Cork artist: I’ll never sell the first proper painting I did

When she hit 30, Elena Kotovenko decided to quit the day job and go and study art history. Since then she’s set up her own studio, teaching kids art classes and hosting wine classes. MARIA ROLSTON finds out about her latest online exhibition
Cork artist: I’ll never sell the first proper painting I did
Elena Kotovenko

WHEN Cork artist Elena Kotovenko turned 30, she decided it was finally time to quit her day job and pursue her passion for art.

Originally from Kiev, Ukraine, Elena, who has been living in Ireland for almost 20 years, was “always good at art in school” and says she has always “loved making things”, but never knew what she wanted to do.

“I was quite indecisive as a teenager and I didn’t know what I should study so my dad suggested I go and do book keeping and accounting, so that’s what I did,” she said.

Elena, who initially only planned to stay in Ireland for a year, lived and worked in Cobh for eight years doing various hotel and shop bookkeeping jobs and loved Ireland so much she decided to stay.

After meeting her now husband Liam, from Mayfield, she moved to the city in 2008 and took up art as a hobby because she “didn’t have much of a personal life” outside of work.

“I was always working but I was still trying out different things in my spare time and I started buying art supplies and painting my own pictures, which I enjoyed, but I wasn’t great at it, I was only OK at first. I decided I would like to learn how to paint properly so I found an artist, Maureen Cahill, who was doing art classes in Ballincollig, and I started taking classes with her.”

Work by Elena Kotovenko.
Work by Elena Kotovenko.

Maureen asked Elena what she wanted to gain from her classes and Elena produced a postcard print of a bluebell woods, painted in watercolours, that she loved and said: “If I was ever to be able to paint this, I would be the happiest person on the planet. There was no artist name on the postcard so I never knew who painted it but I just loved it, it was so pretty,” she added.

Maureen told Elena she would help her paint the scene and within a few weeks she had recreated her own painting of the bluebell woods.

“I was so happy, it was unbelievable. I still have the painting in my house and it’s never going to be for sale!”

Elena continued her classes with Maureen, developing her skills, learning to mix colours and paint using watercolours, acrylics and oils.

“I moved on from beginner’s brushes and paints to professional, always improving the quality of my supplies and I started experimenting with different styles — impressionism, pointillism, realism and I did composition pieces in 3D.

“I love nature, so I’m constantly painting landscapes and flowers and trees and I’ve done a few cityscapes but I mostly paint nature scenes.”

Throughout this time, Elena was still working, doing accounts in hotels and restaurants but was feeling unhappy doing work she didn’t love.

another beautiful piece by Elena Kotovenko
another beautiful piece by Elena Kotovenko

“So when I hit 30, I just said to my boyfriend, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m gonna quit my job and I’m going to UCC and do a degree in history of art, okay?’ Which he thought was really bizarre but he just went with it,” she said.

The four-year Art History degree at UCC was perfect for Elena, allowing her to resume her old job part-time after a year of full time study.

“It was a really intense few years but I absolutely loved it; it was exactly what I needed. After I graduated I was aiming to become an art critic but then I got pregnant so my career as a critic was over before it even started!” she laughed.

Three years and two sons later, Elena pivoted her career objectives again and decided to commit to art full time as a creator and teacher.

“In 2017, I decided to take the leap and set up my own art classes for kids and last year I built my own studio at my house and began doing wine and paint nights for adults in venues around Cork as well. It was absolutely the right thing for me to do and I’ve continued making my own art all this time as well.”

Elena's artwork.
Elena's artwork.

Since the Covid-19 lockdown ended, Elena has gradually begun teaching again.

“I just started up the kids’ art classes again and we’re doing everything outdoors under a pergola, doing big things like cement works and mosaics. The wine and paint nights haven’t started again yet but I’ll be looking for a new venue to hold them in Cork. They’re really great fun by the end of the night, even people who think they’re terrible at art go home with a painting because I show them what to do every step of the way.”

Elena is also participating in an ongoing online exhibition titled ‘Threads’ hosted by Cork County Council’s Library and Arts Service. The exhibition featuring work by Elena and fellow Cork artists Helen Condon and Mary Murphy was planned for the library headquarters’ gallery but moved online due to the evolving situation around Covid19.

She says she is delighted to have the opportunity to showcase her work, though she misses the physical and social element of exhibiting in a real life space.

Elena with her work.
Elena with her work.

“This is a really hard time for so many people facing so much uncertainty so I do feel really fortunate to be part of this exhibition and to have my own space to keep doing my classes and producing my own work.

“At the moment, my hopes and aspirations are quite simple. I just want to get back to doing all my classes and my wine and paint events while building my own collection.

“I was supposed to be holding my own exhibition in the autumn but that will now probably have to be postponed, but at the same time, I appreciate everything I have.”

For more information on Threads or to view the online exhibition visit: https://www.corkcoco.ie/en/news/threads-new-virtual-gallery-project

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