Archive for March 14th, 2005

Larisa Ivakina and Al Sturgeon 

March 14, 2005

Larisa Ivakina and Al Sturgeon Posted by Hello

Discovering the World Through People

March 14, 2005

by Al Sturgeon
(published every Monday in Desperate Houseflies)


A trip to New Orleans is incomplete without a stroll through the French Quarter, and at the heart of the Quarter is Jackson Square. There, you encounter a world that is “alive.” Clairvoyants, musicians, clowns, dancers, magicians, mimes, acrobats, and artists share the space, entertaining the endless supply of tourists with an unforgettable kaleidoscope of sight and sound. Taking her space among the amazing talent in this special place, you find Larisa Ivakina, and her colorful artwork.

Larisa is no struggling artist attempting to make enough to pay her light bill. In her Russian homeland, she is a famous artist. Her landscapes are in Russian museums, and a teaching method she developed is still being used in Russian public school systems. In America, her art can be found in galleries, churches, along with eight books that she has illustrated. Her discipline extends from watercolor to oil, wooden icon and etching to mural, and interior design to festival posters for Russian winter festivals and the Tchaikovsky festival. She has even designed costumes for a New Orleans play.

Larisa teaches art at a private school in Braithwaite, Louisiana, and is in demand for workshops and private lessons. However, on weekends you can find her in vibrant Jackson Square, standing in front of her beautiful art, watching the world pass by.

[Interview Note: Ms. Ivakina has a beautiful accent. I’ve offered her responses to my questions verbatim. If you would, read her responses with a distinctive Russian accent in mind, and you may come close to appreciating this wonderful interview I was bold enough to engage.]

DH: So how did you end up here, selling your beautiful works of art in Jackson Square?

LI: I’m from Russia. I’m from Black Sea, it’s close to Istanbul and Greece… but I started out in St. Petersburg. And I came to New Orleans because – not for long time – because my husband is from New Orleans and he need to get some surgery, and I never was thinking about I would stay here because I had great job in Russia, and three houses – so I had very bright future, but I fell in love, married, so… and we had so many problems with my husband’s health, so I need to stay here a little bit more, and my son need to go to school… So now I’m American. I lost my husband five years ago, and my son he’s working for NASA company as aerospace engineer.

DH: How long have you been selling your art here?

LI: I started working around Jackson Square ten years ago to support my family, make some extra money, so first time my son was very upset because in Russia I was kind of, like, famous, a famous artist. I still sell more artwork in Russia than here. And I even sign my name in Russian because everybody know my sign in Russia. Because I need to support my houses in Russia, and my mom because she is a college teacher, and college teacher in Russia don’t make enough money. Sometimes for Saturday and Sunday I bring my artwork around Jackson Square. I know everybody here – ten years right now. We have some new artists. It’s a pretty good community.

DH: Now tell me, what is your honest impression of New Orleans?

LI: New Orleans… I travel a lot around United States and New Orleans is not like America, it’s completely different city… First time I cannot even go to French Quarter, and my son tell it smell like beer and urine, its such a nasty place, I was very upset, I was thinking people don’t have any culture, because really its very different than in Russia, and any European country. Because I travel a lot, I’ve been everywhere – Italy, France, Germany… After travel, though, up north, like Ohio, I’ve been in California, Florida… But I kind of miss New Orleans. So now I find so many nice places here. I do my painting. And everybody like my New Orleans paintings. And the Russian museum bought some City Park and French Quarter things. And Russian people like it.

DH: I love it here. What do you think it is about New Orleans that so many people like?

LI: I don’t know. It’s some kind of special spot in the world that really attracts people. Everybody like New Orleans. New Orleans FOOD! I changed my size from a 0 to a 12. Nice Cajun food. French food. So best food in the world in New Orleans.

DH: Let’s get back to you: When did you first recognize your talent in art?

LI: I was six years old; I start my art working with artists, take some private lessons. I took courses in art school. I graduate from high school and art school at same time at age fourteen. After this, college in St. Petersburg. I studied art in different places – in Ukraine I take graphic design. I graduate with bachelor’s degree in civil engineering after art college. And last in university I took art graphics, teaching, lithographs, but my diploma project was six oil paintings! So I have master’s degree from university. So now I’m teaching.

DH: Where do you teach?

LI: I’m teaching in Lynn Oaks Academy, a private school. It’s nice. It’s very interesting place. Oak trees. Very peaceful. Small school, but it’s very attractive for me because it’s lakes, little ponds, and irises every spring. I can take students outside… Paradise. It’s paradise.

DH: As a former history teacher, I’m interested in where you were when the break-up of the Soviet Union occurred?

LI: I was in Russia when we had revolution, when Yeltstin came. I was in Russia, you know it kind of never affect me. My daddy was kind of, very big communist in Russia, he controlled transportation factory and shipping companies in southern part of Russia – so maybe I had little bit different life than regular people realize… Even after I lost my daddy, I don’t have any problem. I’m working for art union. I had a lot of commission. I make a lot of artwork – different shows, international shows, so I never had problem. Really, most people in Russia too much into politics!

DH: So your life in particular wasn’t changed as dramatically by the breakup as many others?

LI: Well, no… My life doesn’t change much – maybe better? I don’t know. In some ways, better. I don’t know, I just try to be happy in any situation! I had very hard time here, but anyways, now I bought big house, I have nice studio, skylights, and everything. Waterfront, I have live pelicans and egrets flying every morning. So I’m very happy.

DH: Okay, one more New Orleans question: I’m a bit naïve, but every time I come to New Orleans I see some strange things. Has that been your experience, too?

LI: Yeah, it’s a lot of strange things, some I cannot even take, but I think everything have right to be in this life, and now I cannot criticize. It’s just some things not for me. For every person, some people can take it, some people don’t understand, some people just… I just ignore what I don’t like – because, you know, I like to live and feel positive about everything. So if something not for me, I just ignore.

DH: What’s your opinion of your fellow street artists in Jackson Square?

LI: We have so many interesting artists here. First time, I was thinking you know, like in Russia only lowlife people or something go in the street. It’s kind of like, maybe students can do this to make some extra money… But I find here that most people are retired already, had some nice job like graphic design or something before – so many interesting and nice people here – so I don’t feel so bad anymore!

[Note: In addition to welcoming your comments, I’m also open to suggestions. I’m game for attempting to chase down individuals to interview who can shed some light on any profession, hobby, lifestyle, cause, interest, or question you may have.]