Meeting Prohram. Irina Brel: I am like a surfer on a beautiful wave

The windows of the studio overlook the shady courtyard. Irina Brel and I sit there on a bench under a hydrangea bush and drink coffee. Summer turns to autumn, the rowans are red like fire. Irina talks about art, absolute happiness and wordless communication.

Irina, what are you doing in Prohram?

— I am an artist and designer.

How did you end up here? Why did you choose church art?

— This is because of the lucky accidents. Or maybe it was the logical outcome, I'm not sure. I always wanted to draw, as long as I can remember. And it was all leading to church art one way or another. I did mosaics, decorative plastering. I discovered a lot of interesting interiors doing that. And yes, I always wanted to work with the church spaces. I liked frescoes, mosaics and icon painting the most. Even in art school I expected that one day I will work with it.

Are your parents also artists?

— They are doctors. And they wanted me to be a doctor too. Maybe as a doctor I could speak their language. They always discussed medical issues, it was only natural for them. But I "escaped" it, and my parents gave me their blessing to be an artist.

Where did you study?

— First in the art school in Barysau, my hometown. Then in the Glebov Art College in Minsk. After that, I studied monumental and decorative arts in the Academy for nine years. These were long studies. When I finished the Academy of Arts I already had three daughters.

Irina Brel
Artist and designer. Member of the Belarusian Union of Architects

But where is this attraction towards churches from? Are you a believer, do you see your job as a religious mission?

— Yes, I wanted to serve God. To be honest, I didn't see much sense in anything else. The church art was and still is a sphere where I can bring everything most important to me and do my best. This was probably so from the very beginning. Even in art school.

Do you remember your faith conversion?

— No, it wasn't anything sudden. Everything in my life seems to happen very smoothly, organically… I think I always had the idea of God. My great grandma brought me up, she passed away when I was six. And as long as I can remember, all my questions to her were about faith. Later in life everything was only proving it and bringing me closer and deeper towards it.
A Chapel in Minsk, sketch by Irina Brel
I can't help mentioning your sketch of the chapel for St Spyridon parish in Mazurov street. I simply fell in love with that drawing.

— It was Dmitri Ostroumov's idea, and I tried to realize it. The sketch on craft paper that you are talking about was a new experience for me. I hardly ever had drawn architectural objects before, and I liked that a lot. In general, I think that it's important to enjoy every moment of life. Not that I strive for it consciously, but I notice it.

Do you have painful moments as an artist? If you have to produce some result, but there's no inspiration, how do you cope with that?

— There's no pain. I am like a surfer on a beautiful wave. It looks so wonderful, it seems so easy. I've never experienced a lack of inspiration here in Prohram. I may struggle with a particular element or ornament that doesn't fit. But there was never a time when I didn't want to draw. This sometimes happened before I joined Prohram, and now I understand why. I think I wasn't doing what I should have been doing. I often feel that the main sources of inspiration are the people and the environment. I am not the kind of artist that can work alone, secluded in a studio.

Doesn't the communication distract from work?

— Communication is not only talking, it doesn't always need words. Take mentorship for example. As a mentor, I prefer working by hand to talking and influencing others' work with words. I once decided that I will never talk anymore. Talking is so hard for me, it doesn't suit me. I hope that I can convey ideas without words - by example or by my attitude to work. I don't know whether it works, but I would like to believe that it does.

What project are you working with right now?

— Saint Alexander Nevsky church in Babrujsk, in the Holy Myrrhbearers Convent. It is built at the site of the demolished church. Its prototype is the Holy Trinity Cathedral in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra in Saint Petersburg. I'm not sure if the church in Babrujsk was all covered with gold, as the one in the Lavra is. But the cathedral in Saint Petersburg is an example for us here.

What do you mean by example? Do you copy it? Or do you change it somehow? Is your project "based on it"?

— The cathedral in Saint Petersburg combines the elements of Baroque and Neoclassicism. There are all those typical column capitals, "curly" details. Of course, I tried to change them somehow. But anyway Neoclassicism feels like Neoclassicism. We never simply repeat the example, no way. Even the hand itself refuses to draw copies. Every example always passes through me and I add some part of my soul to what was there before.

Irina's garden in winter
What art style is your favorite?

There are no styles that I don't like. This is like people: if you don't like someone, it's probably because you don't understand them enough. A good example of every style has harmony and beauty. If you try to study it, to delve into it, you naturally begin to like the style itself. If you insulate yourself saying "I like this and that only", then it'll be difficult to work with anything else.

Where do you look for beauty?

Nature always inspires me. And also people.

What about man-made beauty? What music do you listen to, what do you read?

There's always something playing in my headphones. I can't live without music. Most often there are Zemfira, Leonid Fedorov and Boris Grebenshikov on my playlist. Speaking of books… Recently, The Quiet Tales by Zinaida Mirkina astonished me. I was reading it to my kids, they also liked it very much, we were crying after each tale. This was so intimate, I didn't even know that there could be such books.

Irina Brel at the exhibition of icons in the National art museum
What is your main value in life? And what is the main "anti-value"?

I like sincerity the most. And I dislike lies and deceit the most.

What if someone lied and asked for pardon later, is it possible to forgive such a person? I don't ask should we forgive, I don't mean the ideal but the real life situation. In general, is it possible to forgive someone who has mistreated you? What does your experience say?

Yes, it is possible to forgive. Even if the person doesn't ask for pardon it is still possible. Forgiving is actually very easy. If someone lies or wrongs the others, I first of all pity the person who does so. And this pity further helps me to forgive.

We have finished the coffee. Irina tells about the art school Titmouse that she and her husband founded:

— In many respects the traditional system of art education doesn't work anymore. Many things should change. Me and Yura often thought about creating our own school. An artist should be free, but in regular schools you are always told: draw this, draw that, you have to do this and that. This is what's told at all stages of training. We wanted to create such an environment where pupils would be free, a school where they could discover themselves.

Why Titmouse and not Sparrow for example?

— We went through a lot of name options. Titmouse stands for lightness and freedom, I think. Something colorful, pictorial. Sparrow sounds gray, common. There's too much gray already. And also titmice are always associated with spring for me.

Also Irina believes that everyone should have a garden. She has her own garden in Zaslauje with pinetrees, beeches and tulip trees. In summer, herbs grow there - from arugula and basil to sage and hyssop. All sorts of roses blossom too. "Roses are probably the noblest of flowers", Irina says. Somehow it seems that behind these words there is something deep and intimate. It's a shame that this time of the year roses can't be seen. But the peonies from Irina's garden, these great fragrant bombs, stood on my table in June. Irina recalls:

— As a child, in Barysau, I could only see a blank brick wall from my window. This was very dull and sad. I feel that making people live in such environments is criminal. This is probably the only psychological trauma from my childhood. Back then I decided that I would absolutely have to have my own garden - a place where I could live in harmony.

It is great to see how dreams come true, how the walls disappear and gardens blossom instead. Irina Brel is someone whose dream came true indeed. She's the one who manages to share her joy with others too.

Even without words.

Interview by Tatiana Kuznetsova

August 2021
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