Yuliya Lanina knew something was wrong when all the N95 masks were suddenly out of stock. She needed one badly to touch up one of her sculptures with spray paint in Bee Cave Sculpture Park.
“That was my first introduction to the pandemic, the hoarding,” she recalls.
The 46-year-old artist and academic is no stranger to masks. They are an omnipresent theme in her paintings and performances, ranging from playful to macabre to somewhat prescient. Her 2018 multimedia performance piece, “This is a Test of the Internal Emergency Broadcast System,” featured a birdlike costume complete with a 17th-century plague mask.
“There is a distinct difference between choosing to wear a mask and having to wear a mask,” Lanina tells me.
She and I are discussing the political implications of covering one’s face, the necessity versus hesitancy in an era that has devolved from pandemic to pandemonium.
“It hasn’t hit Texas that hard so far, but in a place like New York City, everybody knows somebody who’s gotten really sick or died,” she says. “There, you have no choice but to wear one.”
Lanina considers herself lucky to be at home in Austin with her family right now. She enjoys going to the park for fresh air when no one else is around, though she has also bought cute cat masks for her twin daughters who also recently got a kitten. The reality, she says, is that no one wants to wear a mask — even if we already have one on.
Lanina moved to the United States from Russia when she was 16. In the beginning, she very much felt that Americans wore a sort of mask. “Everybody smiles when they don’t need to, they feel forced to not show how they really feel,” she observes.
Her family settled in Westchester, just north of New York City. Though classically trained in music, Yuliya had no access to instruments, or even other musicians. So she began drawing.
“Painting and drawing are my foundation, and everything I do starts from there,” she says. “I’m always trying to bring this traditional medium into nontraditional areas, pushing it into other realms such as animation or performance.”
After graduating from SUNY-Purchase, where she studied at the School of Art and Design, Yuliya made her way into New York City, first spending time in the Bronx before moving through Manhattan (she received her MFA at Hunter College) and eventually landing in Brooklyn. For over 15 years, her life as an artist stretched across the city like the subway system itself.
Now, she’s been in the states exactly three decades, her American experience wrapped wholly around a Russian core. I ask her to describe the culture she came from, what sort of mask might they might wear.
“Russians are more honest about what’s going on, sometimes too much. If you ask somebody how they’re doing, they’ll tell you everything. Even things you don’t want to know.”
Yuliya and her husband, the Moscow-born composer Yevgeniy Sharlat, moved to Austin in 2012 when she was seven months pregnant with their twins. They met, not in Russia, but while attending the artists’ colony Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, an upstate college town closer to Montreal than Manhattan.
Both of them teach at the University of Texas (Lanina is an Assistant Professor of Practice at the Department of Arts and Entertainment Technologies) while maintaining their separate artistic practices and raising their now eight-year-old daughters.
In fact, Lanina was scheduled to return to Yaddo this summer for another residency, an opportunity now lost. (In a piece of good news for the artistic couple, Sharlat recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship.)
Since mid-March they have all been isolating at home — a “great problem to have,” according to Lanina. “I get to complain about being with my kids all the time, but there are frontline healthcare workers who are quarantining from their kids right now.”
Podcasts have become a steady auditory backdrop while staying in place, many of them spotlighting the harsh realities of being on the front line. Lanina started a series of paintings in response to such stories. “The Gift of Life” is made up of 24 paintings featuring masquerading characters that are half human and half colorful beast.
Each 9” x 12” work is framed and ready to be sent to a frontline healthcare worker —Lanina’s way of expressing gratitude from her safe space to “a place that’s the opposite of safe.”
“Their stress is unfathomable. So I thought to have some kind of bridge between what I’m doing here and what they’re doing there.”
Lanina posted “The Gift of Life” paintings on her website, and the ones which have already been given to front liners include a small description from the recipient. A nurse and LGBTQ+ clinical coordinator at New York’s NYU Langone Health offered this:
“My experience being at the bedside for some of these final moments, is that people contemplate and review almost identical reflections on their life. Did I love? Was I loved back the way I was loved? What do I wish I would have done? No one, not one person has ever commented about their bank account, their home, their car, their job.”
A week before COVID-19 hit, Yuliya’s father was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. There was a small window to visit him before his treatment started, but she knew traveling posed many risks. Forced to make an impossible decision, she decided to stay in Austin: “If you bring the virus to somebody doing chemo, it’s a death sentence.”
She’s learning to be OK with the unknowable, taking it day by day. Painting has a calming effect, she says, and doing smaller projects prevents her from feeling overwhelmed.
Yet she feels the pressure of staying strong for everybody: “As a mother, if I’m not OK, no one is OK.”
As for her father’s declining health, it is a poignant reminder of one’s vulnerability, be it COVID-19 or cancer. “I am watching someone from afar, and I am powerless.”
Her father’s diagnosis has brought up feelings about her mother as well, who passed away from cancer when Lanina was 20 years old. Her mother was a physician and Lanina still has vivid memories of going to work with her at the hospital when she was a little girl.
“I have a warm place in my heart for doctors,” she tells me. “It must be why I wanted to do this project for healthcare workers.”
Lanina was scheduled to participate in this year’s SXSW, a disaster which was thankfully averted due to its last-minute cancellation.
“I would have gone, and I probably would have gotten sick,” she says before adding, “Austin could have been another New Orleans.”
UT’s classes moved online around that time as well — another decision she applauds. Lanina taught the Senior Design Project this past semester, the final hoorah for art majors. Despite the obvious constraints, most of her students continued to remain engaged; they all gave their final presentations online.
Her two daughters also had to shift their schooling online, a transition which proved slightly trickier. One of her twins, for instance, was upset about the academics not being as rigorous. And both girls missed seeing their friends. But the hardest part was having to cancel certain events — including two scheduled performances with their mother.
“It’s the same for me. I was also really looking forward to certain things,” sighs Lanina.
But who knows, as N95 masks become available again, perhaps she will finally get to touch up her sculpture in Bee Cave Park.
Commissioned in 2015, the public installation features a large female head covered in a sort of swim cap of flowers. The sculpture’s name, incidentally, is “Earth Mother.” According to Lanina’s online description, it serves as a reminder that Mother Earth cares for us, as we also care for her.
“The piece is dedicated to all mothers,” it states.