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March, 1999

The Moscow Studio and the Hand Print Workshop: Lessons in Collaboration
By Dennis O'Neil

Director Dennis O'Neil (left) with Russion Artist Yuri Avvakumov and supervising masterprinter George Fox (right) at the Moscow Studio, June 1992. I went to Moscow for the first time in 1989 as part of a group of artists, architects and scholars. I decided to go because I wanted to see from the inside this great shadow that had been cast over the lives of people from my generation - it was lifting for the first time in 70 years. That was my sole interest at first. While I was there I discovered something remarkable and compelling in the city. I found a warmth and generosity of a people I had been led to believe were distant and mistrustful; and a sense that what was happening, which you could feel just walking down the streets, was a profoundly important moment in history. I also saw opportunity. For me, printmaking had come to stand for collaboration and learning as much as anything else. Making collaborative waterbased screenprints with other artists and their ideas for 15 years in Washington had given me great confidence in my abilities. Taking artists through the process of transforming their ideas to a new medium was important. I always looked for that middle ground between idea and technique and most importantly, to expand the potential of the medium and my understanding of the people with whom I work. Almost everything I have learned about screenprinting, I have learned by working with others. This was the experience I brought to Moscow.

Tipper Gore with Boris Botsky at the Moscow Studio, 1991.The more I saw, the more deeply I felt a desire to be part of Russia’s transformation, not as a silent observer but as a participant. I had something to offer and a way to provide opportunities to document, through the eyes and hands of the artists, the changes that they would surely give voice to in their art and in their prints. The 1987 Sotheby’s auction in Moscow revealed to the world the resolve of the Russian artists to resist the constraints of the Soviet system and to take on the injustices and inequities of Soviet life in their work. Art in the Soviet Union during Peristroika was not about money, but about art and principle, something I found quite refreshing coming from the market-driven West. This period of late ‘Non-Conformist’ art appeared to point to the beginning of something new, not unlike the era of Constructivism during the 20’s in the fledgling Soviet Union. It was a romantic idea, befitting Moscow in the last days of the Soviet Union, a dazzling place of idealism and despair, of Soviet decay and imperial opulence, a gray city with golden domes.

The Moscow Studio was unique: Russian and American artists working together in Russia, building something new, sharing common goals, teaching, giving democratic opportunities to work with new media for artists from throughout the country. The Moscow Studio also enabled artists to show their work in the West. Etching had existed in the U.S.S.R. for decades. There were two well established etching workshops run by the Union of Artists in Moscow that created a broad interest in and accessibility to prints. What I brought, waterbased screenprinting with bright clean colors and endless possibilities, was unknown and therefore an instant sensation, opening all the doors of artistic society to me in Moscow. Artists, famous and obscure, came to the studio. In 1991, the Russian Academy of Art became my partner, providing studio space that looked out over the Kremlin in central Moscow. Ambassador Pickering and the American Embassy hosted a gala reception and sent Tipper Gore to visit the studio. Everyone wanted to show our works. The Moscow Studio was a gift and it was a success!

But what of the vision of a new flowering of heroic Russian art? A new period to rival Constructivism? All the pieces seemed to be there and the climate was right. By the end of 1993 however, I could see that it was not happening. I remember at that time feeling a sense of disappointment, but my expectations were not theirs. Their needs were more personal and fundamental. Artists who were able to, left for the West. Others turned their artistic expression inward, and instead of pointing to the future, looked to the past, or what it meant to be a Russian today. What my Russian friends needed was a sense of closure with the Soviet Union to discover who they really were as people, and a nation. Centuries of totalitarian rule left them fragmented, with great pieces of their history still concealed.

Slingoman, Igor Makavevich, 1996, Screenprint.My new colleagues wanted a normal life, to rediscover their past, and to connect with it in the face of massive cultural and economic pressures from the East and the West. I began to realize that cultural identity, and expression on a personal level was important, especially now, in this time of great change. I worked with many talented artists like Yuri Avvakumov, Igor Makarevich and Pavel Makov, and all were dealing with this issue.

One artist in particular, Vera Khlebnikova, bridges the gap of generations by juxtaposing personal ads from the newspapers of today and a century ago with images of life at the end of the 19th century. In the process she reveals how constant the Russian soul remains. All was not lost in those 70 years of solitude. It is possible to touch the lives of these ancestors again and know how much alike we are. Vera will visit the United States in March.

What I brought back, along with our grand exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in December of 1996, was this unique picture and perspective based on personal hopes and vision of who we are, quite different, more diverse, and more rich than I could have imagined. By the end of 1996, it was time to return full-time to my life in Washington. I left the Moscow Studio to my Russian partner and Russian friends with a solid reputation and great hope for the future.

What I learned in Russia became the cornerstone of a new studio, the Hand Print Workshop International, which I opened in Washington in mid-1997. I patterned the goals and vision of this workshop around this pursuit of cultural identity. It seems more important now than ever before. Artists, more than any other people I know, have the means to express cultural identity in their work. Six times a year, artists from Russia and Ukraine come for a month to make collaborative screenprints. They work with students as assistants and get into the community to talk about themselves and their work. The result and response has been gratifying. It has encouraged me to organize an exhibition, "The View from Here," around these international artists and like minded American artists who deal with issues of cultural identity.

The Cold War defined us all in adversarial terms. It created harsh stereotypes and unusual alliances, politically and culturally. Now that is over, we are all looking at ourselves and each other with fresh eyes and asking ourselves who we are. Our view of ourselves and that of our neighbors is constantly being redefined by events of today colored by the past, both recent and distant. Our changing relationships with our neighbors needs constant repair, renewal and perspective. Artists, particularly those from other countries who are engaged with these issues, help to renew our humanity by providing a lens and a mirror to view this world-in-flux and ourselves. Hand Print Workshop International will continue to provide a voice to these artists and celebrate their work and ideas by producing rich and meaningful screenprints.

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