Rand Darrow’s Creative World of Slavic Art and Russian Myths

If you have attended the annual Russian Friendship concerts in Kilbourn Hall each January (until the pandemic forced the event into an online format this year), you probably noticed the colorful banners depicting Russian mythical figures on the stage. They float in the background, reminiscent of Marc Chagall paintings, as the musicians perform beautiful works from the Russian repertoire. They recall the style of Chagall because, as their artist creator told me, Chagall is his favorite painter.

Rand Darrow, long time Linkages member and retired art teacher in the Manchester-Shortsville School District, is responsible for the banners as well as other art works on display at the annual concerts. In the lobby of Kilbourn Hall, you may have passed life-size paper maché sculptures of Tzar Nickolas II and his wife, Tzarina Alexandria, or you may have checked out the displays of his puppets and other artistic creations representing figures from Russian folklore and some that emerged from his fertile imagination.

Rand Darrow with some of his creations

While he taught art to students from kindergarten to 7th grade, he told them that they were all artistic and that they all had innate ability as artists. Since his retirement from teaching, Rand has been developing his own artistic talents by creating a colorful and well populated universe of mythical characters based on traditional Slavic folklore. He began by composing simple melodies on a piano and then a keyboard which to him sounded Slavic. At the same time, his son introduced him to Russian mythology. He began to write his own folktales and started pairing the music with characters he created. The result was the beginning of an imaginative world of Slavic heroes and monsters.

In his research into Russian folklore, he learned about Velikiy Novgorod and its unique place in Russian history. In the late 2000s, an acquaintance told him about the sister city connection between Rochester and Novgorod and about Linkages. That was the beginning of his association with Linkages. Rand began making “song paintings” to pair with the songs he was composing. He then brought his characters to life through paper maché puppets or figures.

In 2009 he assembled his poems, songs and paintings in a book and sent a copy to Novgorod via a delegation from Rochester visiting the city in honor of the 1150th anniversary of the founding of Novgorod. The work found its way to Irina Shirina, English teacher at Gymnasium School #1 and head of the Russian American Friendship Society in Novgorod, and into the central library in the kremlin in the city.

He and Irina developed a connection via Skype and Rand was introduced to her English class. He says it was the thrill of a lifetime to hear the students read the stories and poems in his book to him in English.

Rand Darrow’s stories were read in Irina Shirina’s English class in Novgorod

In 2013 Rand assembled all his paintings and poems in a book, Witches, Wolves and Water Spirits – Slavic Poems of Novgorod. That was followed by four others: Northern Winds (2018); Vasilia and the Wolves (2019); Sava’s Ring (2020) and Koschei’s Dream, published this year. (Rand’s books are available on Amazon.) He also met Howard Spindler, piano instructor at the Eastman Community Music School, in 2013. Howard invited him to display his artistic cratons at the annual Russian Friendship Concert and arranged to have one of his songs about Novgorod performed at the concert.

Although he has never visited Velikiy Novgorod and has never set foot in Russian at all, he has a passion for Russian folklore and Slavic culture and mythology and may be more knowledgeable about Russian folk literature than many Russians. He explains about one of his epic stories:

The story NORTHERN WINDS is a bylina which is a Slavic epic. It is usually an oral narrative poem often sung and loosely based on historical fact. It has a Bogatyr (hero) or Polyanitsa (heroine) and is divided into three parts: creation of Bogatyr, mission, and moral or goal. I have combined puppet figures with my paintings to help narrate the story, using Christmas lights, shower curtains and whatever to create a mood. I wanted to create my own world and enjoy taking found materials and transforming it into something else.

In addition to the displays at the annual ECMS-Linkages concerts, he has put on shows and has had exhibits locally, principally at the Penfield library. He said he is surprised that a simple song composed on a piano has blossomed into an artistic adventure for him. “It’s been a lot of fun,” he added.

We have just learned that an in-person Russian Friendship concert will resume in January at Kilbourn (see Save the Date announcement in the newsletter) so you may have another chance to meet Rand and see a sample of his imaginative and beautiful world of Russian folklore at that event.

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