Maria Rud is a little bit cross with me when we rendezvous at Sage Gateshead. We have never met before so she didn’t know who to look out for.
I, on the other hand, have been on her website so am fairly relaxed. When a petite woman with bright red lips, voluminous hair and a pony-sized white dog appears, I don’t have to wonder if it might be her.
Maria is not tall, but she stands out in a crowd. She is an artist but also something of an artwork, with her leather coat and boots and air of calculated unruliness, heightened by those flying locks. The fact that she is Russian, which you wouldn’t necessarily know until she speaks, hardly serves as camouflage in midweek Gateshead.
Victor, without even trying, threatens to upstage her.
He is a great Dane, a jovial Scooby-Doo of a fellow whose magnetic appeal earns him entrance to the Sage concourse – a first, quite possibly, for a dog without a blind person to care for.
On Easter Monday, Maria will team up with the great percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and other musicians for the English premiere of what she describes as a new artistic genre.
It is called AniMotion. The name was suggested by Maria’s husband, sculptor and dry stone waller Ewan Allinson, who is one of the organisers of the Stone Festival at Barnard Castle which, for two years running, has celebrated the heritage of stone in the North Pennines. AniMotion is, arguably, the complete opposite of stone – not solid and timeless but fleeting and ever-changing, leaving memories but no tangible trace.
As Dame Evelyn and the musicians play, Maria will paint. And, thanks to the technical wizardry of Ross Ashton – responsible for the Crown of Light centrepiece at successive Lumiere festivals in Durham – the images she creates on the lightbox in front of her will be projected from The Cloister on to the venerable stonework of Durham Cathedral.
With artist and musicians afforded equal status in the eyes of the audience, a true audio-visual collaboration is in the offing. Who will be responding to whom? It’s open to debate, it seems. The more these people perform together, the more they will be alive to each other’s creative impulses.
Maria is AniMotion’s instigator and also its most ardent champion.
“It is something which is so right for today and which is very easy for people to be immersed in and understand,” she tells me.
“The beauty of this project is that it really reaches out to people from all walks of life. That is the most wonderful thing.”
Maria tells me that her mother was a pianist and “an incredible composer” who, if she hadn’t injured one of the tendons in her wrist, could have been a concert virtuoso.
As a child growing up in Moscow, Maria would often lie under the piano and listen to her mother play, sometimes accompanied by friends on other instruments.
This, she says in her emphatic way, was “my very, very strong first memory”. It remains one of the enduring memories of her Moscow childhood when she felt music was being absorbed into her bones.
Maria’s father was “an incredible scientist, very well known in Russia”, and he liked music too. But it was painting that attracted Maria as a child and her parents were wise enough and accommodating enough to let her find her own way in life.
“They didn’t chain me to a piano or a cello,” she says. “They respected my freedom of choice.”
So Maria went off to study fine art in Moscow and then film in St Petersburg. She worked as an artist for the Souzmyltfilm, the state animation studios in Moscow, and also for state television before becoming captivated by glass on a trip to Stockholm.
“I met people who were at the helm of the Swedish glass industry. They saw my work and I designed something to be made in glass. They said, ‘Would you like it to be made?’ Well, yes, I was over the moon. They offered me an exhibition. They offered to pay for the production of my glass. I just stayed. I got stuck at a glass factory in Stockholm.”
From there she went to Scotland in 1994. “A combination of the Edinburgh Festival and Mary Queen of Scots,” she says enigmatically. “I always had a strange soft spot for Mary Queen of Scots but I liked Elizabeth I too. She was a very strong character.”
Maria, who as a child refused to learn a foreign language, explains how in adulthood she has come to realise the value of travel.
“I love Moscow so much. I really never left Moscow, but Sweden was very kind to me. They really invited me there and I was very grateful, though not flattered.
“Russia is so vast. Now I just believe people should live in different countries because life is too short. It doesn’t suit some people but if you are a creative person you just need to see different places. The world is such an amazing place.”
In Scotland, and then in York, she co-founded a cultural project called DOM which was “beautiful, very beautiful. It brought together different cultural disciplines like music and painting and sometimes it also incorporated film”.
Maria, who now divides her time between York, Edinburgh and Teesdale, is very big on collaboration.
She remembers that even as a child she would “see” music in her mind’s eye as a succession of colours and patterns. She was surprised when she found others didn’t do likewise, and AniMotion is, perhaps, her way of sharing the pleasure. AniMotion had its premiere at the National Museum of Scotland in front of a very distinguished audience, and was also performed at St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh. But that was before Maria encountered Ross Ashton and saw that she could project her images onto the side of a building rather than a screen with its limited dimensions.
This is what will bring her and Dame Evelyn and Ross Ashton and others to The Cloister at Durham Cathedral on Monday for what promises to be a spectacular performance.
Maria, whose wonderful still paintings appear to draw on the iconography of ancient tribes and religions, will “paint” the famous building as Dame Evelyn and others perform. With her eye for a simple but affecting image and past training as an animator, it should work well.
And, as it transpires during the interview, Durham is a very fitting location for this premiere. One of Maria’s very close friends when she was growing up in Moscow was Irina Sokolov. “Both Irina and I grew up in a very special house in Moscow,” she says.
“It was populated by artists, musicians, writers, journalists. It was a large block of flats yet it felt almost like one family. It was astonishing to learn that in many blocks of flats across the world people don’t even know their neighbours.”
In 1963, Irina’s father, Kirill Sokolov, had married a girl from Hartlepool, Avril Pyman, having met her when she was in Moscow researching the life of a Russian poet, Alexander Blok.
In 1974, the Sokolovs left the Soviet Union and settled in County Durham, where Kirill continued to work as a much-admired artist.
I interviewed him a couple of times in Newcastle, once in 1990 when he was completing a huge canvas called Ikon of the Resurrection at the Bolbec Hall on Westgate Road, and then again in 1995 when he had a major retrospective exhibition at the Hatton Gallery.
After his death in 2004, one obituary stated that Kirill and his family were allowed to emigate. To me, in 1990, he had said: “The situation at the time in Russia was getting more and more dangerous. I received word that it would be better if I got out. Officially, I came because my sister-in-law was ill.”
The big painting Kirill was working on 24 years ago was to hang in Glasgow Cathedral to complement the performance of a new John Tavener composition by Scottish vocal ensemble Capella Nova.
Music by the same composer and performed by the same group accompanied Maria’s screen-based AniMotion performance in St Giles’.
“Even today, in the Sokolov house in Durham I cannot quite comprehend that I am not in the Moscow flat of our childhood,” says Maria.
“This, of course, has a lot to do with Kirill’s paintings, and there is nothing which creates a stronger feeling of continuity than art.”
The AniMotion performance at The Cloister, Durham Cathedral, takes place on Monday at 8.30pm. For tickets call 0300 026 6600 or buy online at www.galadurham.co.uk