Art Show Celebrates Cultural Similarities

Viktor Butko. Independent/Courtesy Grenning Gallery

The second Russian | American Painting Alliance Exhibition is currently on view at the Grenning Gallery in Sag Harbor, through November 18. Under the guidance of Sag Harbor resident, Ben Fenske, the group came together in 2013 upon an invitational plein air trip to Russia.

Amid heated political times when Russia is dominating headlines today, the alliance paints a picture of unity between two nations that share strong similarities in their plein air styles. The 20th Century tradition has evolved uniquely in each country yet share a homogenous aesthetic. Russian painters Viktor Butko and Irina Rybakova join Fenske and other American artists Carl Bretzke, Kelly Carmody, Marc Dalessio, and Tim McGuire.

Artists Fenske, Butko, and Carmody spoke to The Independent recently about their art and the exhibit.

Ben, how did the group come together?

Ben Fenske: The group started in Plyos, Russia, in 2013. A group of foreigners (American, Italian, and Ukrainian) were invited to paint alongside Russian painters for two weeks as part of a state sponsored cultural exchange. But the group really gained momentum after four Russians from the original group came to paint alongside American painters in Stonington, ME, and Sag Harbor in 2016. That trip culminated in an exhibition at the Grenning Gallery. Since then, there have been two more independently organized group trips.

When you were in Russia, what were some of the differences you noticed between cultures?

BF: I found the cultures to be very similar, especially amongst fellow painters. The artists in our group have similar tastes and use similar painting methods. I felt at home there.

What attracts you to Russian art?

BF: I have had a keen interest in Russian, specifically Soviet, art since I first saw it in the early 2000s. I specifically am attracted to their bold use of paint, emphasis on form and outdoor light, as well as their drawing skills.

What’s your background as an artist on the East End?

BF: Since 2006, I have been frequently painting and exhibiting on the East End. I usually spend two to three months a year in the Sag Harbor area and I have had an annual solo exhibition at the Grenning Gallery since 2008.

Viktor, what is your family history in the art world?

Viktor Butko: It’s three generations, starting with my grandfather. My mother is also an oil painter, and my father is a graphic artist. After kindergarten, I went to my grandfather’s studio because my parents paint there and seeing paintings every time inspired me. He eventually purchased a house and I would work from there.

You’re currently the youngest artist at the Russian impressionist Thomas Kearns McCarthey Gallery in Park City, UT. How’d you get involved?

VB: Artist Raymond Jonson traveled with his friends around Russia. He founded The Museum of Russian Art in Minnesota and tried to fill it up. They went to my grandfather’s studio and saw my paintings. A friend of Thomas McCarthy saw my paintings and said I was a very good painter. Three years later they invited me to the United States. It was a good start.

Kelly, you and Viktor were recently married. How did you and Viktor meet?

Kelly Carmody: Viktor and I met in Maine on the first Russian | American Alliance trip. Everyone was out painting together and there were shared meals and a lot of comradery so we naturally saw each other frequently on the trip. Also, all of the Russian paintings of Stonington were being stored at the house I was renting, so I would see them daily there as well.

What are some locations on the East End that you love to paint most?

KC: Painting in Montauk was great! A Sag Harbor favorite of mine is the Old Burying Ground and the Whaler’s Church. And, basically, anywhere on Shelter Island, I loved the quiet I experienced there this past spring and fall.

What is it about plein air style that attracts you?

KC: The immediacy of plein air work is what’s most exciting for me. I like working the whole canvas together at once. It’s a strong contrast to my studio work so I’ve needed to develop new skills, which I am still working on. It’s good to be outside and learning.

Grenning Gallery is located at 17 Washington Street in Sag Harbor. Visit or call 631-725-8469.

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