Well-traveled artist Tatyana Kulida still calls Wilmington home

“Wilmington and Florence, they are like different planets. Wilmington is peaceful, a gentle pace of things. In Italy, it was very go-go-go."

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Tatyana Kulida at her temporary studio in Wilmington. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Tatyana Kulida left Crimea when she was just 17, leaving for the United States with little more than a suitcase.

“It was 1998, not very long after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Kulida said. “A lot of students were working hard at English because there were opportunities in the United States. It probably sounds a little crazy, but it was very exciting, too.”

After a year of boarding school in New York, she moved to North Carolina, where she lived for 10 years before another big move – this time to Florence, Italy, to study oil painting at the Florence Academy of Art. Since then, Kulida has traveled the world, settling in Wellington, New Zealand. But Kulida still has friends, a home and fond memories in Wilmington, a place she still calls home.

Kulida recently returned to Wilmington to lead an immersive class at the Cameron Art Museum (CAM). Port City Daily caught up with the artist to talk about her work, her history in Wilmington and her still life class.

An oil portrait of Kulida’s friend, who loaned her the space to set up her temporary studio. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)

“I’m very excited about my class, of course. But I’m more excited about painting Paul,” she said.

Paul Phillips, chief of security at the CAM, will be the subject of a portrait Kulida will paint in seven, three-hour sessions at the CAM.

“It’s a long time, but for a full portrait you need it,” she said. “Especially to do the hands, which are so expressive, they really tell the story.

“Paul, who served on the battleship [U.S.S. North Carolina], told me he lost his thumb,” she said. “There was a machine accident on board, and he ran to the pharmacy with his thumb in his fist. The doctor fainted when he saw it. But they did get it reattached. So, literally, there is so much of Paul’s story in his hands.”

Kulida’s passion for her subjects, she said, comes from her desire to capture their essence.

“Take Paul,” Kulida said, “he’s such a treasure of a human being. I felt compelled to capture that, to translate that. Paul told me, ‘I’m 90 years old darling, you better hurry.’”

Kulida said portraits routinely take more than 20-hour hours, spread out over multiple sessions.

“That’s more for the person sitting than for me. I have stamina,” she said. “In Florence, where I went to school, we would paint eight hours a day, seven days a week.”

The “French academic method,” as Kulida calls the style she learned to develop, put painters through a rigorous course of study that went literally more than skin deep.

“You have to understand why surfaces are the way they are, understand the reality beneath what you are painting, not just the superficial image. So, we studied anatomy, to understand the human form,” she said. “We learned every bone, every muscle.”

One project, which lasted for one year of Kulida’s schooling, required artists to paint a full-sized skeleton, rendering in anatomical detail the muscles and ligaments covering half of the body.

“It was detailed. Excruciatingly detailed. Working a little on it almost every day,” she said.

Kulida spent 10 years training in classical piano as a young woman in Crimea. The training, she said, was helpful in developing the discipline necessary for oil painting. Of her fellow conservatory students, she said, “Schools in the States liked us, because we were organized and worked hard, maybe harder than we needed to. There’s maybe a little madness. And we do tend to plow through things. But when I went to Florence, the discipline definitely helped.”

That disciplined practice helped Kulida develop her own philosophy of painting.

A sketch of Kulida’s daughter. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)

“My trick is to make you not aware that there’s a trick,” she said. “When you’re creating a three-dimensional image, you cannot, I think, work from a photograph, or try to copy an image as if it was a photograph. If you work from flat to flat, it will look flat. You’re not copying the real thing, you’re building an illusion.”

Kulida said it was difficult to articulate precisely what she considers a successful painting, but that she hopes to transcend merely “drawing a picture of someone.”

“I’m really interested in recreating the sense, the essence of what I’m representing,” Kulida said. “To create that depth takes time.

“I’ll observe, how a person holds themselves, their hands – again, I know, but the hands are the story. But also the little eye creases, mouth creases, how the nostril flares,” she said. “I’m trying to go beyond the likeness, beyond just a slice of time. A deeper expression of who the person is. I’m successful, when I’m successful, when I go beyond that. We you see the painting of Paul, for example, I hope you will recognize the person you know, not just the image of the person you know.”

Of her return to Wilmington, after living and studying in Florence, and working at her studio in New Zealand, Kulida said she could appreciate the laid-back lifestyle of the beach town.

“Wilmington and Florence, they are like different planets,” she said. “Wilmington is peaceful, a gentle pace of things. In Italy, it was very go-go-go. All day, on my bicycle. From my house, to the studio, to the market. People zip by on scooters. Taxi drivers trying to kill you. You know, I try to pack a lot into my life. It could be that conservatory training, my speed of life.

“So it is good that Wilmington is very different. It is so relaxed. I lived here for 10 years, before Florence. And I come back here often,” she said. “The lifestyle here, it helps me dial it back a little bit. And it is beautiful here. Many of my friends who are artists live here. You can paint anywhere, so why not be near the beach?”

Wilmington may relax Kulida a little bit, but she is still quite busy. In addition to her public portrait painting, she is also teaching a class on still life oil-painting at the Cameron Art Museum.

“Still life painting has, maybe, a little less anxiety than portraits,” said Kulida. “But the challenges are the same. Capturing, not copying, what’s there.” (Photo Courtesy of  Tatyana Kulida)

“It’s the whole approach, really, all of it. Three and half hours, for 10 days. It’s an intense commitment. Maybe just a little crazy,” she said.

The course, offered through the museum school, is advertised as being “not for beginners.” But Kulida said she could make some exceptions.

“If you have some background, it can take some of the anxiety away,” she said. “I would say, you should have some knowledge. But, you know, if you’ve never painted before, but this is the absolute dream of your life, I’m cool with that. In some ways, that’s the best student, because you have nothing to unlearn. No bad habits.”

Kulida will be working on her portrait of Phillips on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays, from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. (depending on Kulida’s and Phillips’ availability; call ahead to the CAM to check). The still life class will run for 10, three-hour sessions, starting on Tuesday, Jan. 17. Registration is through the CAM.


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