Natalia Himmirska's earliest recollections are of going to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.
Standing there, a little girl lost in the forest of adult legs, she listened to those around her arguing the merits of an artist's work. Their deep voices thundered through the halls, and not all the words were understandable.
She recalls that her early childhood drawings were simple and not much better than those of her peers. But an epiphany happened during gymnasium (high school) where she discovered a talent for color and design. When Himmirska arrived in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s, she was already a graduate of the Moscow Technical Institute, Fine Art Faculty with a Master of Fine Arts. Her reputation as an artist and designer in Russia and Bulgaria was already known because of her work on the Banner of Peace newspaper and the Children's World Weekly in Bulgaria where she was the art editor and as a scenic designer for the Mayakovski Theater in Moscow. She found Americans to be friendly, open people who welcomed her into their artistic and cultural circles.
"It was immensely happy days," she said.
Himmirska continued her studies at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Md.
"You see, I grew up in Russia during Khrushchev's time when we became friendly for a certain period of time," she said. "We talked about Americans a lot, we were allies during the Second World War ... and there was a good friendship feeling among the people. The humor sense, the presence is very close to Russian sense of who you are. Americans are the easiest to talk to."
Her relationship with Bemidji State University began when she was on the art faculty of the American College of Sofia, Bulgaria, and there was a visiting professor from BSU, Roy Blackwood. They talked about BSU, and she wanted to know what it was like here. Blackwood asked if she would like to visit. Her first big show here was in the Talley Gallery in October 2000 when she also taught some workshops. In 2001, she was invited by the art department to teach some foundation courses in drawing and printmaking as an adjunct, and thus began the long-distance relationship.
"I loved coming back here," she said. "I love the nature, I like the space, the people, the lake. It is like Russia here - space, open, nature. You really can appreciate nature as an artist. I just love it here. There would be classes to teach in the summer, and I would be invited back again and again. The relationship with nature is so touching here. It's wonderful. They care about people with disabilities. They care about animals. For me it is very, very important."
When there was an opening in the art department, she went through the long procedure of applying for a position. Himmirska is now in a tenure-track position at the university as an assistant professor of art. Her focus in teaching art is in helping students learn how to solve problems in color, form, structure, creative insight and composition. She said she tries to "make them to want to do what they want to do."
Her students strive to stretch their imaginations and enhance their skills through various projects in art. They also journal during the process of learning. Constructing complex pieces takes a long time and many ideas before they begin to take on the attributes of a perfect idea, as her students are taught to realize.
"To teach young people is so great because they are so full of life and vitality," Himmirska said. "I feel like a child sometimes with them, and then I look in the mirror and say, uh-uh. But when I look into their faces, I feel it is me. They really keep you young, and they devour you. One needs to be physically fit for the task; everyone in this department is doing something (to keep fit) because the students delve into one's inner being. Art cannot be taught by formula, and every time you connect to a student on their individual level, the teacher must bring something new and not rely on old techniques. You have to instill love to what they are doing. It is not something you memorize and then write back."
Himmirska has agreed to judge the upcoming Artists of Minnesota Show, which will be held May 16 and 17 at the Hampton Inn.