Q&A with Illustrator Alexandra Dvornikova

Alexandra Dvornikova is an illustrator based in Saint Petersburg. At Cunning Folk we’re huge fans of Alexandra’s work and delighted to be able to share it. Her dreamlike illustrations of flora and fauna mirror her everyday life, much of which is spent immersed in nature, foraging for mushrooms and feeding birds. Her Instagram feed is an enticing invitation to step into the woods we have for so long avoided. We spoke with the artist about the deeper meaning behind her work and her thoughts on magic.

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Follow Alexandra Dvornikova on Instagram @allyouneediswall


CF Why do you draw?

AD It’s obvious, but I really love drawing. Since early childhood, it was my favorite thing to do. I loved it even more than playing with toys because it was possible to imagine absolutely everything I wanted without any limitations. I think what I still appreciate most is this ability to create a whole new world from nothing just from imagination.

CF Who are your main influencers?

AD I think my main influencer is Carl Jung. His books are something that I'm coming back to again and again. In visual art: Ivan Bilibin and Yevgeny Charushin, among others. I grew up on the books they illustrated and that’s imprinted in my mind on a very deep, almost subconscious, level. Dark and beautiful tales with mystic powerful landscapes illustrated by Ivan Bilibin with palpable love to nature in each brush stroke, attention to tiniest details,  touching and simple animals with individuality by Yevgeny Charushin. I absorbed their perception when I was a child and I think it affected all my future life. It changed the way I see the world. In terms of music, it could be John Frusciante. I was 14 when I first listened to his album Niandra. He was nearly dying when he recorded it. It’s dark, very sincere and the music is beautiful. His openness taught me a lot.

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CF Which stories from folklore, in particular, inspire you?

AD Honestly, I don't feel inspired by particular stories. I think it’s a special sense of archaic story - or myth - that inspires me. It's hard to explain. The numinous sense - the sense of Mystic, these special places between the other world and our world. Usually, I feel something that could be such a tale, it comes from the inside, but I can't write and I always see some fragments of it, so I don't know the whole story. It feels like a momentary flash of some old forgotten memory. I love to think that maybe it's something that I inherited from my ancestors from centuries past and I just somehow recall it. It definitely has its own power which doesn't depend on me, I'm more like a transmitter. I noticed, for example, that the brighter this flash is - the more people will resonate with the work. I just try to depict it as it feels to me and to share my awe and enchantment. Maybe some particular parts in the structure of a folktale draw more of my attention. When the hero is lost (usually in woods) and it's uncertain what happens next - these moments always fascinate me.

CF What place do you think magic and folklore has in the world today?

AD It’s hard to say for sure. I think nowadays it stands in opposition to the pragmatic reality, being instead a good way of escapism and enriching life of the soul. Not so long ago, maybe even 50 or 100 years ago, there was a different situation entirely. For many people magic and folklore were a part of everyday reality or at least important mental representations highly intertwined with life.

I can see five types of relationships between people today and magic (and archaic knowledge). I made a very rough classification:

1. Sincere belief, when the scientific understanding of the world becomes mythological by its nature. The person actually lives in the mystery world and can easily explain everything by energies or even witchcraft - electricity, physical illness, work or relationships difficulties. Something that fits the term ‘magical thinking’.

2. Nostalgic: "I want to believe" which is a little bit like a game that has an important role for an individual who lives "in two worlds at the same time". Metaphorically speaking, they already ate the forbidden fruit so will not get the magician to heal their injuries. But magic and folk (symbolic) representations still play an important role in their inner reality. Outer reality may be not affected at all or affected on the symbolic level.

3. Researchers who study these topics for many different reasons including aesthetic interest. Due to the nature of their interest, they stand at a distance from actual beliefs in magic and watch them from an outsider’s perspective, not letting it mix with their view of the world.

4. Neutral individuals. They are very indifferent to magic and folklore, occasionally they may read a folktale or watch the magical movie, but they have no interest in looking deeper because they have other unrelated interests.

5. Magicophobes and those who fight against magic. People who feel some discomfort regarding the existence practices/beliefs in their rational picture of reality. People who can often deny even the cultural importance of folklore and magic. I have an assumption that on some level they are afraid of some irrational power of these phenomena. Their protection is to laugh and deny. Their world is very rational, well-explained and materialistic.

Of course, this is very approximate and some groups can mix. For example, I personally fall in between 2 and 3 and can sometimes switch (even if these feel like very different approaches).

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CF Why do you think so many people are returning to these stories?

AD I think those who return are seeking something more than just a "mechanical" material life with endless consumerism, rationalism and career competitions and it's one of the possible ways to return the meaning to life.

We always had magic (I mean the broad term, including religion) in our lives since the beginning of humanity. It's something rooted very deeply in ourselves and it is something natural for us as a species. There’s even the opinion that animals have something resembling magical beliefs like the well-known experiment by Burrhus Frederic Skinner, ‘Superstition’ in the pigeon’.

Magic was disturbed and nearly destroyed not so long ago. It seems to me that humankind reacted by suffering increasingly from mental health-related problems. On the one hand, it's just a natural development for humans to gradually abandon superstitions and try to find the objective truth, at least the trend is that society becomes more and more humane and accepting (again, I talk very broadly about people in general excluding some cruel political games). But on the other hand, we seem to have nothing in to fill some kind of emptiness inside which appeared when the large network of meanings which was connecting us to the universe disappeared. Many people need something to believe in, otherwise life is not as meaningful as it could be.

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CF You seem close to nature. How important is this closeness to you as an artist?

AD Extremely important. I can't do anything without recharging in nature. It's part of a cycle - I take something (mostly through my eyes) and I return it as drawings. And actually, I do not exclude myself from nature. I think I'm a part of nature and it’s some power in nature that forces me to draw, so somehow it is possible to say that nature reflects itself through me. My brain and my hands and my eyes are made by nature. Maybe I don't have good enough hands and skills and patience, but it still works this way.

I have a very special relationship with nature, I see it as a teacher and a partner. If I ask, it always answers. It shows me a lot (I just know how to ask it to show me), I think nature trusts me with some of the secrets it prefers to hide from many people. I think nature "knows" that I can speak a bit from its perspective, expressing something that it wants to say. But it doesn't mean that I'm good at it or anything like that. It's just my relationships with nature.

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CF You’ve spoken before about the unexpected nature of drawing - how you often don’t understand your finished works. Is the beauty of drawing - the mystery of delving into the unknown?

AD Yes, for me it's like that.

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All images © Alexandra Dvornikova