photography : Joyce Wong
Painting a masterpiece
Ukrainian Canadian Natalia Laluque moved to Toronto four years ago with a dream and a paintbrush, now she has a new gallery and project in the works.
by Simona Siad
You can’t help but admire an artist who has such a passion and commitment to art. Whether it is describing the beauty of seeing garbage cans in Canada for the first time (“They are so bright! Nothing like in the Ukraine!”), or her desire to document her own immigration experience onto canvas, you can tell that Natalia Laluque’s art consumes her.
What’s also admirable is that she is a new immigrant who has been able to sustain her talent, even after coming to Canada from the Ukraine four years ago and suffering the financial hardships and strains of not speaking English in a foreign country.
But, as Laluque describes it, there has been nothing — not even the intense challenges that came from immigrating to a new country unprepared — that could have caused her to switch professions into something more stable.
“I have always been an artist,” she says simply, sitting in her studio in the Bathurst area of Toronto.
“It’s who I am,” she continues. “It’s my life. You can’t cut yourself from it. When you wake up, when you go to sleep, all you think about is art and visual images.”
Laluque is a multimedia artist who was trained in Ukraine and has exhibited in Russia, South Korea, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United States.
So, when Laluque and her husband decided to move to Canada, it was curiosity, and not war or lack of opportunity in their homeland, that caused them to move.
Educated at the Kiev Technical University, Laluque had a studio with a flow of steady business in Kiev and her artwork (paintings, sculptures and ceramics) had been featured in prominent European magazines such as ELLE Ukraine and Art & Perception. Despite her success, she yearned to try something new.
“If you are familiar with the Eastern Bloc countries, you’ll know it was forbidden to move or travel for a really long time when it was the Soviet Union. So, I think after all of those changes happened, a lot of people felt like they could move without even thinking about what could happen. It was just that want for freedom,” she says.
“So it was our decision to try. We didn’t know much about Canada. We bought an old book in the bookstore about the economics and politics of Canada that had been written in the 1980s,” she laughs.
They were optimistic upon their arrival, but a harsh reality soon settled in after their immigration. Bills piled up, stress was high, their English was choppy and there were few arts-related businesses hiring.
Despite their struggles of being alone in a new place, Laluque’s tenacity and determination helped her soon obtain a job as a potter’s assistant.
photography : Joyce Wong
“I found the ceramic studio of a woman, now one of my best friends here, and she hired me as a helper. I loaded kilns and all that. She gave me a place in her basement to start to work,” she says.
Although securing a job in the arts was a huge achievement (many immigrant artists end up taking jobs outside of their field), she still distinctly remembers the isolation she felt as a new immigrant trying to reach out to the Toronto art community.
“I would walk into ceramic studios and art stores, just to communicate — not to ask for a job obviously — just to say, ‘Hello, how is everything here? What is the art community structure like here?’ I just wanted to know somebody,” she recalls.
“And they would say, ‘Oh, sorry, we are busy’ and such. It was my first weeks here, and already you felt this wall. Like they don’t want you,” she says.
“[As a new immigrant] you are extremely soft; you are tender. You cry all the time at night, because you are new, and no one wants to speak to you.
“It was hard, and it’s still hard,” she says of their struggles to make a living selling art in Toronto.
“Obviously you have to be prepared and we weren’t. However, it gave us the opportunity to see ourselves from a different point of view and to understand ourselves better.”
After working hard selling ceramics and being an assistant, Laluque was able to then rent and eventually own her own studio. She now gives painting and composition classes to adults and children in her studio, as well as rents out her gallery to local artists for showings.
“We are just starting to get into the gallery business. We are learning how to do it correctly, how to convince people to buy art,” she says. “There is huge competition in the art industry in Toronto. It’s very competitive.”
Her newest project, Canadiana, is a collection based on her journey into Canada. Seen through the eyes of a new immigrant, she paints images of the country based on her own experiences.
“The project is everything. It reflects what was happening in my head to adjust myself to this society. Everything was so new, beautiful and different to me. And that’s how I see Canada,” she says. “Through my own eyes. Through my personal view.”
She found heavy curtain material that she cut to fit homemade stretchers and created her own canvases. She says that pictures – old photographs, art books and even technical drawings from Canada’s past inspire her.
The Ontario Arts Council recently gave her a grant to continue work on the extensive project, which she has done on her own time for almost two years. From images of Re/Max balloons floating over Aboriginal teepees to juxtaposing hockey players with Chinese railroad workers, her work is a compelling look at a nation through the eyes of a newcomer.
And although her journey to be a successful artist in Canada has been filled with challenges, Laluque says it’s a move that she has never regretted.
“No one forced us to come here,” she says. “It’s an extremely good community here. So many different people and, in general, they are friendly and want to achieve something. It’s an interesting place to live,” she says.
And, so, can she offer any advice to other immigrant artists looking to paint their own stroke into the Canadian art mosaic?
“You can never doubt your talent. Day by day you take small steps. And then one day your quality brings you success,” she says.