Elena Volkova is the recipient of the 2022 Municipal Art Society of Baltimore City Artist Travel Prize awarded by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts (BOPA) and the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore City (MASB). The Ukrainian-born, multidisciplinary artist and Baltimore City resident has been tapped to receive $6,000 to “help fund travel essential to their studio space.”
Titled “Ukrainian Portraits,” Volkova’s travel project is a community arts project using tintype, a historic photographic process, to “bear witness to the Ukrainian people affected by war.”
Tintype, or wet plate collodion, is a unique process that makes exposures on metal plates coated with wet silver nitrate. Each exposure produces a single image with each tintype taking approximately 15 minutes to create. Volkova said that the slow process allows time to learn more about each person she photographs.
The inspiration for Volkova’s work – providing a space that lifts communities that often feel invisible and giving a voice to traditionally muted voices – is rooted in Volkova’s personal experiences as an immigrant. She said it took her 10 years to feel comfortable with herself and her new home.
Born in Kyiv, Ukraine, Volkova came to the United States in 1997 as an 18-year-old just as the Soviet Union was breaking up. Her father, Gregoriy Mogilnitskiy, was an engineer and a World War II veteran in Ukraine. Although he had a career in the military, he believed that he was denied promotions because he was Jewish. The family was sponsored by HIAS, a Jewish American nonprofit that provides assistance to refugees. They resettled in Baltimore and received help from two paternal aunts who still reside in Baltimore County. Volkova’s father died three years after arriving to the United States; her mother, Tamila, also lives in Baltimore County.
Volkova said she inherited her interest in the arts from her parents.
“I learned photography from my father; he was an amateur photographer. We used to take black-and-white pictures together and develop them in the bathroom of our apartment in Kyiv when I was little,” she shared.
‘Photography can be a humanizing experience’
Volkova completed another portrait project last year using tintype in D.C., in partnership with the Anacostia Arts Center. A historically Native American and African-American area undergoing gentrification, the Anacostia Portraits project presented Volkova with an opportunity to learn more about the stories and voices of 100-plus men and women who agreed to be photographed. The process of interviews and photographs took over a year to produce with every single person featured on the day of exhibition.
She interviewed residents with a range of professional backgrounds, learning more about their stories and providing a space for them to define how they wished to be represented. Supported by a grant from the Corcoran Women’s Committee and the ARCH Development Corporation, Volkova showcased the Anacostia Portraits at the Honfleur Gallery in D.C. in May of this year.
In both the Ukrainian Portraits and Anacostia Portraits, Volkova’s goal has been to “engage the community in the creation of artifacts and facilitate an artistic experience that focuses on empowerment and healing.” Volkova remarked, “Photography can be a humanizing experience while giving a voice to people. It is also very powerful when you are working with people who have faced trauma.”
She added that for people who have gone through deep trauma, the opportunity to be visible and celebrated can sometimes provide healing elements.
As for her, “Baltimore is home for me, I’ve done a lot of work in Baltimore.” Part of that work was a project with the Maryland Historical Society.
Volkova has earned numerous awards and public recognition, including the Janis Meyer Traveling Fellowship, Hamiltonian Fellowship, Vermont Studio Fellowship, and Stevenson University Faculty Research grant, and a grant from the Corcoran Women’s Committee which allowed her to create the Anacostia Portraits. She has exhibited her work regionally, nationally and internationally.
Volkova is married with two children and teaches photography at Stevenson University.