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Interview with Irina, one of the students at the Florence Classical Arts Academy

This time Barbara Niemczyk sat down with Irina, one of our students from the third year. Irina is now in the process of preparing her diploma work and finishing her studies. They talked about Irina’s progress as an artist in the last three years, her experience in the Academy, her final project at the Academy and her future career plans.

Barbara Niemczyk: Hi, Irina. The first question I want to ask you is, what are your future career plans?

Irina: I’m not a person who plans too far ahead, but a big plan for me is to have exhibitions and to show my work to a broader public.

BN: Is there any specific exhibition that you have in your mind? For example, do you want to start with paintings or sculptures?

Irina: I think I will start with the paintings. Sculpting is also something I am interested in it, but since that would be another three years of education, for now, I’m more focused on paintings.

BN: What is your biggest dream as an artist?

Irina: To travel the world and to paint art while doing so. I would also like to teach art.

BN: How is the Academy helping you to achieve your dreams that you have as an artist?

Irina: They help me a lot to come from like a mediocre, kind of middle stage of being an artist to really gaining skills and becoming better and better at what I’m doing. They help me with becoming a professional artist rather someone that is just doing it out of passion or for a hobby.

BN: Are you able to pinpoint specific ways in which they are doing so?

Irina: Sure. So, they work with a Russian method. What’s different about the method is that they work on your paintings. So, you do your work, and then the teachers comment about it, and they work on it too. Through this, you can actually observe how they would solve the struggles you had while doing the painting. In other classes that I attended in different schools, teachers would talk about it and not show it to you. Here, in the Academy, I like that I get a demonstration of how they do it.

BN: Which method do you prefer then? The Russian one or the other one that you mentioned?

Irina: I think that I make the most out of both of them. I think to get a strong foundation the Russian method is better.

BN: Why would you say so?

Irina: Because through the Russian method, you learn from your own mistakes. Also, because they focus a lot on construction and anatomy, which is undoubtedly going to help an artist in the future. Another thing that is an advantage for the school is how they use setups and the costumes that they make. You can see that they have a lot of experience in what they are doing. I also really like the fact that professors talk with each other and discuss things that I just mentioned, like setups and costumes together.

BN: That sounds great. Moving on to the next question, this is your third year at the Academy, right?

Irina: Yes. The first year I did in just half a year, so the intensive program.

BN: How was the intensive program different from the normal one?

Irina: The normal one starts in October and the intensive one, for me, started in February. It’s more lessons, and I expected it to be intensive, and it really was like this. I think in painting I was more relaxed but with other things… The thing was that we started in February, but we were put together with the students from the first year that began in October. So I think that in painting I was okay, but in drawing, I was far behind the other students. It was a bit stressful at the beginning.

BN: How were you able to catch up with the students that started in October?

Irina: At first, I think I was not able to do it. I had a feeling that I’m catching up with them only in the second year. Just gaining the experience and honestly, just keep going (laughing). That would be the advice.

BN: So, when we talked before the interview you told me that at the beginning, you came here only for half a year. Why firstly you thought about staying in the Academy only for half a year, that is only for the intensive program? What made you stay longer?

Irina: I think at first, I didn’t want to commit for something this big for three years of my life. I wanted to try it out and see if I like it or not. Also, because of finances, I never thought that I would be able to stay longer. But then after the intensive program was finished, I thought it would be really nice to stay. I think I got a scholarship for my second year and also I got support from my family. The third-year I actually applied for a sponsorship from an association which made the third year possible for me.

BN: What made you stay?

Irina: Because I saw my progress. I was enjoying it a lot. Now, when I look back at my sketches from the first year, it’s kind of embarrassing. Some of them are so off proportion…

BN: So of course, you see the difference between your works in the first year and now. What’s the biggest or the best one for you?

Irina: It’s more accurate in proportions and anatomy. Those were my biggest struggles before. Here we have courses from anatomy, and that helped me.

BN: When you were applying for the first-year course at the Academy, you surely had some expectations of how it will be. What were they? Why did you choose this Academy?

Irina: For me, it was a bit different in a sense that I didn’t look at that many different schools. It was more of a big decision for me to go back to art simply. Because I studied art education, but then I’ve worked in an office and just did a normal office job. After it, I felt an urge to go back to art. Then I just picked this school because I’ve heard about it before. Another reason why I picked this school was that I knew that they have a totally different approach to drawing and painting that I have never had before. In my previous education, it was a lot about being creative, creativity, having good concepts and also just working in many different fields like photography and video. I picked this Academy because I wanted to focus on one thing and get really good at it. So, I choose painting and to do it here.

BN: Nice. Can you tell me about your experience with the school, your professors and your classmates? Did you find the focus you just talked about?

Irina: Yes, sure. Since it was just about painting and drawing and nothing else besides this. The professors are great, I really enjoy working with them.

BN: What about the Academy? How is it to study art in Florence, probably one of the best cities in Europe to do so?

Irina: Yes, Florence is simply great. I think what makes the Academy so great is its location and the professors. Florence is just an amazing city full of art. You can always go to a museum, and the city is very inspiring. When it comes to the professors, they really make the experience special. Also, the studio space is great.

BN: In which ways the professors are special?

Irina: They have so much patience, and they are so kind. They can also explain things to you in an effortless way and really explain the things that matter for you and your process. Professors exactly see where you are at in your process, and they can help you with reaching the next level.

BN: What is the next step for you after you will graduate from the Academy?

Irina: What I would like to do is different from what I have to do. (laughing)

BN: (laughing). Sure. What is that you have to do and what is that you would like to do then?

Irina: I want to do just art. Rent a studio and just start creating. What I have to do is find sponsors or a part-time job. But yes, what I really want to do is to create as many paintings as possible to have an exhibition and to be able to show my work.

BN: Then, the portfolio from the Academy is actually helping with it, right?

Irina: Sure. It can be a good start. I also want to work on my own things and develop them even further. But it’s an excellent starting point, the portfolio.

BN: What was the biggest success in your career as an artist since you started the Academy?

Irina: I think the very first still life I painted. I liked it a lot. I didn’t really know a lot about what I did. I think I just did it by intuition. And together with the help from the teacher and that’s how it turned out so well. Later on, I think it’s one of the figures drawings. Then there was another figure drawing but, to be honest, I think it was a lot of contribution of the professor that helped me… (laughing).

BN: Why those works are so important to you?

Irina: Simply because those are the ones that turned out the best. There was one another still life that I did during the lockdown, and it was actually a great experience to do it without the teacher. I just had her feedback on the call, but I can say that I fully painted it on my own.

BN: So, the professor just helped you over the phone?

Irina: Yes, I just sent her pictures via my phone, and she was advising me what to do next. It was nice to see my progress that now I can actually do things like this on my own and just with a bit of help from someone else.

BN: Since we are on the subject. You probably heard that the Academy is preparing an online course that is meant to start in February. You, as a person that experienced studying in Academy in person, do you feel like it’s possible to study and teach visual art online? I’m asking since it was interesting what you said about the professor being able to help you via a phone which is of course not the same as being in a class in person.

Irina: It’s possible, sure. What would really help during an online course is getting regular feedback. Maybe demonstrations as well. Of course, it’s better in person, but it’s so common now to teach online, we just have to get used to it for now. I think it’s actually going to train the professors on how to show us how to, for example, set the light on our own. I mean, now with classes taking place in presence, for us, it’s so comfortable because we just come into the studio and everything is already set up.

BN: Yes, exactly. Maybe it’s actually good for you as a future artist to actually know those things, right?

Irina: Of course.

BN: Let’s now talk about your diploma project. You are planning on finishing this year, right?

Irina: The diploma should be finished by Christmas time. Then I’ll still have classes from painting and drawing, but I’ll also be with a teacher when they teach the first year and just look at what things and how they teach the younger students.

BN: That’s a nice opportunity. Coming back to the diploma project. Can you tell me more about it, why did you choose this topic? What inspired you to do it?

Irina: First, I had two ideas. One for a Biblical topic and one just for a different topic, not connected to religion. Since the school has a tradition in also doing biblical topics, I thought it might be good to do this one. Since there are so many problems to solve and I feel like it was the harder topic for me… So, I choose it to learn more.

BN: Was your decision kind of a challenge that you gave yourself then?

Irina: Exactly. I thought that I could do something more challenging here because I have all the support of the professor. Later on, I can do easier things on my own.

BN: How is the process going so far?

Irina: It was hard because of the corona lockdown. Because we were in the process and we were about to finish pretty soon, and then the lockdown happened. We started one year ago, in October 2019 and the lockdown started around March. I think we would have been done by June but yeah… I would have had so much time during the lockdown, but I just couldn’t focus…

BN: I don’t think anyone was really able to focus at that time.

Irina: Yes… (laughing). So, I was just happy with the still life that I did during the lockdown, the one I talked about before. Also, some smaller works. They kept me going, but I wasn’t really able to the big project, the diploma one.

BN: How is it now? I mean, we still have to see how the winter will be, but I think you had some time to do it in a more or less “normal” way now, right?

Irina: Yeah, it honestly took me some time to really get back to it since we were totally out of the flow. But now I feel like we see the goal of finishing it now.

BN: What is your goal? What is the topic of your work?

Irina: So, the topic of my diploma is The Book of Esther, the Biblical Book of Esther. I took one specific scene where she is walking through the courtyard, and she is going to approach the king, and there’s this unique feeling… It’s actually a highlight of the story because you don’t know if she’s going to be killed or not for approaching the king without an invitation. And after this everything turns out for the good.

BN: Why did you choose this scene exactly?

Irina: I chose it because I like the story of Esther. She’s this… At the beginning of the story, she’s not very courageous; she’s just beautiful. Then she develops through the story, and she becomes this courageous woman, fighting for her people. She inspires me.

BN: Great. Do you have one mentor, one professor that is helping you with the project?

Irina: Yes. It’s Svetlana Kurbatskaya.

BN: How is Svetlana helping you with it?

Irina: Basically, she’s just taking us from one step to the next one. She knows the whole process, and we are still learning about it. She tells us “now it’s this stage”, “now you need to do that” and then whenever she feels like it’s good, like we accomplished the goal of the stage she will explain the next one.

BN: Nice. Good luck with it! Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Irina: Yes, actually, yes. I want to say one more thing about the Academy. It's a thing that I noticed in past years. I think that professors are powerful in using colours. I'm saying it because other schools are very good at drawing, but another plus for this Academy is that they are strong in colours as well.

BN: In which ways?

Irina: They are just more colorful than other schools. Other schools are more monochromatic. I think it also comes from the Russian method that they are so fresh and have those beautiful colours in their paintings. It's just a difference that I can see and compare to the other schools.

BN: Now, after seeing it, do you feel like you started to use similar colours in your own art? Or would you use it in your future career?

Irina: Hmm… My weakness is drawing, and I’m strong in colours. So, I feel like I was already using specific colours in my art. So, I think that’s also a reason why I chose this Academy. It appealed to me that they show colours so vividly.

BN: Great, thank you.

Irina: Actually, one more thing. (laughing) I have an advice for students that want to do the intensive program. A good idea would be to include the January workshop about the skull. What they used to do was having the workshop about the skull in January, and then the intensive program started in February. I think it’s a good idea to the workshop before the intensive program since later you have to do all the portraiture and it’s an advantageous knowledge to have while doing it. Skull anatomy is helping a lot because if you don’t know the skull well, it can be hard.

BN: So, combining the January course with the intensive program in February?

Irina: Exactly.

BN: That's a great tip! Thank you. Also, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

Irina: Sure. Thank you, as well.

Irina Pfister at Florence Classical Arts Academy with her works

Anatomy study by Irina

Lockdown still life (work in progress) by Irina

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