Lacey Peterson
The Union Democrat

Sonora resident Natalia Koshelkova has accomplished a feat usually reserved for artists after death - a dozen of her works are now part of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.

Koshelkova, 67, known familiarly as "Natasha," had a one-woman show of her paintings, drawings, ethcings and lithographs from Sept. 2 to Oct. 15 at the Borey Art Gallery in her home city of St. Petersburg. The works were created between 1971 and 1991 during the rule of the Soviet Union.

Of the 120 works in the Borey exhibition, 12 were chosen as part of the permanent collection of the state museum, established in 1895.

"I'm very honored," Koshelkova said. "This is the most important thing in my life right now."

She had visited the museum as a child with her mother and was inspired by the art she saw there.

"What could be more honor? For me, it is extremely important," Koshelkova said.

The artwork in the gallery exhibition was compiled into a catalog featuring a chapter on Koshelkova's history as an artist and an introduction by Anna Matveyeva, art critic and curator of the National Center for Contemporary Art in St. Petersburg.

"Natalia Koshelkova's graphic works are art that requires proper scrutiny," Matveyeva wrote. "Any attempt to understand what these colorful pieces of paper are about with a single fleeting glance is doomed to failure."

The show - with Koshelkova present at the opening reception - was titled "On the Way to the Temple," with many of the works focusing on holy sites.

Descended from a family of Jewish musicians and artists, Koshelkova said her parents were not very religious, possibly because the climate for tolerance was unfavorable at that time.

Her first husband, who died of cancer, introduced her to the Bible when she was about 20 and she was baptized into the Orthodox Christian faith in 1984.

Koshelkova said her works follow her journey as an artist and spiritual person.

"God lifts my fingers," she said. "I consider this exhibition the most important period in my life, where I developed."

Salvation comes through the beauty around us, through art, she said.

"Art develops the progress of the human being. The beauty will save the world. When we embrace beauty, we lose aggressiveness," she said.

The works included at the Borey Galley and in the catalog are retrospective, showing a "time passed by," Koshelkova said.

They depict the Soviet way of life before perestroika, the social and political restructuring that ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, Koshelkova said.

One painting shows people buying food in a shop, but it is a fantasy because at that time in the Soviet Union, "there was nothing to buy," Koshelkova said.

Other paintings show soldiers in uniform, statues around St. Petersburg and decorated streets, most using bright, vibrant colors.

Koshelkova's works also depict life in the countryside, along the Volga River and in northern Russia.

Koshelkova grew up in St. Petersburg, living with her widowed mother and her grandmother. During the reign of the Soviet Union, the city was known as Leningrad.

Her father died shortly after World War II. She said she cannot remember him, but was told how he sent bread from the front lines to her mother, who taught special-needs adults and helped disable land mines and bombs in Russia during the war.

Koshelkova began teaching at 16 and had one of the first private art studios in Leningrad. At 18, she graduated from the Leningrad Demidov College of Graphic Art and Teacher Training. She taught art to schoolchildren and attended architecture school in the evenings.

In January 1971, she graduated from the Leningrad Construction Engineering Institution and started working as an architect. Later that year, in June, she joined an artists tour around the Vologda region, organized by the Leningrad Artists' Union, and visited the holy places in Russia.

In the fall of 1971, Koshelkova was included in an exhibition of union artists, which she considers the start of her creative career.

She spent the next 20 years living as an artist in Russia, France and England. She also taught art techniques to gifted children, several of whom became accomplished artists.

In October 1991, just before the Soviet Union's collapse and the Cold War's end, Koshelkova moved to the United States and settled in Sonora.

Her mother, Rita Teodorovna Kisselgof, saw her off at the Leningrad airport and Koshelkova vowed to take care of her and send money from the United States.

Shortly after arriving in Sonora, Koshelkova created the famous flying pigs at the former Wilma's Cafe, the angels at the former Carmela's Italian Kitchen and a mural for the 1995 Christmas play, "A Christmas Carol," at Mother Lode Christian School.

Koshelkova brought her mother to Sonora in 2000 and cared for until her death in June 2007.

Over the past 22 years in the Mother Lode, Koshelkova also has taught art therapy at Sierra Conservation Center and art at Gold Rush Charter School. She was featured in an exhibition at the Central Sierra Arts Council in 1999 in honor of Aleksandr Pushkin, the founder of modern Russian literature.

She was the art instructor at Mother Lode Christian School from 1992 to 1996 and taught children's summer session book illustration classes at Columbia College from 1992 to 1995.

Her painting of the Holy Trinity Temple in Russia was exhibited at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1991.