Maryleen Schiltkamp:
"A great new Renaissance will come to Russia"

Maryleen Schiltkamp is an extraordinary artist. Her canvases combine classical elements with motifs from Russian national tradition. One can feel the depth of philosophical ideas and a temperament that is unlike people from the West. Works by Maryleen are exhibited regularly in solo and group shows in galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Curaçao, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg. Maryleen was born on Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles, in 1959 of Dutch heritage. For several years she lived and worked in Italy, New York and Tokyo.
At present Maryleen lives and works in Amsterdam and St. Petersburg.
Our meeting with the artist took place in Sobor Feodorovsky Ikony Bozje Matery, a church Maryleen likes to visit when staying in St. Petersburg.

In the presence of mystery

Maryleen, how did you become so interested in Russia?
I had been interested in Russia for many years. Twelve years ago I first visited a Russian Orthodox church, and it felt like I had come home.
The icons, the light, the whole environment; I was in the presence of mystery. That feeling has not left me since.

Didn’t you try to explain this mystery?
It is incomprehensible. It is impossible to explain it by reason.

Interesting. And you come from an atheistic family?
Yes, my family had been atheistic for three generations. But during my childhood I sensed the closeness of a presence in nature. Sometimes there were moments that I was overwhelmed by a feeling of awe, when I could just stand still in amazement, unable to speak. This connection with the beauty of nature would later find its way into my paintings.

Your canvases have interesting themes:’Flying Carpet’, ‘Russian Bath’, ‘Polovtian Dances’, ‘Scheherazade’… Where do these ideas come from?
The work of an artist may be compared to the work of a gardener. It is his task to grow flowers, fruits, plants. He tends the garden, but he is not the owner. I give form to what is already there, what exists without me. There are energies that come from beyond, that are God-given. I am only the transmitter, an instrument of these forces.

Tell us, Maryleen, how did you first encounter Russian culture?
That happened in New York, during a festival of Russian operas. I attended every concert and understood that this was what I needed, what could inspire my creative work. I felt I had to go to Russia. I had to see these woods, these rivers, these people…

And you came to us and saw it all with your own eyes. What kind of impression did this make on you?
Great! Many Russians are very strong and very soulful people. I deeply admire you, because in spite of all the hardship (with such hard times through the ages) you have been going through, you have been able to overcome this through an inner strength that distinguishes you from other peoples and nations.

Could this be the mystery of the Russian soul? This way to overcome, depicted in each of your paintings of the Firebird…
Yes, I often refer to the Firebird. The Firebird is the symbol of Russia, it is the icon of rebirth, resurrection. Russian people have always been able to rise from the ashes. It is not possible to break you, you cannot be defeated.
What always amazes me is the spirituality I see in Russian people; a pure spirit, connected with inner feeling and endurance. Russian feelings of joy are grounded in the deeper layers of the soul –  Fate, the Motherland.
You are drawn to philosophical questions, on the meaning of existence, the meaning of life. And there is a grief that is felt, coinciding with a sense of beauty. Here we can see a parallel with the life of Jezus Christ. We have to go through the suffering of Christ. The light of transfiguration is the source we return to. It is intertwined.

I always aim for the light

Maryleen, you were born in America?
In the Caribbean. I have lived in many countries; my path did not follow a straight line. Everyone goes a different way in life. My encounter with Russia, with Russian culture seems to be where I have been heading all those years. I always aim for the light. And here I am clearly aware of it. You feel the presence of another dimension. This takes hold of you and fills your whole life. For a while now I have been able to have such experiences.

How? What kind of experiences?
When we listen to music, it sometimes happens that the spirit is no longer confined to the limits of the body. During the singing of the Liturgy, for instance the hymn of Cherubs, there can be moments we are completely outside of ourselves, as if you look at yourself from another place; we are actually standing in another dimension. It is a feeling of detachment from the world to a realm of the beyond. This seems more real to me. 

In the Kingdom of God…I know what you mean, because I have had similar experiences.
It is a feeling of being surrounded by light, as was the state of creation in paradise, before the fall.

The West does not understand you

What is your opinion on why many people in the West criticize Russia? Why don’t they understand Russia and what is happening here?
The West doesn’t trust Russia, because people consider Russia to live with a system of double standards. One moment they say it is a certain way, the other moment it is different, then this, then that. I don’t idealize Russians, but I do love them. While studying Russian history, it becomes clear that you needed those double standards to survive. Times change, rulers change: one man says to do something and the people follow, and next comes another man, saying: now everything is the other way around, and the people also follow him. Immediately they move wherever they are ordered to go. Here you see the changeability, the evasiveness, and the tendency to avoid sharp angles. Because of this, Russians have been able, throughout all times, to keep the soul, to protect the essence of what belongs to them. Take for instance the Soviet period.
People did not own anything for themselves; everything belonged to everybody. That makes responsibility no individual concern. It means, maybe there is garbage being thrown on the street, but who cares? Today, this problem still remains. The task is to return to Russia, to yourself. Russian culture, everything around you belongs to you. You need to return to the old values.

I look through the negative

Maryleen, what do you think: will our nation turn to God after all, or has this process been slowed down?
It is certainly moving in that direction. And why do people like myself come here? Why does Russia attract us? We are attracted by the presence of this other dimension, which does not exist in the West. Russian people are close to God. Even when they write about love, you know only a Russian could have written it! Translating it into another language is impossible.

What do you mean when you use the words “another dimension”?
Take a system of coordinates on an X-Y-Z axis, and let’s say we have a cube we can move along those three dimensions. A new dimension is present in Russia. Besides horizontal, vertical and spatial, there is something that encompasses this, something – incomprehensible. I don’t feel this in the West. I have been in many places around the world, but I never encountered what I found in Russia. I always want to return here. For me it is very difficult to stay in the West; I cannot endure it for any longer than three months.

Maryleen, you took part in various exhibitions. Did your paintings get a strong response here in Russia?
Yes, I saw the affinity the people have with my work. For me that is most important. There is a response from the heart; people tell me it returns them to their own culture, and that is unbelievable! I am very happy about that!

And you don’t find it confusing that the atmosphere here is not as pleasant as it might be in the West, when people here look somber and don’t smile often?
I can see through the darkness in people; I look through the negative. The image of Christ stays with you, as it has been with you through all times, even if it is hidden on the surface. This is what is important. Everyone carries the icon, the likeness of Christ within themselves. Even if a person commits evil, offends, or does someone wrong, the icon of Christ within him is never destroyed.

And my last question: what would you like to say to us as a wish, and could you write this down, please?
Christ has risen! This is always an actuality. Well, I think a great, new Renaissance will come to Russia, and therefore I am very happy to be here!

That means, we will not become extinct?
Thanks be to God!

Sergei Romanov

Download original Russian interview in PDF: [page 1] [page 2]