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Tucked away in the northeast corner of Lithuania near the Latvian border is the tiny village of Dusetos. At first glance, it seems there is nothing to set this village of 3,000 inhabitants apart from any other forgotten provincial habitation except for the pretty lake country setting. It is not near any major highway. There are no major industries. The only employers are the school, a small textile factory, a medical station, a few stores and a carp farm.
Yet the village and its surrounding area is home to a vibrant artists' community and has produced a disproportionate number of Lithuania's visual artists.
"The only explanation I can think of for this are the pristine setting and because of our geographic remoteness, we escaped the wave of industrialization that swept through Lithuania's provinces during the Soviet period. I believe that people here didn't lose as much of their souls because of this," said Eugenijus Raugas, a local landscape painter and one of the founders of the Dusetos art gallery.
Raugas and two other well-known local artists, Romas Pucekas and Alvydas Stauskas, started the gallery on a shoestring five years ago.
"The mayor donated the space above the town's administrative offices. Heating and electricity bills have been waived. The district supplies money for exhibits, and no entry fee is ever charged," said Stauskas, the present director of the gallery.
A glance at the visitors' book reveals greetings from people of every region of Lithuania as well as western Europe and the United States. The gallery has also attracted some of the biggest names in the Lithuanian art world including painter laureate Algirdas Petrulis and Antanas Sutkus, head of the Union of Photographers.
Presently, an exhibit of miniature paintings by 42 local artists, and a few Latvians from the other side of the fence, is on display. According to Raugas, this represents one-fifth of the artists in the immediate area and one-tenth of those in the region – a considerable number when one considers that there are just under 2,000 artists registered with the Union of Lithuanian Painters. The number doesn't include those who have moved away to live in the cities after graduating from high school.
Undeniably, the Dusetos high school plays an important role in producing so much creative talent. Twenty-five years ago, local art lovers convinced the Ministry of Education to allocate resources to strengthen the visual arts stream for its students. Raugas and Stauskas are graduates of that first class and both members of the faculty of seven full-time art teachers. Students are accepted into the program from the age of six and attend six 45-minute art classes a week besides the basic math, social science and language curriculum.
The program now graduates 15 to 20 students a year. Sarunas Sauka is one of the more notable alumni. His works sell for thousands of dollars and he is presently exhibiting at a major Berlin gallery. Two brothers, Faustas and Algirdas Latenas, have gone on to occupy prominent places in the Vilnius arts scene although their careers have veered away from brushes and canvasses. Faustas became a composer and now heads the National Drama Theatre where Algirdas, a prominent actor, is currently starring in "Oedipus Rex."
The burning question is, given the relative poverty of the area, what makes artists stay?
"I could never live in a city," said Raugas. "Visually, there is nothing to entice me to a city as there is nothing there to paint except concrete. My paintings aren't just landscapes. Nature is dynamic, and what seems fixed really isn't. A tree is a collection of vibrations. It is changing every moment depending on the wind, the season and prevailing light. I try to reflect this in my work," said Raugas. "Teaching puts food on the table for my family, I live in peaceful surroundings and in a clean environment. I earned enough from my work earlier in the decade so that I have paints and canvasses for ten years of work. Most of the artists in Dusetos are here out of sheer personal enthusiasm, as am I."
These are tough times for Lithuania's painters.
"Because of the weakness of the economy in the last few years, people just don't have the disposable income to buy our works. Also, we're now paying Western prices for materials. If we bring our prices down, we earn virtually nothing from our art. If we keep them high, we don't sell anything," said Stauskas.
In addition, Lithuania's state galleries haven't received any funds to buy new works in the last decade.
"A few successful artists may donate an odd work to them. This is particularly true for older artists who begin thinking about posterity," Stauskas said. "Other than these, if you visit a state art gallery, it's like the last decade was a black hole, during which nothing was produced. In reality the exact opposite is true."
Before 1991, the Lithuanian Union of Painters was a members-only club. Acceptance required graduation from a post-secondary art institution, the signatures of several other members and proof of rigid adherence to the conservative principles of realism. Once accepted, members were treated like hothouse flowers. They were allocated the best studios, a healthy supply of materials and given access to the best state-run galleries.
In the last decade, young artists have begun experimenting with the abstract and impressionistic styles that have always been taken for granted in the west. The union, however, is no longer flush with cash and serves mainly as a professional association and lobby group.
None of the bad economic news seems to bother Raugas or Stauskas. During one reporter's visit, a phone call came in from another gallery asking both to exhibit their works. The request was politely turned down. Both are booked well into the coming months.