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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Poor Village Finds Hope in an Artistic Haystack

LATArtist Nikolai Polissky's team scaling his latest art project in Nikola-Lenivets.
NIKOLA-LENIVETS, Central Russia -- In this dying village, people don't carve out a living. They scrape it with their nails from the soil.

For the old women who have to chop their own kindling and the lonely widows who shed tears at giving their last cow up to the butcher, what use is art?

Thirteen years ago, artist Nikolai Polissky came to this village from Moscow, burning with creativity. He built armies of snowmen and whimsical towers out of hay, or firewood or twigs, whatever was lying around.

To some villagers, he's a madman, the spark for a bonfire of resentment. To others, he's an inspiration who showed them the beauty of art in a place devoid of opportunity or hope.

Radiantly impractical, the towers irritate some locals, who grumble that they create a nuisance. That someone would pay a Paris gallery $2,000 for a photograph of one of these confections is far beyond the locals' understanding, and only serves to reinforce a sense of heartless lunacy in a market that values people like them at nothing.

But other villagers, who at first couldn't see the point of Polissky's works, now are moved by their majesty, ablaze with twinkling light on a purple moonlit night.

"The funny thing is, they talk and say: 'What's the point? Why do we need this?'" said Ivan Parygin, 17, one of the many locals drawn like moths to Polissky's light. "But when they come down and see it, you can see their eyes shining."

Standing at the top of Polissky's latest creation, a 25-meter tower of twigs and branches that sways and creaks in any gust of wind, it is at first a little difficult to catch a sense of his artistic vision.

The whole thing is hammered up with a properly artistic sense of haphazard asymmetry, a structure so untouched by safety considerations that it makes your feet tingle as you clamber up on slippery birch branches and rustic, homemade ladders.

The reward up top is a splendid view, if you can forget for a moment what lies beneath your soles.

"It's great when people move inside the tower. You can't see them, but it creaks and groans and you can sense they are there," Polissky burbled excitedly.

But the construction is not quite finished yet. Polissky's team of builders began in June, and by late this month it will be complete. Then Polissky will take out his camera.

"The snow will come. When there is a thaw followed by a cold snap, the tower will be covered in ice," he said. "It will look beautiful."

Polissky, who devoted himself to painting, and a few close friends first arrived here from Moscow, 200 kilometers away, in 1989 and squatted on the land.

"The land was like a mysterious island, and we felt we had to build something unusual," he said. "We wanted to make something monumental."

They faced hostility. "The locals did not take to us," Polissky recalled. "There's a traditional Russian fear of strangers. There was quite a bit of aggression toward us. They were against us as Muscovites. But that was a long time ago."

After a dormant period, when he did little painting, Polissky understood he had failed to find the new, vital direction in painting that he craved.

He is a onetime "Mityok," one of the leaders of an art movement famous in the mid-1980s for rejecting socialism and finding artistic inspiration not by opposition but by a devil-may-care lifestyle of permanent, joyful inebriation.

"We had a reputation as being people who knew how to live. But either you die a heroic death as an alcoholic or you get on the wagon," said Polissky, who never embraced the port wine breakfasts of others in the group.

Two years ago, he put aside his oils and brushes, inspired by new materials that were free or cheap and widely available: snow, hay and wood.

Enlisting villagers, he created 220 snowmen, with carrot noses and bucket helmets, straggling down a slope. He made a structure of hay prosaically named "The Tower" that resembled a great golden spiral shell, inspired by the biblical tower of Babel.

He designed and built a 100-meter aqueduct of snow, and a tower of chopped firewood.

When Polissky asked villagers to help him build the 220 snowmen for his first creation, most thought that he was crazy. But money is money.

To Alexander Kondrashov, 48, a former collective-farm worker, the project was "just a job. There was pay. We weren't wasting our time." But to Dmitry Mozgunov, a 22-year-old unemployed man who was born in a milder Central Asian city, it was a fantastic gift, compensation for the snowmen he could never build as a little boy.

"When we built a lot of them, it turned out that all the snowmen had different individual faces. Of course, we had our favorites," Polissky said. "They all had their own fates too. Some fell down straight away. Some lived longer."

The creations stood in soft harmony with this serene piece of Russia, where the afternoon sun paints a silvery light on every leaf, where the river lies cloaked in unctuous fog under a full moon. At the end of each season, the creations melted, or he destroyed them.

"In the summer of 2000, everyone called me 'the madman,'" he said of artist friends back in Moscow. "People gave me a hard time, saying: 'What are you doing? You're working with hay?' They didn't think it was art. They said: 'Get your act together. Go back to real art. Go back to painting.'"

The hay tower photographs, exhibited widely in Moscow, as well as in Paris and at Montenegro's contemporary art biennial, show the golden spiral baking in the midday summer sun, and in misty autumnal dawn, dusted like sugared icing with frost. They show the hay mowers with their scythes, villagers with faraway eyes and careworn faces.

The works made Polissky so well known that people now come from Moscow and surrounding areas to view them.

Yevgeny Zheltov, 44, who was born here, said Polissky and his friends have brought new blood to a dying village and inspired the young. "They've changed the place beyond recognition," he said.

"It's changed my life. It's changed me," said Mozgunov, struggling to put into words his awe of and love for Polissky. "He's like a guru. He's an inspiration."

There was a shy pause when other volunteers were asked what the artist means to them. Ivan Parygin finally found words.

"I think he's a genius."