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Nicole Carroll Art Consulting

Encaustics on Deadline: Nadja Petrov’s Perpetual State of Grace (Under Pressure)by Jay Blotcher

“I’m in over my head right now, in every aspect of my life.”

For many, such a declaration may appear to be either a complaint or a cry for help. But for artist Nadja Petrov, such challenging circumstances provide fertile ground for her creative output.

“I work really well under pressure.”

A good thing, because the Glenford–based artist has a show opening shortly at Kingston Museum of Contemporary Arts, and she has created only four of the eight encaustics she has promised to the exhibition.

On her web site, Petrov calls herself “an emerging artist.” The description might be apt if one were to strictly measure her body of work by a number or a timetable. Petrov is anything but consistent and her output sporadic, for she divides her time disproportionately between gardening for hire across the countryside and occasionally turning out pen-and-ink drawings, acrylic paintings and encaustics in the second-floor studio of her home.

Nonetheless, her work manages to find its way into an average of four shows each year. Notable exhibitions include a 1998 solo show at The Woodstock Artists Association show and the 1995 group show “Six Artists” at Lincoln Center.

A vulnerable smile constantly crosses Petrov’s face like a nervous tic, but it usually precedes a disarmingly guileless confession. Like this one: if she is unable to find the time or inspiration for four additional pieces, Petrov is not above including older pieces in the KMOCA show. For this, she offers no apologies.

“I stopped dating my pieces,” she said. “They’re all valid all the time. So what’s the point of putting a date on it?”

As wax simmers in a hot water bath by the window, Petrov considers the four works in progress leaning on an easel before her. Each mini-canvas is actually a wooden board, rescued from a collapsing Stone Ridge barn. She jumps from piece to piece nudging them all to completion.

“I just look at them for awhile and try to get a feel for just what the board is like, or what it says to me,” she said. “Each one has a different kind of feeling.”

The boards are enrobed in various configurations of wax and wax-based encaustic paint. The wax on one board has dried to a hue of chocolate-brown, putting her in mind of excrement. Petrov frowns at the notion and considers stripping off the layer.

Around the room, Petrov’s abstract paintings in acrylic bear witness to her style, whose hallmarks are upbeat colors, a painstaking draftsmanship and a meditative style that never strays from an inherent optimism. The world is chaotic and random, her works suggest, but there is always respite from the horror if you search for those sanity-saving lacunae.

If you hope to glean further insight into Petrov’s psyche, the artist proffers no easy roadmaps. In fact, her works pointedly lack titles.

“It drives people crazy,” she said, suggesting with a blithe laugh that this vexation is indeed her intention. “Everyone’s always looking for some kind of clue.”

When it comes to clues, her lineage offers ample illumination; Nadja is one of five children of Dimitri Petrov, a Pennsylvania-born artist of Russian heritage. Artistry was encouraged in the children from the start, she said.

Dimitri would allow his offspring to stretch his canvases and apply gesso, or sharpen his drawing pencils. The artist would even allow them the chance to sketch some preliminary lines on his latest drawing or engraving, lines which the artist would retain in his finished piece.

The elder Petrov ran with a fabled crowd: Dadaist and Surrealist legends Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, John Cage and Man Ray. Among their collaborations with Petrov were a surrealist newspaper and the Prospero series of poet-artist books.

“[Art-making] was always in my household and in my family.”

Nadja Petrov retains a curious memory from her second year of life: she is parked in the middle of the kitchen table, several of her father’s iconic friends seated around her, watching in amusement as she eats from a bowl of pickled pig’s feet.

“[Dad] thought it was so cute.”

In 1977, when Nadja was 13, Petrov moved his wife and family from Western Massachusetts to Woodstock. Nadja enrolled in Ulster Academy, an alternative high school. As she grow older and began creating her own artwork, Dimitri encouraged his daughter, offering gentle but firm critiques of her work, encouraging the girl to develop her own aesthetics. He died in 1986, when she was 22.

There are expansive moments of grace and peace all around Nadja Petrov; she lives on the sloped grounds of a former military sleepaway compound for boys, once called Camp Alert. Her two-story home was formerly the camp infirmary.

From the house’s huge windows, Petrov can watch a falcon alight periodically on the nearby flagpole or mark the progress of beavers building on the pond down the hill. But these are neither distractions nor inspirations, Petrov explains. She tends to draw from within herself for direction. In the case of the current works, the artist has taken time to study each piece of wood, listening for its individual “voice” before covering the knotty surface in pigmented wax.

“One thing makes another thing happen; it kind of evolves on its own.”

After a day of gardening for clients—she is currently creating a vegetable garden for a Woodstock bistro—Petrov will return home and nap for a while. She will awake in the early evening and work in the studio until after midnight.

While the artist steals away time for creativity when she can, the frantic scramble seemingly fueling her work, she does admit to an optimal time for heeding her muse.

“You know that Sunday morning feeling?” she said. “You have your coffee, there’s good music on the radio. That inspires me. I can look out the window and feel like, ah, this is just right for sitting down and drawing.”

Asked about the people who inspire her work, Petrov did not offer an exhaustive list of mentors at crucial junctures in her life. She simply cited those artists who are “most free,” a pointed allusion to her father and his confreres, who created iconoclastic manifestos with their bold, unsettling statements and images.

If Nadja Petrov is not as intent upon scaring the horses, neither does she shy away from her own truths.

“The less fear you have, the better off you are,” she said, “the more honest your statement’s going to be.”

“Still,” a dual exhibition by Nadja Petrov and photographer Fionn Reilly runs June 4 through June 25 at Kingston Museum of Contemporary Arts (KMOCA),103 Abeel Street, Kingston. Open Saturdays 12-4 PM or by appointment. See additional artwork by Nadja Petrov at

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