Yulia Kraeva-Kenkadze, Artist, Doll-maker – Saint-Petersburg
I never met her. Not in real life, anyway.
I would have loved to drop by her house, unannounced, for an evening cup of tea, or take her out for coffee. But we always had thousands of miles and several time-zones between us.
Sometimes I wrote her letters, real letters in crinkly envelopes that took weeks, sometimes months to reach her. Once she sent me a parcel, a box wrapped in silver-grey paper and tied with a pink ribbon. Inside that box, laying on her bed of green tull and rose petals was a doll like I’d never seen before. It was a kind of doll my great-grandmother received for Christmas when she had been a very, very good girl: delicate, light as a feather, dressed in silk and lace, with a face from another time.
I asked her if she would like to be my first fairy and she agreed. For over a week she was patiently telling me stories about love, happiness, chaos, magic and the sea.
– Yulia, tell me how it all started. Was it a doll? A picture? What was it about? What gave you an idea? What did you think when you saw your creation?
– It’s so hard to recall, Vira! My memory is like a patchwork blanket – I remember bits and pieces. Does childhood count? I remember that things were alive when I was little and my head was buzzing with voices. My adult memories are not as clear. First, cracks and stains came alive. I wanted to tell their stories, but I didn’t think I could. To draw and sculpt, I thought, one needs to go to some kind of art school and I’d never been to one.
I made my first doll out of a stain I was looking at every day. This is what got me started. There was so much excitement, so much joy. I was getting all those ideas from somewhere, bringing them to life. It was so fun, I didn’t even mind that some people thought me crazy.
– Wow! I feel like there are planets and universes in your head. How could a stain become a doll? Tell me more! What was she like? What was her name? Where is she now?
– It was a paint stain that looked like an auntie cat with something on her head and a bunch of kittens around. While I was modeling her, the thing on her head became a bride’s veil, in her paws she was holding a pillow, and, actually, she turned out to be not a cat, but an ewe (all brides are a little ewish – they are so innocent and in pursuit of something). Little ewe found a good home, a kind and safe home with kids and cats and yummy food on the table. All my dolls end up in the right homes and hands.
– What a sweet story! You know, before writing to you I check the time on my phone and it says “x hour, tomorrow”. You live in tomorrow, isn’t it great?! Your Instagram profile says that you are a Configurator. What does that mean?
– Oh yes, and I don’t think it’s such a great thing – living in tomorrow. But sometimes I can’t figure out how to live in today. Some say it’s a weakness, an escape from reality 🙂
Configurator, it’s from a sci-fi story by Robert Sheckley. It was a machine that reproduced stuff, but it created things just once and never repeated itself. This is totally my quality – I can never repeat myself. Some people ask for copies of the dolls I’d made before, but I just can’t 🙂
– I remember that story! I also had a huge book of short stories by Sheckley when I was a teenager. You know what? We have the same day! It’s about noon here and already evening where you are. You are probably drinking tea with cinnamon buns and read lovely books under a lampshade. Do you like cinnamon buns? Tell me about your fairy qualities. What kind of fairy are you?
– It was almost like you said. Only, instead of cinnamon buns we had waffles from my mum’s vintage waffle-maker 🙂 And I have three lampshades!
What kind of fairy am I? I can hardly define myself. I am silent, but sincere. I love old things, I love being alone, sometimes I draw what I cannot say with words and things that I draw often come true. I seem ordinary, but I can surprise. Do I sound weird? Because I’m not crazy 🙂
– Not crazy – mysterious 🙂 You said that what you draw often comes true. How? Do you make it happen? Or do you foresee the future?
– Oh, I never do anything special. It just does. All by itself.
– Ok, let’s pretend I’m writing a fairy tale. This is how I would start it: “More than anything else in the world fairy Yulia loved…”
– The sea.
– I think we’re alike. I think that it’s better to do the things your way, than to do them “the right way”. I think magic cannot be tamed, chained and put in one’s pocket. Remember, in Dandelion Wine the grandmother couldn’t cook her lavish meals once her kitchen was put in order? I believe that magic is born from… chaos, maybe, from freedom. That every crack should decide what drawing it will become and every word must find its own place in a fairy tale. I believe that magic needs certain comforts. My own magic loves solitude. What does yours like?
– Yes, there is this saying about the oyster that grows its pearl in solitude. It’s true! Chaos. mess, confusion, short-sightedness – they don’t bother me, no, they help me create. I can notice things anywhere, even in the crowd, but I prefer to create things when I’m on my own. Although it did happen to me to make stuff in the presence of others – it was my way to endure their company 🙂
– It’s Friday, so let’s play! I will show you your own artwork and dolls and you will tell me how they came to be, from what cracks and stains, secret thoughts and conversations.
– Alright. This is not a favourite of mine. It reminds me of an encounter that led to a painful relationship. It’s about me, you see. My love stories are all a bit awry 🙂 But I still like the doll. It lives in Odessa now. At first I wanted to put these two on an arched bridge, but made a swing instead. And this is exactly what that relationship was – a swing,
– Things that you make often come true. Be careful! How about this one?
– This is Nina! This time it was autumn and new love that would bring me to Saint-Petersburg, But this was still in the North. Nina’s a twin, but her sister was away at that time. We drove out of town. My boyfriend started throwing leaves up in the air and Nina was standing at the edge of this leave-fall, motionless. This is how I saw her. It took me some effort to bring out what she had inside: this autumny feeling, the time of dead leaves and first morning chills, the time when winter seems still far away. She was like a tiny snail without a shell to protect her.
– You know, looking at your pictures I can’t always tell what is real and what isn’t. So I believe everything 🙂 Let’s try this doll.
– Do believe, for nothing is a lie! 🙂 This is Asia – my first Saint-Petersbourg doll. We rent a room in a shared flat, so I didn’t have a working space at that point. I made myself some place on the edge of the kitchen table! I was staring out of my window, wondering when there will be snow, and saw Asia’s silhouette in a peeling paint on the window-frame. My daughter made a crown and it fit Asia perfectly.
– Are you serious about the kitchen table? Wow. Here’s the next doll.
– My boy with a seagull. I just made him up. See, he found an egg! He’s trying to pretend he’s a seagull with his fake beak, but those birds are just too smart. It’s from my own memories, actually. I once found a row of nests on the shore. Seagulls were frantic and I never thought of wearing a beak on a string.
– Silly birds! The boy looks totally harmless. Tell me about this picture.
– This is my self-portrait with my angel 🙂 This is how I imagine my angel – an enormous astronaut. He has a bunch of space radishes in his pocket – my boyfriend gave me a bouquet of radishes on one of our first dates. The hourglass and the elephant just wanted to be in the picture – I have no idea why 🙂
– You’re not tired of playing yet? Tell me about her.
– You will laugh, but this is another self-portrait. I love poppies and the sea. She has turquoise hair, because I love turquoise colour, it’s so yummy! See how she tilts her head, closes her eyes and shelters herself with her arms – it’s all about me. I am a very reserved person and rarely open up to somebody the way I do now. By the way, I used to see this silhouette on the bathroom wall and now I can’t find it anymore! 🙂
– What is your earliest memory? Or the most significant one.
– Grandma, how we were reading together and how I was hiding behind her when parents scold me. The sea – I first went to the sea when I was only one and then every summer. I was catching jellyfish with a twig and building countless sand castles. Seabathing: I was hiding in the crowd of bathers so I could stay in the water longer. I thought I was a mermaid 🙂 My dolls – they were all alive. I look at my daughter – she does not have this magic, she can’t play with her dolls on her own. My first elaborate drawing, a princess, of course! My forest in autumn. I could go on forever.
– Yulia, what is happiness?
– When there is no fear, Vira. And being yourself. And when your loved ones are alright. And when nothing stands in your way. And the smell of the sea is happiness too.