When Russian illustrator Yelena Bryksenkova first arrived traveled to Prague to study art, she'd no idea of the impact her brief stay would be on her work. "It greatly influenced my color palette and inspired an appreciation for precious, friendly, and quietly beautiful things," she says. Here she shares how Prague's magic slowly revealed itself to her and forever made its mark.
I came to Prague to study illustration at the Academy of Applied and Decorative Arts during the second semester of my junior year in college. I arrived alone on a cold February night and when the taxi dropped me off in front of the beautiful dormitory in Prague 7, I was greeted by a little old woman who spoke no English but, lucky for me, a little bit of Russian. She ushered me into a modest but cozy room on the top floor and after some commotion and funny misunderstandings, I was left standing alone, with my little bed - covered in starched linen and a wool blanket - a wooden desk, a large closet and the empty bed and desk of my future roommate. I remember looking out of the large window onto the dark street and promising myself that tomorrow I will find a grocery store, my school, and most importantly, the city I've been dreaming about.
The next morning, as I was exploring my surroundings, the city appeared so suddenly below me as I reached the edge of the park that my eyes filled up with tears. I didn't know what awaited me then, but in the next five months I learned to ride the trams and the metro, speak some very basic Czech and get around without a map. I browsed antiques shops for treasures, went dancing on Tuesday nights, went to children's puppet shows that I didn't understand, and turned 21. It was everything I could ask for as a student abroad, but the city also worked its mysterious charms on my little heart in such a way that I was quite changed.
Prague is the strangest, most magical place I have ever encountered. From the beginning, my life there seemed to be ruled by kismet and coincidence and every circumstance seemed to be just a little odd, even though if you asked me what exactly seemed off, I would never be able to tell you. A mysterious tea club at the top of a tower, a dark and crumbling house on the next street, a hidden amusement park found suddenly at the edge of a park where all of the trees have eyes.
I explored the city on foot and by tram, alone and with others, and I felt romance, beauty and melancholy in everything. I peered into windows of old mansions, wandered like a ghost through ancient, overgrown cemeteries, looked down at the entire city from the tops of rocky hills and spent solitary evenings sitting in the middle of a giant yellow canola field, drinking kefir and watching the clusters of neat little houses with orange shingled roofs spout plumes of white smoke from their chimneys.
The Czech people are private and don't let others in easily, a trait which is often perceived as arrogance. On more than one occasion I felt the painful sting of being an outsider, but I have seen the craftsmanship and love with which every aspect of the Czechs' visual culture was built, the care with which it is preserved and displayed in well-kept museums. There's the quiet pride they take in their city, which is cared-for even after all of the troubles it has been through and for that, I grew to really love the Czechs.
My work is inspired by friendly images and melancholy themes alike. I was able to find both, living together in harmony in Prague, this city of precious little houses and dark, Gothic castles. There are so many beautiful things for the romantic-at-heart: art nouveau hotels, a small museum displaying richly embroidered folk costumes and hand-painted Easter eggs (as a recording of chirping birds plays in the background), the black and white tiled floor in the bathroom of the Café Louvre or the slightly worn 19th century houses, hiding beautiful apartments that a lucky few have privatized in the days of Communism. Prague's true beauty is in these details. I rarely had to go looking for magic; it found me first at every corner, and turned out to be the long-lasting kind that continues to stir my emotions and color my everyday life.
Images: courtesy of Yelena Bryksenkova