Russian artist fights for creative freedom in visa request

Yulia Kuznetsova. Photo by Peter Bella.

By Connor Carynski

In a tough atmosphere for immigrants in this country, Moscow native and 24-year-old artist, Yulia Kuznetsova is fighting for an O-1B visa, only given to those with extraordinary skill and recognition in the arts, to remain in the United States and continue painting content that is unaccepted in Russia.

Kuznetsova said she fears some of her more representational and abstract work will not be accepted in Russia’s classical driven art scene and that she must remain in the United States to have a successful career painting what she enjoys.

“[Expressionism and abstract art] is not appreciated,” Kuznetsova said. “Personal opinion in art in Russia is less important and less valued than rules and guidance.”

The O-1B visa 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.


“Sorrow”, pastel, tempera, markers on paper, 28″ x 19,5″, 2016.


For her case, Kuznetsova and her legal team will present a collection of letters of recommendation, listings of notable events she has participated in, esteemed groups she has worked for in the past and more to the United States Citizen and Immigration Services Department.

Fiona McEntee, Kuznetsova’s lawyer as well as Founding & Managing Attorney of McEntee Law Group said she and her team are building Kuznetsova’s case and estimate they will be ready to present in to USCIS within the next month or two.

“The standard for the 0-1B visa is really high, it’s extraordinary ability,” McEntee said. “We are showing that the person is at the very top of their field. So in art, the standard is described as distinction, which means a level of achievement over substantial, to the extent that the person is renowned and well known in the field.”


Moscow native and artist, Yulia Kuznetsova is currently building a case to continue her stay in America through a O-1B visa, now that her student visa has expired. (left)“Eternal Show”; 68″ x 54″, oil on canvas, 2016.
(in her arms)“Untitled”, oil, photo collage, air brush on canvas, 2016. Photo by Connor Carynski.

McEntee said she was unable to comment on Kuznetsova’s chances of receiving the visa because the decision partially subjective and even if she were presenting what she considered a very strong case, an immigration officer could think otherwise.

The case will only take two weeks to process and will either be accepted or more evidence will be requested, giving Kuznetsova and McEntee another opportunity to qualify for the visa.

Kuznetsova said it is stressful not knowing if she will be allowed to stay in the United States and isn’t sure what she will do if she is forced to return to Russia. Sometimes she is often afraid to ask McEntee about the likelihood of her visa being approved because she fears a hearing the answer, she added.

“I would never wish for anyone to deal with that and to go through that,” Kuznetsova said. “It is very stressful and you are basically pushed to the border with no choice. It is really hard and it is always on your mind, you cannot escape it, it is just there.”


“Her” (version 1), oil on canvas; 74″x 54″, 2014.


Kuznetsova first began studying art in grade school by enrolling in a secondary school outside of her primary education, and also attended classes with a private tutor. She said throughout her art education in Russia she was taught to abide by academic standards and was not given many opportunities to branch out from what was being taught.

Kuznetsova said her private instructor, although very talented, would never break outside the rules of traditional art. The instructor focused on realism and painted as though every brushstroke had to abide by strict rules, and any other sort of art was dismissed, she added.

“In his opinion, what people do in America, and his opinion in general on contemporary art, is something invaluable, something that is garbage,” Kuznetsova said. “It doesn’t matter and has no value at all compared to Classicism and how hard it is to make a classic art painting. Or drawing compared too many contemporary artists that qualify their paintings as a splash, like Pollock does or Warhol would print, he would say that cannot be art.”

Kuznetsova said she never wasted time arguing in Russia that there was more to art than what was defined in neat structures and used the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of art before drawing outside the lines and developing her own style.

When the time came for her to start looking at colleges, Kuznetsova made the decision to go to the United States. Part of that desire for America spawned from her two parents, who she said have almost idealist thoughts about life in America. Kuznetsova said she remembers her mother telling her that she used to try and pick up American radio waves, even though doing so was illegal at the time. And her father is an avid movie collector and regardless of his limited use of English, purchases almost strictly American films.

“That’s his value, that’s his piece of America,” Kuznetsova said. “Definitely he has some day-dream notions about it, almost idyllic about the in America and everything that comes from it. To him, it is almost precious that he has these movies that he ordered from America. He would look at them and touch them as if they were something that was really precious. I can definitely say he is an American patriot even though he was born in Russia.”


“Fishing”, oil and acrylic on canvas, 31″ x 41″, 2016.


Kuznetsova’s parents agreed to help fund her tuition in America and decided to sell their flat in Moscow and move in with a relative to help cover the costs. After applying to a number of colleges, she said the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was the first school to accept her application and offer scholarships. Although the scholarships helped reduce the cost of tuition Kuznetsova said she and her family paid nearly everything they had for her education.

“Definitely the biggest contributor to my work was freedom I believe,” Kuznetsova said. “I was free to do anything I wanted [at SAIC]. I had some really great teachers that helped guide me where I’m going with my freedom, which was important for me. I painted and drew whatever I wanted but in a more sophisticated way, I was better aware of what I was doing and that helped me so much.”

It was through SAIC that Kuznetsova met Mary Lou Zelanzy, a recognized Chicago painter and adjunct faculty member at the college. Recognizing Kuznetsova’s ability as an artist, Zelanzy introduced her to Chicago based artist Tony Fitzpatrick, who later became her employer and sponsor for the O-1B visa.

Fitzpatrick said when Zelany introduced him to Kuznetsova he wasn’t looking for employees but after seeing some of her work immediately hired her as a studio assistant where she continues to work.

“This is exactly the kind of person you want as a citizen,” Fitzpatrick said. “In every benefit poster I’ve done and every event I’ve done to raise money for Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union or animal shelters, Yulia has been there right along with me. She has participated. She realizes that freedom demands participation. The best assets we have are our communities and we must be a part of them.”


“Rat Garden”, watercolor, ink on paper, 18″ x 24″, 2017.


Fitzpatrick said although he is worried about the national attitude of immigrants in the United States, he is confident in the work Kuznetsova has done during her time here.

“She is absolutely the best thing for a country like this right now,” Fitzpatrick said. “[Yulia] is an immigrant who is part of the solution and she is not going back.”


“Invisible Circus”: oil on canvas, 73″ x 49″, 2016.


McEntee said she has noticed changes in the ways immigrants are managed by the government throughout the country and that in some cases it had become more difficult to legally represent them. A Dublin, Ireland immigrant herself, McEntee said she can identify with the strenuous process of applying for citizenship and that she felt particularly emotional when hearing Kuznetsova’s case during their first consultation.

“I don’t cry in every consultation but I’ve been crying more this month and this year than I ever have before,” McEntee said. “People are being put into deportation proceedings that never would have been priority before and families are being torn apart. It’s difficult for everybody.”

Kuznetsova said she refuses to stop painting what she wants and that people in Russia don’t always want to look at aspects of their own lives that are unpleasant, meaning if she were to return it would make it difficult for her to put on shows or sell her work at all.

“I will not change anything about my art,” Kuznetsova said. “I honestly don’t know what I am going to do because I’m kind of in a way that I cannot go back. I cannot turn back. I’ve gone too far I feel. It’s pretty frightening to me to also realize that not everything relies on me and what I want. A huge deal of that is people from a third party which frightens me honestly.”


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