Painting from Land to Sea
by Ayanoh Nakamoto
Nikolina Kovalenko is an environmental artist who finds inspiration in the world around her. Her work is an extension of her interest in humanity’s psychological connection with nature and strives to expose the consequences our everyday actions have on the environment. She has covered topics of global warming to deforestation and is now diving into the ocean to bring us the impacts of coral bleaching.
Here & There was recently able to sit down and talk to Nikolina about her current projects:
Looking at your past work, the environment has always been an influence to you. From studying and living in Moscow and Berlin to moving to New York, do you find these different cityscapes and the surrounding environment have influenced your work or did your personal travels do that more?
I think it's my personal travels. I've always been drawn to nature like when I was still living in Moscow, we would always go on long kayaking trips with friends. I grew up in Moscow, and it’s a very flat, completely landlocked place yet I love the ocean and the mountains more than anything. Every time I have a chance to get away, I do it. But for my career as an artist, it's just not sustainable to live in the middle of nowhere, because you can’t be, so to speak, ‘boiling in your own juice’, you need influence in a good sense from other artists and creators. I love the fact that here in New York there are so many opportunities, both for my career and exposure, but also for inspiration. There are museums, art fairs, galleries, theatres, so I don't see myself completely becoming a hermit. However, sometimes I consider it. So I kind of like the combination of living in the big city, and having all that cultural life but at the same time, having those getaways to nature as often as I can.
What was the initial inspiration for “Utopian Reefscapes”?
I first tried diving on this trip I had been planning for a very long time, it was a backpacking trip in South America for six months. I've wanted to do it since I finished school. But then, you know, life happened and I couldn't do it for roughly nine years.
If not now then when, I made the trip happen and tried diving for the first time in Colombia. It was on my bucket list to get my diving licence and I did just that and then slowly travelled around. Somehow, I imagined South America being a better place for diving but it's not really a diving destination, apart from a couple of places in Brazil. During this time, this knowledge was building in my subconscious. These corals were what I wanted to paint from now on. It grew stronger and then, instead of coming back to New York, I went to Egypt to dive in the Red Sea. It was exactly what I needed. I was there for a month and at that time I got myself an underwater case for my camera. I taught myself underwater photography, because I love working from my own photos to make sure I have the reference right. For me, if it's somebody else's image that I work from, it doesn't convey the feeling of being there. Also, the photos are just a placeholder for your memories and impressions. So, I don’t work from one single photo. It's more of a collage of different kinds of experiences and impressions. An underwater Garden of Eden.
It was quite challenging, but now I'm absolutely in love with underwater photography. There are many artists who are painting waves, or ocean scapes, but nobody's really painting coral reefs. And to me, it was absolutely fascinating the way the colours and textures work, how alien they appear. As I started learning more, I realised that coral reefs are actually dying, they are in danger because of climate change. This is why I decided to not paint dead corals or bleached reefs but I’m painting the abundant perfect corals, which is why I call them utopian roofscapes because they are almost fictional, healthy reefs like this, unfortunately, they don't even exist anymore.
You are committed to the environment and moved into a collaboration with “Counting Coral”. Can you talk a little about the organization and why you decided to work with them?
I'm actually working with several coral organisations. I think humans are very visual creatures. In that sense, I think anything visual is a great tool to increase awareness. With Counting Coral, we released a limited edition print to help with fundraising. They are doing these beautiful underwater installations. Unfortunately, their project is on hold due to much of Asia being closed for the past year. When they are back up and running, they will be creating a beautiful sculptural park where they will be planting corals on top of those sculptures resembling candleholders. It will help both to replant the corals and the local economy because it will attract more tourism to this particular village.
In about a month, I am having a solo show here on the East Coast in Hudson. This gallery usually represents and shows artists who are no longer alive – I'm the first living artist to be exhibited. We have also scheduled several environmental talks with different coral organizations. We are donating 20% of all sales to the Coral Reef Alliance, which is a huge organisation focusing not only on our coral restoration, but also prevention to help all marine life. They are working with governments and cleaning the sewage water for long term ocean care. They do this by creating the integration corridors for the fish, to help protect them from over fishing because that is a major issue, too. The ocean is so widely interconnected that these initiatives can help everywhere in the future.