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Galina Perova, 64: Rebel Artist

Growing up in Russia, Salt Lake City-based artist Galina Perova always had a rebellious streak and a powerful talent for painting. She discusses staying true to her beliefs, the shifting themes of her artwork, and how her early obsession with the US got her mom in trouble with the authorities.

Galina Perova seems at first glance to be a quiet, soft-spoken artist working patiently in her studio. However, we are often not who we seem to be. After a few minutes, it is abundantly clear that this is a bit of a self-protective disguise; that the person we are faced with is a first-class rebel and an extraordinary painter. This is not some well-meaning hobbyist quietly doing pastoral landscapes. No, this is a determined artist in the way we thought of that word back in the era before mega galleries dominated the scene. This is someone with a fearsome skill set, powerful ideas, and a fearsome intellect. She is also a ton of fun

Once the mischievous smile comes out, you know you are in for a real ride; the sort of person with whom after dinner you may end up in a very wild place. Her superpower, learned from growing up under the oppression of the USSR, is keeping all that quiet until she is ready to reveal it.

As a youth, Galina was an unusual artistic talent, attending an art school for gifted students in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. She applied to the prestigious Repin Academy of Art in St. Petersburg and, after competing with over a thousand other students for the few positions available, was accepted. She received her Master of Fine Arts degree and then her doctorate in 1989, graduating at the top of her class. Though receiving considerable critical acclaim for her work in Russia, she was determined to pursue life in the West and, after several attempts to get out of the USSR, in 1989 she successfully made it to the United States. Since her arrival, she has received numerous public and private commissions and has exhibited her work extensively.

Being Russian these days can be a real handicap, even for defectors and emigres from decades ago. We find this not only unfortunate but absurdly wrong-headed. These are people who risked everything to get away from that system. These are exactly the people who should be brought close to learn from and inspire us as a counterpoint to the evil that is running wild there now. We are especially inspired by the art and spirt of Galina, a woman who never did, and never does compromise her values. 

How old are you?  
64.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Krasnoyarsk, USSR. At age 19, I moved to St. Petersburg to attend the Repin Art Academy.

What is the story about you as a kid trying to take people to America?
When I was 7 years old, I told a group of my classmates that we should go to America. We were treated very poorly in school and wanted to escape. I dug under the school fence and took six other kids on a day-long journey to “America” from Siberia. After walking for what seemed like forever, they asked: “Where is America?” I said we had to take a train. The kids were tired, hungry and started to cry. We went to a classmate’s house that was close to the train station. They were very poor; we ate the fermented bread and had a sample of the moonshine without knowledge of what were were drinking or eating. When the grandmother arrived home, she found us all passed out. My mom was in trouble with the authorities because her daughter had attempted to take kids to America. They wondered how I knew about America. 

“My mom was in trouble with the authorities because her daughter had attempted to take kids to America”

Did you wear Levi’s as a teenager? Rather subversive of you, no?
Yes, I bought Levi’s on the black market in the USSR. I loved anything American. My friends used to call me “Americana.”

You have always been true to your beliefs and principles. Did that cause you trouble in the USSR?
Yes; in the first grade they told us that when we were attacked by a nuclear bomb we should go under the desk. I questioned the teacher about how the desk would save us in that case. She chastised me and said I was stupid and ignorant because I questioned the government (USSR).

I was arrested because I socialized with art students from other countries. 

We would hide under a blanket and listen to the Beatles and Elvis Presley. If we would have been caught, we could have been put in jail.

I am sensing a theme of mischief, more or less. Am I correct?
Yes; I am very mischievous and, at times, very childlike. I blame it on my lack of a true childhood because I was always painting and training and never really had much time to be a kid. 

If I said to you, “Let’s go make some trouble tonight,” what would you suggest?
I would probably want to go to a casino. I love to play the penny slot machines! I love the lights and noise. Back to my lack of a childhood!

There is a rumor you are an excellent cook. What is your favorite dish to prepare?
It depends on who I am cooking for. I love to prepare soups, lamb, steak florentine, and anything with mushrooms (except psychedelic, of course!) 

The Subway Car is all about movement and was painted during a time of great social movement in the USSR. What are the themes and cultural movements that you are interested in now?
A lot of my time is spent doing commissions. When I have time, I tend to focus on snapshots of humanity that are universal to every culture. 

“The Subway Car”, painted in 1986.

What do you listen to when you paint?
Only classical music. I feel harmony inside of me when I listen to classical music.

Why did you decide to live in Utah?
When I was a student at the Repin Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia, I met a gentleman from Salt Lake City, Ray Kingston. When Ray found out that my painting “The Subway Car” had been selected to travel to the New York Academy of Art through a cultural exchange program, he invited me to visit. They arranged for the painting and I to visit Salt Lake City as well. I wanted to defect from the USSR. A group of prominent Utah citizens helped me to get a teaching job at the University of Utah and I was able to get a visa and then become a US citizen. As long as I can remember, I had a fascination with all things “American” and my ultimate desire as a child was to live in the United States. 

“Art is my life. I can find interest in painting about every subject”

What was it like coming to live here from Russia?
It was a very big culture shock. I grew up in a country where there was always a shortage of everything. We stood in line for food and essentials. You also were very limited on where you could travel and what you could say. In this country, I understood that if I worked hard, I could achieve. As a well trained artist who graduated from a prestigious academy in the USSR, I would have had many opportunities but they would have been dictated by the government. Other than high government officials, the USSR was a country of “equality in poverty”! 

I found people in the United States to be much more kind than what I had grown up around. The culture that we grew up in was that of survival. We grew up only trusting family and friends. At any time you could be reported to the authorities for minor infractions like befriending foreigners or speaking against the establishment. 

What interests you about painting these days?
Art is my life. I can find interest in painting about every subject. Depending on what is going on in my life or in the world, I may be more melancholy at times or I may choose to paint with a statement.

What is the most challenging part of your work?
To finish a project. When you start a painting, you have a clear plan of attack but as you progress, you start to think about different options and ideas that may lead you to make different decisions about where to go with the painting. You can get lost in your own ocean of thoughts. I am also a perfectionist, so I want my paintings to be perfect before I release them. 

How has your approach to your work changed as you have become older?
As I feel my time is getting shorter, I am becoming more philosophical about life and feel an urgency to think about what the universe is about.

“I see beauty in everything around me”

How do you decide on your subject matter?
I do a lot of commissions, so a fair amount of the time the subject is chosen for me. I see beauty in everything around me and, when I have time, I paint those subjects.

How do you organize your days?
Prior to Covid, I had a set schedule of going to the gym to exercise, walking my dog and then painting. When everything shut down, it changed my daily routine. It has been hard to get back into that routine.

What is your social life like? 
I am a very social person. I love to laugh and joke with people and generally enjoy life to the fullest. I have found, though, that as I have aged, I have become more selective of how I choose to spend my time and with whom I choose to spend it.

What is your ambition for the next 10 years?
To paint the best paintings of my life!   

What are 3 non-negotiables in your life?
Integrity, ongoing learning, and loyalty to my profession, friends and family.

Connect with Galina:
Website

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AUTHOR

David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

 

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