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Becoming a Painter at Last: A Dream 42 Years in the Making

A Russian woman finally lets her inner artist break free

By Margarita Gokun Silver

“We decided yours should be first,” the curator told me. “We are all in love with it.”


The opening of the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art Academy alumni exhibition is just beginning when I arrive panting, after finally finding a parking spot some five blocks away. My oil on canvas, a dream-like piece, occupies the prime entrance spot.

In it: two Earths, seemingly on a collision course with one another, a red ladder with street lanterns piercing the dark blue sky raised above them. One Earth — lit up, playful, a cord stretching to power the lanterns. Another — dry, repressed, illuminated only by a dim lamp hanging off the ladder.

“What do you think this means?” someone in the crowd asks a companion.

Taking the Leap

Six months earlier, the Intracoastal (and, beyond it, the Atlantic Ocean) in my window frame, I stared at my laptop screen and lingered over the pay button for the Introduction to Oil Painting class. Ten weeks and $350. I could spare the time. But the money kept me thinking.

The Ft. Lauderdale Art Academy bulletin had been sitting on my desk for five weeks. I’d browsed the website enough times for my computer to fill in the destination the moment I typed the first letter into the address bar. I even unpacked a never-opened easel I’d bought years before. Clearly I wanted this and, at 42, with several personal growth workshops behind me, I knew spending on my dream was a good thing.

Yet signing up for the Introduction to Oil Painting seemed a frivolity. And I grew up in a family that didn’t believe in frivolities.

“You copy well,” my mother once said after she saw my near-perfect replica of a Titian painting.

I was 15 then and had spent hours with a pencil sketching everything from the Admiralty building in St. Petersburg, Russia, to a portrait of WHAM, my teenage musical obsession. I loved creating shapes on paper and, despite a lack of formal instruction, my proportions and shading stood up against the originals. But neither my parents nor I thought of art as my future. For that, I’d have to have been raised in another family.

No Time for Frivolity

I grew up in the 1980s Soviet Union, a society that didn’t encourage experimentation. Our higher education divvied up into two tracks—sciences or humanities—and the wall between them was mightier than the Iron Curtain separating us from the West.

We, the young people, didn’t make our choices based on what we were good at or what we wanted to do. We followed the lineage and expectations of our kin.

Because my family prided itself on three generations of engineers and math Olympians, I knew that following my high school graduation, I’d enroll in an engineering university, not an art school. My place wasn’t among the creatives —that would be a frivolity. Engineers didn’t give birth to artists.

For three years, I toiled at the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas, the alma mater of my father, my grandfather, my grandmother and my uncle. Thermodynamics, physics and mechanical drawing filled my days. I hated them all and only passed exams because my crib note craftsmanship had long ago eclipsed my knowledge of those subjects.

Then the opportunity to move to the United States surfaced.

America’s celebrated freedom seeped through the cracks in the Iron Curtain on the backs of bootleg movies, static-filled shortwave VOA broadcasts and Bruce Springsteen lyrics. It’s now or never, I decided. I could finally escape engineering and sciences, bid farewell to the rigid ideas of parental expectations and taste some independence. I convinced my family to emigrate.

A New Land

When we arrived in the United States, I pored over the course catalogue from the local liberal arts college in southern New Hampshire. But my parents had other ideas.

“You’ll become a doctor.” They pushed, rather than asked, as soon as we arrived. “Doctors make a good living.” For these émigrés in their 40s, learning a skill that guaranteed employment at the highest echelons of an economic ladder trumped all other aspirations. Immigration was not the time for frivolities.

I felt as if the tulip bulb that was about to open inside me suddenly died.

“Besides, you’d be following in the footsteps of your grandmother,” my mother said. “Babushka would have been so proud.” My grandmother Betya, the sole physician in a family of engineers, had died 10 days before we left the Soviet Union. Even if I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, how could I not honor my grandmother’s memory?


A Good Daughter

The old indoctrination won. I caved and applied to study pre-med.

Introduction to Writing was the only bright spot in an otherwise dull collection of petri dishes and graduated cylinders. When during an endocrinology class I realized that despite my fluent English I understood little of what the professor said, it dawned on me that I really didn’t have to do this. All around, my American classmates were following their dreams. What was I doing following someone else’s? This wasn’t Moscow.

I walked out, dropped Endocrinology, and told my parents that medical school wasn’t going to be part of my future.

Their displeasure radiated Chenobyl-style all the way to New Hampshire from Ohio where they had moved for my father’s first job.

“How could you decide this without consulting with us first?” my mother asked, her voice deflated on the other side of the line. My decision to forego a career in medicine didn’t only break with the tradition of following your family’s footsteps. It also threatened the one belief from the old world they still held dear: expectation of an obedient daughter.

The same belief also held me. Discarding it took several careers, each one chosen with careful consideration of my parents’ reactions. I wanted to make them proud — if not through my profession, then at least through the size of my paycheck. There was no time for frivolities.

Yet they were never satisfied. Stuck in a perpetual ennui, I realized it was time to sweep away the last remnants of the Iron Curtain. Maybe engineers could give birth to artists. I’d never know if I didn’t try.

I pressed Pay.

Enough Is Enough

My parents walk in when the opening is in its second hour. The exhibition call is abuzz with excitement and exclamation points.

“It’s pretty,” my mother says.

My father tilts his head to the side, a barely perceptible nod the only indication of his tepid approval. A familiar sinkhole of never-enough opens in the pit of my stomach.

“Inner Child,” my mother reads the name of the piece aloud, and then continues reading the plaque next to it: “This piece is meant to highlight how important our inner child is in our adult lives and how the light of this inner child can illuminate our decisions and ideas… only if we let it.”

The sinkhole stops growing and begins to shrink. When it closes completely, I'll know I am done with other people’s expectations for good.

Becoming your own person is never a frivolity.

Margarita Gokun Silver has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and the BBC, among others. She's the author of "I Named My Dog Pushkin," a memoir-in-essays about growing up in the USSR and immigrating to the U.S. You can follow her writing on her Substack here. Read More
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