Going to Russia in 2008 was a dream come true for me, I being a confirmed closet Slavophile. I first got interested in that very misunderstood continent through the suffering Christians, the dissident authors and the underground artists, in the mid-1970’s.
Then, I had become a part-time, one-man protest band, on behalf of Soviet human rights. Letters to newspaper and magazine editors were written. Window displays were created for the book ‘Three Generations of Suffering’. Banners were painted for protest marches to the Soviet Embassy. Poems about persecution were written, one or two published in religious rights magazines. Prayers were painfully uttered.
My life gained purpose and was filled with this zealous energy. I became a spiritual subversive, immersed in those Slavic prison and persecution dramas. I avidly read many translated samizdat documents detailing show-trials, unjust imprisonments, poems and sermons. I identified with those suffering citizens and those censored creatives, who went against the grain of Soviet society.
A Russian Romantic, 1975
Dr Zhivago’s revolutionary tale of hope and loss beckoned me to this immense Slavic landscape. I longed to tramp Russia’s snow-forest landscape with the wandering Orthodox holy fools. Or, sit on a sledge, covered in furs, pulled by a troika of horses. Hear their hundred harness bells in major and minor tones, joyously ringing. Percussive horse hooves tamp frozen snow, as a sledge speeds, sliding homeward.
Overhead the star-field’s celebratory twinkling canopy smiles down a blessing. An ancient wooden church with bulbous onion dome is passed. The silence is showered with the poly-rhythmical sequence of tolling church bells. A steaming samovar of tea awaits this pilgrim at journey’s end.
I listened to Orthodox liturgies with their rumbling, resurrection echoes of religious ecstasy. I joyfully listened to the lively bright Russian campanology: such contrast to our boring tin-pot parish mono-tone bells. My feet walked Irish pavements but my soul was rooted in a Russia that probably never existed.
A Russian Pilgrimage, 2008
It had taken me thirty years to visit my adopted spiritual homeland. I travelled there with an Irish Christian NGO work-team. Our task was to help turn a big old barn into a religious retreat centre in Murmansky Verotta, near the town of Volhov, a few hours east of St Petersburg.
When we arrived in St. Petersburg, I discovered that I had to travel to separately from the rest of the Irish team. Apparently this was to avoid possible police inspection of my insufficient paperwork. The others went to the country retreat by train. I travelled with Vera, the Russian team leader, in her car.
This alteration of travel plans was to have interesting and creative long- term consequences for me. Little did I know, that when Vera brought me back to her 1930s-era apartment my later literary life was to quite dramatically change. I met her daughter, Katya, for the first time. She was 17 years old, a slightly melancholic only child.
For two hot Russian summer weeks in 2008, I helped measure wood, learned how to use a chop-saw, and helped fill attic space with fibre glass wool. Quite unconfidently, I also climbed a home-made ladder to creosote high exterior barn timbers.
From this high vantage point I looked out over the surrounding rural landscape. Abandoned farms dominated the countryside, their tidal seas of uncut grass swayed in the breeze. Nearby neighbours ate al fresco under fruit trees. Local kids cycled on the car-free roads. To top it all, many train horns randomly sounded all day, beckoning to me from behind a small forest.
As we were confined to the compound by Vera, anxious to not draw undue attention to “rich Westerners”, we met few local people. As a life-long cyclist, I convinced our Russian host to let me try out her Soviet- era cast-iron bicycle. What a bone shaker that was! I had one or two races against local children, zig-zagging around the pothole pools, letting them win, most of the time.
Another day, I escaped the claustrophobic confines of our compound, for a cycle tour of the village town-lands. I cycled that gear-less bike fast, past many barking guard dogs, chained and unchained, behind rickety fences. I cycled in figure-of-eights, around potholes on sand-topped lanes. I idled by the gigantic railway depot, taking in that vast industrial terminal view. I reluctantly turned back to the host’s house and high compound walls.
A Young Female Russian Artist Befriended Online, 2010 and onwards
Two years later I discovered Katya on Facebook and “friended” her. A lot of our early email exchanges concerned her thesis presentation. The year that she graduated I gave her my first few commissions, even though I hadn’t seen any of her art. I hadn’t a clue what she was capable of. A small financial initial risk was worth the adventurous gamble.
Katya, now in early twenties, was a post-Christian goth and wanted to be a computer-graphics artist. Over time we established a working artistic and personal friendship. She was to aptly capture many emotionally evocative images for my poems. Together we gained an expansive internet readership. In turn, my payments for her art helped her be financially independent.
My commission propositions accelerated after Katya illustrated my Russian rural poem, Summer Pastoral Scene in Rural Russia
Such was my awe for that iconic image, I had it printed on a T-shirt, on a canvas and on a watch face. On her behalf, I also submitted this image to the annual Royal Hibernian Academy exhibition.
First Collaborative Problems and Their Resolution
Just after that successful start we had a falling out. Unthinkingly, I had asked her to illustrate one of my marriage poems. Talk about a trouble maker! The role of the creative writer is to challenge society, but not to cause others to stumble in the process. There became a fraught tension between us. Because of all that internal psychological and spiritual strife, I got shingles.
“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and our righteousness acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf and like the wind our sins sweep us away” – Isaiah 64: 6
One autumn day, during this season of psychic pain, I cycled out to the country to pick blackberries. I reflected on our complicated situation and poignantly prayed. I hated the idea of our fracturing. I knew that I needed her art and hoped that she still needed my email friendship.
An email alert sounded on my mobile phone, shortly after my supplication. We were back on track again. I was relieved. I seem to almost fall off many dangerous “precipices” in my personal life… but circumstances usually grab me, just before any perilous tumbling descent.
Katya and I then collaborated on many more poetry projects, too many to mention. One project was her cover design of my father’s texile memoir that I published. The inside covers showed an advert featuring two models snuggling under a mohair blanket. When she saw that photo, she described to me how she and her friends used to snuggle under a blanket, listening to music, giggling and drinking cups of tea. I sensed a poignancy in her telling. Based on her written images, I wrote an evocative poem for her: Stop the Clocks! https://kickstartyourheart.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/stop-the-clocks/
She informed me that she cried on reading it. No one had ever admitted such an open emotional reaction to my poetry in that way before. I didn’t realise the powerful emotion that some of my writing was capable of stirring. Her reaction gave me new confidence in my poetry.
Holly: A Video Short Project, about My Stillborn Daughter
In 2014, I asked Katya to help me commemorate the 21st anniversary of my daughter’s stillbirth. Regardless of having little empathy for children, she drew many stunning illustrations for the Goodbye, Au Revoir, Slan stillbirth project https://vimeo.com/77928404
A section of our video ended up being used as dvd extra on Return to Zero, the first ever stillbirth movie. It was broadcast on religious TV in Germany in 2015. Little did I know that my “little grenade of hope” would “explode” a measure of blessing in many hearts and minds around the world.
“…there’s a consistent pattern of finding an elevated rate of mood disorders in artists and writers….mood disorders may also confer a kind of creative advantage….(these) People tend to be more intense, more mercurial; they see the world differently…”
Touched by Fire: Manic – Depressive Illness & the Artistic Temperament, Kay Redfield Jamison.
In December 2013 I said that I wanted to “press pause” for a while. We were trying to work on a project together which became very stop-start. I wished that I could wave a magic wand over all her self doubt and depression.
I had no intention of changing Katya, as she sometimes supposed. As the father-figure that she never had, I wished to encourage her art career. It was a bonus that Katya trusted me. She stated that I “kept my word and had shown examples of how a parent could act, apart from what she knew about her family”.
I wanted to introduce her to artist friends. I suggested a visit to Ireland. Getting out of Russia for a short while, and meeting lots of creatives might do something wonderful, sending her back to Russia rejuvenated. That idea almost worked.
Later Katya emerged from a period of silence and made me a lovely video-short tribute, using images that we had collaborated on. I was very touched by this unexpected gestures.
It was gratifying to read that her growth and faith in herself had increased, on account of our collaboration. She had wished that I was more critical about her art, as she was herself. I had proven to her that her pictures can talk to people’s hearts, even if she sometimes considered them as nothing special.
We Decide to Press Pause with Our Online Exchanges
Then she suddenly asked for a communications break, stating that she was tired of my constant attention. My attempts at benevolent care and her independent streak were possibly at odds with each other. We held different perspectives, opposite genders, very divergent ages and cultures.
I was trying to be a proxy parent but it turned out that my suggestions were not now welcome. It’s hard to get the balance between a biblical hope and naivety. I tried to capture aspects of my enthusiasm for her art in I am Your Impossible Friend
I wondered would our collaborations continue. I had just sent her some money, as down payment for another graphics commission. I decided not demand that back. I told her to keep it, use it for counselling and a few relaxing massages. She replied: ”that’s a true act of care and I will spend that money the way you ask, because it’s what I really need…”
Our friendship had been very interesting and eventful, even if a bit tumultuous on both our parts, for very different reasons. I had thought and prayed about her life dilemmas and crises. She, in turn, gave me lots of challenges to consider.
Her younger, atheistic outlook challenged my long-standing conservative Christian certainties. She introduced me to modern Goth-rock bands that she listened to. Her brash and mythic Deviantart art preferences starkly contrasted with my default of narrative art.
“….the best way to challenge our assumptions and prejudices, and develop new ways of looking at the world, is to surround ourselves with people whose views and lifestyles differ from our own. …..The challenge is to spread our conversational wings and spend time with those whose values and experiences contrast with our own….” – Roman Krznaric
An Online Art Patron Reflects on Age, Gender and Culture
What had I tried to be to Katya? An art patron? Yes, because Katya needed support and thrived on artistic opportunities. Was I trying to be a parent figure? Definitely. I believed that she once badly needed such. Should I have cared less? Should I have pulled back, as some suggested? Was I really helping her? Was I possibly hindering her from personal growth?
Our last big project was a booklet collection of my poems, using her illustrations. I had promised her this publishing opportunity a few years ago. Now I had finally organised it. Twelve poems, accompanied by twelve illustrations.
Of course, I had wanted Katya to come to Dublin for the launch. I was very keen to make this happen but circumstances outside her control interrupted that grand plan. Katya kindly recorded me a video response to the booklet. To see and hear her again, after nine years, was a rewarding delight https://vimeo.com/182629151
We have had so many adventures together. We have significantly helped each other in different ways. Over many years we have tramped an adventurous and tenacious terrain together.
Her images added extra depth to what my poems were attempting to convey. Will I ever able to replace someone like her? I doubt it. Our last of many collaborations concluded recently. She spent many hours illustratiing my piano poem How to Make Stubborn Pianos Sing True.
She poured so much of her heart and soul into her illustrations for me, over the past nine years. She was the one who perceptively “baptised” me with the appellation of “emotional nudist”. If my poems continue to rhyme with some empathy in peoples lives, I will possibly have fulfilled my life’s mission…
After seven years of successful collaborating, Katya Zhu happily moves on with her life and her art. She deeply enriched my encounter with Russia…
Gallery of Katya’s images: https://louishemmings.com/gallery/katya/