In Georgia, a 76-year-old woman becomes an artistic sensation

TSKALTUBO, Georgia — It was the year her husband died that Elene Chantladze stopped painting on stones and started painting on paper.

She had just turned 50, and in her village of Tskaltubo in western Georgia, collecting stones – an object associated with death in Georgia – after her husband’s death would attract unwanted attention. “People would think I’m crazy,” she said. “So I started painting on anything I could find: scraps of paper, pieces of cardboard, the back of a cabinet panel.”

In the paneled living room of his Tskaltubo cottage, the casual treatment of his many painted canvases, which rest against a wall along the floor, belies the value of his work. At 76, Chantladze carries the improbable profile of a recently discovered artist who is just embarking on a career as an internationally renowned painter.

Work painted by Elene Chantladze in her house in Tskaltubo

In 2012, Tbilisi-based Georgian artist Nino Sekhniashvili discovered Chantladze and her work at an outdoor art fair in Tskaltubo. Since then, Chantladze’s work has been exhibited in galleries from Tbilisi to New York, with a selection of her paintings currently on display in the group show Girls Girls Girls at Lismore Castle Arts in Ireland.

Chantladze’s work itself is striking in its style. The colors are often muted, but even when they are not, and a stroke of cherry red or mauve marks the canvas, it is always naturalistic. With a hazy, impressionistic quality to the paintings, his subjects, invariably humans and the natural world, are effortlessly captured. The nature is simple but somehow elevated, and the scenes are pure and unassuming.

“It’s the honesty of her work that’s so interesting,” said Nika Lelashvili, gallerist and partner of LC Queisser, the Tbilisi gallery that represents Chantladze. “How raw, how emotional.”

Chantladze paints on objects she finds around the house.

Chantladze paints on objects she finds around the house.

Born in 1946 in Supsa, a Georgian port village on the Black Sea, Chantladze’s journey from noblewoman’s daughter to widowed painter is both the story of unlikely coincidence and provincial quintessence.

After a childhood spent frolicking with her brothers in the fields and rivers of western Georgia, Chantladze was forced to spend part of her later teenage years in hiding in Kutaisi. Bride kidnappings, which are now illegal, were commonplace in Georgian villages at this time and Chantladze was actively prosecuted. However, when she returned home after studying in Tbilisi, her mother was informed that she would be taken away that night. Bride kidnappings in Georgia saw young women abducted from their homes by a suitor, who then often coerced the woman into marrying him. Chantladze and her mother hitchhiked in a construction truck and immediately left town.

While he was in Kutaisi, men came to the house to offer to take him away. “Nobody asked me what I wanted,” she recalls from an armchair in her living room. Her home, a one-story freestanding cottage with climbing vines in the garden, is typical of West Georgia. “I said to my mother, ‘Take me away from here, otherwise I’m going to have to marry anybody.'”

One of his paintings, a small canvas filled with figures, depicts the alleged story of the founding of the western Georgian mountain town of Bakhmaro. Men dressed in an array of traditional mountain attire stand behind a fallen woman, her purple robe smeared with crimson. “A man from Guria fell in love with a woman and he took her to the mountains,” Chantladze said, referring to a story she read in a book on Georgian ethnography. “The woman’s family followed. When they got to them, the man shot the woman so they couldn’t take her away from him. That’s what they named Bakhmaro. ‘Bakh’ is the sound Georgians use for a gunshot. ‘Maro’ was the woman’s name.”

A Walk, 2008

A Walk, 2008

Not all of Chantladze’s paintings are equally ethnographic or local. Another painting, depicted on a large canvas, depicts Chantladze’s pervasive pastoral trope augmented with tragedy. Children playing happily among flowers are dwarfed by the scene above: the image of children, bathed in orange paint and trapped in a building engulfed in flames. Painted underneath is the word ‘Beslan’, the Russian city in the North Caucasus that was the site of a 2004 terrorist attack on a school that left more than 300 people dead, more than half of them children, and hundreds of injured.

“When I’m happy, I don’t paint,” she said. “When I have insomnia or think of something concentrated, that’s when I paint.”

Like many of her generation, Chantladze agreed to marry her husband before meeting him, the result of meeting and becoming fond of her mother. But that was not to be the case. “We got married without love,” Chantladze said. “He was asking, ‘Do you love me?’ and I said, ‘No, I hate you.'” Sometimes he would chase her out of the house. Other times she would run away.

Enjoying the future, 1998.

Enjoying the future, 1998.

Among the Chantladze generation in Georgia, arranged and loveless marriages are commonplace. However, it is far less common for a widowed village grandmother to become an internationally renowned artist in her 60s, says Lelashvili. “I can’t think of any other examples like Elene’s,” he said. Often tasked with caring for family and domestic life, it is indeed rare for women of Chantladze’s age to be publicly prominent in a country where patriarchy is so firmly entrenched in all strata of society.

Although now known primarily for her paintings, Chantladze is also an avid writer of short stories and poems. Discussing her written work, which she often describes as “humorous,” is tantamount to inviting laughter from both Chantladze and anyone in her company. But there is also an emotion in his writing and an abstract invocation of the natural world that so populates his paintings.

In Tbilisi, the small but vibrant contemporary art scene is open and flexible, making it a perfect fit for someone like Chantladze, who defies many contemporary art trends with both her slightly candid works and her profile. Posta Press, a Georgian publisher, printed a book of paintings by Chantladze in 2019, with one side of the page a reprint of a painting, the other the back of the material she painted it on: used calendars, paper draft and pieces of cardboard.

Visitors to Tskaltubo, 2008

Visitors to Tskaltubo, 2008

Despite periods of sadness, Chantladze enjoys the company of her two daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whom she now supports with proceeds from painting sales. “Strong emotions have punctuated every part of my life,” she said. “Sometimes I’ve hated myself, but being discovered as an artist and the kids around me is what gives me a reason to enjoy life more.”

There is a cyclical quality to Chantladze’s relationship with nature. Most of the memories she recalls are of a carefree childhood with her siblings, spending time in the woods and at the river.

“I love nature and sometimes I kiss the trees,” she laughs. “I planted a little plum and it became a tree. I planted a twig and it became something. I plant things and they grow.”

About Margaret L. Portillo

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