Painting used to be one of the periodic hobbies that relieved my stress when I worked as a correspondent in Moscow. When I left last summer, I took my 18-year-old cat Blackjack with me on the flight to my new home in Hungary. Sadly, he died in Budapest earlier this year. After I buried his ashes, I was left with his urn and didnât know what to do with it. Use it as a vase? Smash it in my distress? Suddenly, I realised it would make a great container for my paint brushes and I started painting again, after a break of about five years.
Out of the urn came a series of 26 paintings of Jackâs life that I called âBlack Looks Good on Any Colour.â They will be shown in an exhibition in Budapest this autumn. Having finished the pictorial tribute to Jack, I was eager for more subjects and invited Facebook friends to send me their photos so I could paint their portraits. I now have a queue of people waiting for me to mirror them with humour and love.
For me, painting is another form of reporting. In the 1990s, I had a popular column in The Moscow Times about the lives of ordinary Russians, called âFaces and Voicesâ. As they say, âa picture is worth 1,000 wordsâ and now I am just doing the faces, without any comment. This leaves the viewer free to come to his or her own conclusions.
My paintings often have a main subject and a secondary figure or object that hints at their particular passion in life. Sometimes I catch a good likeness and sometimes this evades me but the picture is nevertheless interesting. For example, when I tried to paint my Hungarian friend Zoltan, he came out looking Chinese. I nearly threw the work away until I noticed there was a shiny gold lucky cat on the shelf behind him. I brought this out as a feature and entitled the portrait âChinese Zoltanâ. He was thrilled.
Some people are more or less the same, inside and out. Others project an image for the outside world but are rather different on the inside. Integrated personalities are easier for me to paint while with more conflicted people, thereâs a danger I will catch their hidden side and perhaps offend them. I have to be careful.
In the case of Australian artist David Wansbrough, who is well known and loved in Russia, I tried my best to make him old and ugly, with wrinkles and eye bags. The result was that I shaved 30 years off his age. He commented: âQuick! Tell Dorian Gray that Ms. Womack can take the image from the attic and restore former innocence.â
So beware, then, if you ask me to make you âyoung and pretty.â
British-born Helen Womack worked as a correspondent in Moscow from 1985-2015. She is the author of The Ice Walk: Surviving the Soviet Break-up and the New Russia (Melrose Books, UK, 2013)