WICKER PARK — Yulia Kuznetsova’s Chase The Ace exhibition opened this month at the Adventureland gallery in Wicker Park to a packed house, with people looking over each other’s shoulders and squeezing in at times to get a closer look at the 26-year-old’s artwork.

Since arriving on the art scene just three years ago, Kuznetsova has gained a following, and a growing buzz accompanies her shows. With shows set at different locations in Chicago and elsewhere for most of the year, she has been extremely busy.

But while being active in the art world is every artist’s goal, for Kuznetsova, she has extra motivation — staying busy helps her make her case to U.S. Immigration officials that the Russian native belongs in the United States.

Kuznetsova, 26, came to the United States from suburban Moscow in 2013 to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, fulfilling a family dream to come to America, where she could realize her full potential as an artist.

Growing up an only child, her father was a huge fan of America, even if his only exposure was through movies.

“He said his soul was in the U.S. but his body was somehow in Russia,” Kuznetsova said, explaining her father’s enthusiasm for America and its ideals rubbed off on her. She had attended art school while attending high school in Russia, but was frustrated by its rigidness.

“In the art school, they would teach academic art. They wouldn’t let you do whatever you wanted. If you painted the way you liked or implemented a style that deviated from the rules or the norms, you would be expelled,” she said. “I would do my own art the way I wanted at home and would only show my mom and my family. I would never show my teachers.

“If you pursue your own art, especially if it’s a comment on politicians or religion, it’s a direct way to get into trouble. There are a lot of problems in Russia and if you expose it there’s a big chance of getting into trouble. I really wanted to come here because I knew I wanted to make my own art and this is the place where that dream of being a free artist can come true.”

Still, Kuznetsova knew it wouldn’t be easy. 

“It was my family’s idea and dream which I also believed. We knew it was way harder to stay here and justify yourself here. However, we decided to do that because it’s so important.”

After graduating from the School of the Art Institute, one of her professors, artist Mary Lou Zelazny, introduced her to renowned artist Tony Fitzpatrick, who had hired students of Zelazny in the past.

“When I first met Yulia I thought she was polite and very nice, but I didn’t want to hire her. We had three people here that I was paying, but then I saw her work and I thought, wow. Not only is this kid head and shoulders more talented than anybody that’s ever come through this studio, but I can lean something from her, so I hired her. She kind of single handedly without intention made everyone obsolete,” Fitzpatrick said, adding that it didn’t that long for Kuznetsova to become a vital part of his inner circle.

“I got to know her and learn more of her story and she became irreplaceable, like family.”

The Fight To Stay

However, that was in 2017 and Kuznetsova’s student visa was close to expiring. Fitzpatrick wanted to help her and once he saw Chicago attorney Fiona McEntee on the television news helping to get President Trump’s Muslim ban stayed, he knew she would be a good fit.

“I saw on television a woman who turned back Trump, 13 hours after he did that travel ban. Her and some ACLU lawyers went to the Supreme Court and they overturned it. I knew she was in Chicago and said that’s who we need to get,” Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick then enlisted the help of McEntee, the founder and managing partner of McEntee Law Group in Jefferson Park. McEntee, an immigrant herself who came to Chicago from Dublin in 2002 as a law student and who eventually became a citizen, said it was easy for her to empathize with Kuznetsova.

“I know how hard it is to move away from your family,” McEntee said, adding that she was brought to tears when first hearing Kuznetsova’s parents sold their flat outside of Moscow and moved in with relatives in order for her to come to the U.S.

“You see the sacrifices of parents to give their children something better, or something that will help them achieve their dreams. I was overcome with emotion, just the idea of her parents doing that for her,” McEntee said.

McEntee said she’s worked with many immigrants in her 12-year legal career, several of whom are artists, including members of the Irish band The Boomtown Rats, and decided to have Kuznetsova apply for an OB-1 visa, which is a less common visa which grants recipients applicants with extraordinary ability and recognition in the arts a maximum three-year stay in the United States. However, the bar for an OB-1 visa is extremely high, and McEntee had to show a lot of evidence that Kuznetsova was a contributing member of society that is working in her field. 

They succeeded in 2018, with Kuznetsova being granted the visa that is now set to expire in January 2021. Rather than wait for it to expire, they’re continuing to amass evidence that Kuznetsova is a positive member of society working in her field. She’ll be applying for an EB-1 visa in about six months, which is commonly known as a Green Card. If that is granted, it would allow Kuznetsova to stay in the U.S. for good and allow her to apply for citizenship five years after that, McEntee said.

Kuznetsova said the lengthy immigration process is partly responsible for her work ethic — having to demonstrate to immigration officials that she is worthy and contributing, but added that while getting a Green Card will not change her habits, it will ease her mind.

“I would work on my art as much, that’s for sure. I have created a work ethic that I’m accustomed to right now and I follow it instinctively. However, I would not be worried about my situation, my heart would be more settled.”

Fitzpatrick explained that Yulia not only does all the work three former assistants used to do, but she does a lot more outside of his studio.

“Yulia does not have a day off. She works here five days and then the two weekend days she donates her time to Intuit [Intuit: The Center For Intuitive and Outsider Art] and the Women Made Gallery,” Fitzpatrick said.

As for her art, both Fitzpatrick and McEntee said if Kuznetsova had to go back to Russia, she likely be in trouble if she continued to create the type of artwork that she does here. 

“She comes from a culture where there’s a lot of forbidden fruit. Particularly women are not allowed to speak about it. She confronts those idioms very fearlessly. If you look at the current show, there’s a lot of pokes at patriarchy. There’s a lot of pokes at the illusion of male superiority. And she also has a wicked sense of humor, much like [Nikolai Vasilievich] Gogol. Much like some of the Russian writers that were absolutely hysterically funny. She does it without telegraphing it,” Fitzpatrick said.

“A lot of the stuff she paints she would not be able to paint in Russia. It’s feminist, it’s maybe a bit controversial. There’s some political undertones in some of it and that’s the beauty of America. She is free to express herself in her incredible way without government sanctions,” McEntee said.

Indeed, her current show, “Chase The Ace,” is on display at Fitzpatrick’s Adventureland Gallery, located at 1513 N. Western Ave., is a collection of 52 9×12 inch mixed-media pieces that combine drawing, collage and water colors to create a “deck” of cards, many of them which are personal to Kuznetsova, such as the “3 of Clubs,” which depicts a children’s playground in the Moscow suburb where she is from. Kuznetsova said she created the 52 pieces within the last year, approximately one per week, while working for Fitzpatrick and volunteering at other galleries. “Chase The Ace” runs through February 1.

After that, other examples of Kuznetsova’s work, which include large oil paintings, will be displayed at Humboldt Park’s Rootstock Wine Bar, 954 N. California Ave., in February, Seattle’s Frederick Holmes and Company gallery in March; Ampersand in Logan Square in April; and Ravenswood Studio Oh! in May and June.

Whether or not Kuznetsova is successful in her campaign to get a Green Card remains to be seen, but Fitzpatrick said Chicago would be lucky to have her.

“The one thing Yulia has been amazing at is becoming a vital part of every community that she involves herself with. That’s what we need in America. We need people to step up. There’s always people who will say ‘someone should do this,’ ‘someone should clean this mess up.’ Well, why don’t you do it? Yulia gets in there and does the work. Doesn’t complain, doesn’t dwell on what I’m not getting in the world. And she’s insanely modest, and that’s coming from a guy that’s not insanely modest,” Fitzpatrick said.

“I never met a more generous soul in my life. In my eyes she’s already an American. She’s the kind of American that I want to be around.” 

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