Day 21 of a 28 day odyssey in Moscow, 1989. To recap, our Russian hosts had worked out the details of our month-long visit about a year in advance. The plan had been to spend Weeks 1 and 2 in the schools of Moscow followed by Weeks 3 and 4 in the schools of Tbilisi. All of the plans for those last two weeks (April 23rd through May 7th) dissolved the day we arrived due to the unrest in Tbilisi. Instantly our Soviet organizers’ job became three-fold: to somehow come up with valuable activities for the American performers’ last two weeks, to keep us all safe during an itinerary that was being cobbled together a day at a time, and to let the Americans know only what they needed to know in order to take back a glowing report to the United States. Our hosts’ demeanor changed a bit after those first two weeks; we knew that now they were scrambling.
Friday 28th- Left at 10am for School 1226- Ash & I went to the 6th form class (12-13 year olds, but they looked small), and they talked/ recited to us. Then 45 minutes later I was transferred next door and I led my drawing/painting class.
Along with traditional art supplies, I brought with me some pebbles I had gathered from my driveway in Ashland, NH before we left for Moscow. Here is my “lesson speech”:
“We each wonder ‘What is America like?’ What is the Soviet Union like?’ Today you will find out. You will know. You will never forget.
“Close your eyes, hold out your hands, and grasp the object I give you, without opening your eyes. These are pieces of America. Hold it in your hand. I have one in my hand which I gathered from your country. Don’t look at it— feel it. Hold it. Warm it with your own magic. With your eyes closed, move it from hand to hand, imagining what color it is. But don’t look, because if you do, you might think it is only a pebble. If you hold it in your hand, you will come to know it is the world. [Pause for a minute.]
“Now, place it on your desk, and look at it. You already know it very well. Look especially at the shadow it casts on your desk, for that is as important as everything else. Now look at the contours— the ins and outs and textures. America is looking at you too!
“Now, trace with your hand and eye together— Look at the piece of America, and start to draw its shape. Just put your pencil lightly on the paper, continue to look at the pebble, and pretend you are running the pencil along the edges and contours of the stone. You already know your stone very well. You are drawing a portrait of my country.
“When you are done with the contour drawing, you can shade it in if you like. Or use color. The stone is yours to keep. To remember today. If a year from now, you cannot tell the difference between your American stone and a Russian stone, that is a very good lesson.”
At the end of class I donated many of the art supplies and they seemed happy, especially with the kneaded erasers.
[ I came away with something far more valuable than art supplies: I gained a pen pal who corresponded with me for several years.Following Alina’s lead, I kept all the news in my letters warm, friendly, and apolitical. Her letters were sweet, so polite, so grateful for her good fortunes large and small. Alina was 15 years old and I was 36 when our correspondence started. It is hard to picture her 43 years old today. I hope her memories are as fond as mine.]
Sat 29th- Giving things away has ended up being the best part of the last two days. 10am Sergei met us to help on our ‘day off’, and we went to the Smolenski Monastery. Peaceful, interesting place- the sky cleared as much as it ever does in Moscow, and the river and greenery looked wonderful. On the way out we passed street artists, how excited I felt. Tomorrow I may go back with watercolor paper as a gift. Then to a Berioska to get cokes, but we all bought much more. I got three carved wooden mechanical toys, 2 small covered dishes for gifts, and a carved wooden bird for my desk. $24 American. Then to Arbat Street where David, Deborah, and Will finally were buskers, playing folk music and attracted quite a crowd. Hannah and I walked on down the line past the silhouette cutter and many primitive paintings. On the way back I stopped by Boris Shamshin’s work, and was deeply touched by a small picture of a single country home with a brooding sky— it held my attention so strongly— as I looked away to the left, I saw the stormy “Zaharova” larger one— when we found the artist he said they were 40p and 60p respectively. I tried to explain I didn’t want the frames and glass, but it was very poor communication until Hannah said we were from USA, then suddenly he spoke some English! I tried to decide between the paintings, and instead ended up with both, remembering that I had brought money with me which I hadn’t touched yet. So in dollars, it’s about $165-170 for the two watercolors on very poor paper. They may fade, etc., but I love them. He took them out of the frames, and as I paid him I gave him the White Mountains calendar by Chuck Theodore as a gift. He looked inside and liked the pictures very much. As Hannah and I strolled toward town on Arbat Street, I came back across the bass player and violin player—I listened, smiling, then at the end of the piece I went up and tipped them some rubles with a cassette of American cellist Eugene Friesen “New Friend”.The two of them looked at each other, and at the tape in the violin case, then finally the bass player went over and picked it up, looked at it, then looked for me, signaling his pleasure. I smiled and nodded ‘okay’, patted my heart, and left. I felt so at home suddenly. Back to the bus. Back to the hotel at 3:30pm, lunch, nap, tea, rehearsal, talk, sleep.
Easter Sunday 30th– To Ismailovo Park on metro with Deb & Ash at 9am. Beautiful sunny day. Perfect temperature, light breeze, clear sky. Walked up “Artist Mile”, mostly tacky stuff. I got a ceramic whistle that chirps. Lunch of oranges, granola bars, bread. Metro back to Sport Center stop, and to Monastery and Berioska for more gifts, including a can of peanuts we inhaled. To hotel at 4pm. Others rehearsing, I went to room to rest, watched TV and saw Billy Joel’s video “Don’t forget Your Second Wind”! Small world.
Monday May 1st- May Day– Watched demonstration in Red Square on TV from 10am-noon. Not necessarily a safe place to be, although Deb & Ash headed out that way. In late afternoon we went to Sasha’s park for a picnic & play & singing. Great time. Then back to their apartment for lots of tea and picked out paintings to keep.
Of course they would not let us buy them, so I gave Natasha a lot of Arches watercolor paper and Winsor & Newton paints (large ultramarine, burnt umber, burnt sienna, small rose madder, indigo and Winsor green.) Many, many cups of tea, Sasha played piano, good time. Took trolley back to hotel in time for May Day fireworks. To bed 11pm tired & happy.
[The next, final five days were amazing. I will finished writing them up tonight and post them very soon. Far too wonderful to crowd in here. Thank you so much for all the supportive comments from readers; perhaps you have had a taste of the Russia I love, the one that today’s news anchors do not consider of course. Final chapter tomorrow…]
Loved your pebble lesson. That’s something they will remember forever. You are always so good with words.
I too loved the pebble lesson and imagine that the students retained a vision of America and Americans that was new to them.
It’s important to remember that Russia is not just “politics”. Thank you for letting us see the people you met and loved. We are more alike than not.
An artist with words too. Love the reminder of the joy of simple gift giving.