Natural Possibilities

Ilina Mustafina is a multidisciplinary artist, designer and photographer based in New York. Her work has an organic, authentic and spontaneous focus. Each piece is softly compelling – offering an innate understanding of light, colour, shadow and structure, as well as composition of the human form. Mustafina is currently working on residential projects and commissioned wall paintings. 

A: In Issue 113 of Aesthetica, we featured a portrait from your painting series. Who is the subject – are they a real person or a composite of various women?
Yes. It is a real person. Her name is Mia, we used to work together and I fell in love with her beauty. Now, she is quite a celebrity.

A: How do you approach light and depth in this series?
Naturally, following what I see and what feels right.

A: Thinking about the varied styles within your paintings, do you see all the portraits of women as one series, or do you see all your portraits as an exploration of the composition of the human form?
Some of the portraits are from the same series if they are painted at the same period and state of mind. Some of them are from different. They are more an exploration of the inner beauty that transforms and reflects into human form.

A: Light and depth, as well as texture, are examined in your paintings, drawings and sketches of landscapes, interiors and animals – how do your techniques differ as you approach each subject?
Hmm, interesting question. My techniques differ within a context: the subject itself and my relation to the subject. Knowing the techniques and rules helps a lot. I studied art in Russia. There they were very strict about the rules and traditional painting.

A: How does your use of materials help you when approaching each subject?
Use of material helps a lot! It’s great to be able to adjust and change according to the difference of the subject.

A: Several of your paintings, drawings and sketches are of real people, places and animals, although you sometimes venture into a dreamlike realm – what is the inspiration behind those works?
It is usually something from my imagination.

A: There is an aspect of sensuality throughout your paintings. Is this important to you?
Sensuality and honesty are the most important things for me.

A: The animals that appear in your paintings are often surrounded by lush flora. Are you celebrating the beauty of the natural world, do you think about socio-ecological issues when working, or both?
I love and respect nature in all its forms: animals, flora, forests, oceans and people; I don’t think about socio-ecological problems, no. How does the thinking of them help? Instead of thinking, I prefer to water a flower, plant a tree or reuse/remake things I don’t use anymore, as there are so many ways to be useful. I do celebrate nature’s beauty and I hope to inspire others to appreciate it with me.

A: Is there are particular significance in the repetition of subjects such as elephants, birds and palm trees?
Elephants, palm trees and birds were definitely period in my life. Now I’m a little bit over it. No significance, but I have loved hummingbirds from early childhood.

A: Thinking about photography now, what factors and inspirations drove you to explore and work in this medium?
It’s the magic of capturing a moment. It is so different from painting. You only have a second and it’s there. It is also interesting to explore the photograph afterwards, as you can find many discoveries you didn’t see before. I don’t remember how I started photography, but I remember working as an entertainer over the New Year’s holidays to save money and buy my first Canon camera. I was 14 years old.

A: What is the story behind the Wild Horses series?
Horses are perhaps my favourite animal; my grandparents used to have horses. I was inspired by Roberto Dutesco’s Wild Horses of Sable Island. In my opinion he captured the true spirit of a horse. His work is magnificent and very effortless at the same time.

I started looking for wild horse sanctuaries in America. And found one in Lompoc, California. It’s called Return to Freedom. I sent them a letter with my intention to visit.

The whole adventure took me a flight to Los Angeles, then a four-hour Uber ride to Lompoc, as I don’t drive. The whole day at the sanctuary was one-of-a-kind experience: connecting to wild animals in their natural habitat was very powerful! The preservation uses visitors’ donations to save and support American wild horses. If you saw Disney animated film Spirit, the real horse from the film retired at Return to Freedom.

A: How was the experience different from, for example, working in fashion photography?
It’s more free.

A: When photographing fashion models, are you then inspired to paint their portraits? Or is it the other way around?
Actually, I do, yes. By photographing I can see the movement and then it might inspire me to paint. Or it might not. There is a time and place for everything, whether photography or painting.

A: How does your work in photography and painting influence your architectural design work?
I think it’s all connected. All of it helps me to express different sides of me. Honestly, I don’t know how to explain it. Somehow it all builds up, brick by brick.

A: What challenges do you see in architectural design work that you perhaps you did not when you studied at Parsons?
It is discipline, organisation, teamwork and computer programs.

A: You are currently working on residential projects and commissioned wall paintings – tell me about the process involved.
Yes, I’m one of designers at a boutique design firm based in Brooklyn. Our projects are amazing and creative, with a focus on residential homes. Every client has a unique taste and personality. Besides that, I’m starting a commissioned wall painting for a family’s dining room and their children’s bedroom in an Upper East Side townhouse in New York.

A: What challenges do you find in balancing your commercial projects with your personal art practice?
The challenge is in switching my attention rapidly.

A: What projects and exhibitions do you have coming up throughout 2023?
Some residential projects: furniture design, working on cool sideboards for a summer home and couple of commissioned painting projects. I haven’t had time to think about exhibitions yet. Thank you for all the wonderful questions!

All images courtesy of Ilina Mustafina. I Instagram: @mustafinagallery

The work of Ilina Mustafina appears in Issue 113 of Aesthetica. Click here to visit our online shop.