Artist Viktoriya Saltzman’s painted path to freedom
By Maria Johnson
Viktoriya Saltzman touches time-worn river rock with a needle-sharp brush, transferring beads of glistening color.
Forms emerge slowly, dot by tedious dot.
Later, the stones speak with jeweled urgency to the people who pass her table at farmers’ markets and craft fairs.
They lean in and smile at the cobbled path of life and ideas: flowers, animals, mandalas, Nativity scenes, peace signs, chakras, the ancient eye-in-hand Hamsa and others.
“I accept different cultures,” says Viktoriya, a native of Ukraine. “I don’t like mandatory lifestyle. I think each person deserves respect and love. If you’re an artist, you have to understand, you have to accept anything that’s coming to you.”
A few weeks ago, at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market, a woman with three grade-schoolchildren stopped to admire the sugar skulls that paved Viktoriya’s table with some 150 flat stones, ranging in size from buttons to bricks.
Viktoriya doesn’t usually paint sugar skulls — a symbol of Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday honoring dead loved ones — but a bag of river rocks she bought at Lowe’s included three triangular stones, so she made them into grinning, crazy-eyed skulls.
The woman bought all three, for $85, for her children’s teachers.
Viktoriya slipped the stones into a small unicorn-covered gift bag — the kind you stuff with children’s party favors — then pressed a fourth stone into the woman’s hand.
A butterfly, for free.
“Some customers have gifting hearts, but they don’t think about themselves,” Viktoriya says after the woman and her children walked away. “I want them to have a gift, too.”
For as long as she can remember, Viktoriya has understood what art can do for the artist and for the consumer of art.
Her father’s family bristled with painters.
Her mother’s family, singers.
In Viktoriya, the musical genes surfaced first. Growing up, she was a gifted accordionist in her hometown of Mariupol near the Sea of Azov.
“My technique was enormous. I played an average of 4 to 5 hours a day. My arpeggio was amazing,” she says.
She was crushed when she was rejected from a music conservatory. Plan B was to attend a teachers’ college in the frigid Ural Mountains in neighboring Russia.
“My pantyhose froze to my legs,” she says. “I had to peel them with alcohol.”
Outside of class, she played at academic gatherings, hauling home leftover beef stroganoff and potatoes to her dorm mates. After college, she sang for a Russian folk dance troupe that toured Europe and the United States.
“Half the band stayed in America, never came back,” she says. “Crazy.”
She followed an American husband to North Carolina in 1999.
She summarizes their brief union: “I left my husband. I took the accordion.”
She moved to Greensboro for jobs. Babysitter. House cleaner. Waitress. Singer. Accordion player. Lingerie saleswoman. Seller of makeup at a department store beauty counter.
“I love selling, but not all for money — for presentation,” says Viktoriya, who wears her curly brown hair in a spray atop her head. “I tell a story. You gonna buy.”
The idea for painting rocks came in 2015, when she was planning her daughter’s 9th birthday party. She needed a fun, cheap activity for the kids. She bought acrylic paints and stones and led a demonstration. The results, Viktoriya says, blew everyone’s minds.
“Parents said, ‘Why you don’t try to do this as a job?’” she remembers.
Two years later, she unpacked a box of rocks at the Gibsonville farmers market. She found other venues. It was an important trickle of income for a single parent.
“When I start painting, I wasn’t, of course, fantastic. People liked it, but I’m picky, and I know when I’m good and when I’m not good,” she says. “Most important, the hours of practice. Dance, art, anything. You have to be super patient.”
Now, she’s confident enough to branch out. She paints wooden jewelry boxes, wooden trays, wooden ornaments for Christmas and Easter. She takes custom orders — a set of rocks for a Jewish woman to put on her son’s grave; a turtle composed of seven rocks — shell, head, legs, tail — for a co-worker (“Best turtle you’ve ever seen.”); an end table painted with African masks. She incorporated the face of her customer and the woman’s boyfriend into the masks. (“He said, ‘I want to scream, it’s so pretty.’”)
Viktoriya has a steady job, in the silver-buying department at Replacements Ltd.
But she keeps painting, at night, at her dining room table.
“Art lets me do anything,” she explains. “It’s my freedom. My freedom of mind. My freedom of time. Freedom of picking colors. When you do art or music, your own stuff, it makes you free. Your soul works different, your mind works different.”
The loop closes, she says, when customers delight in the fruit of her freedom.
“When people go, ‘Oh, my God! I like that!,’ I get that feeling, too.” OH
Saltzman’s upcoming shows include Dec. 3, The Market at Festival of Lights, LeBauer Park, Greensboro; Dec. 4, Greensboro Farmers Curb Market; Dec. 5, MADE 4 the Holidays Marketplace, Greensboro Farmers Curb Market; Dec. 11, Eno River Farmers Market; Dec. 18, Winston Junction Market, Winston-Salem. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact contributing editor Maria Johnson at email@example.com.
Photograph by Lynn Donovan