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A Master Class in Eco-Friendly Art

June 1, 2012 at 7:35 am
By Leaf Elhai and Kyohei Yazawa

At the beginning of our trip to Baikal, we noticed a mysterious event on our schedules: “Master Class.” Speculation abounded. Would it be a throat-singing lesson? Trail-building around the lake? Or maybe just another class with Diane? On the day of the master class, we drove up to a small wooden house in the town of Listvyanka. This house turned out to be the studio of Igor and Elena, ceramic artists who make everything from souvenir figurines of local wildlife to unique works that they show in exhibitions (

As soon as we got out of the car, Igor sat down at his outdoor foot-powered potter’s wheel, and the master class began. Over the next two hours, Igor and Elena walked us through the steps they use to make one of their most popular sellers, a figure of a Buryat girl holding a nerpa. After Igor demonstrated how he makes the hollow forms of the figurines, we trooped inside. There, Elena showed us how to form the bullet-shaped base into the whimsical figure of a girl. The addition of arms, hair, and baby nerpa completed the masterpiece. Even though we followed the same model, all of our figurines turned out differently. Kyohei was extra-creative, adding a beard and wizened face to turn his figure into that of an old man. Winning the top creativity prize, however, were our teachers Anna Mikhailovna and Diana Osipovna, who were making strangely elongated faces for their figures during the lesson. By the end of the session they had each made likenesses of their beloved dog, Lola.

After our figures were complete, we again headed outside to see Igor demonstrate the way he and Elena fire their works. After a clay piece has completely dried, it is put into a kiln and heated to a temperature of around 1000 degrees Celsius. Igor and Elena prefer to finish their works using the Japanese raku method in which they throw a glowing red-hot piece into a bucket filled with sawdust resulting in a dramatic plume of white smoke. After a few moments the piece is taken out, with flaming pieces of sawdust still attached to it. The piece is complete after it is brushed off with a broom: the once uniform clay is now covered with a dark and organic finish. No two pieces come out of this process looking the same.

Looking through the works displayed at Igor and Elena‘s workshop was a treat. We saw figures of nerpa and Buryats in traditional dress alongside figures of Russian folk heroes. We saw art that reflects the Tavolzhanskys’ deep connection with the place in which they work. Their figures depict natural imagery alongside traditional Buryat and Russian folk imagery.

Igor and Elena are prime examples of locals who make a low-impact living around Baikal. The fragile ecosystem of Baikal is continually threatened by chemical pollution from industry around the lake and its tributaries. When we visited the office of environmental NGO Baikal Wave (, we learned about the damaging effects of a large paper mill on the south shore of the lake. Unfortunately, according to Baikalskaya Volna, protecting the environment is not as simple as closing down factories. With few options for work, many Baikal residents depend on polluting industries like this to make a living. In his book Sacred Sea, environmental journalist Peter Thomson ( discusses low-impact tourism, an alternative that works for both people and the environment. Thompson imagines tourists walking on trails around Baikal and staying in local homes rather than in large resorts.

By catering to visitors like us, Igor and Elena have found a way to support themselves, pursue their passion, and contribute to the local economy, all while minimizing their environmental impact. We hope that in the future more residents of Baikal will be able to live in a way that lets them stay true to their soul, their land and their culture.