semidestitute, half-starving man with his ear cut off – this is the stereotype. And people started keeping their sons from entering art institutions – what for? A man must earn money and support himself and his family in the future. And what about a girl? – There’s a stereotype for a girl to get some education and find a good husband. Therefore it’s not that important – a girl may enter any university, that doesn’t matter much. Besides girls often strive for art and they really make good artists. As the time goes, this vector has changed – boys go to Applied Mathematics Department, Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics, and girls enter creative jobs.

А: Looking through your works (paintings, drawings, graphic arts), the individual style is clearly visible. How did you manage to find it? Is it a way of self-exploration or is it an inborn aptitude? What did you start with?

     V: I suppose it was cultivated at early age. I’m fond of Slavic mythology, structured world. I like the idea of mathematical nature of the Universe – everything works in accordance with some universal law which is absolutely accurate. This is mechanics of all the living creatures, this is synergy of all the processes. I like this idea, and I don’t know whether it exists. This idea isn’t new, it dates back to 15th or 17th century, it’s an ancient idea of the times when people were searching for golden ratio and were able to find it. People found golden ratio in every wingbeat of a butterfly, in proportions of a human body, tree, branches, flowers and so on: the famous Fibonacci sequence, the flower of life. I was fond of these ideas.

In childhood I liked reading books about the Pyramids, fantastic stories on who built them – aliens, ancient civilization… Recently I have come across a brilliant French documentary: a woman is exploring the contents of the Pyramids from an engineer’s point of view, not a historian’s one. She found such a great number of mathematical principles that even nowadays having the modern nanotechnology it’s difficult to figure them out. At the same time the construction imperfections are only 0.01% taking into consideration the huge size of the building blocks and the height of the pyramid in general – it is 142 meters.

I like works of artist Maurits Escher who made friends with many mathematicians and took a lot from them. Escher combined mathematical and visual components, he blended fine mechanisms of all phenomena. No wonder many people in the 17th century compared the distance between planets to the sound of music: every planet has its own sound, and these sounds harmonize in golden ratio just like gamut – C-major, quint, octave… Consequently, the distance between planets in the Solar system is regular and in sync with this music. This is where Fi and Pi numbers appear as well. Thus all the elements are intertwined and create a kind of Maths and visuals arts fireworks.

Maurits Cornelis Escher

I’m definitely not an expert, not a mathematician, I had Bs and Cs in Maths at school, but I’m into this visual language of Maths. I like to encrypt golden ratio in my works using proportions, the helix of golden ratio. Or you may take another example – the motif of armillary sphere, I often use it in my works. Here’s my work “Armillary binding”.

Only circles are left here from the armillary sphere. Armillary sphere is a model of moving the planets around the Sun and stellar constellations around the Earth. They are circulation orbits of these planets. You can define location and some consistent patterns according to the armillary sphere. I marked the armillary sphere and its location around one’s head. And in this case these cloths are our thoughts which ensphere us and tumble around. In this picture He and She – the constant duality - got together. They are connected with this piece of cloth and on the whole it makes the infinity sign. A play of images is created - the armillary sphere is a circulation pattern for the planets, our thoughts, the infinity sign.

A: Looking through your works, you can’t but pay attention to headwear, turbans. What is it?

     V: We have just touched upon this topic. It all started for me from the first year in the Academy, I got interested in turbans. I’m attracted by the form itself – it enspheres a head, its folds are very graphic, folds have their own language. Afterwards I had a thought – that’s true! Our brain is a giant piece of cloth which has been taken off and put into a box. Generally speaking, our thoughts live in these folds. Then I came across a nice idea that our thoughts are not a product of the brain, maybe thoughts are produced somewhere above it, above the head. Another theory says a thought is a wave, the same wave just as light- or soundwave. Thoughts can travel around like waves. There’s the idea that thoughts are born outside the head, they are thought and then get into the brain. The brain then processes the thought and lets it out or transfers it as a signal to the body. Brain is a processor managing incoming data. I imagined this ‘outside the head’ place as a pleated structure. So all the turbans I’m painting symbolize thoughts covering our heads, our aura. That’s the reason I use this image pretty often.

We create our being with our thoughts. And here’s where a question arises: what comes first – matter or idea? I’m an idealist myself – everything starts with these folds. After a while I learnt that a philosopher Gilles Deleuze enunciated the idea of fold.

Here you can find one more Escher’s motif – its title is “Architectress of worlds”. As a rule we don’t normally use the word ‘architect’ to refer to women but it’s all right – “I’m the poet, I see it this way”. Therefore I can afford creating new words. This architectress is a kind of goddess, the creator, she creates worlds, she gives them structure, she makes structures out of some construction kits. That is what I decided to illustrate. And again she has her turban on. It reminds of a spindle. And a spindle is in its turn a symbol of Makoshi goddess - goddess-weaver. Makoshi is a goddess of fate, she weaves the fate of mankind as cloth. She releases this cloth through the structure she is in. Besides she holds a strobile – a symbol of gods.

“Architectress of worlds”

“Makoshi’s Knot”

А: Do you consider having professional education for an artist necessary?

     V: It is necessary! An artist is a thinker first of all. He should read and invest in self-improvement. On this point I’m an orthodox – to my mind an artist should learn to draw. It’s not the final goal but an artist should be able to think wide and involve metaphysics – his soul.

The thing is when you can draw, when you have created a concept but soul is missing, then a question appears. For instance, you may observe a picture in which all the details are well set, the concept and idea are present, a figure is a symbol of something. But another thing is when you feel the soul of an image, when it sheds something unseen that touches your heart. As if something exists beyond the drawn image.

А: Is it possible to teach how to put your heart into your work?

     V: Absolutely not! It’s impossible to teach someone be passionate. Education will provide you with technical skills, it will teach you to depict objects correctly and to create concepts. But putting your heart and soul into a picture depends on ethics and moral state of a person, on his inner characteristics. Destiny makes a person. Every man is a bunch of experiences and influences. Since infancy a man is being influenced by parents, street, school, university. And it makes a person who he is. Even if this is true, there’s still an inner spark that a man carries inside throughout his life. Some people have ugly sparks. But I consider that originally all the sparks are good. Time goes and people grow cynical and hungry for power. Well, if you are obsessed with materialistic things only for yourself, then you gradually become cynical.

Over the course of time such notion as “to put your soul into something” may dissolve for an artist. There’s a popular saying “you can’t booze your talent away”. Well I think you can easily booze or guzzle or sleep your talent away. Talent is a kind of a firepot which needs feeding, filling with coal and “firewood” of love and sincerity. A man should treat his art with honesty, all the art basically, a man should not set material goals regarding art (that doesn’t mean art should not be paid. An artist implies remuneration for his job), otherwise sincerity fades away. The feeling of “I should please them to get paid” appears.

А: How does a man keep balance in this case?

     V: There’re many ways. The most common is making money with a different job. That is true that many artists work as teachers and make pictures for themselves only. In our country there’re few artists who earn their living only painting. Most artists either take random orders or teach or do a completely different job.

On the other hand, it all depends on the personality. We do know many writers and artists who made their living with art. Luck makes a difference too. Maybe you met the right people who highly assessed your work. I’m lucky enough with my customers. They often tell me: “We don’t want something particular from you. Whatever you draw is cool, it’s to your liking’. This is a perfect customer that trusts me, my sense of style, my skills. He just gives me the topic. But when they tell you “Draw my wife from the photo, make her more beautiful, paint her nails red, eyelashes longer and her breasts bigger”, you become a printer.

А: In art schools they teach students certain canons, rules of creating a work of art. What is the chance to have your creative abilities and talent dimmed by institutions and their rules?

     V: This is a complicated question. What is a canon, a rule? There are the fundamental rules which you will follow whether you want it or not. I would compare it to the saying “Everyone eats with his mouth. I will do it differently”. In the end you will die. So you see – there exist fundamental rules of composition and visual language, they are somewhat the same. Also there are smaller rules which can be broken. For example, during a long period of time there has been a canon of depicting Jesus Christ – red and blue, halo with the cross.

There’s a challenge to accept: the more canons, the more difficult it is to find a way out. Generally speaking, borders form the task. Several friends of mine, my fellow students, went for internship to Austria. Their teaching technique is the following: they don’t give you topics, they give you nothing – just do. Students are puzzled as if they have been thrown outside and left for themselves. They don’t understand what to do and where to go. Here in our country they would be given a topic and particular technique. So you find yourself limited but it directs your thoughts and creates ideas within these limits. You may ignore the topic but the technique should remain. By the way, when there is a rule, you have something to break. Having no rules kills the rebellious spirit – you have nothing to break. When everything is allowed, what do you have to protest against?

А: What are your sources of inspiration in your everyday life?

     V: I’m interested in an individual, his body and its mobility, in the depiction of man: face, facial expression, man’s structure in general. I like every person with catchy appearance, unusual and beautiful body movements. Surely I’m amazed by women. If I see a beautiful woman, I want to paint a portrait of her, to have a look at her from different angles.

Looking at people enriches your experience with character types – there’s such beauty all around! Underground is a treasure house of beauty! People are so different and so individually beautiful! Man is a treasure house of inspiration himself.

А: What happens next?

     V: It depends. I have a special notebook for compositions. Sometimes I just sit somewhere, think, catch inspiration, make drawings. In a while I take a look at these sketches again and find out “Well, this is a good one”. First it goes like a stream of unconscious ideas. And then when you take a second look at the drawings you may find something promising. I may visualize a drawing in either graphic or pictorial art from the very start. If it catches me, if I like the train of thought, the concept, then the compositional solution is easily built.

Then comes a draft, building composition, choice of color and tone design, correlating blots. These are purely technical solutions. But sometimes it goes like “There it is! I’ve found it!”. You need a feeling for it. Many compositional decisions are intuitive. I mean you have some visual experience. Why does an artist need to see both good and bad pictures? Visual experience forms the taste. The formed taste and intuition gives you a hint on further actions.

А: Do you offer your canvases for sale? If yes then which ones you’d better keep to yourself?

     V: I have such paintings that I will miss because I relate to them. For instance, “Self portrait”. It is not about its being a self portrait but rather its intimate vibes for me. Although I’ve been thinking recently “Why do I regret?”. Well, it’s good when a canvas is present at someone’s place, when it brings joy, when it starts living its own life and isn’t left idle in the workroom.

Nowadays it’s easy to store all the works in the cloud. However when it is a unique piece I regret selling it. It may be one of the reasons that I started making more printed graphics because it can be copied, reprinted, given as a present or sold without regret. You can’t keep it anyway.

А: Looking at your paintings and considering the amount of efforts made, I recall mosaic thinking when a person shifts things very often.

     V: Not every person is prone to it. In my view, it has always been like this: not every individual can stay concentrated so this skill in considered valuable. Probably the perception process has become faster due to the development of cinematography. But still there has always been and are people who appreciate other’s job, refinement, process.

There are people fond of embroidering, knitting, building. These are laborious activities but someone likes it. Basically they are ways of meditation: sketching, painting, building. The difference is that a drawing or sketch can be based on an idea. But when you weave a basket it’s just a basket in the result. You concentrate, escape reality. Drawing pictures also has a kind of basket weaving – manual skills.

Generally speaking, artistic education is a science of routine skills, the mechanisms of image making. I always compare classical drawing to an ABC – we learn reading and writing. We might not learn it and stay an independent artist. However, most people prefer to receive information verbally. Drawing is an ABC of depicting an object.

What do you do with these words then? It’s a kind of journalism – you have sentences and paragraphs of text. Everyone of us knows the basics of making a text in this or that way. But not everyone is a writer or is able to write at least a short story. Firstly, you are to enjoy it. Secondly, you are to be imaginative, creative, you’re to develop a beautiful and honest concept. This is also art.

А: Could you make a judgement about Minsk as an artist?

     V: Minsk is poor. It was deeply affected by Khrushchev’s era. After World War II during Stalin’s years the buildings were designed to resemble classical antiquity – the so called “Stalin’s baroque” – with its golden ratio, mathematical calculation of apertures, window proportions. When Khrushchev took over, he proclaimed everything to do with Stalin to be bad, including architecture. He proclaimed war against excessiveness. So they started building “boxes”. Today’s poor Minsk is like this “box”. What have we been left with? The main avenue of Stalin’s style and the city center (The Town Hall, the Upper Town) – these are just remnants of antiquity. The rest of the city is boxes which nowadays are still being built. I live in Kamennaya Gorka area which is all made of boxes. You can’t even find a tree there – dire state.

In general there are serious problems with architecture here. Just take a look at the new building near Trade Unions House. As far as I understand they were trying to straddle the fence – to make both antique and modern. And the dark windows installed are not a new idea – they were used in the 30s of the previous century. As a result we have neither one thing not the other.

It looks bigger than the Trade Unions House and destroys it with its proportions. Not only have they placed a coffinette there in the 00’s, but also this one now. For those at least a bit familiar with plastic arts, who worked with forms, it is obvious. The rest are probably fine with what it is.

It is lack of visual experience of those in the government first of all. They are the ones in charge, unfortunately not the architects. Some people say that there’re no good architects here, our architects are unprofessional and so on. This is crap. The country does have good architects, not many but still. The problem is that their ideas get rejected during approval procedure with the authorities. Some bureaucrats have zero knowledge in architecture. They are focused on doing things fast, cheaply and earning as much money as possible.

There’s Kempinski building which is great with its rhythm and constructivism of the National Opera. Yet its location is wrong. Another landscape would be wonderful. But its close neighborhood with the Circus is totally inappropriate. The Circus has become a small cabinet near this huge complex.

А: So when a child is born in such conditions, he is already deprived.

     V: That’s right. A person is influenced by the environment he grows up in. An Italian child, for instance, is surrounded by the ancient Italian architecture, therefore his taste is formed differently from a child born in Minsk. Then he may develop his sense of taste by travelling, self education. He will start seeing things in a different way. While our authorities are usually village people who haven’t seen much.

А: So self education seems to be the only salvation!

     V: Yes, in addition to correct guidance. Again, why did the empire architecture appear in the Soviet Union? Somebody made this decision and gave an order. Moreover, in the 20s and 30s constructivism was highly demanded. Le Corbusier, Tatlin, cubism, suprematism were popular. If it had continued like this, we would have had concrete boxes all around. On the other hand, the authorities’ taste has changed and they declared: “We’re building antique cities”. If you think wider, all the cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg have main avenues lined with columns and other antique features. Or take Versailles as an example – it was built by Louis’s XIX command.

So when there’s demand and financial support, I think architects will come and design everything.

А: Can you name Belarusian artists that you follow.

     V: With pleasure. I’m fond of the works by a talented graphic artist Roman Sustov who is a great friend of mine. Ivan Rusachek is a good graphic artist too. Yury Yakovenko is an artist of the older generation. To my mind, Alexander Dogmanov is a very interesting artist. Alesya Skorobogataya is quite an interesting author with captivating ideas and perfect technique. Olga Melnik-Malakhova is worth mentioning. My wife Tamara Dementieva is the favorite graphic painter who does amazing job.

А: Is friendship between artists possible?

     V: Surely. If you happen to respect each other’s art, friendship may take place. Let me put it this way: competition starts when you feel frustrated and worried that somebody will take you over. It’s a kind of jealousy. But when you appreciate and respect another’s works, you’re happy for him.

А: Do you and your wife have common projects? Do you discuss ideas?

     V: We do discuss ideas. For example, I come up with some draft, ask my wife for an advice. Sometimes I ask for her opinion during the process. My wife is a strict critic: “Here you have it wrong because your hand wasn’t stable. Here you have the folds repeating which ruins the composition”. I always know that she is being objective and I have to correct it.

However we don’t do common projects because we have opposed stylistic techniques.

I like everything she creates, though she is very self-critical. It’s a useful trait when it’s moderate. You may drive yourself to death if you keep criticizing and treating yourself as a worthless artist. This is a constant struggle of a creative person: am I doing the right thing? Am I worth something?

А: What else do you do apart from visual arts?

     V: I’m a musician in Gurba band. I sing, my brother plays bass guitar and accordion. Also we have a cellist and a bass guitarist. 

Besides I sing in “Salutaris” choir. It exists for 12 years already. I’m a part of it since its foundation. This is a mixed amateur choir conducted by talented Olga Yanum. She is the main conductor at Shirma’s choir.

We have various songs on the list: sacred, catholic, orthodox, secular, Belarusian folk songs in modern adaptation. Music contributes and influences me, I feel the urge to do music.

А: What are you dreaming of?

     V: I’m dreaming of becoming a good artist. I’m just at the beginning of my way.