Making a connection
Considering her life’s journey has taken Galia Kwetny from the former Soviet Union to Israel to Alberta, it’s no surprise that geography is the theme of her art exhibit, Connecting Places.
“When you move from country to country, or continent to continent, there’s a trail you leave behind,” said Kwetny, whose abstract topographic paintings are showing at the Harris-Warke Gallery in Sunworks in downtown Red Deer.
Each of the diverse landscapes she has inhabited has left an indelible impression on the artist — and also a sort of imprinted map on her psyche.
While some people might compartmentalize the time they spent in various places, the 48-year-old doesn’t see any “interruptions” in her history. “For me, it’s a continuous trail . . . (and) my paintings are like migratory notebooks.”
Her largest bold acrylic work, Community, resembles a map of what the world might have looked like when it was one land mass, before the continents drifted apart.
Kwetny is amused to overhear people trying to determine which continent is which — when, in fact, she wasn’t painting continents at all.
Her inspiration was a photograph of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Kwetny was intrigued because the time-tattered edges of the parchment strongly resembled the coastal configurations of a land mass.
The Red Deer-based artist said she depicted the tatters exactly as she saw them. At the same time, she wanted to retain the painting’s dual interpretation by incorporating textures that evoke mountainous terrain along with the faded Aramaic text from the Hebrew Bible.
Kwetny is of Jewish background, but couldn’t practise the faith while growing up in the former Soviet Union. Her family members put religion aside because of fearful circumstances: Her grandfather was a concentration camp survivor who had all of his teeth extracted by the Nazis, while her parents believed they could be punished as religious dissidents in the officially atheist Soviet Union.
“I couldn’t observe my religion, even quietly in the house. You would be mocked or persecuted,” said the artist, whose father worked in the Soviet military. “I had to piece my history together through letters and photographs.”
Although Kwetny was an artistic teenager, she was stymied from pursuing art by an unyielding post-secondary policy. Before being accepted into a fine arts university program in the U.S.S.R., applicants were required to have previous art school training.
But her northern community of Arcangelesk was too small to have a local art school, so Kwetny instead enrolled in linguistics at a Moscow university.
She studied English — a valuable endeavour that eventually enabled her to teach the language after leaving the Soviet Union (Kwetny and her husband had to each pay half a year’s salary and abandon all of their documents to legally exit in 1991).
They relocated to Israel, where several of their friends had settled.
By comparison, the Middle East had no food lines and offered plenty of opportunities for young professionals. Kwetny said she loved the sun-beaten country, hiking the Golan Heights with her junior high and high school students.
Israel was where her son and daughter were born, and “you grow roots with your children,” she added.
But with the Holy Land’s rich history came 2,000 years of baggage. And eventually, hostilities between the Jews and Palestinians drove the family to seek a more peaceful haven. Kwetny said she always felt torn in Israel, empathizing with both sides in the conflict.
Her husband, an anesthesiologist, got a job at Red Deer Regional Hospital. Kwetny joined him here in 2010, after first obtaining teaching and fine arts degrees from the University of Alberta, while living in Edmonton.
Earlier this year, the artist who opened the Artribute Art School in Red Deer’s Old Court House, obtained a Masters of Fine Arts degree from Vancouver’s Emily Carr University.
The representational works she created early in her career gradually transformed into abstract landscapes — perhaps because of a need to reconcile her own journeys across the world, mused Kwetny.
Several paintings in Connecting Places have Middle Eastern links, including a work that pinpoints Qumrun, where the Biblical scrolls were found about 75 years ago, near the Dead Sea.
But the New World also factors in Kwetny’s art.
Ungoogled Earth shows an overview of farm fields and the distant sweep of mountains that can be seen on a clear day between Calgary and Red Deer.
Soil Matters was inspired by the “blinding” afternoon sun on Didsbury farm fields. The cross-sectional painting shows a golden surface, while underneath dynamic red and black oil deposits are heaving.
Kwetny said the dramatic Alberta landscape is the latest to shape her and imprint on her psyche.
Canada is also where she’s starting to make a mark as an artist — one of Kwetny’s works recently won a competition to decorate the SkyTrain station in Richmond, B.C.
The Connecting Places exhibit is on until Dec. 29.