Interview by Catherine Petru
Anyone stepping inside Hillman City’s Collaboratory is greeted by it. The wry smile, hug that could ensnare a mammoth, drawl sense of humor and thick accent belonging to Victor Straube as he welcomes you into the the South End community incubator.
As the Collaboratory’s unofficial steward for the past year, the Russian born Straube has bounced between roles of tour guide, able-bodied handyman, watch dog, selfless volunteer, and extemporaneous psychoanalyst. However, his most prominent role as of late has been as the social hub’s artist-in-residence for the past month. Catherine Petru spoke with the multi-faceted Straube- who honed his skills with a paint brush by recreating movie posters of Sylvester Stallone during the tail end of the cold war- as he showcases his work one final time tonight at the Collbaoratory.
I want to talk about your work, but I’m also really interested in who you are, and what drew you to the Collab. But let’s start out with: why do you paint?
Victor Straube: So I was a kid I go to art school. I learn about six years how to paint, how to do everything in art – creativity, art whatever. Maybe it’s not gift, it’s just experience, you know? Because you start when you’re a kid, and everyone has something. It’s just like in a garden: you have a seed and you just need good soil, good people who can care about this, and that’s it. You’re painting. And I’m a kind of person without any bright emotional stuff. I’m an introvert. Everything is inside me. Painting right now is something to show up what I’m feeling sometimes. That’s why I paint.
Have your reasons for painting changed throughout your life?
Straube: Sure. So, when I finished art school I worked as a painter and it was almost commercial painting. That time just killed any motivation to paint in my life. I mean, after this I just [didn’t] want to paint at all. I [didn’t] want to make anything in art at all. But things changed. Computer technology started and I worked with IRIS computers and medical graphics, but I used those medical graphics programs to create something in art.
Right, what is your degree in again?
Straube: I’m a cytologist. I’m [a] medical doctor.
Straube: It’s about cells. As a doctor, I worked maybe for a couple months.
Straube: I started my education in Russia and I worked [there forabout four years]. I left Russia and I went to Germany and I finished my education in Germany. But in [that] city – it’s not a city, it’s a town called Konstanz – there’s no medical university. They [have] a kind of natural, biologist, medication, education, something. So I finished there and I got my degree there. Then I returned for a couple years in Russia after I finished, and after just a couple exams they gave me a medical doctor degree because of [my] level of education.
I [went] to medical school because my family pushed me to go, not because I wanted to. And I started programming with computers there. And after I finished I [went] to work with computers. I never worked as a medical doctor. I can help me people in an emergency situation, but if somebody can do it better…[laughs]…
When did you come to Seattle?
Straube: Two and a half years ago.
When did you find the Collaboratory?
Straube: It was last spring, I believe. I volunteered with the [Rainier Valley] Food Bank for a long time, and I came to an event, a party [at the Collab], and met with some people. Then I returned [to the Collab]. And then I started painting. Technically, at that time, I had too much free time. And I’m just sitting somewhere in a corner, and grab some paint from the shelf and just paint something on a small piece of wood, and Rachel [Tefft] looked at my painting and asked me to make a sign for ROAR, so I make a sign for Rachel, then I make a sign for CAC, then I make a sign for somebody else, then something else…
So you went from having too much free time to being really busy. How much time do you spend at the Collaboratory now?
Straube: Now, at least six days a week. Not only painting. Right now I’m working with JCS, Jones Community Services, who provide free phones for low income people. And I work for FOCS, Families of Color Seattle. And at the Cornerstone Café [located inside the Collab].
What is one thing you want people to know about your art?
Straube: It’s art. They can do it by themselves. In this particular show it will be almost all paintings that were created without any sketch. I mean, I didn’t even use pencil on the canvas or on paper. I just used acrylic from the beginning.
Is there a message?
Straube: It’s only one message: buy it. [Laughs.]
Can I publish that?
Straube: Sure. [Still laughing.]
Awesome. Do you have a vision for yourself as an artist?
Straube: When I’m thinking, I am painting. For me it’s not a lifestyle, but a way to think about something. That’s my painting for me.
Is it fair to say that your process is intuitive? It’s not pre-thought out. It’s spontaneous.
Do you think that your art has anything to do with your past experiences?
Straube: No, not past experience. But when you create art you need to feel something like you fall in love with somebody. Or you need to simulate that feeling somehow. For some people, they use drugs to feel that inspiration. I’m just imagining I am in love: I can paint. Then, now I’m not [in love], [laughs] and I can’t.
It’s not only the kind of inspiration that I’m trying to feel in love with somebody. I’m trying to feel in love with what I paint. But when I finish that painting, okay, I turn it to the wall. I’m finished.
Is there anything else you want to tell me?
Straube:The Collaboratory is not only a place to be happy, sometimes it’s a place to be upset. I [have always lived] in cities faster than Seattle. Seattle is the smallest and slowest city I’ve lived in. For me, the distance between people thinking and people doing here is too big. If the Collaboratory made the distance between thinking and doing shorter, I could teach a pottery class. But we need a kiln.
Our conversation drifted here a bit, but upon wrapping up, I asked Straube if he had any final words:
Straube: People always ask me how I am doing? I don’t know, I’m just doing. I don’t know how. They are supposed to tell me how I am doing. They can see from outside. I am just doing.