Wednesday finds me at the Moscow center of Maria's Children Art Center, hosted by Coordinator, Natasha Khasanova. FRUA has donated directly to Maria's Children in the past, and we sell posters and art cards with the art created by the orphans in our FRUA online store. After a couple of days of high level thinking and even higher level elbow-rubbing, I planned Wednesday to get outside the confines of conference and immediate Arbat area. I wanted to meet people working with orphan children and "non-commercial" organizations actually doing something here.
I may have gotten more than I bargained for. The first thing I did wrong was that I dressed in a business suit and high heels. Somehow I thought that I needed to look official. I also thought that hiring a taxi to take me to the address would mean no walking, which wasn't exactly correct. I forgot about the standing part. The cobblestone streets had me wishing I were brave enough to go barefoot, and after a few hours of standing (peering over the art projects tackled so enthusiastically by the young adult classes) I was stopped from bare feet only by the paint and glitter and felting materials on the floor.
Out of the cab, I went down a cobblestone street and through an ornate wrought iron gate, around the corner and passed between two enormous poplar trees. Ahead lay big glass windows bursting with joyful color, full of children's paintings of sky and flowers and animals and buildings and swirling patterns. The sign was in Russian, of course, but I assumed I'd arrived. Down the step stone stairs, around the corner and through rooms overflowing with artist supplies, paints, paper, cloth, found items, and no one in sight. I pass through the kitchen, where where I tap a FRUA magnet on the refrigerator, and find Natasha near the back of a tiny office filled with a group of desks covered over in books and folders. The air feels energetic, happy.
For those of you who may not know, Maria's Children is an art rehabilitation project begun by Maria Yeliseyeva, an artist in Moscow, who wanted to help orphan children to process the trauma they had experienced in their young lives. She was familiar with this need because she and her husband, already parents of five children, adopted five more daughters from Russia's orphanages, who now range in age from young adult to age five. The goal of Maria's Children has always been to use art as a means of self expression and a vehicle for self-discovery for those warehoused in Russia's orphanage system. Through the years, her art programs have expanded, and she has taken on partners to help fund the work of offering free, rehabilitative art instruction to orphans in their Moscow studio, including American, Patch Adams who visits every year. She has also created summer camps for orphans and disabled orphans, who for the first time had the chance to go to the ubiquitous children's summer camps favored by all Europe, including Russia.
During my visit groups of young adults from Psycho-Neurological Institution (Internat) #11 arrived at Maria's Children for art classes. These are young adults who have graduated out of the system, but are not capable of living totally on their own; they receive a stipend which allows them to live at the institution, which contracts with Maria's Children to offer them a creative outlet. “It is the bright spot of their week,” said Natasha.
Natasha is concerned at the moment, because their biggest orphanage contracts are up in the air...the changes in Moscow orphanages are having an effect, but what it will be for Maria's Children, she does not yet know (more about this in a follow-up blog). The art instructors are cheerful, talented, caring, working with the youth in one classroom at collages that marry individually-woven spheres into brilliantly-colored floral still-lifes. In another classroom, the youth worked at turning bright fibers into felt, that in turn will be turned into items like felt purses, and felt eye-glass holders. “We sell them at fairs and festivals to make money to buy art supplies,” said Natasha. “And it helps us get word of Maria's Children out to the people.”
In the kitchen, another volunteer has been at work turning ingredients into lunch. Near 2:00 pm, she comes into the art room with a big pot of pasta, a bowl of pale, shredded cheese and a giant pot of tea. All the students gather and the pasta is ladles out to all, topped with cheese and handed around. Mis-matched cups are gathered and tea is poured. Someone runs back to the kitchen and comes back with a loaf of bread and a jug of milk to add to the tea. A honey pot appears and within minutes, all the honey is on the bread and in the tea. The large bag of tiny yellow apples (many with bruises), that I spotted someone carrying in that morning, is poured into a bowl, but after discussion, the apples return to the bag, to be carried back to the institution with the students. A half hour and the meal is gone, the dishes carried to the kitchen. “We feed them, or they would not get lunch that day,” said Natasha.
When at the end of the class sessions, Natasha asks me how I was getting back to my hotel near the Arbat, I say....cab. “Of course not,” she replied, “I will take you to the metro.” And off she trots on Moscow streets, an incredibly brave, walking protest in her blue shirt and yellow skirt (Ukrainian colors), red flowers in her hair to match her red shoes. I limp after her. In the crowded Metro, she chats away in English and I glance around, noting that we are attracting attention. At the second Arbat stop she guides me off the car, up the impossibly steep escalator into the sunshine and to the end of the street to the Arbat, where I know exactly where I am. “Now we are friends,” we both say, and hug.
As she walks cheerfully away and turns to wave, I say “Natasha, be careful.”