“Stories about humans and plants” – The work and life of Olga Volchkova
I met Olga Volchkova in Mexico in 2010. I was celebrating New Years Eve in Tulum with a group of international friends and musicians, all performing together and hanging out in the sun. Olga was staying in the same hostel and we quickly became friends. I was also shooting a video during that time and asked her to model for me. We had so much fun that when I was asked to create some music videos for Crime & The City solution a year later, I asked her to model for me again and went to visit her in Eugene, Oregon to do so. It was only there that I realized that she is an exceptional icon painter. As modest as she is she had never mentioned it to me during our collaborations.
Her house was filled with beautiful paintings done in the traditional Russian style and technique except that her themes were slightly different than the typical icon bought on an antique market. Olga is not only a trained icon painter who learned the craft in a school in Russia, but also a talented landscape artist. She has amassed an incredible amount of knowledge on flowers, herbs and spices over the years, which she integrates into her every day life, be it in decorating houses, cooking and baking traditional Russian recipes or tending her many beautiful gardens They play such a large role in her life that she started painting icons for them. She has painted icons for coffee and chocolate plants, roses and cherries, marijuana, chili, sage and cinnamon. She researches everything she can to find out about the different plants and herbs, be it historical, medical, in religion or literature and then creates a beautifully crafted universe of details dealing with this one plant.
Olga is one of those rare artists that calmly creates her art without entering the hectic rat race of metropolitan cities. She spends her time steadily working on her art, reading and inventing new recipes, transforming each nook in her house and garden into a magical realm of beauty and keeping in touch with her Russian family. A Russian Frida Kahlo… She has been discovered by museums in the meantime, and exhibits internationally, whenever her garden allows. She is a true inspiration and it is a great pleasure to introduce her here.
Danielle de Picciotto: What are icons exactly?
Olga Volchkova: ”Icon” means ”image” in Greek. We usually mean a religious work of art, typically a painting, from the eastern Christian tradition. Icons depict the life and events of saints and the main religious holidays. They are intended as a connection between the people and God. Most Russian icons are painted using egg tempera on specially prepared wooden panels, or on cloth glued onto wooden panels. Gold leaf is used for halos and background areas. There are lots of secrets inside of each process. For instance, the paint is made from stone ground minerals and egg yolk, but for it to be perfect, the yolk has to be mixed with three parts of water and few drops of vinegar.
How and where did you learn icon painting?
I finished art school in Tver, in the realms of classical painting and restoration (oil and tempera). Parallel to this I was studying Icon Painting, in Tver as well. It was my second school, which I would attend on the weekends. After a year or two I started working for this Icon school as a painter and restorer. We painted Iconostases for Churches around Russia. I liked traveling with a team on a small bus completely packed with tools, wooden boards, and golden wood carved ornaments, to spend a week sleeping in a monastery. It was a great adventure plus you could see the result of your work right on the spot.
How did you start painting your plant icons, or how would you call them?
At some point I got sick of always painting the same images of Christian Saints. The Orthodox Church is very strict about iconography, so an artist cannot change even the smallest detail of the composition. I felt too restricted in this box of rules. During that time I started painting surreal colorful paintings exploring my own path and possibilities. At the same time I was working as a gardener, maintaining and planting private and public gardens and learning a lot about plants, for example how to create a perfect four-season garden. It’s like sculpting with plants, to help the garden express itself. At that point I started missing icon painting and my love and belief in nature transformed itself into the “Garden Saints” paintings. I believe my icons need to tell stories about humans and plants, which, through their collaboration, make the Earth a better place to be. One in which humans respect, value, and don’t abuse nature. Plants are Saints; they give us air to breath, houses, food, fabrics, and medicine.
What are you working on currently?
At the moment I’m working on canonizing Eugene’s most special plants. For example – Kale, which grows here so well. Only in Eugene can one find such an endless variety of kale products, kale breakfast rolls (my absolute favorite, they are so delicious), kale soups, juices, garnishes, chips, kale Caesar salad, pasta, and kale dolmans. The plant itself has beautiful textures and shapes. It demands to be painted. Camas is another native Oregon plant that indigenous peoples used as a staple food for many centuries, burning fields and digging bulbs, making flour for baking delicious bread. This tradition is still practiced by our local artisan bakeries. When the camas blooms in the late summer, with a light-blue star-like flower, the green fields of Oregon become very festive and otherworldly. So it’s absolutely godly in all aspects. Also I’m planning to paint the Oregon grape, a very powerful antibiotic, as well as hazelnuts, rhododendrons, all native plants that are highly respected here.
What are your future plans?
All my paintings tell stories. At some point, when I have enough paintings, I would love to create a book in which I can explain the meaning hidden inside of the images and symbols. Plants not only make our life on Earth possible, they have also inspired artists and poets through our history of human existence. Before I start with a new painting I do a lot of research. It would be lovely to share these thoughts with the world.