For a while, Olesya planned on interviewing Toti. Toti wished to interview Olesya sooner than later. Then, what could be more natural than a back-and-forth exchange? A conversation, that is. Topics to be considered were profuse, as the two share a number of interests. But within the context of relaxed, friendly correspondence, the main theme thought it apt to just choose itself.
Toti O’Brien. Let us start from the beginning, shall we? It’s a time and place I like to recall when I think of someone. I like to resuscitate the first impression she or he left on me. Scholars say that in seven seconds we form a fair idea about someone else. I believe it, give or take a second or two. A rough sketch, and yet usually truer than later, more refined opinions.
I recall the first time I saw you at the Neutra Gallery, in L.A., leaning by the wall where two of your paintings were hung. Oh my, they were intriguing and beautiful. From a distance I saw complex textures, subtle nuances of muted, natural colors. Coming close, I identified the tree trunks. I saw bark inhabited by a myriad of beings, a whole crowd of minuscule people. I am familiar with folk tales, elves, fairies, and all kinds of spirits, therefore I recognized them.
What surprised me, prompting me to introduce myself, was the fact that you looked a bit like your paintings. Your dress was adorned with knitted lace, black and finely wrought. Your long, dark hair was braided. You were dressed and combed like a kind of fairy, though not in a showy manner. Rather casual. And you smoothed yourself against walls. You hid in corners as your creatures did in the bark.
Also, we were dressed kind of alike. Also, I was dressed a bit like my work, as you later remarked.
Then I noticed an oddity, as it comes to art openings. You were nice and affable, easy to befriend in a way that doesn’t belong to show time, not even to adulthood. You were ready to connect as young children are, when they meet at the park. Without preconceptions. We realized that we lived a few blocks away, though far from the place where the Gallery was, which struck me as an interesting pattern... the two close points of origin, where we had never met, and the distant point of arrival where we colluded.
I have dilated seven seconds in many words. They could be further dilated. Let me try to summarize them instead.
You looked like a small fairy of the gentle sort. You reacted to others with the spontaneity of a child. You were beautiful like your own work of art. Without knowing it, we had been neighbors for a long time.
Olesya Volk. I perfectly remember that day. At the exhibit, your dress and whole image being in tune with your painting was both amazing and amusing! In your painting, the prevalent feelings for me were of dance, movement, and rhythm. Its strangeness and symbolism were on the light side. It suggested a signature from an otherworldly language spoken by some flying creatures. Later, I found out that you were a dancer, musician, and actress, in addition to being an artist. In that first moment, I registered just the qualities of air, wind, dance, and a touch of secrecy that felt quite familiar. It reminded me of myself! A feeling of recognition was present, as if two fairies had seen each other in a forest full of all sorts of creatures and had nodded from a distance, saying: “Well met!”
T.O. Yes, we shared a sense of familiarity. As we further acquainted, we realized concrete parallels between our lives. For a start, we both were born abroad, and we came into the States in our adult age. Sure, this is not uncommon. Still, I wonder if it played a role in how we gravitated towards each other. By the way, would you define yourself an immigrant? You remained in the US because of a marriage, as I did. Do you still feel a stranger, or don’t you? Have you felt more at home elsewhere? How deep do the roots of your trees reach? We only see trunks. Do your trees have roots? They must, otherwise they couldn’t support the weight of all those small people. Do small people have weight?
O.V. You know, I never felt as an “immigrant”. My American husband made me feel as if I had stepped into a fairy tale... My life became so different from my past life in Russia. I seemed to have entered another phase, woken up from one dream and walked into another. There was no way back, as there was no way back in time. The only things that really connected me to my past were the trees. Here, as I did in Russia, all my life, since childhood, I walked among trees, talked and listened to them, making sketches from the bark scribbles into my “secret” notebooks, seeing and sensing the language that trees speak.
Are there many languages? Legend tells of seventy primary languages. I gazed into the tree’s creaks and marks, all those hieroglyphs, and found stories, and got messages coming out of my mind memories. They were triggered on different levels of associations, interplayed, overlapped, and they met with immediate response from the trees. I always felt I was in a dialogue with them.
However, only when I started painting with oil all that became exposed, transferred from my hidden notes to the canvases and panels and exhibits (though I did other kinds of art as well, animation and illustration).
The concept of a “language” comes into my art from painting the tree bark. However, as more and more researchers are saying, the real language of trees starts in their roots. That is where the system of communication is built, enabling each tree to send and receive signals, and as a result, transfer nutrients to the surrounding plants if they lack them. To sense need and provide support.
While I paint the bark, the image of the roots also penetrates my art as a metaphor, expressed by the webs and “strange” entanglements, by the clusters of signs melting into each other, and presenting themselves to our eyes as mazes and puzzles.
As the tools allow us to solve the riddle.