The Russian girl of St. Petersburg came with impeccable credentials, brought up in the art world. Her father an art history professor and she worked in a gallery after school. It perked her interest and knowledge of art. She collected, or to be exact, scrounged up paintings by masters as a teenager.
Saturday, her day to make the rounds of shops in the Gostiniy Dvor area, she entered a gallery offering original oils. Owner busy, not much attention paid to a girl in her teens who made her way to shelves in the rear. Smaller paintings stacked in a row on the bottom shelf, an effort to stoop down and search. Not this collector, she dropped to her knees and examined each one. Her criteria, ‘love at first sight’. If so, held it up to the light, looked for a signature, she recognized most, if not, had a list of Russian artists.
An hour of retrieving and replacing, she found a striking oil. Sun streaking through a birch grove, loved it. Signature, Arkhip Kuindzhi, a St. Petersburg artist, who won the bronze in London in 1874. A small sable brush in her coat pocket revealed a date, 1879, knew he died in the early 1900’s. All his paintings thereafter have been in demand. Years to come his work was sure to launch lucrative bidding wars. Until then she would hang the gold framed oil in her room, enjoy the scene, delighted to know it once hung in a palace.
Now the challenge, purchase the vintage landscape for an affordable price without alienating the proprietor. She may need to deal with him in the future. Ears alert where she worked, heard many art sales negotiated, developed her own approach. “Sir, may I ask if you would sell the frame only on this painting?” She knew from experience galleries never did.
“I would prefer not to young lady.”
“I’m unable to afford the entire painting at the list price. Could you sell it to me for less?” She hoped he didn’t ask, “Make me an offer.” Insulting, the price she hoped to buy it for, next to nothing. Better to have a long back and forth downward price battle.
He said, “I’ll cut it in half.”
She looked elated, “That is so nice of you, but sadly it’s still too much.
“I’ll cut another half off.” She fumbled in her purse.
“How much can you pay” She gave him a figure, another half off, stole the painting.
On the way out she said, “You are so kind. I look forward to buying more of your paintings in the future.”
She taught me to dance on Saturday nights, tweaked my desire for adventure. We paddled a canoe down this stream in pitch dark, white-water sparkling in starlight, guided us. Our trip to the moon was a gas station by a bridge with a pop machine and a bench. She talked for hours about every facet of life. Each concept began with, “The way I figure it.” Ending, “What do you think?” forcing me to communicate. That night, by a gas pump, I learned ‘girls are to be admired.’
German troops and treads trampled fields of flowers on the outskirts of Leningrad. Panzer tanks pounded their way within 10km of the Russian city, and not one centimeter further, except for one. Stenciled on the sides of its turret were the numerals 740.
Every day and most nights the Wehrmacht bombarded the city. Its mission, seal off and starve the population of almost three million into surrender. Artillery shells screeched over Leningrad. Shockwaves rattled the refuge of a father, mother and their two young daughters. Big sister, twelve, was slim and straight, stood tall. She wrapped a blanket around little sister, ten, once a chunk, round and short.
The father handed little sister a food package from the United States. Canned goods spilled out on the basement floor, among then a flashlight. Attached to it was a note in a child’s handwriting, ‘Sally Crane, 7. I pray for you.’
Little sister, informed the light was meant for her, hung it on one side of her belt holding a skirt up over a thin body. On the other side of the belt, a coiled leash, to remind her parents she wanted a dog.
Big and little sister did everything together, including saving lives. Not teens as yet, they were assigned to the ration detail, assisting the elderly onto a sled with ropes and pulling them to a ration depot for two loaves of bread. The girls had a list of the needy in their blocks and a schedule for every day except Sunday. It was not like delivering the newspaper, a day missed could mean death.
Their father and mother were on a burial squad, in a makeshift cemetery. 6,000 a day, on average, died, difficult to find space, dig a grave, then the unbelievable, no ceremony, no flowers, no tears. Digging their last grave of the day, father told his wife, ‘I can finish up, why don’t you head home and check on the girls?’
The mother agreed, worried about her daughters. Today they would return through section 740, named after the numbers on a German tank; a marauder, which often broke through Soviet lines to shell inhabitants and rumble back behind its embankment.
Near home, the mother heard grinding and crashing, 740 on the loose. She ran towards the sounds and saw the tank crawling up a narrow street, crushing debris, headed towards a small occupied hotel. She searched the shadows, her children nowhere to be seen.
A point of light blinked at her. There, huddled in a doorway the girls by the sled, little sister with the flashlight. The Tiger tank swung its cannon towards its target while depressing the barrel to fire rounds into the base which could topple the structure, burying the sisters under bricks and mortar.
The mother ran into the street, directly in front of the tank, meters from the cannon. She waved her arms, turned and ran towards her daughters. If the tank fired, the shell would explode on her back. The mothered gathered little sister into one arm, and grasped big sister, who never let go of the sled ropes. The trio trotted directly back towards the tank and its cannon, they stopped. The mother looked up and called to a face under a helmet in an open hatch, “Danke.”
The hatch closed. The tank backed up to German lines. 740 never fired on Russian civilians again. All it took was one word.
It is challenging to take a decent picture of a swan. Their bodies are white the water is dark, beyond the range of most films or discs to capture. A camera makes a guess at averaging the exposure. However, if one understands the principals and has a spot meter, it is possible to nail the f stop and speed.
This swan was across a pond, by a bank, feeding under over-hanging willow branches. In and out of filtered light, on the move, slowly. A 500mm mirror lens on a 35 should reach out to the graceful bird. This lens is difficult to hand-hold, belongs on a tripod, but I needed flexible movement, inches, up and down, side to side.
I learned an infantry snoozing technique in enemy territory. Sit on your butt, rifle secure on your lap, knees up, head down, locked with arms; when awaking, no jerking up, sudden movement, alerting a sniper.
A camera and its mirror lens resting on a human tripod were able to follow the swan. First, spot-meter readings are taken. Exposure set to just retain detail in the white and hopefully not lose too much in the dark, critical.
The lens followed the curving creature, click, click, click, auto winding then. 24 exposures, one superb shot, one wet ass.
On my birthday, in Greece, I remember my father saying, “Athena, a sixteen year old girl should have a piece of jewelry to wear.” We lived on top of a hill surrounded by olive trees, our only source of income. I never thought of myself as poor, but I knew we never had much money. It didn’t seem to affect my parents, always content in our home, still are.
We walked three miles down a steep hill to the man who sold tourists trinkets. I can’t describe the excitement. Imagine; a piece of jewelry. On the entire way down I thought about what I should select. Since I was to have only one piece it had to be one that I could readily see and enjoy; a ring.
The shop owner placed a tray of glittering stones in front of me. There were so many, a turquoise ring caught my eye.
“Is this the ring you like Athena.”
“Good choice, it’s beautiful.” He took it to the owner. I saw him searching his pockets. I quickly selected a plain silver ring, said “Father I’ve changed my mind. I like this one.”
The owner removed the piece from my hand, placed it back in the tray. “Athena, the turquoise ring was made for you. It enhances your black dress, costs the same.” He placed the ring on my finger.
We thanked Nicholas and climbed back up the hill. My father kept asking me to hold my hand out. I never saw him so pleased, my mother also, the ring’s color made the plain black dresses she had hand-sewn for me, look chic.
All night I awoke, looked at the ring under moonlight glowing through the window. I thought how kind of Nicholas, allowing my father to buy the ring for less than its value. The next day, I climbed back down the hill and gave him a gift, a small unframed oil painting. He hung it on his wall, still there today.
The merchant thanked me and asked, “Athena, do you have more of these paintings?”
“Yes, my mother thinks I have too many of them.”
“Bring them to me. I’m sure I could sell these to tourists. We’ll share equally in the windfall.” American visitors bought all of them.
Now in the states, painting, she laughed and said to the man by her. “There were so many, I had to entice a boy who lived on the next hill, I won’t tell you how, to bring his donkey over and haul them to the shop. When I finished a painting, for years, I walked it down the mountain to the dealer, climbed back up.”
She raised golden olive legs, “See, now you know why they are so muscular and my shoulders are rather broad from carrying baskets of olives.” No mention of the sun scorched lines on her face.
The man thought ‘imperfection is often beauty’ asked, “Athena, where did you learn to paint?”
“In school, when my teacher traveled about the island he implored artists and shops to donate art supplies, came back, dumped them on a desk. We all painted like demons. He slipped the remaining supplies into a square cloth I carried my belongings in. I never owned a purse until twenty. I painted almost non-stop. My challenge, to use the colors in proportion as to how much paint left in each tube. I think that is why my paintings are so colorful.”
“Your turquoise ring, I’ve noticed, is the only piece of jewelry you wear.”
“My drawers are full of jewelry I have purchased over the years. I only look at it. Every time I’m tempted to wear a piece, I cannot, remembering my father. You are the only man who has ever asked me why I always wear black.” The discovery was the beginning of their romance. She kissed him on the cheek. They married.
There were those who whispered, ‘What does he see in her?’
The man knew what. Athena, a girl one loved when young and when not.