Highlands & Islands

West Highlands artist recounts Russian arts trip

Image caption Lynn Bennett-Mackenzie with a painting she exhibited in Russia

Two artists from the west Highlands were the only UK representatives at an international symposium held in the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia, in August.

Vicky Stonebridge, from Lochcarron, and Lynn Bennett-Mackenzie, from Gairloch, were invited to exhibit their work in the city of Yelabuga.

But, as Ms Stonebridge recounts here, their work on canvas was not the only art to cause a stir during their trip.

We knew this would be a big adventure and were a mixture of excitement and nerves. But as the journey unfolded we found ourselves transported into an unexpected and completely new world.

Our initial perception of Russians at the airport in Moscow was that they were rather reserved, their stares disconcerting - we had not imagined that we'd stand out as much as we did.

One of the organisers later joked that Muscovites' might well have taken my tattoos as a sign of high rank in the city's Mafia.

A couple of days before our arrival the airports had been closed by the pall of wildfire smoke covering vast areas of Russia. Strangely enough Moscow still smelt strongly of peat smoke, evoking the west Highland coast as the red Russian sun broke through the dawn's smog.

Great panache

We soon discovered that the Russian reserve was skin deep only, immediately behind it was incredible warmth, openness and hospitality.

Strangers on the street would stop and ask who we were, what we were doing and where we were from. They would nod approval at us being from Scotland and visiting their beautiful city of which they were so proud.

As the trip progressed we had TV news coverage, and so the fame and attention grew - this was very disconcerting to us reserved west coast girls.

Shinod our Indian colleague played the part with great panache and we couldn't go anywhere without girls wanting their photograph with him.

The symposium had a very busy and tight schedule. As well as the studio time there were many formal events, excursions, press conferences and meetings. We soon got used to giving speeches and working through a translator.

Yelabuga is an ancient city which was founded by the Bulgars. It is populated by a mixture of Orthodox Russians and Muslim Tatars, and these people have lived and worked together in harmony for hundreds of years.

Image caption Vicky Stonebridge's tattoos raised eyebrows in Moscow

I was dazzled by the array of folk costumes still worn on the many special occasions and there was always a sense of ceremony, celebration and depth to events.

One of the things which struck me immediately was how free, safe, relaxing and content everything seemed.

We were shocked to realise they were free of rules, regulations, disapproval and the constant fear of crime It was embarrassing trying to explain to our hosts why we are not allowed to do x, y or z in the UK.

We walked dark alley ways through concrete city blocks at night, only to meet smiling families out enjoying the warm nights.

Everyone seemed very proud of their city and proud of how clean, beautiful and safe it is.

Fantasy art

While we are constantly being told to prepare for recession and cut backs at home, here the city was booming and developing.

At home I had nearly given up painting or drawing the subjects of myth, folklore, ancient history, epics and traditional symbols and motifs - the themes of the symposium.

They generally get the labels of 'kitsch', fantasy art, or children's illustrations.

However, in Yelabuga it was a dream come true as we were given respect alongside famous Russian painters and encouraged to paint these very things.

It was certainly a life-changing experience, to be dropped into such a warm, supportive, kind, environment and to be given so much respect as an artist. To experience such a stress-free lifestyle has changed the way I look at things at home.

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