In the muted browns, greens, and grays of Soviet-era Russia, a two-headed girl sees herself moving through life's stages: a squalling baby living in a crowded apartment with four other families, a schoolgirl dodging the insults of a purple-haired math teacher, a mother carrying a plucked chicken home from market with rolls of toilet paper strung around her neck, a grandmother knitting in a circle of women as a nuclear-power symbol rises nearby like the sun.
The painting "When My Neighbor Told Me I Would Die" reflects, in comically absurd detail, the flash of panic that Russian-born artist Yana Payusova remembers feeling when she realized she would not live forever. Like her other pictures, it's densely layered and dreamlike, populated by cartoon-like characters with exaggerated features and sometimes more than the usual number of legs and arms. And like the best panels in a graphic novel, each of her paintings tells a story inspired by her experiences growing up in Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg. This is the world as seen through the eyes of a 5-year-old girl: beautiful, frightening, and full of mystery.
"Children tend to remember such strange, odd things," says Payusova, sitting on a couch near a paintbrush-littered desk in her Jamaica Plain apartment. The fair-skinned, blue-eyed artist, who appears even younger than her 29 years, lived in Russia until she moved to the United States at age 17. Now based in Boston, she has developed a striking style that's earned attention, praise, and a spot in the DeCordova Museum's annual exhibition of noteworthy New England artists, showing through Aug. 17.
"We've become used to seeing work by artists from Asian countries or Middle Eastern countries in the Boston area, but for us, seeing this Russian influence was new," says the DeCordova Museum's director of curatorial affairs, Rachel Rosenfield Lafo. References to folk art and Orthodox iconography, coupled with Payusova's wicked sense of humor and uncommon technical skill, impressed Rosenfield Lafo. "I was taken with the power of her work," she says.
Longtime local gallery owner Howard Yezerski agrees. "There's a subversive element to her work," says Yezerski, who represents Payusova. "Initially, the paintings could be illustrations from a children's book, but then when you look more closely at them, you see what is going on - which in many ways is disturbing."
"It reminds me of 'Alice in Wonderland'," whispers a mother to two young boys one recent morning at the DeCordova as they look at Payusova's paintings.
The comparison is astute. Payusova's early training and technical skill earned her a place in sixth grade at St. Petersburg's prestigious fine arts lyceum. By seventh grade, already fed up with the rote technical exercises demanded of students, she began illustrating Lewis Carroll's famously dark children's tale. But when she showed the drawings to her teacher, he discouraged her from continuing. Realism was in vogue, and he feared her work was veering too far toward the fantastic.
"Year after year, all 12 students [in my class] would be producing essentially the same work," says Payusova. "You're painting the same models, doing the same drawings. I got completely burned out."
Seeking independence and a chance to develop her sense of self, Payusova moved with her parents' support to a suburb of Chicago, where she lived with family friends and completed a year of high school. Five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was a jolt to go from a country still in the throes of political and economic upheaval - her father was working as a physicist without pay at a government-run factory and drinking regularly, while her physicist mother, more practical about money, was scraping together odd jobs to make a living - to the town where "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" was filmed.
"This high school had marble floors and a full-on climbing wall," says Payusova, speaking not with an accent so much as with a pronounced musical cadence. "There was a Ferrari dealership down the street."
As an undergraduate at Lake Forest College in Illinois, she luxuriated in assignments that let her explore her own style rather than reproduce someone else's. And in the spring of 2002, she was admitted to the graduate program in fine arts at the University of Colorado at Boulder. But while she was visiting her family in Russia the summer before graduate school, she was given a shock by US immigration authorities.
"They wouldn't let me go back - they told me I had to reconnect with my Russian heritage," she says with an easy laugh. "It was a change of plans."
With what her friends and colleagues describe as typical buoyancy and aplomb, Payusova rejiggered that change of plans into an opportunity. Working alongside her mother, now a social worker, she became acquainted with street kids held in two of Russia's juvenile jails. The inmates told her their stories, taught her the meaning of the tattoos on their hands, and explained the prison hierarchy.
In a departure from the rules, guards allowed Payusova to photograph the young men - only five rolls of film, but they were enough.
A year later, back at graduate school in Colorado after impressing someone at the US Embassy with her freelance graphic design work and receiving a student visa, Payusova painted atop those photographs to create her first significant body of work. In her "Prison Series," she incorporated halos, gold paint, and other traditional religious iconography to tell the boys' stories and question the distinction between saints and sinners. And in the closely related series "Sinner's Tier," she painted tattoos, codes for the crimes that landed the teens in prison and shorthand for their rank within the inmate hierarchy, atop photographs of hands.
Payusova had to understand the religious and tattoo symbols to use them, and she did so through painstaking research. "The visual language of the icons is lost," she says. "Before, people could look and understand." In traditional Russian icon paintings, for example, "a person could appear in the same picture plane twice and it was implied that a certain amount of time passed between the first appearance and second appearance. Or people used to be placed in front of the buildings, but it was implied they were inside."
"She painted six, eight, 10 hours a day," says Alex Sweetman, a professor at Boulder, who calls the world portrayed in Payusova's work "hypnotically consistent." Payusova's work ethic and technical proficiency, both products of her classical training in Russia - as well as her willingness to hole up in a library - distinguish her from other young talents, he says. "She took this little world of prisons and looked through it to see the totality of Russian society - its corruption, its caste system, its misery."
In 2005, Payusova shifted to more personal subject matter. Painting now on hand-tinted photographs taken by her father 20 years before, she reproduced memories that swirled around each of the moments captured on film.
She embraces the influence of her Russian background on her art, but hopes work like "Unrequited" - in which scenes of two little girls competing for the romantic attentions of a boy are painted around the edges of a photograph of her preschool class - "transcend exoticism and hopefully trigger some of that universality of memory."
Stories about the past, and the way they shift and change depending on who's telling them, leaving behind only a hint of what really happened, fascinate Payusova and fuel her recent work. The multiple and missing arms and legs that appear in her paintings are a nod to the fractured nature of everything we remember.
"Half of what we're nostalgic for never really happened," she says.
As if to prove that memories are revised and transformed by those who summon them, she and her husband, Joe Farbrook, a professor of digital arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, tell slightly different versions of their shared past.
It was love at first sight, Farbrook says. He speaks through a grin, eyes bright, as he recalls that initial meeting in 2002: He was a graduate student in fine arts at Boulder, where she had just been accepted to study the following fall.
"We were taken out to lunch by this professor," says Farbrook, "and I actually thought she would be the person I would marry. And then I didn't see her for two years."
Payusova laughs. "You didn't see me for one year," she says, while she was exiled in Russia. And the lunch? She's not so sure he was there. "I remember talking to him at the art show beforehand," she says.
However it happened, the two married three months after Payusova arrived in Colorado, and now each is the other's first critic and most ardent supporter.
"Our work is very different," says Farbrook, whose solo digital art show is opening at Worcester's Hanover Theatre in September. "We can be very honest with each other without any of the ego clash stuff."
They work just steps from each other in their apartment, often staying up until the wee hours of the morning, after their 2-year-old son and 5-week-old daughter have gone to bed.
"Before, I'd have to wait until I got inspired or in the mood to work," says Payusova of the days before motherhood, stroking her hiccupping daughter's tiny feet. "Now I work in 15-minute increments."
In the past year, Payusova's done away with photographs - and their physical link to the past - to focus on acrylics, India ink, and imagination. And she's started painting on such three-dimensional surfaces as shallow boxes, letting her mini-narratives spill off the front panel to the sides.
"It starts out like a meditation on an event," she says of her pictures, "and then these characters almost start to live on their own and interact with each other."
Now a 5-foot-tall, narrow canvas leans against the wall in her small studio, an alcove off the living room. The canvas is blank, save for a sketched-in set of parallel lines - escalators leading to and from St. Petersburg's famously deep subway - and two finely rendered, fully conjured women standing at the bottom. One is a collector of broken hearts, the other a bureaucrat with the power to slow time. Their beaky noses and tangible melancholy make them classically Payusovan.
Other extraordinary personalities will eventually crowd this painting, including a three-breasted biology teacher and a member of the mafia whose body is covered in written messages. And they will all turn up in Payusova's next big project: a darkly funny picture book for adults tentatively titled "The Two-headed Tales." It's the story of an autobiographically inspired little girl and her brother, who go out to do errands and end up encountering a series of outrageous characters.
Farbrook, who studied creative writing in college, will write the text. The paintings will be Payusova's.
"We kind of throw ideas around together when we're taking the kids to the park," she says, laughing. "I don't know how fantastical it's going to get."
Emma Brown can be reached at email@example.com.