The Tender Textile Art of Polina Varlamova

A textile sculpture with a tiny dollar signifies the drop in earnings artist Polina Varlamova faced upon immigrating to the US from Russia. Photo credit: Diana Newton.


By Diana Newton

The pinched thumb and forefinger of an upturned hand hold a tiny green beaded dollar bill. Finely embroidered red wrinkles trace the complexity of the palm’s lifeline and finger joints. This soft fabric sculpture, currently on display at the FRANK Gallery in Carrboro, is whimsical in style, yet provocative in message. For textile artist Polina Varlamova, “My first payday in the USA” is a reflection on one challenging aspect of her experience of immigration from Russia to the United States. For many immigrants like her, earning potential often drops dramatically.

When Varlamova and her husband moved to Cary in 2019, she came on a dependent visa that restricts her from officially holding a job.  Having worked for six years in Moscow as the Chief Designer at one of the best Russian textile design studios, she faced “a downgrade in payment, in the level of life. I became a housewife, which was insane for me. It’s a real job and it’s not easy. But this is something that I didn’t expect.”

Like most people, Varlamova also didn’t expect the global pandemic, which put a stranglehold on life starting in 2020. What it did was provide her with ample free time for education. She began to study art voraciously, which very quickly ignited her passion to create something contemporary. “I have a lot to say, and I want to speak to people through my art.” With a lilting laugh, she added in halting English, “It’s my best language.”

The pandemic prompts an artistic theme

During the pandemic, Varlamova and her friends had many conversations about their bodies—weight gained, weight lost, changes in their bodies after being sick. A theme about physical changes in the human form began to gel, resulting in her first soft textile sculpture, “The Body Fragment,” in 2020. She has since made numerous pieces that comprise “The Body Project,” in which she explores how bodies change as time progresses, profoundly influencing one’s sense of identity.

Textile artist Polina Varlamova explores changing body forms and identity in her “Body Project.” Photo credit: Polina Varlamova.

Varlamova wanted to document the evolving perception of her own physicality. Intrigued by rejuvenating facial masks promoted by the beauty industry, she created a fabric mask of her own face and mapped it in hundreds of red thread lines. Despite her relative youth, the artist acknowledges, “You cannot fight the reality. Because I know my face; I know it’s getting older. So I’m trying to find the beauty in this.”

An embroidered face mask reflects the artist’s search for beauty in her own aging process. Photo credit: Polina Varlamova.

Conveying cultural complexity using needle and thread

Varlamova could readily find the beauty in her grandmother’s face, its wrinkles acting as significant markers of time, experience, and emotion that she has embroidered onto a vintage handkerchief found in a thrift store. Her contemporary embroidery art somehow pulls together the legacies of Russian traditional needlework and hand quilting from the American South. “You can feel this energy of very tender art. They’re a little bit not perfect, which I love a lot because our life is not perfect at all.”

She regards the body “as a poignant reminder of the uncertainty and finite nature of life,” and death is certainly another significant theme in Varlamova’s artwork. Enveloped in deep sadness after the death of her father, she began processing the loss by creating a large embroidered wall hanging.  “After Death” draws upon her first memory of death—a goat slaughtered before a significant family gathering she attended with her father in his homeland of Georgia. Within the outline of a goat, finely-stitched Russian and Georgian ornaments, fruits, and herbs offer a layered reflection on her family’s cultural heritage, detachment from her roots, the merging of national identities, and grief for her father. This piece anchors her current exhibition at the FRANK Gallery, where Varlamova was selected to serve as Emerging Artist from 2022-24.

An embroidered wall hanging of a goat reflects the artist’s heritage, identity, and grief about her father’s death. Photo credit: Polina Varlamova.

Varlamova knows that the Russia she left behind has been brutalized under the current totalitarian regime of Vladimir Putin, asserting that “It’s getting worse. And will get even worse.” She states unequivocally that 2022—when the war in Ukraine began—was her most painful year ever. Though she yearns to reunite with relatives and friends, it is not safe to visit Russia, as her husband could be taken to serve in the war. Cut off from her country of origin, she says simply, painfully, “I’m bleeding inside.”

Right: “Twisted Birches” recalls artist Varlamova’s childhood, and Russian fairy tales. It underscores her pain about the current Russian war in Ukraine.
Lower left: Childhood photo of Polina Varlamova, courtesy of Varlamova family.
Upper Left: Vasilisa illustration by Ivan Bilibin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Photo credit: Twisted Birches by Diana Newton.

While most of Varlamova’s art is not political, her textile sculpture, “Twisted Birches,” is. She explained that birch trees are one of the symbols of Russia. Plentiful in forests there, birches also appear in many Russian fairy tale illustrations. The piece is constructed of two twisted birch trunks, whose cut ends are covered in bright red beads, which also lightly spatter the bark. They are bleeding inside.

A solo show of her artwork will be featured at Chapel Hill’s Horace Williams House in September 2024.

Diana Newton is a coach, facilitator, filmmaker, writer, artist, yoga teacher and general Renaissance woman. Her documentary film, The Ties That Bind, is available for streaming on UNC-TV. She lives in Carrboro and is a UNC alum.

Share This Article

Scroll down to make a comment.

Be the first to comment on "The Tender Textile Art of Polina Varlamova"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.