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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Tray's the Thing For Exquisite 'Folk' Art

Painted lacquer trays are, to some people, just a tacky souvenir to be snapped up in the gift shop when inspiration runs out. But to others, the traditional Russian flower-decorated tray is an art form.

"They're beautiful, and give people joy," said Nina Goncharova, 68, who has been painting trays at the Zhostovo tray factory near Moscow for 53 years. "It is sometimes hard to part with the trays I paint."

Tray lovers gathered this week to view an exhibition of the art at the Istoki exhibition center on Soyuzni Prospekt, where various masterpieces were proudly displayed. The exhibition's guest of honor was Goncharova, whose father spent his whole life painting trays, and whose daughter and grandson are following in the family footsteps. She has produced so many in her lifetime of work that "if you put them end to end they'd go right round the world."

She began her career on the production line, adding only one color on the trays, but now she works on the kind of "unique" pieces on display at Istoki. The Zhostovo factory, which celebrates its 170th anniversary this year, employs 355 full-time tray painters, who produce tens of thousands of trays per year.

"The golden hands of our workers are preserving a very old tradition," said the factory's director, Anatoly Yermoshin. "Sadly, the demand for trays has gone down over the last few years, but the quality is still as high as ever. Trays are not an essential economic product, so we feel the effect of the general strain on the economy. People can live without trays, but they can't live without salami."

The Russian tray tradition began in the late 18th-century, explained art historian Olga Dyakonitsina, resplendent in a folksy Russian dress patterned with printed flowers as a tribute to the tray art genre.

"Though the tradition of lacquered trays came from the folk craft of Palekh and Fedoskino [famous for their painted papier mache boxes], the trays aren't really folk art any more," said Dyakonitsina, who has a collection of trays at home. "They were once produced as practical items, but now they are professional works of art, produced not by ordinary people but by artists who have studied the genre and developed it."

The classic Russian tray has been decorated with bright flowers for centuries, and flowers of various colors and permutations figured heavily in the exhibition. Some were handsomely picked out in gold and mother of pearl, others kept to the more conventional palette of garish scarlets and yellows. More radical pieces included a snowbound Russian landscape painted in puce green, a pair of seascapes with pseudo-Aivazovsky brushwork, and a pair of St. Georges slaying dragons.

"We are trying to change with the times," said Yermoshin. "The genre pieces are popular with our wealthier clients, who have them done to order."

The trays at the exhibition were, the organizer insisted, a cut above the average painted tray on offer at your local Beryozka or at Izmailovo.

"These are unique masterpieces," enthused Vladimir Grozin, director of the Istoki gallery, whose last exhibition was of colorful Russian scarves. He hopes to sell the exhibits for between 180,000 rubles (about $37) and 1.5 million rubles (about $300).

"Though lacquer originated in China, this is a very Russian craft," continued Grozin. "It's going out of fashion, but the tradition continues. They're so colorful that they grab your attention, and make lovely presents."

The only trouble with modern Russian lacquer trays is that the techniques used in the 19th-century to produce functional lacquer trays have been lost, with the result that their present-day metal counterparts will blister if you try to use them for hot drinks.

"Their place is on the wall," said Dyakonitsina. "No one would want to use something so beautiful to serve drinks on."

The Zhostovo tray exhibit can be seen at the Istoki gallery, Soyuznyi Prospekt 15A, which is open Wednesday through Friday from noon to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Tel. 301-03-48. Nearest metro: Novogireyevo.