The Lesson of "Northern Lights"

By Simona Alexandrov

To my mother, and to my teachers, indeed

I hate you, I love you my childhood on the frozen banks of Neva River!

While bathing itself in familiar memories, my mind was fully discouraged with this ambivalent attitude when I started sketching for the ceramic tea pot. I thought I may express my conflict with a single visual image, or, at least, get rid of the unbearable anxiety about it. I proceeded with the drawings without any other goal or purpose, like a neurotic ballet dancer who starts his dance with a violent leap in the air, but suddenly kneels gently in front of his ephemeral partner who spins around the stage in a trance of endless rotations on her tiptoes.

My favorite childhood toy was a doll of Pinocchio, the naive character of a children's story who never did as his father told him. Instead of going to school, he went to a theater performance. He wandered on the streets of his town, getting mixed up with thieves and hustlers where he learned some wisdom and found a key to the secret door that led him and his friends to the magic land. He was a brave soul made out of wood. Because he was stupid and fearless, wise, spontaneous, and very capable, he, in my opinion, is the only child who could be nostalgic about his learning years. Most real children are not raised to be free spirits. Our friends and family are very busy telling us what kind of person we are supposed to be, and, unfortunately, there are a limited number of roles we can play, and lots of pressure to complete the "identity search". After that you are on your own. It is very cruel, impersonal, and downright unfair. Then it is up to us to become free from that hogwash. If you casually assume the role that was suggested by your environment, be prepared to stay in compliance with the rules for an indefinite time, and serve someone else's interests. The main ingredient in the recipe to convert childish souls into obedient citizens is your own fascination with the ritual itself. (We must save family values...) When you should be watching for tricks, you become mesmerized with colorful appearances and personalities. Early brainwashing is blissful if your mother is beautiful, your father is important, and your mentor has an impeccable reputation. I remember what my second grade teacher said to the class: "Don't forget the poor American orphans picking garbage out of the dumpsters in New York city. You are growing up as privileged Soviet citizens in a clean and safe environment. You should be proud of yourself, respect your parents, help the elderly, and on and on..." I knew that she was cultivating our guilt so we would be manageable. It was obviously propaganda. So, I carefully watched her and everyone else in positions of influence, but I overlooked the hypnotic pressure of my artful city.

I was willingly subjected to the beautiful atmosphere of St. Petersburg while walking over the city's bridges and park lanes. Part of the random harvest of nature, I was born there in 1964, three meters above sea level. Only then the name of the city was Leningrad. St. Petersburg was imagined and created against all odds on a swampy piece of conquered Finnish land by the Russian tsar Peter the Great, who got it into his head to build the new capital of the Empire, the biggest seaport, and the new beauty of Europe more than two centuries before. All of his dreams and even more came true. The city is stunning. It has large bodies of water, parks and squares, straight wide streets framed with baroque and classical palaces, statues and fountains. More than two hundred unique bridges connect the islands. The air in St. Petersburg is cold and moist, and the sky is always cloudy and ready to burst with rain. No wonder that through the thick fog the whole place frequently looks like a phantom playground. With his inventions Peter was throwing dust in Europe's eyes. Some of it, apparently, got into mine.

After Peter the Great's death, the city continued being the capital for a few generations. It was built bigger and more beautiful. It produced its own culture and style in fine arts, ballet, opera, and, of course, created and consumed art. When the Communists came to power, they moved the capital back to Moscow, further away from the perplexity of what they called "bourgeois culture", and from two ambiguous Egyptian sphinxes staring at the grave Neva waters from the steps of the Art Academy.

Despite their latter efforts to neutralize and suppress the" bothersome" mystery of Peter's protégé, the evidence of St. Petersburg persisted, and even inspired those who remained there.

I know that many of you can relate to my tale; all you need to do is customize the landscape, and you will remember yourself just as fooled by the hypnotic spell of your own formative environment as I was by the refinement of my surroundings in the "Venice of the North", and the muffled whispers of the cultivated intellectuals. I was baffled, silenced, and romanticized. Finally, I resolved to become an artist. What was wrong with that? As long as I could remember, I was painting and drawing. The problem was that just doing it suddenly did not seem sufficient enough. "Professional artist", I thought, must have a certain image: sort of an unhappy, but tireless Goddess, who would manifest her presence by creating with the higher standard of approved value. After that I was no longer present in my wealthy daily affairs, where, by the way, painting and drawing continued as usual. Instead, I lived a mediocre imagined life, contemplating my future goal of detached unhappiness slightly flavored by promise of fame and fortune. Of course, I fooled myself, and paid the price. For many years my happiness was controlled by the monster of outside events, that seemed too important and too threatening. That image of myself conceived on the banks of the Neva River required high maintenance, such as others' favorable opinions, lots of control, and many sleepless nights.

When I reflected on my early gullibility while sketching for the "Northern Lights" tea pot, my mind's vision of a mythological Siren was captured on paper. I was grateful for that discovery. Her mesmerizing appeal lured many experienced seamen into trouble. Then, I painted the temptress in a traditional fashion of Russian kiln tiles seated on the cast iron railings of the "Northern Lights" tea pot bridge. It looks more like a bird creature than a sea lioness imagined by the Greeks. Likewise, the palette of the tea pot is very important. The Siren is made the center of attention as the only bright color spot in this white and blue-black environment penetrated with a subtle glowing of light. In addition to her queenly appearance and the impeccable style of the surroundings, is the architectonics of the "Northern Lights", which is created from a cylinder intersecting with a cube that is bound with the belt of a bridge. These are proportioned to create a strange "locomotive" with the spout bearing a mermaid from a ship's rostra, and the top shaped and painted like scanty hills under melting spring snow.

As I look at this piece, I am tickled by my own obedient hand that made the perfect blue line with the passion of an accurate student. With it I am saluting the genius of St. Petersburg, a creative improvisator behind the scene, a builder, a dreamer, a deceitful shift! When I painted the last coats of the Mother of Pearl luster and the tiny finishing touches of gold, I monotonously repeated the superstitious chant "lure me not...", as if I was performing my daily ritual of disbelief. Now, looking at the past, I am not surprised by my own transformation from shyness to liberty. The glare and shine of gilded roofs and automotive parts cleverly positioned to demonstrate "power" will not excite me any more than scared little boys dressed in suits and innocently disguised as romantic lovers. Friends, burn no incense! I would not be susceptible to its fragrant charm. I have encountered the deceiving fog of the elegant White Nights in St. Petersburg. I have been tempted by Peter the Great's plan. Now fearless, I treasure my sanity more than any theatrics you've got.

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