There is something about the look and power of a motorcycle, especially an American-made, precision machine like a Harley-Davidson.
That’s why Russian-born painter and Princeton resident Marina Ahun Vorojeykina — who studied at the Imperial Academy of Fine Art in St. Petersburg — is drawn to their almost animal-like lines and the myriad of mirror images within the chrome.
And though she herself does not ride, she has fond childhood memories “of riding up front in the sidecar of the Ural motorcycle that my aunt and uncle had in Russia,” she says.
“The world of reflections led me to the current series I am working on that show the beauty of the motorcycle,” Vorojeykina says, explaining what inspired her to do a series of watercolors celebrating the artful aspects of motorcycles. For one thing, they are “a ‘sea’ of reflective chrome and color that I find irresistible, plus their details are so exposed and sensual.”
“My work is not pure realism but maybe it’s more like a ‘creative reflection’ since I do manipulate the images to suit me,” she continues. “When someone sees my work for the first time it may look like ‘realism,’ but when (they) look closer they can see that I have embedded elements that bring the viewer closer to a ‘feeling for the building.’”
“Motorcycles are my ‘new’ buildings, though smaller in actual size, the motorcycle stands alone like a building and are many times found in groups, like buildings,” she adds. “(Yet) they all have their own individual ‘personalities.’”
So meticulous are her depictions of motorcycles, the publication “American Iron” — especially popular with Harley-Davidson riders — will feature her story in an upcoming edition. Plus Vorojeykina’s motorcycle art appeared on the cover of “Quick Throttle” magazine in February, 2016.
Vorojeykina will exhibit at least one of her motorcycle-inspired watercolors when she enjoys a solo exhibit at Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street throughout the month of June, with a public reception on Friday, June 10, from 7 to 9 p.m.
“I’ll show a variety of pieces done in oil and watercolor that represent both my ‘realism style’ and the abstract,” Vorojeykina says. “Most of the work, though, will be from my Princeton series.”
When she speaks of her “Princeton series,” Vorojeykina is referring to a special group of watercolors that capture the beauty and a kind of mystery within the venerable buildings on the campus of Princeton University. She seems to have been particularly drawn to the University Chapel, the grand Collegiate Gothic structure designed by Ralph Adams Cram in 1921.
Vorojeykina also created handsome, painstaking portraits of Nassau Hall, with and without FitzRandolph Gate in the foreground, and throughout several seasons of the year. Her “Nassau Hall in Snow” captures the stark splendor of the bare trees and winter sky and features a warmly dressed family in the painting as well.
“I have tried to do justice to the magnificent architecture found on campus by giving it a warmth not always found in stone buildings,” Vorojeykina says. “I knew nothing about the university and how it worked, and so I naively knocked on their door and showed them my work. I was lucky that I met the right people, and they not only bought what I had painted, but then they commissioned me to do more, which made me the first licensed and commissioned artist of Princeton University.”
“My work was featured in the 18-month academic calendar, which appeared in 2011,” she adds. “The then-president of the university (Shirley M. Tilghman) also chose my painting of the Holder Cloister as her personal Christmas card that year.”
In addition to this honor, 18 of Vorojeykina’s original architectural renderings are in the university’s permanent collection.
“When I came to Princeton and saw the university campus I was captivated by the style and magnitude, and it inspired me to start painting the buildings,” Vorojeykina says. “Because I had received such a unique education in Russia, I felt confident that I could do justice to these magnificent structures. The thing that has set my work apart are all the details that may not be noticed individually but collectively please the viewer. What many don’t realize is how much work is involved initially in creating the angles, right perspectives, and foundations that must be accurate in the drawings before I start painting.”
“It is important to understand that distortions are found everywhere in art and can be used to great effect, but in the kind of architectural work I produce, distortions would be a distraction and probably bother the viewer, so I have to be very careful,” she adds.
Through her artwork, Vorojeykina has also explored buildings, structures, and places aside from the Princeton campus, and among these has rendered a precise and affectionate watercolor of the “Trenton Makes the World Takes” bridge, also known as the “Lower Free Bridge” or the “Warren Street Bridge.”
There is something about the artist’s skies that adds an element of mysticism to her works. Vorojeykina’s watercolor of Drumthwacket also contains a dramatic sky, and the deep blues and indigoes offset the whiteness of the governor’s residence.
Vorojeykina’s life began in the city of Salavat, Russia, just west of the Ural Mountains. The Soviet-built city grew up around a petrochemical facility that employed many people, including her late father, who was a manager at the facility until his death in 1986.
“My mother was employed as a metallurgical analyst in Salavat until her untimely death in 2001,” Vorojeykina says.
She was about 8 years old when she decided that she wanted to follow her older sister to music school. Vorojeykina convinced her mother, and the young Marina spent the next three years immersed in piano studies.
“I then wanted to go to art school (a similar program), and this is where I discovered I had talent for drawing and painting. Because of this experience I was eventually able to apply and get accepted to the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg,” she says, noting that very few new students were accepted each year, as this was one of the best art schools in Europe.
“I was encouraged by my first art teacher and my mother to apply and with their help I spent the next six years studying painting and architecture. It was a big change going from Salavat to St. Petersburg because I had no family there. The work was demanding, but I truly enjoyed my time there until I graduated in 1986.”
“The Imperial Academy is housed in a magnificent building that can be quite intimidating when you first see it,” Vorojeykina explains. “Many fine and successful artists have graduated from this school and I feel privileged to be among such company. This is one of the few programs that combine fine art and architecture concurrently, and so I received a unique education during the six years I was there. I had no idea that this experience would eventually lead me to America and painting for a world-famous university.”
After graduation Vorojeykina worked for a year at an architectural institute in the former Soviet Union, where she was project leader for the design of three new buildings. She then was given an opportunity to be an archeological illustrator in Uzbekistan.
“It looked like an adventure as I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, but it turned out to be a turning point in my life,” Vorojeykina says. “In Uzbekistan I met my husband and had a daughter, which then took most of my time. I never really felt welcome or accepted in Uzbekistan because I was a blue-eyed Russian, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, things only got worse there. It was then I decided that I needed to get out.”
Vorojeykina came to the United States in 2002 on a tourist visa and applied for — and was granted — political asylum from religious persecution in a former Soviet bloc country. She says that she was granted asylum in 2005, and explains the circumstances of her flight from oppression.
“As a Russian Orthodox Christian and a woman living in a (Muslim) country, it was difficult to do things even though I was married at the time to a local man,” she says. “Doing my art wasn’t really an option under the circumstances, and so it wasn’t until I came to this country that I really began my art career in earnest. I was rusty at first, but my style and technique came back with practice, and I have gotten better and better, I think.”
“Living without a green card for that long is very anxiety producing, and when I finally received it I was so grateful and happy,” Vorojeykina continues. “It was actually a bigger event than when I received citizenship in 2007. With an American passport, I was able to finally travel out of the country, and I have been back to Russia and visited Switzerland and France a couple of times.”
“America, even though it was overwhelming at first, has been so good to me,” she says. “I first lived in Trenton because I had a friend in Europe who had a friend living in Trenton. I really love living and working in Princeton, though, because it was here I got my first big break when I started painting my Princeton University series.”
Vorojeykina lives with her daughter, Leyla, an American citizen and a graduate of Mercer County Community College.
In addition to her motorcycle-inspired works and her studies of the university campus and various structures throughout the area, Vorojeykina has more recently dedicated her time and skills to exploring the territory between realism and abstraction in her series titled “New York Scenes.”
The artist likes New York’s proximity to Princeton, and visits often with camera in hand, working in her studio from her photographic images to create her Big Apple portraits.
“My first impressions of the city and all the reflective glass and metal surfaces have been the constant theme of this series,” Vorojeykina says. “I love reflections, but they are always changing with the time of day and weather, and so I rely on the many photographs I have to take when I am starting a painting like this. The city is too crowded to work on the street directly, and so I do almost all my painting in my home studio.”
“Most of my NYC series is oil on canvas, although I will be exhibiting a watercolor I did of Times Square in the Small World Coffee show,” she says.
Between the educational rigor of the Imperial Academy of Fine Art and her own long artistic life and career, Vorojeykina must have absorbed countless influences. However, she names only two inspirations, but the two happen to be titans of art history.
“I would have to start with Michelangelo,” she says. “I have always liked his work (as have many) and found it inspirational since he too captured architecture in a unique way. I am also a fan of the architectural work done by J. Vermeer. I have to admit that I am not very fond of the modernist abstract movement and pop-art.”
American citizenship was certainly a cause for celebration. Yet Vorojeykina still feels that getting a green card was, in many ways, more of an achievement than her citizenship. Explaining her reasons, even a blase American might reflect on living in a society where your integrity/standing is constantly questioned. Imagine, for example, having to show proper papers to go across the bridge from Lambertville into New Hope.
“You don’t know how scary it is being in a foreign country without the proper papers, always at risk of being arrested and deported,” Vorojeykina says. “I am very grateful to the United States for taking me in and giving me a chance to do my art in freedom. If you have never lived under a politically, socially, and religiously repressive system of government as I have, you can’t imagine how much the freedom we have in the U.S. means to a person like me.”
Works by Marina Ahun Vorojeykina, Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Through June. Free. Reception Friday, June 10, 7 to 9 p.m. 609-924-4377. www.smallworldcoffee.com. Marina Ahun Vorojeykina on the web: www.marinaahun.com