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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016


For those in search of artistic inspiration, Mstera may not look like an obvious destination. The small Russian town is composed of ramshackle wooden houses, a shabby central square and a large, ugly factory. But behind the peeling paint and crumbling walls live people creating objects of beauty -- the lacquer boxes, icons and embroidery of Russian folk art.

In every second house in Mstera you will find an artist, joke the inhabitants of this ancient town about three hours east of Moscow. Mstera is home to one of the four major lacquer-box factories in Russia, an art school, and a folk art museum. Yet its off-the-beaten-track location means that even though it shares the history of the nearby Golden Ring cities, it remains unseen by most visitors and bypassed by tour buses.

This is a pity, because the town offers a glimpse of the country's reviving folk culture, especially the art of lacquer-miniature painting. While shoppers in Moscow may be overwhelmed by low quality and sophisticated fakes, the real thing is made in Mstera in an intricate and time-consuming process that dates back 200 years.

Long before Mstera became a center of lacquer miniatures, its artists were known for their icons, embroidery and artistic metal work. There is no agricultural activity to speak of in the town because the soil has always been infertile. Unable to till the land, locals have been producing art since the 17th century.

This tradition is being continued today at the Mstera Vocational Art School, which trains students from the ages of 15 to 20. While the school's empty corridors evoke bland Soviet institutions, doors open to rooms full of brilliance. One is covered with murals depicting

colorful scenes from Russian fairy tales and epics. Another shines with monumental religious paintings, part of the school's effort to teach students the lost art of painting church interiors.

Vladimir Kiselyov, the school's director, a soft-spoken man in a Soviet-style gray suit, proudly displays a small museum with intricately embroidered blouses, painted lacquer boxes, and icons.

The icons are the work of 1996 graduates. The intense face of Jesus Christ, mournful and kind, draws you in. A portrait of Mary, her eyes immense and full of knowledge, is difficult to walk away from. "We have revived icon painting in the school," Kiselyov said. "You know, people cannot believe our young people can render such spirituality."

Contemporary methods are also taught. Boris Vifleyemsky, a drawing professor, schools his students in new approaches to design and color. The professor founded the design department at Udmurtsky State University but returned to his hometown several years ago to nurture the next generation of artists. "We have to make sure Mstera's artistic heritage blossoms. I am here to make sure it happens," he said.

Mstera art students graduate after their third, fourth or fifth year of study. Those who make it to the fifth year are the ones with the greatest artistic potential; they have the choice of joining the work force or continuing their education at a university.

Lena Matyukova, a fourth-year student with flaxen braids, specializes in embroidery. She speaks shyly, but her intricate needlework designs of flowers and exotic birds are bold.

"My aunt used to embroider hammers and sickles," she said. "That never seemed interesting to me; I always wanted to create a world all my own in my embroidery. When I design my own work, that's what I do," she said.

Graduates from the fifth year who specialize in miniature painting can get jobs at the local lacquer factory, which was recently privatized but still gets some government support, or work for a small private firm. Many of the students say they prefer the creativity of work at a small company. At a factory they are likely to spend years as "copyists" repeating images from classical miniatures, while at a private firm they are more likely to have the opportunity to create their own designs.

"I don't want to be stuck as a copyist for the next 10 years," said Nioklai Kuzmenko as he stood up to stretch after hours painting a box with a scene from "The Golden Cockerel" fairy tale. "I want to create my own compositions, not wait for permission from someone."

Sergey Zaytsev, 31, runs the Sakva company, which employs more than 100 Mstera artists and sells their work at souvenir stores in Moscow. Last year he hired five of the seven graduates from the Mstera art school. "It is financially lucrative for us to encourage these students," he said. "The better their work, the better my company does."

Besides the creative freedom in private firms, salaries are more lucrative. Salaries at the Mstera factory vary according to years of experience and the artist's classification. A copyist with about 10 years of experience makes about 500,000 rubles a month. Art school graduates start at about 200,000, while "creative artists" make at least 10 times as much. But earning the title of "creative artist," which permits painters to make their own designs and earn a good living, still takes years and depends on good relations with the local and Moscow folk art committees, locals say.

At a private firm, young artists usually make about double the starting salary at a factory. However, their income is less secure because it depends on the sales of their work. "It isn't easy to make a living with a private firm either, because you get paid per piece," said Olga Shchedrina. "But you have an incentive to work creatively and quickly."

This is no easy task. It begins with the making of the box, which takes about a month. Long sheets of cardboard are saturated with wheat paste or starch and molded around wooden forms in the desired shape. The layers of cardboard are compressed under high pressure and then dried, preferably in the open air. The next step involves saturating the cardboard base with linseed oil and drying the box again, this time for eight days. When this is done, the box is covered with black lacquer on the outside and red lacquer on the inside.

From here the box is ready for painting. In Mstera, the artists use only tempera paints, blending colors by hand according to family formulas that have been handed down through generations.

Adding telling details to a human figure, a tree or a flower using hair-thin squirrel or mink paint-brushes is the most challenging phase of miniature painting. This is where a miniaturist can shine. Giving an expression of joy or sadness to a face the size of a sunflower seed, making the clothes on a one-inch figure look three-dimensional, or showing veins on a minuscule leaf requires practice, concentration, and intuition.

"You can't do this after playing soccer or boxing," said Aleksey Vagin, who is learning the art of miniature painting in his 30s by working side-by-side with local Mstera masters. "You need to relax, concentrate, and breathe correctly, just like the Chinese calligraphers. Then even when you can't see where the one light spot on the nose the size of a poppy seed should be, you know it intuitively," he said.

Describing how he became drawn to the art of miniature painting, Nikolai Shalandin, who has worked in the field for decades, said it gave him a feeling of immense personal power. "I wanted to paint an entire world on the head of the pin," he said.

A distinctive feature of Russian lacquer boxes is their use of genuine gold leaf, which stands out in bold contrast to the black lacquer background. Valentina Pozdniakova, the director of the Mstera Museum of Art, said that according to local tradition, the gold leaf must be mixed with tree sap so that it adheres to the lacquer. And then artists should polish the gold with a wolf tooth.

"People often ask me if all the wolves in Mstera are toothless," she added, her eyes twinkling. She explained that the use of wolf teeth dates back to the 19th century when the village was besieged by the predators. These days, she said, teeth from boars are also sometimes used, and once the gold has been polished the box is completed by adding numerous new layers of lacquer.

While some may consider lacquer painting a traditionally Russian art, it actually originated in Japan, China, and Persia. It arrived in Russia in the 18th century after a Russian merchant, Pyotr Korobov, visited a lacquer factory in Germany and decided to start his own factory making lacquer snuff boxes in the outskirts of Fedoskino.

The round snuff boxes soon became extremely popular, but the Fedoskino factory didn't enter its golden age until the next director encouraged innovative designs, built a vocational school to train peasants and established a museum of miniature painting.

The tradition of drawing subjects not from life but from already existing drawings, paintings or engravings of other artists began at this factory. It continues today at Fedoskino, Palekh, Mstera and Kholui, the four main centers for lacquer-miniature painting, although a growing number of artists are also creating their own images.

An artist can decide to paint a miniature on all sorts of themes: landscapes, still lifes, medieval epics, battle scenes and scenes from the works of famous writers, especially the ever-popular Alexander Pushkin. "Pushkin's poetry inspires me more than the most beautiful woman," said Shalandin. "Only in terms of my art, of course," he joked.

Despite market pressures to use themes from popular culture, like the matryoshka dolls of Bart Simpson or Boris Yeltsin, most artists still prefer traditional themes. In one notable exception, a prominent Mstera artist recently sold a $2,000 lacquer miniature with a portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing a three-piece suit.

When it comes to copying already existing miniatures, experts say the creative element can be seen in the artist's interpretation of the original.

"The original is not always better than the copy," said Vyacheslav Frolov, who worked as a copyist at the Mstera factory for nearly 40 years but recently moved to a private firm. "A creative copy often improves on the detail of the drawing or the color of the composition."

Fedoskino was the only center for Russian lacquer miniatures until the 1920s, when the other lacquer centers came into their own. According to lacquer historians, they share one fundamental trait that distinguishes them from Fedoskino -- the use of lacquer as a continuation of the techniques used in Russian icon painting. This is because they employed icon painters who would otherwise have been out of work in the fiercely atheist Soviet state.

"These artists, who could no longer practice their art, had to find a creative outlet, " said Pozdniakova. "Revolutionary and country-life subjects allowed their art to survive."

With support from the state, Palekh soon grew to prominence. According to Pozdniakova, the writer Maxim Gorky, who once worked in an atelier of Palekh icon painters, helped his old friends find new work depicting revolutionary scenes in miniature.

The work found quick approval: The Soviet state patted itself on the back for its victory over superstition and provided Palekh with the financial resources that eventually made the name "Palekh" synonymous with lacquer-miniature painting.

Despite the overtly political themes of lacquer boxes from the communist era, the art remained imbued with religiosity. Landscapes and people were stylized according to the norms of icon painting, and symbolic references to Christianity remained clear. Three revolutionaries in red shirts sitting at a table were a reminder of the Holy Trinity, while a kindergarten teacher greeting children could easily evoke Mary.

Lacquer painting is undergoing another revolution today.

Instead of being forced to meet the state's strict ideological demands, artists are now free to express their individual talent. "The Art Committee no longer controls what we do," said Frolov. "Today I can paint as I please. In my old age I seem to have acquired a creative imagination."