Building a Mystery

Kathryn and Pavel Gulov could barely speak to one another when they first met. Then she learned Russian, he learned English, and they grew a business from their shared love of iconographic art. Photo by Tim Robison

When Kathryn Pritchett met Pavel Gulov in the Monumental Art School at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University in Moscow, she spoke no Russian, and “zank you,” she recalls, was about the limit of Pavel’s English. Still, Kathryn says, she felt right away that something was happening.

“Chemistry?” she guesses. “I was there two weeks and I knew I had a strong attraction to him.”

The strength of that bond has landed the couple — now married — half a world away in Columbus, North Carolina, a Polk County town whose population of 999 is listed as “100 percent rural.”

There, the Gulovs apply their rigorous education to a fledgling business, European Classic Art. Together they offer custom services in mosaics, sacred art, murals, oil paintings, and watercolor, as well as their original work.

While at St. Tikhon’s, Kathryn created a fresco of St. Panteleimon, modeled after a 12th-century fresco in a monastery in Macedonia.

St. Tikhon’s Faculty of Sacred Arts is a leading training center for specialists in icon painting, restoration, sacred sewing, and art history, as well as monumental art, which encompasses large-scale architectural ornamentation such as frescos and mosaics. Byzantine and Russian traditions are taught alongside Orthodox theology, considered a necessary precursor for working in the field.

“The training that I got there was far superior to what there is in the U.S.,” says Kathryn, who first earned a degree in graphic design from the University of Michigan. She extended her education with a mosaics workshop in Ravenna, Italy, as well as three summers practicing iconography at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York.

“I wanted to learn to do frescos, but I didn’t know if I should go to Greece or Turkey or other countries that teach it,” she says, so she asked the faculty at St. Vladimir’s for help. They connected her with St. Tikhon’s, where she became the first American student admitted. “In Russia, they take it so seriously, the study and the dedication. They teach you to paint all different styles of art. You learn to copy and mix colors to a science.”

Pavel was in the midst of a six-year degree when Kathryn arrived for her three-year course. He had five years of formal fine art training in the city of Kalyazin (on the Volga River) already behind him, and was working with a group of artists in Moscow taking commissions for church painting and interior design, including stained glass.

“We start talking. She didn’t really speak Russian, so I feel pity,” Pavel recalls. Though he had taken several years of English, he says he hadn’t really paid attention. “I thought, ‘I am artist. Why know English?’”

Luckily, the two could communicate through a shared language of art — and they began studying together in cafés, practicing conversation in one another’s mother tongue. By the end of Kathryn’s second year, they were engaged, and Pavel came to the U.S. on a fiancé visa so they could marry here.

Meanwhile, Kathryn’s parents had moved from Michigan to North Carolina. After returning to Russia for her final year, Kathryn and Pavel decided to join them in Columbus in May 2014. “It’s good to be supportive of family,” she says.

“I like this area because it’s very beautiful: mountains and parks and lakes,” says Pavel. “Where I live in Russia, it’s flat. I get bored. Here, I can go anyplace and paint. We decide to move here to try to start our own business because it’s more interesting to do your own style than to work for somebody else. It’s hard, but we’re moving forward.”

Finding their niche has come slowly, particularly in the southern-WNC market, which tends to prize landscapes over iconography, crafts over classical. But last month, they were accepted into Asheville’s Woolworth Walk gallery for mosaic work (they’ll also show oils there in the future). They have exhibited locally in Columbus at the Russian Chapel Hills Winery — coincidentally owned by a fellow expatriate. For now, they’re focusing more on secular applications of their work.

“What we’ve found,” notes Kathryn, “is that the churches that want our work don’t have the money for it, and the churches that have the money want the most professional person from Greece or from Russia. They don’t want us. We’re well-trained, but — ”

“We’re not famous,” interjects Pavel. “Not yet.” (He is 29 and Kathryn is 30.)

This romantic cloud mural in the Old World style was painted by the Gulovs on the dining room ceiling of an equestrian estate.

However, Pavel recently completed a project they hope can be a calling card — an old-world-style cloud mural painted on the dining-room ceiling of an equestrian estate in Columbus. Kathryn has started working more in watercolors, and is writing and illustrating a children’s book intertwining characters from Russian mythology.

They live and have studio space on her parents’ property, but Kathryn is itching to design their own mobile tiny house — one that could be based nearby, but allow for nomadic imperatives.

“You could have a studio space and load all your stuff and travel wherever to work,” she imagines. “The house part would be much more small, just basic: cook an egg, make coffee, a little refrigerator. But the studio space — we’d design it so we can work. That would be really cool.”

To find out more about the work of Kathryn and Pavel Gulov, visit europeanclassicart.com.

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