Meditations Over a Box of Pastels

Lana Lazebnik (1996)

One summer evening, I stumbled across a generic set of oil pastels while sorting through a pile of discounted merchandize at Marshalls, where I worked. For a moment, I stared at the long flat box, wondering why it caught my attention. Then I remembered that I had received an identical box as a gift from an American uncle in May of 1992. That was the last spring my family and I spent in Kiev, Ukraine, before immigrating to Chicago... Wanting to remember the past, I bought the box of pastels and carried it home.

Even before I tore the cellophane off the package and lifted the lid, I knew what I would find inside: twenty-five diminutive crayons sitting close together, each in its own fancy wrapper. I inhaled their familiar powdery aroma and greeted each by name: Ultramarine, Olive Brown, Vermilion, Prussian Blue, Yellow Ochre... Then my eyes fell on the $2.99 price sticker, and I was struck with disgust at the thought that a glorified box of children's crayons had just manipulated me into nostalgia.

A glorified box of children's crayons! Was that all?.. A vague sense of guilt came over me. I had forgotten that this set, now worthless to my jaded mind, once contained magical promises of a new means of self-expression. Four years ago, I was a student at a neighborhood art school. Every other weekday, after my regular classes, I would head there, clutching a briefcase which had faithfully served my father for a decade before I appropriated it for my use.

Everybody at the art school poked fun at Mr. Briefcase, including my favorite teacher, Adler Stepanovich Korolyov. He was a man in his fifties with a quick, bird-like face who always seemed much taller than he actually was because of his incredible thinness. I remember once he asked me if I knew what the Star of Israel signified. The question made me recoil instinctively (rumors were rampant of thugs on the streets hunting for Jewish children). But Adler Stepanovich went on happily, "I read the most fascinating thing in a magazine the other day and thought you might like to hear it. You see, the two triangles mean..." His humorous, unassuming voice made me ashamed for doubting him, if only for a second. True, he spoke in pure, correct Ukrainian, while almost every other adult I knew spoke Russian. True, he supported Ukrainian independence. But he was not a biased person, a patriot, not a nationalist.

Adler Stepanovich found me an eager pupil. I, the Jewish child who didn't know a word of Hebrew, always spoke to him in Ukrainian. He made me fall in love with Ukraine, with the melodious folk songs, weeping willows, and whitewashed huts extolled by the great poet Taras Shevchenko. Tales of valiant Cossacks with great big moustaches and red trousers wide as the Black Sea captivated my imagination, and I had tried to forget that these Ukrainian heroes were as notorious for their violent antisemitism as for their military exploits against the Turks.

On that spring of 1992 I first ripped into my box of pastels, attempting to express the magic of the Ukrainian landscape. The last two weeks of May all classes at the art school went on plein air. The best sights of Kiev were ours to explore: the Lilac Fair at the Botanical Gardens, the picturesque brick-paved Andreevski Tract, the tall bell towers of Kiev-Pechersk Monasteries, the steep paths of the ancient Vladimir's Hill overlooking the Dnieper... My first pastel drawing was of a chapel surrounded by pines in some nook of the Botanical Gardens. Adler Stepanovich was not impressed by the result. He critically studied my work and told me to stick with watercolors. I protested energetically, and he just looked at me the way one looks at a misguided moth that keeps trying to fly straight through a window-pane.

Now, as I am leafing through my old albums, I realize that he was right (though I still hate those all-knowing looks that teachers sometimes throw in my direction). On that first drawing, the too-bright pastel strokes sit uneasily, refusing to convey the muted greens of the pines, the subtle half-tones of the walls, and the delicate play of light on the domed roof.

But Kiev's churches could not wait for me to improve my skill and be able to do them justice. Later that year, I abandoned the dreams of their golden domes and started attending Kiev's only synagogue, a peeling brick building on a deserted street. In a few more months, I was wandering obliviously through Chicago's maze of fantastic glass towers. I don't miss Kiev -- how can you miss something that was never yours? Instead, I remember it every time with a strange hushed feeling far deeper than any sadness or nostalgia.