In April 1986, she was a 6-year-old living at her parents' summer home in her native Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union), when a nuclear reactor erupted 13 miles away. That disaster, known as Chernobyl, exposed hundreds of thousands of people to radiation and its ravaging effects. Among those exposed was young Christina Katrakis, who later had tumors in her thyroid so large she could hardly breathe or eat. Not to mention several miscarriages and one full-term birth that recently ended in heartache.
Far from holding her back, the experience has helped fuel the 29-year-old artist's creativity. Now living with her husband in Jonesboro, Arkansas, some 60 miles from Memphis, Katrakis will be teaching workshops at Memphis Botanic Garden starting in January. The classes will cover a broad area, including different eras and types of media.
She'll also share insights about her Chernobyl series, called The Zone . The series sprang from "Silver Fields," a story she wrote that describes what she saw as a child the morning after the explosion. "The sun was rising and the fields where the cows were pastured were totally silver, the most surreal and beautiful thing I'd ever seen," Katrakis recalls. "Women would cross themselves and pray and the whole area glowed. But the silver was dust from the explosion. And the cows eventually grazed on it and passed it in their milk." The series will include stories, paintings, and films — "I'm very cinematic even in how I crop my paintings," she explains — all dealing with personal experiences resulting from Chernobyl and set for completion in winter 2010.
Katrakis was born into a "very Fellini-like family, very artistic," she says. Her father was a sculptor, her mother an art historian. Because her father specialized in sculpting huge historic monuments, they moved "rather gypsy-like," she smiles, from one city to another, wherever he had a commission.
Some jobs were in the U.S., and Katrakis was educated at schools in Washington and Maryland. A painter in various media, she went back to Europe to strengthen her classical background in art. While there, she met her husband, who is chairman of the history department at Arkansas State University. After they married, Katrakis met some professors at the University of Memphis. "I could relate to them in how I saw myself developing in the art world," she recalls. "I wanted to study the conceptual side of art, and then take all I had learned in Europe and combine it with philosophy, and modernism of the United States." She received her MFA from the U of M.
With good reason, her husband calls Katrakis "one tough cookie." In October she bore a son named Kimon. Like his mom, he was "a little fighter," but his lungs and heart never fully developed. He lived only 10 days. She wrote, "blow by blow," how she felt after losing Kimon. "For me, that was a turn to sanity, writing this homage to my son." It gratified the heartbroken mother to learn that her outpourings prompted people to embrace their own children.
Katrakis and her husband have homes in Greece, Kiev, and Jonesboro. "My time here in the Memphis area is precious because I can concentrate on my work and not be distracted," she says. And she loves the temperament and hospitality of the South. "It brings out the Mediterranean in me. We're outgoing and a little lazy, slow-moving," she laughs.
Looking back at the disaster that continues to wreak illness and slow death on thousands of victims, Katrakis sees it as "a fairy tale, an amazing experience that I survived with God's help. I don't think of it as scary. Yes, it was horrible, but I see it through the prism of childhood, with its sweet memories of faces and places. And I've learned that irony and humor help you get through." So does offering humanitarian help. "When I go back to the Ukraine I want to buy art material for children in orphanages. My art gave me voice to express my pain and love and gratitude. I want to give children the tools to do that." M