AUBURN, NY (Sept. 6, 2022) – When artist Nikolay Mikushkin emigrated from Kazakhstan to the United States with his wife in October 1996, they chose a location they thought would have four seasons: New York City. “In November, we waited for the snow to start,” Mikushkin said. “But there is no seasonal snow.”
So in 2003, they moved from their New York City apartment to Central New York, where living is more affordable and, more importantly, there are four distinct seasons with plenty of snow. “What this area can offer to an artist, especially a plein air artist, is incredible,” said Olga Mikushkina, Nikolay’s wife.
Mikushkin is a plein air artist, a French phrase that translates to open air. He goes outdoors to create his paintings, battling against the ever-changing light to capture a moment in time and space. “In Conversations with Nature,” his solo exhibit at the Schweinfurth Art Center that runs through Oct. 16, 2022, comprises 21 of his plein air landscapes.
The landscapes depict familiar scenes: trees, meadows, farms and, yes, even snow. Many of the paintings are scenes from Williamstown, a rural town on the eastern edge of Oswego County that lies on the western side of the Tug Hill Plateau. Why there? Because in 2019, the couple purchased six acres of land so Mikushkin could have an uninterrupted location to paint.
“Before my immigration, I had a summer house and I would go there to paint,” he said. “And in that area of Russia, near the Ural Mountains, we have no limit of where we could go to paint, no restrictions on travel. When I got here, I had culture shock. I wanted to go somewhere, but it’s private land and I can’t go there.
“Not everywhere is a beautiful view,” he continued. “But where it is beautiful, it is not always available to paint.”
His land offers many different vistas: a swamp, a pond, a meadow, and plenty of wooded areas. A prolific painter, Mikushkin often works on three pieces simultaneously. “I start in the morning and paint from 9 until 1, and then stop to have lunch,” he said. “Then I paint in the afternoon for three hours, then have dinner and a break before going out in the evening.”
Since his oil paintings are so large, 40 by 52 inches, it takes several 3-hour sessions to complete one piece. He keeps track by painting the dates he worked on the back of each piece. For instance, the back of “Evening in Bowdoin Park” lists four dates: May 21 and 30 and June 4 and 5, 2019.
“We are not photographers,” Mikushkin said. “So small differences in shadows as the day continues, I don’t care. But if I paint on a sunny day, from 11 to 3, there is a lot of change and I don’t like it.” That’s why he returns to same spot at the same time on different days with similar weather so he can finish a piece.
His work has won several awards at plein air competitions, in which artists create works over several days that are judged at the end of the week. At Plein Air Easton, MD, one of the largest festivals in the United States that Mikushkin calls the Olympics of plein air competitions, he was awarded Best New Artist in 2014, Vanishing Landscape Award in 2015, and Best Use of Light in 2019. He has participated in competitions around the country, including Cape Canaveral, FL; Olmsted Linear Park in Atlanta, GA; and the Cumberland Mountains in Vermont.
After painting for 40 years, Mikushkin is planning to begin sharing the secrets he learned studying plein air painting at the College of Fine Art in central Russia and the St. Petersburg Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture by offering plein air lessons on his land in Williamstown.
His wife said they are hoping to recreate the atmosphere of the Academic Dacha in Russia, which launched the Russian plein air movement in 1884. The dacha closed in 1917 after the Bolshevik revolution, and reopened in 1948. “Rich people invited students to come and paint on the land,” Mikushkina said. “We are planning to open our land maybe in the spring season.”
Mikushkin has an important reason for wanting to share his talents with other artists: to capture the current landscape before it disappears because of climate change. “I have to show people, to remind them how beautiful (nature) is, what color is the sky,” he said. “Sometimes people don’t remember how beautiful is the sky. All of us, artists, musicians, have to remind people to keep the planet, to not make a mess.”