From Kalashnikov to painter's palette: an artist at work

By Robert Antrim PICTURE a Russian high school student – not just any student but the one best known in her class for dismantling a Kalashnikov rifle in the fastest time – while wearing a blindfold. The image in your mind is likely to be far removed from

By Robert Antrim

PICTURE a Russian high school student - not just any student but the one best known in her class for dismantling a Kalashnikov rifle in the fastest time - while wearing a blindfold.

The image in your mind is likely to be far removed from the reality. Marta Grigorieva was that student, but it is with a painter's palette rather than with a rifle that the petite doctor's daughter from St Petersburg is making her name on both sides of the Atlantic.

A painting donated to the recent Archant London Press Ball brought gasps of admiration and fetched £1,700 when auctioned for charity.

Senator Edward Kennedy owns one of her works, and her paintings have been exhibited at Harvard University and Sotheby's in the US. Her vivid yet moody explorations of the possibilities of figurative painting have won her places in many distinguished private collections. Earlier this year her work showcased at EFG private bank in Mayfair.

All of this is a long way from studying the bolting mechanisms of automatic firearms.

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Travelling to New York clutching an economics degree in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, she earned an internship at Christie's Russian department and later studied with Nelson Shanks, painter of Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and, most famously, Diana, Princess of Wales, at Kensington Palace.

Now she spends much of her time at her new West Hampstead studio, and like so many compatriots who have travelled west since Glasnost, she is gradually falling in love with north London.

''In St Petersburg I recall my childhood, in New York I spend time with my family and friends, as well as studying at Nelson's workshop because he has so much to teach and I have so much to learn, but London is my favourite city of all. It has the history and the creative atmosphere, and it is very glamorous too," she says. ''Just look at all of this...''

We are sitting in the glass-fronted restaurant of the Tate Modern, and she gestures across the river where St Paul's is glinting splendidly in the afternoon sun and The Gherkin is still permanently poised for take-off. The bullet-like shape of the edifice reminds me of the Kalashnikov story in her publicity brochure and I ask her if it is true.

''Well yes, this is certainly true,'' she says, more demurely than any Soviet special agent could ever manage. ''My publicist cannot resist telling everyone the story but I am not so sure - it really hasn't got anything to do with my painting, has it?''

Her first commission was of a Russian Wolfhound and the second an assignment for Teddie Kennedy. Her work is rich and varied, from a commission to paint a collage of the New England Patriots American football team, to a beguiling portrait of Isabel in the Garden, Isabel being the daughter of Philip Byrne, the vice chairman of UBS, London.

The person she would like to paint now is Emma Thompson. ''She is my neighbour, I see her sometimes strolling along the street with her daughter. I admire her as an actress, she is extremely talented, and very real. She has a strong personality, in common with many other British actors I have observed and I would love to have the opportunity to paint her. Perhaps one day it will happen,'' she says.

Her mentor Nelson Shanks is strongly influenced by Rembrandt, and could not be said to flatter his subjects. Maria's style is altogether softer. Her formal training is to paint portraits in academic way, to work from life nude models. She pays particular attention to colour and light when depicting female nudity, most obviously in a series of sensuous paintings recently exhibited in Mayfair.

It is perhaps not surprising that her paintings have a lyrical quality with suggestions of fluidity and progressive movement. Her doctor parents saw for her a career in music, and she studied pianoforte and violin at the age of six, but rebelled gently against a life that revolved around study and endless hours of music practice, both in and out of school.

''Painting was my way out, to express myself and to live life to its purpose. I love all aspects of life and the most important part of it for me is painting,'' says Ms Grigorieva. ''Wherever I am, in the United States, in Italy, in the Dominican Republic (where she also has a studio) or in West Hampstead, I am painting, usually for five or six hours at a time. Once I start, I find it difficult to tear myself away from the canvas.''

Her life has changed dramatically but perhaps the influence of the military academy has not been entirely removed. One of her own favourite paintings is a larger-than-life portrait of Sean Connery as special agent 007.

''Mmmm, James Bond,'' she muses. ''I have painted him with a woman who seems to be saying, 'I know your game, you are 007, you are this mythical figure who is James Bond, but really you are just an actor called Sean Connery'.''

Faced with her famous subject in a darkened room, there would be no prizes for guessing which of the two would win the race to dismantle a Kalashnikov.

To see more of Marta's work, visit www.