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Tatyana’s impressions of Wairarapa

Greytown artist Tatyana Kulida in her home studio. PHOTO/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

A loaf of bread just out the oven, a freshly caught crayfish, grapefruit blown from the neighbours’ trees during lockdown, and a basket of plums with the “blue dusting” still visible.

To Greytown artist Tatyana Kulida, these images are the essence of Wairarapa.

The “simple pleasures” of provincial New Zealand are the focal point of Kulida’s latest exhibition, “Impressions of Wairarapa”, on display at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington.

The exhibition features 14 works, mostly painted from Kulida’s cosy backyard studio, capturing the artist’s experiences of daily life “in the country”: foraged fruit and flowers, seafood from the Wairarapa coast, and an oak tree on the Woodside Trail, painted over several early mornings “before the kids got up”.

Kulida specialises in the French academic method of painting – a movement, popularised by the neoclassicist artists of 18th century Europe, focused on realism, drawing from life, and natural light sources.

Though it is “experiencing a renaissance” throughout the world, the academic method is less common in New Zealand – with Kulida’s teaching academy, Anthesis Atelier, the only institution dedicated to this methodology in the country.

Outside the classroom, she is best known for series “Portrait of Antarctica” at Parliament’s Visitor Centre – a collection of near life-sized portraits of climate researchers, activists, and scientists, including famed primatologist Dame Jane Goodall.

The subjects of “Impressions of Wairarapa” may be less grand in stature – but, for Kulida, the artist’s journey is “more about the small moments than the big statements”.

Kulida at work in her Wellington studio and art school, Anthesis Atelier. PHOTO/PETER WIEZORECK

“I’m not really preoccupied on having a particularly noble subject in front me. Not when there’s beauty to be found in the ordinary, and in the most unexpected places,” she said.

“I think people will connect with the exhibition because it’s all about the small pleasures – the taste and feel of the things that remind you of home.

“In Wairarapa, it’s the slower pace of life – being able to bake bread and have a long cup of coffee in the morning, observing and noticing all the different things in nature, walking in the forest and finding fox gloves growing out of season, feeling the soil beneath my feet.

“It’s all very meditative. If I see something that melts my heart, I’ll paint it.”

Kulida, who was born in Russia, attended university in the US: first majoring in art and mathematics (“I was still holding on to the idea of getting a real job”) at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, then doing a postgraduate degree in arts administration at Winthrop University in South Carolina.

On graduating, she worked in consulting while “doing art for the soul” in her free time – but received a wakeup call when, in 2009, she lost her closest friend to cancer.

“I witnessed someone who was so youthful, powerful, and beautiful pretty much fade away to nothing.

“It made me realise how crippled I’d been feeling in life. I knew I had to stop wasting time and pursue my art – to do what makes me happy.”

She travelled to Italy and embarked on a three-year diploma at the Florence Academy of Arts – where she become proficient in the French academic method and went on to teach for a further three years.

She tutored artists from all over the world, including a princess of the Italian Corsini dynasty, members of the United Arab Emirates royal household, and the granddaughter of actress Katharine Hepburn.

After the birth of her second daughter in 2015, Kulida and her young family moved to Wellington, where she went on to found Anthesis Atelier on Cuba Street.

Since opening the studio, she has tutored close to 60 students in the French academic method, ranging in age from 11 to “late 60s”.

In many modern art schools, Kulida said, students are taught using examples of other artists’ styles and motifs – whereas the academic method is focused on universal technique, such as composition, scale, and light rendering.

“It’s all skill-based – if you’re willing to attempt those skills and to build on them, people of any age can pick it up.

“You learn the pictorial language — and from there, you figure out what you want to say in your art, and how you’ll say it.

One of Kulida’s paintings, featured in the Wellington-based exhibition “Impressions of Wairarapa”. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

“I don’t necessarily believe there’s such a thing as artistic genius. People say there are those that can just paint naturally, but I don’t think so. Can you run a marathon ‘naturally’? No – there’s a lot of training involved. Art is the same.”

Kulida and her family moved to Greytown in October 2020, where she and husband Stefan built her 10 square metre studio from a kit set – with “not a lightbulb in sight.”

Working with natural lighting means Kulida has a shorter time window in which to paint – especially in the winter months – and some paintings require multiple sittings and several weeks of work.

“The natural light creates a much richer colour palette and captures all the subtle shades and half-tones,” she said.

“Plus, you don’t get the headache from an electric light buzzing overhead. It’s a very gratifying practice.”

She did, however, have less time to complete some of her Wairarapa-themed works – especially those involving food.

Favourites include “a huge basket of plums” collected from a friend’s garden, crayfish and paua Stefan caught on a trip to Tora, and a turkey that fell foul of the neighbour’s dog – which Kulida later cooked for dinner in the crock pot.

“No one was allowed to eat until I was done! So, I only had a few hours for those.

“Although we did get hungry while I was painting the bread – so we ended up having to shave some off the back.”

“Impressions of Wairarapa” will run until Sunday, June 12. Tatyana Kulida will be giving a presentation and demonstration on June 11 at 11am at the Academy of Fine Arts.

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