The blue-green world of Katia

Katia Lifshin grew up in Holon in a family of Russian-speaking immigrants, unrelated to the art world. But over the last two years her style and career have bloomed.

 KATIA LIFSHIN, 29 FROM KHERSON, UKRAINE TO HOLON, ISRAEL, 1997 (photo credit: Courtesy Katia Lifshin)
(photo credit: Courtesy Katia Lifshin)

A young Israeli artist born in the Ukrainian city of Kherson (sadly, mostly known for war news of late), Katia Lifshin has been active in the art world for only a decade. But the last two years she considers as really significant in building her personal style, artistic reality, and her blooming career.

Lifshin grew up in Holon in a family of Russian-speaking immigrants, unrelated to the art world. She had never been to a museum as a child, but she liked drawing; so when she was a teenager, her parents arranged private drawing lessons for her. 

She learned the history of art from the Internet, inspired by artists such as Balthus, Lisa Yuskavage and Max Ernst. Lifshin studied painting and sculpting at Pima College in Tucson, but she emphasizes that the way she paints nowadays, she developed by herself. 

“The studies gave me the base, but I consider myself self-taught. I spent a lot of time on my own. I had to find my way of painting, my techniques,” says the 29-year-old artist.

“The studies gave me the base, but I consider myself self-taught. I spent a lot of time on my own. I had to find my way of painting, my techniques.”

Katia Lifsin

Her blue and green paintings capture attention, having some mystery and story within. The titles she gives to her paintings are not always obvious and arouse viewers’ curiosity. Lifshin describes them as dark. When we talk, she doesn’t mention humor in the characters she creates. But one can see some of the humor of old children’s book illustrations.

 OILS ON canvas, 2022: ‘Impetus,’ 130x130 cm.  (credit: ELAD SARIG) OILS ON canvas, 2022: ‘Impetus,’ 130x130 cm. (credit: ELAD SARIG)

Her work of the last few years focuses on characters that were inspired by old photographs (from the 1940s and ’50s) that she found in vintage stores and flea markets. In her paintings, she “uses” gestures and movements she sees in these photos and incorporates them into her intensively blue and green paintings and her unreal world. She doesn’t use pictures of her relatives – just unknown people and herself. 

“When I built this world, I started to create characters.  Slowly I started to focus on girls. One of the girls in some way is me,” Lifshin says. 

She focuses on dreams, issues of identity and self-image. “My blue and green color palette creates a different reality, in which there is room for surreal elements, and the focus and attention are on the characters’ feelings,” explains the artist. 

In her artist’s statement, she adds: “The dreamlike world of the naive teens and young girls is full of mystery and symbols like checkered floors, spirals, rings of light and poodles. The characters often face some sort of inner conflict, and the dogs that often accompany the characters act as an extension of their emotions. Their world is full of grass, dark blue skies, and landscapes stretching far away. There is always tension between the checkered floors and the landscape, representing uncertainty, mystery, the unknown.”

Focus on the work, not the life of the artist

KATIA LIFSHIN, who probably holds many mysteries of her own, wants viewers to pay attention to her work, not her personal life. But she doesn’t hide that the beginnings of her life in Israel were not easy, and she needed time to feel really connected to Israel.

She moved to Israel in 1997, when she was four. Her family – like many who came from countries that were part of the former Soviet Union – saw a chance for a better life in Israel. Her grandfather was Jewish, so when there was an opportunity to make aliyah, her grandparents and parents decided to move to Israel. 

“My grandparents had that vision of living in Israel. And my parents followed them. It was a very bad time in Ukraine, and I am really happy they did it,” she recalls.

They spoke Russian at home, and she felt cultural differences going to an Israeli school. “The first years in Israel were pretty bad; I was bullied. Kids used to make jokes about ‘Russian’ people, name callings.

“Until age 12, I didn’t feel like I was part of Israel. I felt different here – like a stereotype of a kid that brings a sandwich with non-kosher meat to school and all the other kids are laughing at him,” she explains. 

“When I was a little girl and told people that I am Ukrainian, nobody even knew where it is. So it was just easier to say I was Russian. My brother and sister did the same. My parents lived in the Soviet Union, we were all from there.”

But the current war in Ukraine changed the identity. “Now there is an emphasis on ‘Ukrainian.’”

THIS PAST September, I met the artist for the first time, during “High Voltage Three,” the third edition of the Nassima Landau gallery’s flagship show of promising artists. I was drawn to her two paintings, Two Birds and Vortex. Under her paintings read: “Born in Ukraine.” Although she says her work is not influenced by the current war, this Israeli artist nevertheless feels connected to Ukraine. 

“I still have family there. There are currently battles in the place where I was born,” she told me during the exhibition. 

When she was 12, Lifshin visited Ukraine for the first time since she had left. As she talks about the visit, her memories sound like images: “My grandmother has a garden and a goat. Her family still lives like that, there.” 

Speaking of her grandmother Valentina, she adds: “I like that my grandmother is connected to the earth, gardening. She also loves the color green. She told me that when she was young, just married, she painted her floors in the house an intensive green. I found it very amusing.”

Green, next to blue, is one of Lifshin’s brand colors. 

She always liked to draw and paint. Her parents noticed that, and when she was 14 they hired a private tutor for her – a “Russian teacher, who taught me how to hold a pencil and a brush,” Lifshin says with a smile. 

But apart from those lessons, she did not have any direct experiences with art. She went to a museum for the first time in her early twenties, in the US, where she relocated in 2012. “I didn’t feel connected to Israel, so it was very easy for me to move to the US.” 

However, in 2018 she realized it was time to go back home. And home meant Israel. “I missed it so much: the people, the culture, the weather, the sea, my friends, and of course, my family.” She didn’t go back to Holon, where she grew up. She moved to Tel Aviv.

But it was in Arizona that she found her biggest inspiration so far – her source of colors. The college art studies taught her the basics, she says. However, she “discovered” blue and green while watching the night sky over Sabino Canyon – “the most beautiful color of blue, surrounding it mountains and desert; by night in blue and green.”

It took time for her to transfer the colors to her canvas. “I was adding blue. It was a process, until the painting I did in 2020, entirely blue, of two girls holding knives. That was the work that started the way I now paint.”

After years in Arizona, the transition was challenging. “Artistically, I felt stuck at that time. I didn’t paint for a year, and then I started to collect photographs.”

It began with one photograph she found at a vintage store. Then she started going to flea markets, looking for old photographs. “During a trip to Paris, I bought some old photos. I wanted to use elements from them. I was really focused on the photos. They were in black-and-white, and looking at them I was exploring colors, in oil, on canvas.” 

Some paintings from that series were completely based on these photographs. “But then, in 2020, I started to build this world of surreal elements. I started to incorporate myself in these works I created, instead of other people.”

Lifshin’s career took off during the pandemic. She says that the world was more open to viewing art online, and that helped her to be noticed and participate in group exhibitions afterward. In October 2021, she participated in the Fresh Paint art fair in Tel Aviv, in the section for young artists. 

“It went really well. I had close to 20 paintings [in the fair], and I sold every one of them. When I posted about it on Instagram, galleries started to approach me,” Lifshin recalls. In 2022, she exhibited at group shows in Paris, Ibiza, Berlin and Tel Aviv. That June, she had her solo exhibition “Parallels” at the Moosey Gallery in London. 
“They saw my works on Instagram,” she says, “and after this solo show some good galleries contacted me, and I started to be noticed.”

Lifshin, like many Israelis in various fields, concentrates mainly on her international career. “I look for opportunities. If you really want to make it, you cannot focus on the Israeli market, it’s so small.” 

But while thinking globally, she is also developing her relations with the Israeli audience. She is currently working on her solo show at Tel Aviv’s Nassima Landau Gallery, with “Shapeshifters” set to open this spring. The artist says she will stay faithful to her two favorite colors (“I will never use red”); however, in her new show, she will also introduce yellow. 

Although Lifshin lives and works in Bat Yam, she sees herself moving back to Tel Aviv at some point. Having discovered the pleasure of visiting museums, she dreams that one day her art will be in museum collections. In the meantime, her career is picking up, with private collectors from around the world buying her works. We will hear about her blue-green world more. ■