3 Family

As Dostoyevsky’s character once said in “Crime and Punishment”. “Russian people are altogether spacious people…… and extremely inclined to the fantastic and disorderly”.

For Katya, growing up as a youngster in her family was fertile ground for the making up of fantasy creatures. As a first generation Australian with very little exposure to a typical Australian way of life, surrounded by the ‘fantastic and disorderly’, and an unpredictable milieu, Katya’s Dreaming intensified. How could it not!

Family gatherings were both thrilling and worrying…arms waving….loud voices, jubilant laughter….arguments, both benign and fierce, were common. And characters galore! There was Uncle Vovochka, who was ‘sleazy’ and a bit like the Pied Piper Katya thought. You must know about the German folk legend hero the Pied Piper of Hamelin?…the Pied Piper who induces others to follow or imitate him by means of false or extravagant promises? Anyway……, Uncle Vovochka also had a stammer which made him all the more terrifying. A stammer where his words could only be discharged, like bullets from a gun, when accompanied by a loud stamping of his foot urgently on the floorboards.

Sleazy….a word she learned later in life but which immediately conjured up memories of Vovochka. His insistent seductive advances …and she was only 5years old! Forcing her to stroke his face with her open hand to feel the roughness of his emerging beard; prickly, fiery and scratchy. She couldn’t refuse!! After all he had brought a box of Roses chocolates just for her and no-one else! This was the beginning of her befuddled thinking about men who were confusing and tricky and who, at the same time offered her promises of certainty, comfort, security and of course sweetmeats and delight….but at a price! How her Russian grandmother let him get away with it I don’t know! I must admit I failed to make sense of it myself but Katya later told me what it felt like while making her cloth which she called the ‘Pied Piper’.

The Pied Piper cloth is Katya’s collective Dreaming of being seduced by all things colourful, vibrant intriguing and unusual. This is a piece that captures and holds her multiple experiences of giving in, being led astray, supporting and agreeing to do and say things, while at the same time, living up to Dostoevsky’s description of the true Russian by being…’extremely inclined to the fantastic and disorderly’. She acknowledges, entering recklessly into some situations that seemed exciting and desirable and to her advantage at the time without considering the outcomes which could often be disastrous.

The blank cloth used for the making of the Pied piper began as a piece from cast off denim jeans, chosen and recycled to retain the multiple stories of ‘dressed for adventure’ but also altered by resist dyeing with a stencilled background. This technique emphasises both the unknown outcome of the process and mimics symbolically the unknown outlook of the proposed story. This time  the process results in imagery which Katya interprets as being surrounded by vermin in dark woods and which she amplifies through her embroidery.

There is a playful mood about the comical rats embroidered in the cloth with the children set apart and themselves indifferent to the piper’s invitation. Yet the piper is hooded and cloaked, however colourfully, and deceptive in his intention knowing that the children will follow. The scene is set against a backdrop of mystery and dark intrigue.

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Pied Piper Private collection 2014

Figuring prominently in Katya’s family was also Aunty Verushka who was anxious and insistent and besotted with her only child, cousin Alexis, who was unashamedly spoilt, astute and mischievously fun to be with. Aunty Verushka’s husband Uncle Giorgi was appeasing and forever pouring oil on troubled waters, throwing salt over his shoulder, making sure that knives were not crossed on the table set for lunch and ensuring that parting guests did not bid farewell across the threshold, for this would surely result in them never returning to the house according to Russian folklore…. Also there were Olga, Shura, Aga, and many more who as refugees had found a sense of belonging in this new country. All of these Russians could be exceedingly superstitious! An atmosphere which gave rise to both the magic and uncertainty of daily life for Katya.

Katya had no contact with her mother’s English family. Except for much later when her cousin came to stay in Australia. It was a pity as contact with her English relatives may have provided some balance on the tight rope or at least from time to time bring her down to earth so she could feel her feet on the ground. But suspended she would remain for a long time. I could do very little during these early years to help Katya except to encourage her to collude with her mother. They, together with Katya’s youngest and beloved brother would giggle quietly together at the antics of the others while in the kitchen preparing the food which would be blessed and consumed according to whatever occasion of note in the Russian calendar was to be celebrated….Orthodox Easter, Nameday’s, deaths, marriages funerals……

Katya’s fantasy characters appear later in many of her cloth work. The “Fish bowl” was the first. The work suggests Katya’s sense of living both within and outside her familial and cultural worlds. Sometimes she observed and was inside the fishbowl and at other times outside peering through the glass at the distorted images within, observing her Russian relatives but with a barrier between them. Was she different to or the same as, them? Her confidence in the command of the Russian language when she was young was adequate but not superior so she spoke little but understood much and in her quietness she enjoyed the private space that provided  a room for her to study them; to asses which parts of them resonated with her experience of life. Later however, when she began school, the differences between her and the others in her class were confusing. She floated around among her peers, who were more confident than she, much like the fish in the bowl. At school she also seldom spoke but did not enjoy the silence.

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Fish Bowl  Second Prize. Fine Arts, Patchwork Category, Class 166, Creative Fabric Art. Royal Queensland Show. 2012

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