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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, June 4, 2001

Island People
From Russia with art: Svetlana Vovina

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

When Svetlana Vovina left Russia for America 11 years ago, she carried with her a few clothes, two plates and three precious teacups. She sets each teacup down now on its delicate saucer at a small kitchen table, and fills them with steeped dark tea. Their deep, cobalt blue is her favorite.

Svetlana Vovina decorates old glass bottles with thin layers of a clay polymer product called Fimo. In her tiny bedroom in a Makiki apartment, designs come to life on her desk.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Behind her, on the windowsill in the Makiki apartment she shares with her son and his wife, is a bottle in the same shade that she bought for a dime in a secondhand store. It has become the backdrop for a delicately miniaturized scene of winged angels in scarlet robes floating against an azure sea.

Dotted throughout the apartment are more odd-shaped bottles, each a treasure. The bottle of cooking oil, the salt shaker, the pencil container, candle holders, all encrusted with thin slices of a plastic clay called Fimo, made by Vovina into inspired creations. The refrigerator is awash in monster magnets, though a few are missing toenails because of accidents in moving.

"My imagination," she says with a smile that folds her face with laugh lines. "I think every girl wants to draw some beautiful dames, some beautiful dresses . . . maybe it is from childhood."

Floating angels and drifting mermaids. Baskets of flowers, and skies filled with stars. And, every so often, a resurrection scene of long-haired maidens in a garden. They are all souls that have come alive,

she explains. All are made with flexible polymer clay found in craft stores.

All are the elaborate and detailed art of a woman of extraordinary talent who left behind a literary career in Russia to follow her son to the United States. He found intellectual freedom and she found a new way of life.

Her small bedroom is her studio. A crowded desk tucked next to a sleeping futon is the launching pad for a fanciful world that seems more likely to be found in gilt-edged books of Russian fairy tales with curlicue lettering.

Shaping angels

Svetlana Vovina
 •  Age: 63
 •  Born: St. Petersburg, Russia
 •  Family: Divorced, lives with her son and daughter-in-law in Honolulu
 •  Vocation and avocation: Linguistics expert, poet and artist. An underground writer in the Soviet Union, she finally was allowed to publish in 1985 in an anthology with other underground writers. She said it is impossible to translate her poems, which are mostly about death, into English.
For hours every day, Vovina patiently slices long strips of Fimo to build the faces for her angels, or abstract patterns for their wings and dresses. An eye starts as a long skinny tube of black, is encased in color and then white. From here, she shapes it and stretches it into an even longer tube. The tinier she wants it to become, the more she stretches.

"When you roll it, it is like, what you say, piecrust," she said. Flexible knives that look like stretched-out razorblades, are her tools.

Vovina's unique creations are for sale at both the Contemporary Museum gift shop in Makiki Heights and Ko'olau Gallery in Manoa. They range in price from $30 to around $60, which hardly seems to reflect the hours of labor that go into each one.

"Her detailing is so incredible," said Contemporary Museum shop manager Barbara Rauch, who wasn't the least interested in Fimo work until she saw Vovina's. "People are just so amazed when they see it because it's so fine.

"When Fimo first came out everything looked like Play Doh," said Rauch. "But when I looked at what she does I said 'I definitely want this.'"

Former librarian

At left is a completed bottle. At right, Svetlana Vovina's whimsical figures are being pieced together.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

A linguist and specialist in Russian literature, Vovina served as librarian for the prestigious Pushkin collection at the Institute of Russian Literature in St. Petersburg in the years she was a divorced mother raising her son, Alexander Vovin, now a professor of Japanese at the University of Hawai'i.

The language choice was accidental, she explains. Her son wanted to study Greek or Latin literature, but Jewish scholars in Russia were often shut out of courses simply because they weren't told the courses existed. So instead, her son became fascinated by Japanese and is now on sabbatical in Japan researching a literary text. With his wife from Japan, the conversation at home swirls from English to Russian to Japanese.

Vovina also worked at the History of Bread museum in St. Petersburg, taught Russian language in the school system and was one of Russia's underground writers, unable for years to publish her poetry, much of it about death.

"When I came here I read everything I wanted. I saw every movie," she said. But she couldn't find new works by Russian authors until she discovered an Internet site that posts them all. In Russian.

English is a continuing challenge and a source of some anxiety, especially during telephone conversations, which she generally avoids. In Michigan, where her son taught when they first left Russia, she joined an international collection of immigrants in an adult education class, all desperately seeking assimilation. "I had very hard time" she recalled. "Everyone speaks with accent. We had Chinese people and nobody could understand them. They love me because I try."

Self-taught artist

Svetlana Vovina keeps her clay beads in cookie tins.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

A self-taught artist, Vovina was first inspired by a string of beads given her in Russia by the daughter of a neighbor. When she moved to the United States, she searched craft stores and then a library, hoping to discover how they were made. An early book describing polymer clay was the answer. Back at the craft store, she loaded up and became so infatuated with the clay she'd work from morning to night. "I don't remember stopping. For two years, I didn't want to do anything except Fimo."

Her first projects were beads in colorful abstract patterns, faces dotted here and there. "Every bead seemed so beautiful," she says. "Now I can criticize myself but at that time I couldn't."

In Oxford, Ohio, where she and her son moved after Michigan, she sold the beads at a craft shop on the long street that served as downtown. And she taught a few classes, moving on from beads to scenic pictures, the kind she now puts on votive candle-holders and bottles.

In Hawai'i she has taught at Bead it and the Honolulu Academy of Arts. But the students have been few. "People don't know what is this polymer clay," she says. "I would like to share people how to do this because it's just beautiful stuff."

But that will have to wait until Christmas. Vovina will be gone for a few months, joining her son on a sabbatical in Japan in the next few weeks. Since clay is too cumbersome to carry, she will draw and paint, a new obsession.

Vovina smiles a beatific smile. "I painted in Russia in my youth, in oil," she says. "I didn't have school. But all my friends are artists."