Touched by tragedy of Chernobyl, artist's work radiates power

A childhood survivor of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, Christina Katrakis works through the disaster's ongoing tragic impact with paintings that tie vivid physical truths with the unsettling spirit of the region's folk traditions. Katrakis, 29, has lived in the Memphis area for nearly a decade.

Alexander Sydorenko

A childhood survivor of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, Christina Katrakis works through the disaster's ongoing tragic impact with paintings that tie vivid physical truths with the unsettling spirit of the region's folk traditions. Katrakis, 29, has lived in the Memphis area for nearly a decade.

You don't have to know that local artist Christina Katrakis survived the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster to appreciate her work. Or that she had relatives who died in the aftermath. Or that she lost a newborn child due to the lingering side effects of her own radiation exposure.

''Harvest III'' conveys the liquid Prussian blue paint that officials gave radiation victims to drink to help rid the body of heavy metals. ''It's kind of surreal for an artist -- right? -- to drink paint,' says Katrakis.

''Harvest III'' conveys the liquid Prussian blue paint that officials gave radiation victims to drink to help rid the body of heavy metals. ''It's kind of surreal for an artist -- right? -- to drink paint," says Katrakis.

Christina Katrakis' work reflects haunting tales.  'I love the emotional narrative of her paintings,' says director Mary Lambert, who is developing a film based on   the ''Zone'' series.

Christina Katrakis' work reflects haunting tales. "I love the emotional narrative of her paintings," says director Mary Lambert, who is developing a film based on the ''Zone'' series.

You don't have to know these things, but once you do, her post-modern realism takes on a deeper resonance, one that can make you weep all the while her assured technique makes you marvel.

Her powerful new pieces, part of a series called "The Zone," can be seen in a retrospective, "Prism," that runs through February at Memphis Botanic Garden, 750 Cherry, where she teaches several art classes (proceeds from these classes and the exhibit will help buy art materials for Chernobyl orphans). An opening reception is from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday.

Born in Kiev to a Greek father who makes historic monuments and an ethnographer mother of Polish-Georgian descent, Katrakis was 6 when the nuclear reactor -- 30 miles from her family's summer home -- failed. With the recent passing of a son who lived for six days,

memories of her own childhood came flooding back, a "push of anger and pain" that has propelled series-in-progress "The Zone." The series will also be part of a group show, "NeoSymbolism: Bridges to the Unknown," at Chicago's Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art from May 28 through June 11.

"One of the dominant colors that go through the paintings is silver," says the artist of the carefully chosen hues in her series. "It's a color I remember because the field was covered with silver dust from the eruption."

Blue takes on a peculiar meaning as well: "One of the things they would give us to combat radioactive elements was Prussian blue. It's a liquid paint you drink, and it's supposed to collect heavy metals and take them out of your body. It's kind of surreal for an artist -- right? -- to drink paint."

"The Zone" is also being developed as a film with Arkansas-born director Mary Lambert ("Siesta," "Pet Sematary"), who calls Katrakis a kindred spirit. Says Lambert: "She's an amazing artist and I love the emotional narrative of her paintings."

Katrakis and her husband, Alexander Sydorenko, an Arkansas State University history professor, are working on the story/script with Lambert, who says the film is in "pre-pre-production." "Christina is kind of the inspiration for the story," she says. "One of the characters is probably going to be a painter so we can bring in some of her actual paintings."

As for the plot, all Lambert will reveal is that it concerns "the haunted nature of the area around Chernobyl where there's whole villages and towns that have been deserted since the disaster."

This is familiar terrain for Katrakis, who remembers the many unsettling folk tales her mother collected from the Chernobyl area, notably those about a beast that would come and swallow the stars, "and wherever he cast a shadow, everything would die." Even village names reflect this dark lore, she says, noting that Chernobyl translates to "black pain or bitter wormwood," while the town where her family stayed, Orany, means "plowed with wounds," and a neighboring village, Straholissia, can be interpreted as "the horror of the woods."

Katrakis, 29, has lived and worked in the Memphis area for nearly a decade, though you're more likely to find her traveling through Europe, where she shows and sells much of her work and where she and her husband have a second home on the Greek island of Melos. In fact, her Botanic Garden show is intended as something of a local coming out for the cosmopolitan painter, who has an affinity for the Bluff City despite the fact that she's rarely around; she hopes, for example, to someday add a Memphis affiliate to the European art-and-culture institute, the Kallista Academy, she runs with he husband (see christinakatrakis.com).

"The question they ask me often when I have shows abroad is, 'Do you consider yourself an American artist or a Memphis artist or Ukrainian, Greek or European?' And I hate that because I think a real artist should belong to the world.

"When we think of Elvis, we don't think of Memphis necessarily. We think of a great talent, a revolutionary person in music -- and Memphis comes with it. It's a great thing for Memphis to have Elvis. But the city does not have to define you. It's you who promote the city via your artwork. And that is how I see my goal."

Christina Katrakis: "Prism"

The exhibit is on display through February at Memphis Botanic Garden, 750 Cherry Rd. Thursday's opening reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. includes Greek songs by soprano Marika Kyriakos, a vocal instructor at Arkansas State University. For details, call 636-4121 or go to memphisbotanicgarden.com.

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