Thursday, April 14, 2005

Introducing: Viestarts Aistars, Latvian Artist

Watercolor by Viestarts Aistars - "Pec zvejas" ("After the fishing")


Latvian artist

Born in Dobele, Latvia, 1927

Residence: Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

Favored mediums: watercolor, oils, acrylics, charcoal


From Shore to Painted Shore

A young Latvian artist becomes a refugee and escapes to the United States to begin a new life, a new work of art... this is my tribute to my father, Viestarts Aistars. Published in April 2002 issue of Encore magazine in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

by Zinta Aistars

(Photo: Viestarts Aistars holding his infant daughter, Zinta)

The young mother watched in wonder as her not yet year old child sat on the floor, arranging orange peels into various designs. Something like a sun. Something like a flower. With pudgy little fingers, he moved a peel, selected another, placed them side-by-side, just so. Could it be? Orange peels arranged into a design like a flower. In the evening, when her husband came home, she pulled at his arm in her excitement, come see, her green eyes wide with wonder, and told him: the child, the little boy, their boy, he was special, yes, he had a gift, a very special gift...

She would tell the boy this story of orange peels and flowers when he was a man with hair gone white, and her own hair, braided, coming unraveled, lay heavy across her stooped shoulder and hung down to her hip. Her voice dim, the words came slowly. Her son's heart ached for her, but there was no stopping the passage of time. Yes, his gift. He had developed that gift over his lifetime, over hers.

After she passed, the portrait he had painted for her, braid wound in a thick chestnut coil and pinned neatly at the back of her head, hung on the wall of his father's bedroom. After she passed, every evening before he went to sleep, his father would speak in soft tones to the portrait and tell his wife about this day without her. Only then could his father rest.

"My mother, your grandmother, she always believed in me," my father told me. "She loved to tell me this story, about the orange peels," he smiled.

I nodded encouragement. I could listen to my father's stories for endless hours. Go on, I nodded, tell me, from the beginning--as if I were still just a small child, and this, a wonderful fairy tale. But the story is real:

The town of Dobele

Viestarts Aistars was born in Dobele, Latvia, in the summer of 1927. As a small child, he loved to draw. He could hardly remember any other toy. A pencil, a piece of paper, perhaps a little pad, and he was content. These were his playthings, these were his tools; his eyes his way of touching the bright and immense world all around him. He would sit on a rock and sketch the tree across the field. He would sketch the house itself, the tiny stone cottage on the edge of the Baltic Sea, called Sarnate, where he spent all his summers. He would sketch the horses as they dipped their handsome heads to the water in the trough. He would sketch the dog as it scampered through the tall grass. He would sketch his brothers, all of them younger, smaller than he. By the time he was eight, he was given the responsibility to watch over the sheep and cows. He had to watch to be sure they would not wander too far, nor eat vegetables from the garden, or the flowers in their neat beds. His sketchbook filled with drawings of the animals he watched over. Often, when he came back to the house for supper, his mother would ask to see the sketches, and blushing with pride, he would show her. She always smiled.

The boy's father, Ernests Aistars, was a teacher, as was his mother, Lidija. They met when both had been attending the teacher's institute in Riga, Latvia. Ernests lost his heart to the beautiful young woman with long chestnut hair, and she hers to the tall, slender young man, handsome enough to turn heads as he walked down the street, hat cocked a little over one blue eye. A handsome couple, indeed, but in truth, it was their common love for literature and teaching that bound them together for life. She would teach, as would he, but as their family grew - four sons: Viestarts, Aivars, Raits, and then Janis - Lidija had to leave the classroom, while Ernests rose up the ranks to eventually become director of the Jelgava Teacher's Institute. As his job transferred him from school to school, the family moved from city to city across Latvia.

Lidija (Sulte) Aistars and Ernests Aistars

"He knew the best teachers," my father said, recalling his own father. "And when he saw that my favorite subject in school was always the art class, and he saw how I loved to draw, my father arranged for Karlis Baltgailis to tutor me. Baltgailis usually taught only older students, at the university level. I was perhaps ten or eleven at the time. But my father showed him my sketches, and he agreed to tutor me. Once a week I met with him, and he would teach me how to draw and give me assignments. He encouraged me to develop my own ideas on paper."

As one such assignment, Viestarts drew a landscape, just visible over the rooftops of Jelgava. He worked and worked at the drawing, sketching details, wearing his pencil down to a nub. As soon as his other schoolwork was finished, he returned yet again to the drawing. Fresh pencil in hand, he sketched, erased, smudged carefully the shading, and added still more detail. When it was time to meet with his tutor, he handed over the drawing. Baltgailis looked at the drawing. His eyes squinted. He studied the detail. At last, he nodded his head. Later, young Viestarts heard his tutor tell his father solemnly: "The boy has talent." The boy's heart swelled with pride. Someday, he thought, someday he would be a real artist.

Throughout his teen years, young Viestarts kept up with his drawing, honing his skill. Sketchbooks piled up, one on top of the other, great heaps of them. He was a good student, diligent in his studies, but whenever he had a chance, he immersed himself in his developing art. Surely there was a future for him...

.... But who could have foreseen that all of Latvia's future, not just his, would so suddenly be put into question. The year was 1944. Viestarts was a tall young man of seventeen, thin as a rail, a wisp of dark hair forever falling into his eye, with little thought, still, for anything other than learning his art, when life would change - completely and forever. The eastern border of the tiny country of Latvia crumbled beneath the onslaught of the huge Russian army.

"I will never forget that day," my father says. "It was summer, and like all my summers, I spent them in Sarnate - the house by the Baltic Sea. My parents remained in Jelgava, where my father worked. My brothers were with me, all except for Janis, who was six at the time. He remained with my parents. But then - there they were. I thought I was seeing things. My father, my mother, Janis, all walking down the road toward Sarnate. How many hours would it have taken them to cross such a distance? My father was rolling a bicycle beside him. He wasn't riding it, because it had two suitcases strapped to it, one on each side. My father's face was dark and drawn."

The boys were told they must go. Not tomorrow, not later that night, but now. The Russian army was invading the country from the east, and they were in danger. The invading army was slaughtering people; homes were being burned to the ground, destruction and terror was everywhere. The roads would soon fill with more like them, a few, then more, then many more, until streams of people moved down the roads with their few most precious belongings, all suddenly become refugees. The two suitcases strapped to the bicycle held what belongings could be crammed into them for the Aistars family of six. All of their remaining clothes, all of their furniture, all of their books, all else that they owned - had to remain in Jelgava. All of the sketchbooks remained on a shelf in Jelgava.

My father told the story: "We walked all that night, pushing the bicycle between us. Finally, we stopped - there was a farmhouse, a light inside. Other people, just like us, were gathering here, although we did not know them. They all had fear in their faces... as I suppose we did too. The table in the house was heavy with food. The people who lived there, they had opened their doors to anyone who needed a place to rest, a bit of food, a cool drink of water, or ale, or a glass of milk."

In the morning, the Aistars family headed for the Tukums train station. The train arrived, longer than any train young Viestarts had ever seen. It seemed to go on forever, car hooked onto car hooked onto car. The station was crowded with refugees. Everyone wanted to board. But the train was already nearly full. Faces peered out from the open windows, the same fear mirrored in theirs. Women and children were allowed to board first. Lidija and the two younger boys were allowed to board, but Ernests and his two eldest sons had to climb up the sides of the car and sit on its roof, along with the other men. Those who had been sitting on top of the train for many kilometers already had their faces blackened with soot. They extended hands to pull up the newcomers. With a jerk, the train began to move again.

"I saw the struggle in my father's face," my own father said, and in that moment of saying it, I could see the struggle assert itself in his own. Tears rose in my father's eyes at the memory. "We had to leave our lives behind, venture into the unknown future. We had no idea where to go, only that we must go. Talk spread fast, about the deportations that had already begun. Long lists of names of those to be deported to Siberia, to concentration camps. The intelligentsia were the first to go. Anyone with a higher education was suspect. Anyone who could think, who might inspire resistance against the invaders. Anyone who owned a business, who owned property. Anyone who would have reason to be inflamed by the rape of our tiny country on the Baltic Sea..."

The train pulled into the Ventspils station. Ventspils, port city on the Baltic, a city that had drawn invaders into Latvia time and time again, for its access to a port that never froze over, even in the coldest winter. The town's history was soaked in the blood of centuries. The train of refugees shivered on the rails, groaned to a stop, and was once again met by crowds of frightened faces, waiting to board.

"We spotted faces of our own relatives in the crowd," my father said. "Some of them had decided to stay, come what may. They came by to say their farewells. We couldn't know... would we ever see each other again?"

Relatives warned: the deportation lists, rumors--there was talk. Someone had seen the name Aistars on the list. All six members of the Aistars family. The farewells were painfully short.

"My father quietly searched for escape routes for our family," he said. "Information was passed from person to person in whispers. Boats were taking people to other shores, to Finland, Sweden. He went to talk to some fishermen, asked about such boats. While he searched for our escape route, we hid in the nearby forests. My brothers and I fashioned a hut out of tree branches, and we picked berries to eat. We were with a small group of families hiding out. There was news of a boat, to arrive later that night, with perhaps room for a few families."

Ernests was unable to sleep. He watched over his family, his wife and four sons, and he watched warily the others in their group. The man who had promised to take them to the boat at the appropriate hour was drinking heavily. When it was time to go, the man staggered noisily through the woods, weaving their way to the shore--but which way? Where was the boat to arrive? There was no time to waste, and all knew that the boat would not wait. They must be there on time.

"We heard the chug-chug of the boat off in the distance," my father remembered. "But we were too late. Our guide had gotten us lost. By the time we reached the shore, the boat was gone."

Several more weeks would pass for the Aistars family before another such boat could be arranged. The family remained in the woods. The boys picked mushrooms and brought them back for their mother to prepare for the family's meal. On occasion, they would hear soldiers passing on nearby roads during their forages for food. Sometimes the language was Russian, but sometimes it was German. Two armies had taken over the country, nearing a clash. They had to hide from both of them. Then, there was news of another boat.

"This time we reached the shore on time. We saw the boat. We stood among the trees and watched it out on the water. But there were German boats patrolling the shore, and ours could not come in to the shore where we waited. We had to watch helplessly as it at last pulled away."

Once again, the Aistars family was stranded. But they could wait no longer. There was news of bombing in Germany, but Ernests decided it was the best place for the family to go. He made a third try to arrange an escape for the family. The boat "Sanga" would arrive soon, and they would board, taking them to Danzig, Germany.

My father takes a deep breath and then recounts the departure of "Sanga" from Latvia's shores: "We all stood pressed against the rails and sang the Latvian anthem. We sang until we could no longer see the shore."

The boat ride was long and weary, without food for the passengers. Some were starving, while others kept careful portions of what food they brought along. Often, sirens sounded from other ships, avoiding torpedoes. Viestarts watched from the deck as dead horses were thrown overboard from the lower level of the "Sanga." The horses, too, were starving.

"When we arrived in Danzig," he said, "we were greeted by German women bringing food and coffee. It was a welcome moment, even as we were all so tired and afraid of what the future held for us. We were all loaded onto trains that took us first to a station to be deloused - we were sprayed with a white powder - and then on to the refugee camps."

After being moved from camp to camp, the Aistars family finally settled, as much as DP's, or "displaced persons," were allowed to settle, in Augsburg. Schools were set up within the camps. With the refugees consisting in great part of those with higher education, quality of instruction was high. Classes were small, but students were eager to learn. Viestarts was cheered to find that he could continue honing his craft within the camp, and he studied watercolor and oil techniques of painting. Taking a small piece of canvas for an assignment, he painted home: Sarnate. The little house on the Baltic Sea in watercolor - he wondered if he would ever see it again.

New sketchbook in hand, Viestarts would walk into the city of Augsburg and sketch the wartorn city, the buildings shattered and broken by bombs. He sketched carefully the ruins of life around him. His teacher, Janis Zuntaks, taught him to see beyond the literal and to paint and sketch the spirit of the scene. He could begin with what was before him, but add components from his memories, from his imagination, expressing something of himself in every drawing.

"In our European system, grades consisted of numbers 1 through 5, with 5 being the highest mark. When I handed in my watercolors to Zuntaks, he returned it marked on the back: 6!" my father recalled with visible pride, laughing.

Ernests Aistars continued to keep an eye and ear open for opportunities for his sons to continue their education, even under the most strained circumstances. Nothing must stand in their way. When he heard that one of Latvia's most respected artists, Janis Sternbergs, was also in a refugee camp, he contacted him to find out if he might accept his son, Viestarts, in his graphics class. Sternbergs was famous throughout Latvia for his work in designing postage stamps and money. His graphics were unsurpassed in their detail and craft.

"From Sternbergs I learned one of my favorite art techniques," my father said. "I learned about creating lithographs and etchings."

Students in the refugee classes put together exhibits of their work and invited the community. These became some of their first exposures to serious critiques of their work.

Five years passed in the German refugee camps. The process of finding new homes was a slow one. As hope died for an eventual return to Latvia - the country had become a victim of the Yalta Conference, a kind of "prize" to keep political leaders mollified - the Aistars family resolved itself to finding a new home. In October 1949, they boarded a ship that would take them to America.

Chicago, Illinois. A city like none of the Aistars' had ever seen, nor even able to imagine. Such skyscrapers, such bustle, so many people! The language was new and strange to their ears, but somehow, they must manage. A church had sponsored the group of Latvian refugees, and they were grateful. Indulging in a love that was second only to his art, Viestarts joined the church choir. Singing in his rich, deep bass, his eye caught on a young woman with chestnut hair several rows in front of him, among the altos. She, too, was a Latvian refugee. Her name, someone said, was Velta. He studied her profile from where he stood and considered that night, in his sketchbook, its sensuous lines. If he could only meet her&

In 1951, Velta Dunkelis became wife to Viestarts Aistars. Struggling with poverty, they were unable to afford a place of their own, but squeezed their lives into a room in her parent's tiny Chicago apartment. Viestarts worked with his brother stocking and unloading freight at the Wabash train station, saving every cent that he could to continue his education. As soon as he had a little saved, he enrolled in night classes at the Chicago Art Institute, but he longed to become a fulltime student and earn his degree.

"I was intrigued with the new classes!" my father said. "There was so much to learn! And not being yet proficient in the language was not such a barrier there. It was the language of art. It was the first time I was able to sketch live models, or try experimenting with various expressions of art, once the basics had been taught. We would work with gravel scattered in paint, or by throwing handfuls of flour over the canvas to see its effects. I enjoyed the experimentation. But my own style was developing, and I found I still liked a more realistic, classical approach."

Working hard, saving every cent he could possibly spare, Viestarts at last enrolled as a fulltime student, majoring in art. In 1953, he and Velta had their first child: a little girl, and they gave her a Latvian name that resonated with the music of home: Daina. The name meant an ancient Latvian song.

In 1954, war would once more interrupt the young family's lives. With a newborn at home, they had moved into a tiny loft of their own, and needing furnishings, Viestarts decided to quit school for a while to work more hours. But as soon as he was no longer a fulltime university student, he was flagged for the draft. A draft notice from the United States Army arrived two weeks after he had dropped out of the university. He was to be shipped to France for specialized training in auto mechanics.

When Viestarts arrived with his regiment in Verdun, France, the captain asked him what his education was. Art, said the young soldier, I am an artist--and the captain was intrigued. He pulled the soldier with the Latvian accent aside and asked if he might be interested in painting a fresco across the wall of the mess hall.

Viestarts worked over sketches of ideas for the wall fresco. He drew a series of sketches showing soldiers representing all 48 states, each one illustrating what was unique about each state. The captain was impressed; Viestarts was pulled from auto mechanics classes and placed in the mess hall, paintbrush in hand. It would take him 1-½ years to complete the entire mess hall. Whenever he received a pass during that time, Viestarts used his free time to travel by train or bus across Europe. He went to museums and studied the classics. But he missed his family. A year after his draft, Velta arrived in France with their daughter Daina on the Queen Mary. The family was reunited. Viestarts secured a small apartment for his family on his army salary and earned extra income by drawing portraits for the officers. His reputation growing, officers frequently came to him for portraits of their wives and sweethearts. The Major General commissioned him to add his artistic flair to the interior of his new home, and pleased with the results, he attempted to talk the young soldier to make a career in the army using his art.

"But I declined," my father said. "I wanted to return to the United States and earn my degree. On the GI Bill, I was able to do so. And then, of course, you were born."

Viestarts' family was complete: he had always wanted daughters, and now he had two. Financial pressures would increase with the increase of mouths in the family, however, and he began to search for a better job. Having done only factory work while going to school, now with art degree in hand, he was offered a job as a graphic artist - in Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo had a large and quickly growing community of Latvians, and another Latvian artist who worked at Allied Art Service, a small commercial art studio on Westnedge Avenue, looked over the Aistars art portfolio and offered Viestarts a job at the studio. It would pay $65 a week, but it was enough to induce the family to move from Chicago and establish a new home in Kalamazoo. They soon purchased their first house; the American Dream had become a dream come true for the immigrant family from overseas.

Photo of Viestarts and Velta Aistars (seated), l-r, Zinta and Daina, marking the 70th birthday for Viestarts.

In the house where Velta and Viestarts now live, a room tucked away in the basement has always been reserved from the rest of the house. As a little girl, I would tiptoe down the steps, quietly, ever so quietly, and peek around the corner at my father, painting. The basement smelled of oil paints and turpentine. An easel in the center of the room held a canvas in progress. Coils of paint covered the palette. Brushes in jars waited in anticipation the artist's hand. The artist himself, leaning over a low table, carefully dabbed the fine tip of a brush on a watercolor painting. On the far wall of the studio hung a small etching: the little stone house in Sarnate.


Viestarts Aistars has had his artwork exhibited at the Detroit Art Museum, Indiana Art Center in Indianapolis and South Bend, Indiana, the Kalamazoo Art Institute, Grand Rapids Art Museum, as well as Latvian art exhibits in Seattle, Washington, New York City, Reading, Pennsylvania, and Cleveland, Ohio, to name only a few. He has had over 50 one-man art exhibits in the Midwest and Eastern United States, including Boston, New York City, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Saginaw, Grand Rapids, and many other cities nationwide. He has won numerous prizes and his work has been purchased by countless private collectors, also by the State Museum in Riga, Latvia, the Art Museum in Jelgava, Latvia. A painting of a Latvian woman in folk costume hangs today in the Riga Pils (Riga Castle), the president's residence in Riga, Latvia.

Riga Pils (Riga Castle), the president's residence in Latvia.


Viestarts sketching while his wife, Velta, looks on.


L-r: Steve Bowman (son-in-law, married to Daina), Viestarts and Velta Aistars, Alex Bowman (grandson), Melissa Bowman (granddaughter), Zinta Aistars (daughter), Erika (granddaughter).


Granddaughter, Lorena Audra Rutens, and Viestarts Aistars.


Cover Illustration by Viestarts Aistars for

Mala kausa by Zinta Aistars


Cover Illustration by Viestarts Aistars for

Ievainots zelts by Zinta Aistars