The Black Sea in Words and Pictures

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I. Aivazovsky. Between the Waves 1898

When I was six or seven years old, my parents took me together on a “separate” vacation, like we did every year.

When we were living in Minsk, Belarus, my parents would each take two weeks off. First, my father would take me for two weeks somewhere “vacationy.” Then, after his two weeks were up, my mother would come and spend two weeks with me, while my father would go back home. It worked on several levels — my parents would get a break from each other and from me for two weeks — win, win, win.

In this case, for our vacation we went the south to Ukraine, to a city called Sevastopol, on the coast of the Black Sea.

This trip was special for me. For one thing, I learned to swim that year, in the Black Sea. I wanted to do it just like my dad, long, strong and smooth freestyle strokes. Early on, I did wind up swallowing a lot of salty water. But I learned to swim. And the real reason I learned in record time — in one day — was the jelly fish, specifically, dead jelly fish.

While the live jelly fish swam and their stings were highly unpleasant, the dead ones sank to the floor of the sea. I would step on them, and it would feel as if I was stepping on slimy, squishy mess underfoot — it was completely, ridiculously gross. The more time I would swim on the surface, the less time I would walk on jellyfish carcasses. I wouldn’t say my strokes were anywhere near smooth and strong of my father’s, but it soon beat my mom’s dog paddling.

Another thing this vacation taught me was my first true appreciation for art. My father took me to a museum of a famous Ukrainian painter, Ivan Aivazovsky. We took a crowded bus on a hot, muggy day to get there. I remember getting hotter and hotter. It was getting harder to breathe. I wanted to tell my father that, but couldn’t find enough air, and then the last thing I remember was the world turning white.

I came to outside the bus, as my father was fanning me with a piece of paper, his face looking worried. To this day I have trouble in hot, humid places, nor can I handle saunas. So, now recalling the three summers I’ve spent in Southeast Missouri, I think of them as the summers of Hell.

But that heat exhaustion on the way to the museum was worth it. Because as soon as we walked into the museum, I saw the painting that took up the space of an entire wall, two floors high. It showed a slice of the turbulent sea at night, with the cloudy sky, and a shaft of the moonlight coming through a break in the clouds. And the water, man, blue green water! The light shone through some of the waves, and it looked like a photograph, but it was somehow even better.

If you would have asked me, at the time, what made it better, I lacked the vocabulary to tell you. And even now, there was such heartbreaking beauty, power and intimacy in that painting, it put you right there. There was no way the person who painted it didn’t know the sea, hadn’t experienced the sea at night.

We walked around the museum, looking at Aivazovsky’s other paintings, and even though most of them were tremendous, and awesome and awe inspiring, I would still turn and stare at the biggest one, the original one that captured my imagination, the one I fell in love with at first glance. And really, how could I not? (I have included it here, at the top, and you can judge for yourself, although it’s just a touch more of a close-up.) I’ve also included another sea painting by him, at the bottom.

Like the American painter, Winslow Homer, Ivan Aivazovsky, although primarily a seascape painter, also painted people, portraits, villages, and landscapes. A romantic-style painter, he should be better known. But, there is an ocean between what is and what should be in the real world. Do yourself a favor, look up Ivan Aivazovsky on a bigger screen.

As I have shared a painter whose works I love, I would enjoy hearing from you about your favorite artist and why you love his or her works.

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I. Aivazovksky. The Sea 1898

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Writer and storyteller, immigrant, wife, mom, knitter, collector of jokes, lover of cheap, sweet wine.

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