An Artistic Sojourn in Russia
When Wellington artist Milton Christianson stepped off the train in Kotlas last July, he was greeted by "eight women with flowers." That reception set the tone for his entire stay in our sister city. Everywhere he went, his hosts made sure that he was comfortable and well fed.
Thus says Christianson, a watercolor landscape painter, in describing his summer's sojourn in Kotlas. Christianson spoke at the Kotlas Connection's annual meeting, held on Tuesday, October 21, 2003, at St. Mark's Church in Waterville. He also exhibited his works and formally presented a painting commissioned by the Kotlas Connection.
Christianson, who favors broad brushstrokes and vivid colors, participated in a twelve-day international artists seminar in Kotlas, Russia this July. Two articles about his trip have appeared in theMorning Sentinel; he was featured in a third article for his paintings at the Empire Falls filming in Skowhegan.
The Kotlas Connection selected Christianson to go to the seminar in response to an invitation from the Waterville Committee, the Connection's counterpart in Kotlas. The previous August, when an unofficial delegation of Waterville area residents had come to Kotlas, the Waterville Committee had invited the Connection to choose a Maine artist to attend the seminar.
In all, Christianson spent three weeks in Russia, arriving in Moscow on July 2. There he spent two days by himself, visiting museums and touring the Kremlin, until Zina Yegorova, a retired English teacher and two-time visitor to Waterville, came to escort him on the 25-hour train ride to Kotlas.
Christianson was one of dozen participants in the seminar. There were five or six Russian painters, as well as German photographer, an English painter, and two painters and a videographer from Los Angeles. Christianson was the only watercolorist in the group - the others painted with oils - and the only non-Russian who had not previously met their host, Stanislav ("Stas") Borodin, an impressionist painter who currently lives in St. Petersburg, but was born in Kotlas.
Each day during the seminar, Christianson and the other participants would pile into two minivans and travel an hour to hour and a half in a different direction to paint outdoors. The northern countryside is dotted with onion-domed orthodox churches, large and small, active and abandoned. These were the painters' primary subjects.
The weather was sunny and hot throughout their seminar. A cook traveled with them and prepared meals over an open fire. At night, they slept in the sanitorium, or health spa, owned by and near to Kotlas's formerly secret electromechanical factory, which was a major defense plant during the Cold War.
During his stay, Christianson painted 23 works, selling one, trading another, and loaning five to the Kotlas Regional Museum. Each of the seminar's participants loaned several paintings to the museum for a traveling exhibit.
Although Christianson does not speak Russian and Borodin does not speak English, the two got to know each other quite well. At the end of his Kotlas stay, Christianson spent three days in St. Petersburg. Originally intending to stay in a hotel, Borodin invited him to stay in his apartment. Borodin graciously escorted his guest around the city. As a well-known artist, Borodin - and Christianson with him - was able to advance to the front of the line and enter without paying admission at the city's museums. Christianson later returned his host's hospitality when the latter came to the U.S. a few months later.
A native of Minneapolis, Christianson graduated from Wesleyan University with a bachelor's degree in anthropology. Now 56, he has lived in Maine since 1970. He usually exhibits and sells his work at the Waterville Intown Arts Festival in July and has twice won the Best in Show award.
Largely self-taught, Christianson was influenced mainly by the California school of watercolor impressionism, which thrived from the 1920's through the 1950's. Artists of this school, or style of painting, typically painted ordinary outdoor scenes, cityscapes and landscapes, using bold brush strokes and bright colors. They typically worked outdoors to capture the transient effects of light. "I know the look I want," Christianson says. "I just keep painting and painting, trying to achieve [it]."
Christianson enjoys traveling to exotic locations to paint. Prior to his Russian sojourn, he had painted in India, in Nepal, in Australia, in Canada, and throughout the U.S. For Christianson, painting is a portal through which he can experience the local atmosphere more richly. It allows him to stay in one place all day, instead of just hopping off a bus to snap a photograph like many tourists. As he paints, the locals will come up to ask about his work and occasionally even invite him to dinner. "It's fun to travel and paint," he says. "It opens so many doors."
The seminar, sponsored by the City of Kotlas and other area municipalities, was held in honor of the Russian impressionist Alexander Borisov (1866-1934), who was born in Krasnoborsk, 32 miles downriver from Kotlas. Borisov was well known in his day, having had exhibits of his works in Austria, Germany, France, England, and the U.S. He is said to have been a guest of President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. Today, however, Borisov is little known, even in Russia; organizers of the seminar hope that it will help restore his reputation.