Thursday, 31 October 2013

OPEN STUDIO: From the Ural Mountains to Shrewsbury - Meet Svetlana Elantseva

Born in the Urals - there can’t be many people in the UK who can say that, and definitely not in Shrewsbury. But Svetlana can.  For the first few years of her life she lived in the mountainous region north west of Kazakhstan, which forms the natural boundary between Europe and Asia. She can’t remember much about the region because she was only six when her parents moved away from Perm where she was born. Most of her childhood memories are of Uvarova in the state of Tambor.  Her mother was a lab technician in a chemical factory and her father an electrical engineer. 

Svetlana has no recollection of her father. It was her first husband who gave her the name Elantseva, which she's kept for the sake of their son, but before that her step-father gave her his name, Grishai. He was like a real father to her. 'He looked after me like a real father,' Svetlana said.   

Svetlana's step-father wanted her to have a proper job when she grew up - to be an accountant, hopefully with a good business degree.  He didn’t like the fact that she spent her every spare minute painting and drawing.  He tried to stop it.  It didn’t work.  Not even punishing Svetlana by shutting her in a darkened toilet or excluding her from the family meal-table worked. 

Throughout her growing years, Svetlana was fascinated by art and driven by the desire to make it.  When she enrolled for college in Moscow it wasn’t to study accountancy, which is what she told her step-father, it was to attend art college.  When she arrived, however, it turned out that because she hadn't been allowed to attend art classes at school, she didn’t have the necessary paperwork, so she trained to be an inspector of textile machinery instead.

These were the days before perestroika. Svetlana’s first experience of the artist’s life came whilst she was working in a factory, when a group of Agitation Artists was looking for young recruits. A competition was set up and, out of all the entrants, Svetlana won a place in their studio.  Here she learned what was needed to produce government propaganda art, making posters, writing copy, making reproductions of famous Soviet works of art, following a clearly-defined house style. 

During this period, Svetlana worked in the town of Klimost. The money was good and the work kept coming in.  She had free holidays and subsidised rates at the local sanitorium courtesy of her trade union. A whole string of government-promoted festivals required posters. ‘Darling, you in the West only seem to know about May Day,’ said Svetlana. ‘Or World International Day,
 as we called it. But there  was also 23rd February - Soviet Military Day, 8th March -International Women’s Day, 9th May - World War Victory Day and 7th November - Victory of the Revolution Day.’  

Svetlana made banners for all these festivals.  The parades marched by and people waved her banners. She earned good money.  She had a secure job doing something that she loved.  And then came perestroika.

The Russian view of perestroika, as seen through Svetlana’s eyes, is very different from ours.  To many Russian people, the years before perestroika are now looked back upon as the good old days. There was an order to things.  Everybody knew what they were doing, and what they had to continue to do, in order to maintain stable society.  The word ‘perestroika’, however, means ‘restructuring’. It was a political movement, meant to be about reformation within the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. But, as we all know, it led to the end of the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War.  

We in the West tend to think of that as a good thing, but it was a frightening thing for ordinary Russians who had to live through it. According to Svetlana, when the old political certainties were swept away, so were the certainties of ordinary life. People lost their jobs.  Their money counted for nothing.  Factories closed.  Art studios closed. People were offered shares that meant nothing to them as a form of redundancy package, and found themselves prey to shysters who’d buy them up for a shadow of what eventually would be their real value. 

‘It was the end of my step-father,’ Svetlana said. ‘No one explained what people should do.  He lost his way. He turned to drink.  Then he had a heart attack and died.’

Svetlana didn’t say outright that perestroika killed her step-father. However, the loss of the old order shocked him to the core. Everybody’s life was turned upside down. Having lost her job, Svetlana studied accountancy, achieved her diploma and ended up working in a friend’s Moscow boutique.  ‘From there I was befriended by a wealthy client,’ said Svetlana, ‘whose business-man husband recognized my potential.  He trained me up to work his way. His company had some very high profile VIP clients. I achieved a directorship. I had a driver, a cook and a cleaner. Given what some people went through post-perestroika, I was one of the lucky ones.’ 

There’s a big jump from Svetlana’s Moscow apartment, complete with cook, cleaner and driver, to her life at Plox Green, which is where she landed ten years ago when she arrived in the UK.  ‘I married an Englishman,’ Svetlana said. ‘In Russia there is one man to every twenty women, so many Russian girls marry foreign husbands and end up moving abroad.’

Svetlana didn’t know what she was in for when her husband told here about the Shropshire home he shared with his father in a place called Plox Green. Her seventeen year old son from her first marriage, however, Nikita, had moved to England ahead of her and told her that she wouldn’t like it. But Svetlana had always been a bit of an Anglophile.  English literature had interested her at school and so keen had she been that Nikita should learn English that she had started him aged three.

‘Besides,’ Svetlana said. ‘I was in love, so I paid my son’s warnings no attention.’ Her family thought that marrying an Englishman was a crazy idea, especially as it involved moving to England. They didn’t come to the wedding.  But it wasn’t until Svetlana arrived in Plox Green that reality struck home.

‘Darling, I came from living on the 12th floor of a Moscow apartment building,’ Svetlana said. ‘I lived a very urban life. Now here I was with nothing but trees and fields and the occasion sheep - no pavements, no street lights, nowhere to go.’ 

Desperate to find that elusive ‘somewhere to go’, but without a car, Svetlana made a series of treks up Hope Valley dressed in Moscow everyday fashion wear, including killer high heel shoes.  On more than one occasion she put herself in danger on the valley’s hair-pin bends. One time a driver rolled down his window to point out the hazards that lay ahead on a narrow road without pavements. In addition, Svetlana’s new father-in-law was a lovely old man, but he needed a lot of looking after. This was not the life that Svetlana had expected.   

‘We were both to blame,’ she said. ‘Not just my husband, but me too. Neither of us recognized the cultural gulf between us.  However, God must have been looking after me because coming to England meant that I at last ended up with an art education.  I got my BTEC in Shrewsbury, then did Art Foundation. Then I went to Stafford University and studied for a BA in Entrepreneurship in Culture & Heritage Industries, which taught me a great deal about business and marketing in Art industries, and from which I emerged with a 2.1 degree.’

The tale Svetlana tells is quite extraordinary, and it begins, ends and is shot through with art. Back in Russia, Svetlana’s paintings reflected Russian culture, in particular that of the Orthodox church.  Here in England, she’s had the chance to explore different landscapes and a whole new heritage.  Her paintings of Shrewsbury buildings, including Rowley’s House, have been sold as cards in Russia, and she’s pulled together a group of international artists who are currently exhibiting together in Ironbridge, following on from Shrewsbury and Moscow.  

‘I’ve made some good friends here in England,’ Svetlana said. ‘Without them I would have got nowhere.  These are people - teachers at SCAT and other friends too – who helped me through some very difficult years.’  

Svetlana is now divorced.  Her son Nikita works for the Shrewsbury company RMW Electrical Services Ltd., for whom she has nothing but praise for taking on a Russian boy and putting him through his training as an electrician. He's buying his own home, and currently Svetlana  lives with him. 'Shropshire is a beautiful place,' she said, 'but it’s not easy to earn money here.  Moscow’s the place for making money, but Shrewsbury is the place for making art. Better to have a quiet life though - do what you wish and have enough - than to sacrifice your life and have no time or energy to spend all your money.’  

Ten years down the line, Svetlana can see pluses to village and small town life. If she were living in Plox Green now, she said, she’d have a greater appreciation of the country way of life.  For his part, Nikita loves Shrewsbury. No way would he move back to Moscow.

Currently, Svetlana is working as a volunteer with the Museum Service conducting audio interviews with Russians in the county, and other Eastern Bloc ex-pats who have stories to tell. One woman told Svetlana that she had felt homeless in her own country, but had made a home here.  ‘I never felt like a foreigner in Latvia where I lived,’ she said, ‘or in my home country, Russia, and I certainly do feel like a foreigner here. But even as a foreigner in Britain, I still feel more at home.’

This year Svetlana has taken time out from working in her studio to organise exhibitions for herself and for the Art International Gallery - whose aim is to promote international understanding through art - of which she is Director. The Art International Gallery includes artists from Britain, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and China. Both Svetlana and Russia's Alexey Gilarov have exhibited their work widely, and China's Li Bai has a strong profile in her own country.

This year alone, Svetlana has organised ten exhibitions. She exhibited under the heading 'The Journey Continues' at Rowley's House Museum and with the group Art International Gallery at the Llangollen International Festival as part of the 'Art Without Borders' project which started in Moscow in 2012.  In addition, the group exhibited at the Hive, Shrewsbury with the exhibitions 'We were born in the U.S.S.R' and 'Conversation Pieces', and Svetlana also brought the 'Art Without Borders' exhibition to this year's Shrewsbury Art Festival. 

It has been a busy year for exhibitions, including Bear Steps in Shrewsbury and the Ironbridge Gallery. The 'Art Without Borders' exhibition is heading for Moscow in the new year, and from 14th January until 3rd February will be housed in the National Gallery 'Varshavka'. 

A few weeks ago, Svetlana and I met for the first time, and the other day I visited her studio in  the light, airy conservatory at the back of Nikita's house, and we had coffee together.  She never paints when she's unwell, she told me, or when she's unhappy. She always paints in the now, and for that - and to end up with good art - she needs to be upbeat and positive.

Svetlana's fiance, Paul, described Svetlana's painting mode as a frenzy of activity.  'It's a case of out of the way, artist coming through,' he said. 'The studio is off limits. Svetlana needs maximum light, maximum space. Lights, colour, action - that's what it's like.'

So what inspires Svetlana to paint? She's worked in all sorts of mediums and a variety of styles.  Sometimes it's people, she said, who sparked her interest. This old woman, for example, wearing Adidas shoes, became the image for a poster proclaiming 'Adidas Goes With Any Crown'.  

Svetlana has notebooks full of ideas. Colours may set her off, or shadows, shapes or reflections. The notebooks enable her to develop her visual imagination and evaluate her ideas.

Svetlana also has a dictionary [well worn] to help with her English.  As Paul pointed out, Svetlana has worked her way through two degrees in English, so her language skills really can't be that bad. But Svetlana is a perfectionist. Everything she does has to be done well.  'How you say, darling..?' 'Have I got that right..?'  'I don't know the word for...'  Repeatedly these phrases came up throughout the interview. But they didn't need to.  Svetlana's English is far better than she seemed to think.

There's something tough about Svetlana. You can tell that she's been through a lot and come out the other side. Yet she's  gregarious and warm - a charming, outgoing person whom you can’t help but warm towards in return.  Here's the empty wrapper of the bar of chocolate she gave me with its pretty Russian doll of a child with open expression and expectant gaze.  Svetlana's made her home in England, but she'll always have a Russian heart.  

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Has Shrewsbury Ever Looked More Beautiful Than It Does Today?

I had something else in mind to write about today, but what a beautiful day it is. After the storm that hit so much else of the country - though thankfully not Shrewsbury, at least with its full 100 mile per hour force - how can I not marvel at this morning's clear blue skies and crystal russets and golds. A perfect day for celebrating the beauty of our town in autumn.   

Here's this morning's dog walk then, heading through St Alkmund's churchyard, down Fish Street, across the top of the Cop, up Belmont Bank [the home of monster spiders], round Old St Chad's Churchyard, through the Square, across High Street and back home via Butcher Row, St Alkmond's Square and St Mary's Church.  I'm not claiming much for my photography [iPhone], but the views speak for themselves:


As if that's not enough loveliness for one day, here's this afternoon's dog walk too. The sun was still shining, so Biffo and I decided what better place than the Quarry [our local park]. Half way across it, we stopped off to admire the Dingle, which to my mind is even more beautiful in shades of green and gold than in its high summer colours. Then we cut over Porthill Bridge by the Boathouse pub, up Beck's Field to the top of the hill [to admire the town's spires and domes beneath a bright blue sky], then along the swollen Severn, over Kingsland Bridge, up Swan Hill and through the bustling lanes and passages that lead back home:


I wish I could have captured more of the essence of what today has been like. I can't remember any  occasion, no matter how special, when Shrewsbury has looked more beautiful than it does today. 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Noye's Fludde, Part Two [On The Night]

I enter a very, very buzzy Shrewsbury Abbey. Children everywhere. Pews filling up. The production isn’t due to start for the next half hour, but you can see how packed the Abbey’s going to be with Mums, Dads, Grannies, Grandpas, little kids, big brothers and sisters, lovers of the work of Benjamin Britten, those who’ve never heard it until now, and just the plain curious, which includes me.

The man next to me says his daughter is playing an elephant.  I say I’ll look out for the elephants. 

The orchestra tunes up. The side aisles are illuminated, but the pews and central aisle are in semi-darkness. Up on the screen behind the stage [a huge arched screen taking advantage of the Abbey’s full height] an image of Shrewsbury under flood is projected.  The image changes. Can that possibly be Coleham by the fish and chip shop?  It changes again. Duckboards are stretching all the way down Frankwell. It changes yet again, and suddenly there’s the Abbey standing in a vast lake, its reflection mirror-glass perfect. For anybody who’s ever seen the River Severn in flood, it’s hard to believe that anything so destructive could ever look so calm.

I’m still thinking this when Mrs Powell-Davies, Shrewsbury High School’s Musical Director, stands up. Good evening. Welcome.  Mobiles off.  No photography, unfortunately.  Can I run you through the songs you’ll be invited to sing. One of them will be a round, so we need to do some practicing.

‘Lord Jesus, think on me,’ we sing in a lovely, solemn minor key.  ‘Purge away my sins….’ ‘From earthbound passions set us free…’ ‘For those in peril on the sea…’

Mrs Powell-Davies steps down. God climbs into the pulpit. With a crash of cymbals, the show is finally on the road. Clouds fill the screen behind the stage. God’s angry with mankind and only one man is worth saving. You know the story.

Noye starts building his Ark, but gets laughed at by his wife. If ever I saw a mismatched pair, these two are it.  Even when the animals start entering the Ark [two by two, of course] Mrs Noye refuses to take her husband seriously.  There are animals everywhere trying to pack into the Ark, but she’s round the town hanging out with her Gossips. 

The sky darkens. Rain starts falling. ‘Wife, come in!’ sings Noye.  ‘I will not!’ Mrs Noye replies. The water’s rising by now. The Ark begins to bob, but still she refuses to come in.  Finally Noye and the kids have no choice but to drag her in, but all her husband gets for it is a slap [thank you percussion] round the face.

The storm is really taking hold by now. Kyrie, eleison sings the choir, Lord, have mercy, to an accompaniment of trumpets, cymbals and drums. I sit back, feeling a bit like one of those storm-chasers in the American mid-west, waiting for the main event to kick off.

And here it comes.  Here it is.  Rain on the screen - stair-rod rain, not polite English patter but rainforest stuff.  It’s on the columns of the Abbey too. It’s up amongst its arches and down amongst the audience, dancing on our heads. Everybody in the Abbey is caught up in it. Maybe the animals are safe in Noye’s Ark, but the rest of us are being rained upon. And it might be Andy McKeown’s light-show imitation rain, but I for one am feeling decidedly cold and wet.

Suddenly it’s the storm-dancers turn.  Here they come, followed hard on heels by the spirit of the storm kitted out in electric blue, presiding over waves billowing with rage.  All around the Abbey, lightening flashes and thunder does what thunder does best. The storm dancers rush about, surging like tides. Then out of the chaos, unbidden and unexpected, comes that old hymn about those in peril on the sea, and I find myself singing along with it, feeling as if I’ve never quite got it until now, because it’s not just someone else’s peril – this time it’s mine too.

The waters are high now.  Shoals of darting fish [I exaggerate here – it was three fish, actually] leave trails of air-bubbles behind. The sky’s still dark, but there’s a shift in the music, something that suggests a hint of blue. Something on the screen is hinting at it too – enough blue for Noye to send out a ballet-dancing raven to look for land.

One moment the raven is on stage, on tiptoes, beating black wings. Then it’s gone, and we catch a glimpse of a huge black bird on the screen. Then that, too, is gone - and there’s no land to be found.

Will this flood ever subside? ‘Forty days and nights,’ sings Noye. ‘Forty days and nights!’ You can imagine how long those days and nights must feel, cramped into that Ark with all those animals and a grumpy wife. Next time Noye sends out a dove, hoping for better luck. She heads off down the aisle; we see her on the screen, winging across the waters. Then suddenly she’s back – and the olive branch she’s carrying is big enough for even those at the back of the Abbey to be able to see.

Troubled waters, it seems, are troubling no more.  Regeneration is taking place. New life is to be found on earth. And new life in the Ark, too. Mrs Noye is at the helm, holding the Ark steady as the waters subside.  The face-slapping stroppy wife has gone, replaced by a smiling, serene-looking one.  They’re strong together, Noye and her, united by suffering and the trauma of the flood. Once you could have been forgiven for wondering what they saw in each other - but not any more.

Suddenly, up pops God.  Out of the ‘shippie’, he calls. The door is open. It’s time to leave.  Time, too, for the washed-clean brand new earth to start to grow, and for the animals to multiply and fill it. A joyful procession stumbles out of the Ark to an accompaniment of singers and orchestra, and heads down the aisle.  Twitchy little mice skip past my pew, prowling tigers and plodding elephants. ‘Alleluia’ they’re all singing, and the screen behind them is alive with swirling lights.  

Then God calls again ‘Noye! Noye!’ he calls, and before I can think oh no, here we go again, God’s promised that never again will a cataclysm of this nature destroy the earth. The screen fills with rainbow colours. Everybody start to sing - not just the animals and Noye and family, but us as well, the entire audience supported by the orchestra.  We’re singing rounds, and the Abbey is ringing, and I’m in a muddle because I know I’m meant to be following what Noye sings but in the roar of sound I can’t hear him. There’s a sun on the screen, and a funny wobbly shape that I’m guessing is a moon.  Stars like fireflies appear, and the screen has turned the deepest sky blue.

Finally, after all the animals and his family, with a fanfare of trumpets Noye and Mrs Noye leave the Ark. ‘The hand that made us is divine,’ sing cast and audience as one. The last ‘Amen’ rings out. Suddenly it’s like the Cinderella story when at the stroke of midnight the carriage becomes a pumpkin. Animals turn back into children. They surge up the aisles and attempt to pile onto the stage. Half of them can’t fit on, and they’re giggling and a few of them are shoving. You’d never believe they all fitted in, back when the stage was meant to be an Ark. 

Thunder breaks out. This time, though, it’s not the orchestra or special effects. It’s parents and grandparents, proud music lovers all, stamping on the floor. On and on it goes until God gets down from his pulpit, looking as if he’s having trouble with his robe. Then the lights come on. Clapping hands and feet fall silent. Coats come out.

It’s amazing how quickly normal life can be resumed. Everybody’s on their feet, making sure their mobiles are switched back on, and they’ve got their bags, children and whatever else they brought with them. ‘What did you think..?’ ‘I thought the musicians were excellent...’ ‘It’s great to see people getting together…’ ‘Great place to do it, in the Abbey...’

I’m in the aisle, along with everybody else. A moment ago it was our town’s young people leaving the Ark and heading out into the world to reclaim their lives. And now it’s me, blinking into the shiny darkness of a Shrewsbury night.  Did everything happen exactly as I described it? I can’t answer that, except to say that I know what I experienced – and it was Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. 

The production team include Maggie Love, Maureen Powell-Davies, Andy McKeown, assisted by Bill McCabe and Dave Jones, Beverley Baker, Garry Jones, Charles & Heather Descombe, Stephen Edwards, Hamish McKeown, Mark Warner, Jeremy Lund, Claire Fitton and Nick Jones.

God was played by Gareth Jenkins, Noye by John Bowen and Mrs Noye by Posey Mehta. 

The orchestra was drawn from Shrewsbury High School, Shrewsbury Sixth Form College, the Priory School, Meole Brace Science College and Adams Grammar School, Newport.

Dancers, Noye’s family and animals came from Shrewsbury High School, St George’s Junior School, Coleham Primary School and Mereside Primary School.

Thanks in the programme were extended to Shrewsbury Handbells, Reverend Paul Firm and the staff of Shrewsbury Abbey, Grant Wilson, the officers of the Shropshire Archives, Violet Rose Vintage, Dogeared Vintage, Shropshire Trophy Shop, The Shropshire Lodge of Royal Ark Mariners, Shrewsbury High School Head, Mike Getty, and staff, and Head Teachers of all the schools involved. 

The photographs of the production are copyright Andy McKeown.

I hope I haven’t left anybody out!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

How the Mayor of Shrewsbury [and his people] Escaped a Dire Fate at the Hands of a Giant [No, I'm not talking about our MP]

Shroppiemon will know this story, I have no doubt, but many of you won’t.  It was read as part of a paper to the British Archaeological Association in Shrewsbury in 1860.  According to its author, Thomas Wright, it was an example of the way the ‘crafty God Thor’ had become degraded in popular imagination.  The story, he said, was known amongst all classes and came in many variations. Charlotte Burne, who recorded this meeting in her Shropshire Folk-Lore in 1883, confirmed that she too had heard the story in many different version. Sometimes the spade full of soil that it features wasn’t to dam up the river but to bury the town. Sometimes the people of Shrewsbury went out to deceive their adversary with old boots and mouldy crusts of bread.  And the giant wasn’t always a giant.  As one elderly lady put it to Charlotte Burne, ‘Folk generally tell the story of the Devil, but the old ones say it was a giant’.

Burne’s retelling of the story is about a giant.  As it's also about Shrewsbury, I'm retelling it here:

Once upon a time there was a wicked old giant in Wales, who for some reason or other had a very great spite against the Mayor of Shrewsbury and all his people, and made up his mind to dam up the Severn and by that means cause such a flood that the town would be drowned.

So off he set, carrying a spadeful of earth, tramping along mile after mile trying to find Shrewsbury.  How he missed it, I cannot tell, but he must have gone wrong somewhere, for at last he arrived in Wellington, puffing and blowing under his heavy load, wishing he was at journey’s end.

By-and-by, alone came a cobbler with a sack of old boots and shoes on his back, for he lived in Wellington and went once a fortnight to Shrewsbury to collect his customers’ old boots and shoes to take them home and mend.   The giant called out to him. ‘I say,’ he called. ‘How far is it to Shrewsbury?’ ‘Shrewsbury,’ called back the cobbler. ‘What do you want at Shrewsbury?’ ‘Why,’ said the giant, ‘to fill up the Severn with this lump of earth.  I’ve an old grudge against the Mayor and the folk at Shrewsbury, and now I mean to drown them out and get rid of them all at once.’

‘My word,’ thought the cobbler.  ‘This’ll never do.  I can’t afford to lose my customers,’ and he spoke up again.  ‘Eh!’ he said, ‘you’ll never get to Shrewsbury, not today, nor tomorrow.  Why, look at me. I’m just come from Shrewsbury and I’ve had time to wear out all these old boots and shoes on the road since I started.’  And he showed the giant his sack.

‘Oh!’ said the giant with a great groan, ‘then it really is no use! I’m fairly tired out already, and I can’t carry this load of mine any farther.  I shall just drop it here and go back home.’

So the giant dropped the earth on the ground just where he stood, and scraped his boots on his spade and went home to Wales.  Nobody ever heard anything of him in Shropshire after that. But where he put down his load there stands the Wrekin to this day. And Shrewsbury still stands too. And the pile of earth where the giant scraped his boots has made Little Ercall by the Wrekin’s side.’