Walking into Tatyana Kulida’s studio is like falling into a painting.
With art adorning the walls and classical music tinkling overhead, I immediately felt transported From the narrow hallway into a wide upstairs oasis on lower Cuba Street, Tatyana’s studio is clearly a place where magic happens.
Tatyana got in touch with me over Instagram. While I rarely use DM’s when selecting residents on my blog, I was intrigued after seeing her work on her feed. Unlike most New Zealand art, Tatyana’s work is life-like, more naturalistic and quite academic. I felt I needed to know the story of the woman who had conjured such visages. Over coffee and coconut milk, I was seduced by Tatyana Kulida’s story.
Tatyana is a Russian-born contemporary realist painter and a former drawing and painting instructor at the Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy. She now lives in Wellington, New Zealand. Her work can be found in private collections in the UK, USA, Europe and Australasia as well as in the permanent collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Connecticut and Cameron Museum of Art, Wilmington, NC. Among her showings are "The Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2014", London, UK, "Chiaroscuro", New York, NY, and "The Royal Society of British Painters Exhibition 2015" at the Mall Galleries in London where she has received the 'The de László Award for Classical Draughtsmanship’.
After the birth of her second daughter, Tatyana and her family permanently moved to New Zealand to seek new sources of inspiration and closeness to nature. She is now based in Wellington where she paints commissioned portraits, studio works as well teaches painting and drawing in the classical tradition at her studio Anthesis Atelier. Tatyana was selected for the Parkin Drawing Prize'16 show and received a Nola Harford Memorial Award at the Peter Diog Cleveland National Art Awards’17.
Tatyana also receives commissions and recently completed Bill English’s portrait which will hang in the National Party’s headquarters. “I don’t always get paid for people’s portraits” she explains. “I enjoy their company and they will get a print at the end.”
I ask Tatyana if there was one thing she could say to people worried about taking a step into their passion: “Don’t be hesitant about taking a step into something if you think you can do it really, really well. If you feel you can, there’s no reason it won’t work!”
Lucy Revill: Tatyana, the first question I tend to ask everyone is where were you born?
Tatyana Kulida: I was born in Crimea in 1981 which is now part of Russia.
LR: What were your first memories from being a little girl, of the sounds and smells from the place you grew up?
TK: I grew up in a beach town. I have a lot of memories of splashing around and catching founders the size of a $2 coin in the sand. I played by the sea and was an active kid. I also practiced piano in a very dedicated way as a child. After school, I would go to a music school and played for two hours a day. I would describe myself as a busy child who always liked adventure. This gave me the courage to take a scholarship in America when I was 17.
LR: Do you mind if I ask you what it was like growing up in the Soviet Union. Obviously it doesn’t exist anymore but I have an interest in twentieth century history, and it certainly isn’t something everyone has lived through…
TK: It’s a kaleidoscope of memories, feelings and experiences really. On the one hand, there was the certainty of universal healthcare and education. You were guaranteed a job when you graduated and if you were wanting to be a doctor, and got good grades, you could go right through. But in other aspects things changed because of world forces. When I was ten, the Soviet Union broke up. At first, Crimea was bunched in with Ukraine and would have been part of that. However, most people speak Russian and consider themselves Russian. My parents still live there and are happy there though.
When the change happened, and the Soviet Union ended, we went through some really difficult times. I remember wearing gloves, jacket and wool shoes to practice piano in the living room because we could only heat one room and it was run off a generator down the street. That was one of two winters which were really brutal. It could get to negative ten degrees sometimes.
LR: How did you hear about the scholarship you received to go to study in America?
TK: It was the mission of my last year in school to get a scholarship. I had graduated musical school. by then and was determined to study overseas. I had to write a lot of essays, do SAT’s and did 30 applications to get a place. I also had to train and travel to various cities to take those tests.
I was accepted on a full scholarship which was amazing because my parents could never had afforded it. It also included a final post-graduate year for people who are graduating a bit young. It was called ‘Emma Woollard” in upstate New York. It was the oldest boarding school in America. Jane Fonda went there.
My first introduction to America was as a wide eyed 17 year old, wide eyed arriving in my Soviet clothes. It was also a shock because the other girls at my school were driving cars and wearing designer clothes. But it showed me what you need in life. So, yeah, it was a good growth opportunity.
LR: Was it a shock to move to America? Were you lonely?
TK: Yeah! All of those things. I was always very independent as a child - I would do my homework and walk from A to B. I followed directions, applied instructions and would figure it out on my own. It was quite shocking when I arrived, but mostly loneliness was overwhelmed by the feeling of excitement and finding yourself. I was stuck in my art labs working on whatever colour studies we were doing or making jewellery after school - I didn’t really have too much time to think.
LR: And what did you study at University?
TK: I studied at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, I living with an interior designer who was much older than me. Although it was 20 years ago, we’re still friends.
University was a double major in studio arts and maths (which then became computer science). In art, I did drawing and painting but it was a contemporary approach: I had a great foundation in art history but the technical component of how to take the visual world and process it and synthesis it wasn’t really taught.
During my time at Queens, I received a scholarship to take myself anywhere in the world and expand my skills; this is how I found the Florence Academy of Art.
I did a Summer course and I just loved it. Immediately we studied from the human body, and we were told how to observe shapes and represent values so you can create convincing three dimensional illusions. I learnt lots of gems, but I had to go back to my scholarship in America…but 9 years later I would return.
LR: Did your parents support you studying art? Many parents don’t want their children to do painting because they don’t think it is a real career?
TK: Never explicitly but maybe implicitly. They wanted me to have the security of a career so after I graduated university I got a job as a consultant in Charlotte. Once I started working in a corporate job, I began having panic attacks. I would just get so stressed about working, although I kept painting on the weekend. So I decided to go back to graduate school to study arts administration because I couldn’t pull myself away from the business lady idea. With that experience I started transitioning into arts through serving on a board and doing marketing and administration of arts.
I got a lot more into painting when my first daughter was born. I wanted to capture everything about her because she was so beautiful. The energy built up in me.
Then my best friend died at 42 from cancer.
Around a week after she passed I woke up in the night and I was suddenly clear: I knew I had to go to that school in Florence, back to the Accademy, and paint the way I really wanted to. I told my now ex-husband the next morning. He laughed…but a week later I was in Italy.
LR: I’m really interested in this because I have two lives with my day job and my blog. Was it the feeling of not wanting to live without regrets?
TK: My friends death really made me realise I wanted to paint but I didn’t have the tools I wanted. I could see art that I loved and others I didn’t but I couldn’t tell you why; I could now. I knew I needed to go to the source to understand the difference and I had had a taste of it by having my course at University. Even if my ex-husband couldn’t get a job, even if we couldn’t sell the house, I was still going to go.
I applied, I was accepted, and we went. My husband went back a few months later…it wasn’t his thing! Who could blame him? (He was an American and still lives in North Carolina).
After having been at the school for my first year I thought I had to go back but a teacher encouraged me to stay. You have to follow these signs!
LR: How did you support yourself? Did you have savings?
Initially, there were some savings: those were all gone by the second year - if you don’t know how to live in Florence cheaply they all go very fast.
My second year there were a lot of credit cards.
You can live in Italy cheaply however. When I could tie enough Italian words together, I could take my daughter out of the private international nanny and send her to the free public school. I had student visa’s the whole time. We learnt to speak Italian by visiting the local fresh food markets.
LR: What did you like about living in Florence?
TK: Everything! As I was undergoing a separation from my ex-husband I felt like I was dating Florence. You have centuries of history: for art, shoes, bicycles, architecture. There’s so much love and craft in everything. Ah Florence, I love the dark blue sky and the jewellery of the Duomo. It brings tears to my eyes when I think of it.
Going through the divorce and digging Euros out of couch cushions didn’t matter to me while I lived there; everyday was special. To save, I would leave each Summer when I wasn’t in the academy and go back to live with my parents, or travel.
The first place I lived in Florence was like a palace with frescoes and large draughty windows. The second place I lived was up by Piazza San Marco which was convenience because there is a big bus terminal there. The last couple of years were between San Ambrosio and Santa Croche. Everyone at the local market knew us because my daughter was a clever little nugget and used to try to taste everything.
I then remarried someone I met at the academy, Stephan. And then there were three of us.
LR: What happened after the Academy?
TK: After 3 years at the Academy, you get your diploma. I applied and was accepted to the fourth year where you spend time working with the director of the Academy, enhancing your skills. In exchange you teach - that’s how they recruit. I was in my third year of teaching when we left two days a week and painting everyday in Florence. So, living the dream!
I find that with everything I’ve done, as long as I have had the intention, it has always lined up. I don’t think about that - I just go for it.
LR: How did you end your time in Florence?
TK: I got pregnant with my second child because my husband wanted a baby together. When we were expecting Flora (named after Florence), we realised that because he was a teacher at the Academy too, it wasn’t financially stable.
My husband said “New Zealand is the best place on earth and I’ve been there. That’s where I want to raise a family.” Also, my daughters bike kept being stolen which tipped me over the edge.
Stephan and I applied for skilled migrant visas. Stephan had experience in the film industry so he got a job at Weta which made our move to New Zealand even faster.
LR: What were your first months in New Zealand like?
TK: It was a complete disaster. It was me, crying on the floor. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. I had a three month old baby, and my husband was gone from his all the time and we were living in City Life so I couldn’t paint anywhere.
LR: What got you through?
TK: We moved to Miramar in a flat and then I got a nanny to help with the baby part-time so I could spend time painting to myself. Little by little, by doing what I love, I could tell the difference. If I didn’t paint, I would be terrible.
LR: Creativity is so important to have a sense of fulfilment to have that connection to yourself.
TK: Painting is literally what I live and breathe. To not have access to that was difficult. But I also started teaching very quickly and got one or two pupils. That’s where my studio comes from today. I now teach the full academic curriculum. When Flora turned one, I put her in kindergarten full time. Then I was off on my own routine and able to fully re-immerse myself in painting.
LR: What is the academic method about?
TK: With an academic method, there are specific things you are trying to achieve in handling your materials and painting. It helps you build your mental understanding, gives you an ability to see properly to process it, categorise it, and then also all the way into your muscle memory for your eyes and hands. There is a lot of control in that. Giotto was famously asked ‘What makes you a good artist?’ He picked up a piece of chalk and drew a perfect circle. It shows how much skill there is in just drawing a perfect line, like how a violinist learns to play the violin perfectly.
My art is representational which means what you are looking at is a representation of a thing. I use natural light, and colours that depict the thing accurately. It is very naturalistic. People forget that Cubism for instance actually comes from the academic style originally. They were reacting to their times. Now when people say they want to emulate that style of art they don’t realise they’re coming to it from a very different perspective. For instance, Picasso would have done the same exercises.
LR: After all… Picasso is so famous for saying “You need to know the rules before you can break them”. I feel like Wellington is a city which breaks the rules. How have you come to be a Wellingtonian?
TK: We came to Wellington to find new ground to sprout our seeds from. While Florence is so classical, we were thirsty for a place where what we had could unfold in an original way. New Zealand was that place for us. Obviously, I haven’t changed my style since we came. But I have built on it.
For instance, I use native New Zealand flowers in my paintings. For me, that’s unique because these flowers are unique to this place. The people who paint here, and who I paint, are interesting locals, much like the people on your blog. This is how I interview them! I am not under my Florence academy peers, I am on my own (although I do go back to learn new things from time to time). Having the space here is amazing because I create. Right now I am working on a body of portraits about Antartica and climate change. I am hoping to go there to paint on location to synthesis the colour relationships and bring that deeper relationship with nature to my work.