At Easel in Russia
Maine artist flexes skills in Waterville's Partner City
By Amy Calder
WATERVILLE — Milton Christianson and the people he met in Russia may not have understood each other's language, but they connected through his art.
"They really love art over there," Christianson said. "It's a universal language. Once they found out I was an artist, they couldn't do enough for me."
Christianson, 56, an impressionist painter from Wellington, recently returned from a three-week visit to Russia, where he took part in a 12-day painting seminar with several Russian artists, a painter from London, a photographer from Germany, and two artists and a videographer [from] Los Angeles.
The artists traveled together in and around Kotlas, where they painted churches, dachas — camps used as vacation homes — and other buildings. The more-than 100 works that emerged from the seminar were exhibited at a museum and now are part of a traveling show in Russia.
"The Russian people were wonderful and they were glad that I was an American, and I never felt any hostility," Christianson said. "The German and English guys were a little hostile, because they don't like our government and what we're doing in Iraq and the way we bully other nations."
Christianson visited Russia at the invitation of the Waterville Committee, based in Kotlas. A city of 70,000 people about 480 miles northeast of Moscow, Kotlas became Waterville's partner city in June 1990.
The Kotlas Connection, a committee in Waterville, contacted Christianson after being asked by the Russians to find an appropriate artist to attend the seminar. This week, he shared highlights of his trip with members of the Kotlas Connection — Philip Gonyar; Jack Mayhew; Mayhew's wife, Pauline; and Herb Foster. They perused Christianson's artwork, looked at some of the more than 300 photographs he took in Russia and talked about the Russian friends they now have in common.
Gonyar, who is co-chairman of the Kotlas Connection with Mayhew, said the group recently received a grant through the Open World Program that will bring the mayor of Kotlas to Waterville in the spring.
Christianson arrived in Moscow on July 2 and was greeted by Zinaida Egorova, a member of the Waterville Committee who has been to Waterville three times. He spent two days in Moscow, visiting museums and touring the Kremlin, and then took a 24-hour train ride to Kotlas.
"The train was the best part of the whole trip for me," he said. "It was the most romantic part, like being in a movie or a novel, watching the Russian countryside go by. The Russian trains are really nice. They're old trains, from the '40s and the '50s."
In Kotlas, he was greeted by eight women bearing flowers.
"That set the tone," he said. "I was escorted and pampered and they never let me do anything by myself," he said. "They wanted to make sure I was well-fed and comfortable, and they'd take me everywhere."
The weather was hot and sunny for most of the trip; according to Christianson. He stayed with the other artists at a health spa, and ate in a cafeteria there.
The food was very simple, with typical lunch consisting of bread, cheese, salami, cucumbers and tomatoes, he said.
Everyone in Kotlas knew about Waterville and they are very proud of their connection with the city, he said, adding that he was interviewed for both newspaper and television, appearing on television several times.
"They really loved the fact that I was from Waterville," he said.
The only watercolorist at the seminar — the Russians painted oils — Christianson said it as difficult to discuss art with them because of the language barrier; but they liked his works, and he liked theirs.
The museums they visited were exquisite, he said.
Stas Borodin, a professional artist from St. Petersburg who ran the art seminar, befriended Christianson, and when Christianson left Kotlas for St. Petersburg, Borodin took him to museums, where they did not have to wait in lines or pay admission fees.
"It was eye-opening to go to the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg," he said. "There were thousands of paintings covering Russian art of all different periods. They're highly skilled; and even today, their artists are highly trained. It's phenomenal."
The Kotlas Connection will hold a meeting at 7 p.m. Oct .21 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Eustis Parkway. The public is invited. Christianson will be the group's guest, and the public may view his paintings. He donated five of his works to a museum in Russia, traded one, and sold one to a painter there. He did 23 watercolors while in Russia.
From the Morning Sentinel, Sunday, August 31, 2003, pp. B1 & B3. Text used by permission.