At the center of the Museum of Russian Art's unusual new show, "Life on the Edge of the Forest," is a cluster of pretty, mystifying objects. Narrow, straight-backed and gaily painted, they suggest a bunch of children's chairs gathered for story time in a sunlit glade.
The room's deep green walls bring to mind a dense forest of towering pines and spruce. On the walls hang woodsy paintings and elaborately carved window frames that evoke a fairy-tale village cozily nestled in a distant spot a very long time ago.
Short of a weekend drive along the North Shore, a visit to TMORA's "Forest" show is a perfect welcome to autumn. Its woodsy atmosphere, warm light, lush colors and rustic crafts are as enticing as the antique stores, corn mazes and apple orchards that occasionally distract Minnesotans from fall football.
Organized by the Russian museum and drawing heavily on the collections of the museum's founders, Ray and Susan Johnson, it runs through March 8.
A celebration of traditional Russian life, the exhibit focuses on how ordinary Russians — peasants, farmers, hunters and artisans — lived in the pre-Soviet era, particularly in the villages on the fringes of the boreal forests that cover most of Siberia and much of far northern Europe.
As always in TMORA exhibitions, the explanatory texts are full of fascinating factoids that help demystify a country that recently has seemed increasingly at odds with the United States and Europe. Who knew that Russia has 145 national parks and nature preserves? Or that its territory includes a fifth of the world's forests, nearly as much woodland as Brazil and the U.S.A. combined?
Forests have always nurtured the Russian soul.
Given its availability, wood was a source of heat, of course, but also the chief building material for the log homes that were still common a century ago. The forests also provided food — nuts, berries, mushrooms, game birds and animals — medicinal plants, resins and even clothing. Dishes, plates and spoons were carved from wood; baskets and even shoes were woven from supple strips of birch bark.
Beyond these life-sustaining comforts, Russian forests were places of beauty, refuge and solace to which individuals retreated to find spiritual renewal in communion with nature. All these multifaceted qualities are subtly revealed in this big-hearted display.
The colorful objects in the middle of the gallery are not, in fact, chairs. They're spinner's tools known as distaffs — prialka in Russian.
The L-shaped device is carved from the root and stump of a tree, the root forming a flat, paddle-shaped seat on which a weaver would sit. The upright portion, carved from the stump, would hold a clump of natural fibers that the weaver would twist into yarn or thread. Gaily painted in red and yellow with horses, stars, hearts, curlicues and geometric designs, the prialka's designs identify the regions from which they came.
Unlike the rude cabins of the American frontier, Russian log houses were often embellished with ornately carved and painted eaves, cornices, door frames and window trim.
The elaborate window frames recall the lacy gingerbread carving that once decorated Victorian-era homes in the United States. Though bleached by time and weather, traces of the original blue, green or white pigments are still visible on many of the two dozen frames installed in alcoves throughout the exhibition. Their designs feature snippets of classical architecture — peaks, cornices, dentation, carved leaves and even a cluster of wine-red grapes amid tangles of vines around one window. Once ubiquitous throughout Russia, even in urban areas, the painted frames were neglected throughout the Soviet era (1920 -90) but are being revived and restored by traditionalists, aesthetes and collectors.
Beside the window frames hang lines of white linens — sheets, towels, tablecloths — prettily embroidered in red with charming outlines of birds, animals, children, forest creatures and geometric designs.
In an alcove a mannequin holds flax fibers that have been twisted into thread for weaving. Be sure to note her birchbark shoes. Nearby hangs a polished-wood cradle above a little wooden sled. Across the way is a nest of cupboards and chests, all hand-painted in rich amber, orange and red.
There's even a gallery filled with exquisite botanical watercolors by Alexander Viazmensky of Russian mushrooms that turn out to be the same chanterelles, morels, boletus and amanitas that sprout in Minnesota's forests and river valleys.