Soviet diaspora artists open two shows at Museum of Russian Art

a woman paints a picture
Olga Volchkova took her Eastern Orthodox iconography training to canonize flora and fauna, deifying lemons and nightshades, cattails and otters.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

Two exhibitions open Saturday, Dec. 2, at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. “Nature’s Saints: Icons by Olga Volchkova” features a twist on traditional Eastern Orthodox icon painting.

“The Art of Leon Hushcha: The Way” includes new work by the artist that responds to the Russian war in Ukraine. The shows are wildly different — one uses strict technique, the other experiments with technique and medium — but both artists are informed by their experience of being part of the Soviet diaspora.

Lemons and cattails: Unorthodox iconography

From her home studio in Eugene, Ore., Olga Volchkova explains how she took her Eastern Orthodox iconography training to canonize flora and fauna. Volchkova’s exhibition features dozens of paintings deifying lemons and nightshades, cattails and otters and more.

Volchkova grew up in Tver, Russia, during the Soviet era. After the fall of the Soviet Union, she attended an iconography school newly opened in a monastery. During the Soviet era, religious expression like iconography had been unofficially banned. She says the art form was almost lost.

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“I really liked discovering these ancient techniques. And it’s felt like nobody knows about it, only such a small group,” Volchkova says. “So we were rediscovering and trying all kinds of different materials that were used for thousands of years.”

A painting of a woman holding an otter
"St. Cattail," 2023, by Olga Volchkova. "She's a mother of many. So her son is an otter. Her daughter is a water lily. She provides food and she provides shelter. Her neighbor mountain lion comes by and brushes her with his soft cat tail."
Courtesy of Olga Volchkova

Volchkova has now been living in the U.S. for a few decades. And she had long since decided that traditional iconography was too restrictive.

“Basically, you copy the same images through the centuries … You cannot change even one position of one finger,” Volchkova says of painting saints. “I’m copying and copying and getting better at that, but it’s not going anywhere for me, and I actually don’t believe in subjects inside of these paintings.”

So Volchkova, who has also been a professional gardener, decided to focus on flora and fauna and create a new saintly canon with pieces like “St. Pea,” “St. Chloroplast & Holy Chlorophyll” and “St. Wild Ginger.” 

“I always thought: What makes me feel good, what is very powerful and meaningful and what do we have to pay attention to?” Volchkova says. “It’s nature that surrounds us. Plants are very good with animals and animals are very good with plants.”

She adds, “And we could be part of this unique beautiful system.”

With each painting and its accompanying didactic, Volchkova tells the histories and uses of the natural world’s offerings.

A painting of santa belladonna
"Santa Belladonna," 2012, by Olga Volchkova pays homage to the atropa belladonna plant, also know as deadly nightshade. "In the Renaissance times, women used to put drops of Belladonna in their eyes to dilate the pupils."
Courtesy of Olga Volchkova

Museum director and curator Maria Zavialova says that Volchkova is creating something unique, using the techniques of iconography to create a new canon from nature.

“Beautiful icons have been created over more than 1000 years,” Zavialova says. “But I’ve never seen anything like this, because she does it as a project. It’s a project, it’s a dedication.”

Like in traditional iconography, every inch of Volchkova’s paintings is intentional, Zavialova says.

“That’s another thing I love about her paintings,” she says. “Every detail is telling, nothing is random … Everything means something, and sometimes a lot, so that’s amazing.”

“Nature’s Saints: Icons by Olga Volchkova” opens Dec. 2 and is on view through March 24. Volchkova will give a virtual artist talk on Dec. 7.

Gold, blue and red: The first political works of Leon Hushcha

From his Minneapolis studio, artist Leon Hushcha recalls how he started having visions of skulls a few months back.

“I’m thinking of the war, of course, because I can’t get it off my mind,” says Hushcha, referring to the Russian war on Ukraine. “I’ve never done a skull in my life. I’m picturing skulls and I’m picturing a whole space full of skeletons. I don’t know what that means, but I’m going to do it.”

This shows up in Hushcha’s 2023 large-format painting “The Red River,” which features a sea of skulls against a canvas of blue and golden yellow slashed through with a red bar of paint. It is a departure from the oeuvre he’s created over a half-century career of artmaking, although it’s nearly impossible to categorize Hushcha as an artist. His work can take the form of expressive abstract paintings embedded with pools of glitter, or intimate and figurative black-and-white ink studies, and even painted sculptures. 

a man poses in front of an art piece
Minneapolis artist Leon Hushcha with his new painting "The Red River"
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

“They have some kind of musical effect,” Zavialova says of Hushcha’s work.”When you look at them, you’re surrounded by them. They’re somewhat meditative.”

Hushcha, who is a Ukrainian American, says this show, “The Way,” features the first political work of his life. About 50 paintings and sculptures, both new and old, will be on display.

“I had never done a political painting in my life,” Hushcha says. “This show was really difficult. It’s not all about Ukraine, but the direction and main focal point is. I think the conclusion I came to through the work was — and it shouldn’t surprise me — is that I’m just really anti-war.”

Gold, blue and red: The first political works of Leon Hushcha

Hushcha was born to Ukrainian parents in a displaced persons camp in Austria. In 1949, his family moved to St. Paul. While he never has been to Ukraine, he says he feels a strong affinity with the Ukrainian identity.

“A lot of my friends from my youth wondered why I would show up at a place called the Museum of Russian Art,” Hushcha says. He says the museum is firmly anti-war. “There is no doubt that they are pro-Ukrainian.”

He sees exhibiting at the museum as an act of collaboration, which he posits is the only way through conflicts and war.

“It’s a necessity if this world is going to survive,” Hushcha says.

“The Art of Leon Hushcha: The Way” opens Dec. 2 and runs through March 3.

a painted sculpture
A painted sculpture by Leon Hushcha is on view at the Museum of Russian Art in south Minneapolis.
Courtesy of Larry Marcus
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.