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Time for Art: Daugavpils

September 7, 2018

As much fun as I had exploring Riga, the time finally came to create some art. So I took a 4-hour bus ride westward to Daugavpils, Latvia, the city where Mark Rothko was born. Watching the Latvian countryside pass by, I noticed how the relatively flat landscape and sparsity reminded me of my birthplace in the Mississippi Delta. When my ancestors settled in Mississippi, they must have been reminded of home in at least this one way.

Upon arrival at the bus stop in Daugavpils, I caught a taxi to the art center. The driver spoke primarily Russian, an indication of the close proximity to the neighboring country - 75 miles to the east. Luckily he did understand "makslas centrs" (Latvian for 'art center').

The Mark Rothko Art Centre

The Mark Rothko Art Centre is located in the former artillery arsenal of the Daugavpils fortress, which was a previous military center for the Russian Empire in the early 1800's. Composed of a maze of buildings - many unoccupied and in need of restoration - the fortress spans about two square miles in size. Opened in 2013, the Centre houses a gallery dedicated to Rothko's life and paintings and also serves as an exhibition space and creative hub for contemporary artists, national and international.

"Ochre and Red on Red" by Mark Rothko (pictured).

Painted in 1954

At the fortress, there were cats around every corner, which I quite enjoyed. One, in particular, ate his meals just outside the dining hall, and I always looked forward to petting him. You can see him napping below:

The Symposium

The Mark Rothko Art Centre chose me as one of ten participants for the annual Painting Symposium. The other countries represented at the symposium were:





The Netherlands


Here we are at the beginning and at the end of the two-week symposium. On the left we are filled with excitement and anticipation. On the right the feelings have turned into exhaustion and relief!

In exchange for participating in the symposium and enjoying complimentary room, board, and entertainment, the artists all agreed to donate at least two works of art produced during their stay. The canvas choices were rather large, with 3'x3' being the smallest. Normally, at home, I would spend at least two weeks on a painting that size, but for this purpose, it turned out that I had only eight full days to complete two large paintings! The pressure was on! We had to finish them for an exhibition!

My workspace inside the Mark Rothko Art Centre

Arpad, Katarzyna, and I shared one big studio

When I arrived, I already had an idea in mind for the first painting: a portrait including myself and my grandmother. I knew the painting would stay in Latvia, and I wanted to return her image and spirit to the place she had been forced to flee. I worked as much as my eyes and mind would allow. This meant early mornings and late nights until I could no longer focus. Fortunately, the group of artists were also comedians and usually at night I could find some of them gathered around the kitchen table laughing and telling stories. This was my favorite part of the residency. We laughed so much!

Here we are in the kitchen. We also enjoyed plenty of wine . . . as artists do! Don't worry, we had delicious Latvian bread to keep us on our feet.

The above photo was taken the night of the opening reception of the exhibition of our final works. Below are my completed paintings:

Self-portrait with my Latvian Grandmother

Old Town

In the portrait, sized at about 3'x4', I painted apple trees surrounding us to celebrate their abundance in Latvia. Also, the blue background is painted in the shape of Latvia, with my head resting approximately where Daugavpils is located. The trim on my blouse is a traditional Latvian design which adorned a gift bag given to me by my long-lost cousins when I visited them in Riga.

The second painting, "Old Town", is painted from a photo I took in Vecriga (Old Riga) and represents paths taken by my ancestors (which I now have walked), and the storms they weathered. Its size is about 3'x3'.

We painted intensely, but when the work was done, there was time for enjoyment. The art center took us on field trips through the Latgale region of the country and to neighboring Lithuania. Also, we enjoyed dinner at the art director's house, a night at the orchestra, and plenty of sightseeing within Daugavpils.


The city of Daugavpils

Another view of Daugavpils' town center

Laundry on the line; the apartment building is an example of low-cost Soviet architecture called Khrushchyovka

The Daugavpils train station

More exploration of Daugavpils:

The blue and white emblem signifies that this building is designated as a cultural monument and therefore can not be demolished. Do you see the holes in the brick from ammunition in days of conflict?

The interior of a trolley which takes you through Daugavpils for about 50 cents.

Russian grafitti: "Space and the universe = Love"

A tunnel along the walking path from the art center to the city center

A night at the orchestra:


Here are some examples of the fare during our stay: cold pink vegetarian borscht, "pancakes", and I don't remember what the last entree is, but the accompaniments were served often - carrots, slaw, mashed potatoes.

The art director and the exhibition curator also prepared a lovely meal for us which was complemented by a delicious frozen dessert made to look like the Latvian flag:

Field Trips

Our adventure throughout the Latgale region of Latvia (named for its many lakes) included drinking water from a well outside of an early 1900's Catholic church, picnicking by the Daugava River, and catching a few minutes of a service at the Basilica of the Assumption in Aglona, one of the eight international shrines recognized by the Holy See.

The water was cool and refreshing!

Visku basilica

Latgale parks and recreation:

A typical 'stand-up' swing set found in regional parks; the little specks are raindrops

Looking up

The Basilica of the Assumption in Agnola. Thousands of pilgrims visit the church every year on August 15.

The second field trip took us to Lithuania and included a visit to a 1500+ year-old oak tree, a flour mill, sunset by the water, and a cookout in a beautiful park under the night sky.


And so, in two weeks' time we accomplished so much. We painted, we explored, we learned, we created new friendships. This trip was truly a gift and one of the most incredible experiences of my life. My blog took longer than I had hoped to complete, but it has been such a pleasure to relive the story. I intend to relive those weeks in Europe for as long as my memory will allow. It was a special time, learning about myself and paying tribute to my heritage.

When it was time to go, I traveled back to the Riga airport. As I waited for my flight to depart, I thought of my grandmother and hoped she could in some way know that I brought the spirit of our family back to Latvia. Then, as the plane ascended, I looked out the window and saw this beautiful rainbow.


Thanks to the Mark Rothko Art Centre and the staff who organized the symposium...especially the director Aleksejs Burunovs, the art director Maris Cacka, and the exhibition curator Tatjana Cernova.


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