The bigger picture
Art connects across continents.
The late Yevgeny Yevtushenko and artist Vladimir “Vova” Shamarin and his painting “Children of War.”
Courtesy Sue Bennett
Just as an artist can transform shards of glass into a dazzling piece of art, I believe God can take the broken and fragmented pieces of our lives and create a masterpiece.
Last year, I was witness to an unlikely meeting of 10 Russian orphans and a world-famous poet. The event electrified the orphans’ minds, opened their eyes to love and kindness from an unlikely source and showed them they are special.
It began almost two decades ago.
In 2000, at a Russian camp for nearly 200 orphans, one shy, sickly, disheveled boy named Vladimir “Vova” Shamarin stood out with his shock of blond hair and artistic talent. He and his siblings became orphans after their father died. Their mother struggled with mental illness. Too weak to walk as a child, Vova was put in a special needs orphanage.
That year, we met Vova during a mission trip through Orphan’s Tree, a nonprofit that works with Russian orphans as they age out of orphanages and transition into adulthood.
As an eighth-grader, Vova’s artistic talent impressed me and my husband, Tom Bennett Jr. We provided him with art supplies and encouraged him to pursue an art education.
In adulthood, Vova attended the Suzdal Art Restoration School, which specializes in restoring older Russian artifacts. Today, he is a graduate of the prestigious St. Petersburg Institute for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.
For Tom and me, the chance encounter with Vova and other orphans changed our lives. This is our 18th year working with the Russian orphans.
A heart for orphans
The seeds for going on a Russian mission trip were planted early in our marriage when we heard a church visitor talk about delivering Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. In the mid-1970s, our family began praying for Russian Christians, never dreaming we would meet one. Years later, a Bible study classmate suggested we should go to Russia and help George Steiner, who founded Colorado-based Orphan’s Tree.
The idea of working with orphans resonated with me. I understood what it meant to be poor, lost and without parental guidance or protection. My mother died young from cancer, and my brother and I were shuffled to foster care or relatives’ homes as our father remarried multiple times.
To draw attention to the orphans’ plight, in April 2016 I organized an art exhibit of artwork by Russian orphans at First Oklahoma Bank to coincide with an Orphan’s Tree board meeting that was being held in Tulsa.
I also arranged a reception with the Russian-born wife of a bank shareholder and asked Bob Donaldson, the former University of Tulsa president, to invite the Russian poet laureate Yevgeny Yevtushenko to read his poetry. (Yevtushenko died April 1, 2017.) A longtime Tulsan, Yevtushenko was best known for his criticism of the Soviet bureaucracy and appeals for getting rid of Stalin’s legacy. His poems have been translated into more than 70 languages.
A week after the reception, Yevtushenko visited the bank to see the orphans’ art exhibit. Vova’s painting, titled “Children of War,” captivated him. We learned Yevtushenko’s grandmother had been an orphanage director in Siberia.
That meeting turned into an invitation from Yevtushenko for me and 10 orphans with Orphan’s Tree to attend a public event in June 2016 in Moscow’s Red Square, where Yevtushenko would read his poetry. We jumped at the opportunity.
A masterpiece unfolds
Yevtushenko agreed to spend one hour with us and Orphan’s Tree representatives prior to his presentation. Some orphans traveled nine hours from St. Petersburg to meet him. Vova and his girlfriend wanted to come, but the meeting coincided with Vova’s graduation finals. Stressed, he needed to finish an art project. But he stuffed the project into a trash bag and lugged it to Moscow so he could work on the project at night.
Outside of Moscow, the 83-year-old Yevtushenko welcomed us to a two-story museum filled with his photos and artwork. During the tour, Vova presented Yevtushenko with his “Children of War” painting, which I carried from Tulsa. Vova recounted how as a young orphan he and several others were bundled into coats — some wearing rags on their feet — and loaded into a wagon that took them into the forest. They were then dumped alongside the road to collect sticks for firewood for their orphanage. The painting reflected what war felt like to him.
Yevtushenko embraced Vova, gave him a kiss, held onto his arm. The museum visit extended into an invitation for tea and treats at Yevtushenko’s Russia dacha (a seasonal country home). For three hours, Vova and the other orphans basked in Yevtushenko’s presence.
At the dacha, Yevtushenko showed Vova a 1,000-year-old icon of the Madonna holding Jesus, which he rescued from a church. The artifact had been used for dart practice. He asked Vova what he thought of the piece, and then offered to hire him to restore the antiquity.
When our group finally arrived at Red Square to hear the famous poet speak, we were escorted to fifth-row seats. Hundreds of people erupted with cheers and applause when Yevtushenko arrived. His arms rose and gestured as he read with gusto about love, forgiveness and unity. Behind him were the onion-shaped domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral.
The entire experience was amazing, surreal. Afterward, I invited the orphans to my hotel to eat and talk. Shy Vova became animated when he spoke. He marveled at how Yevtushenko treated him like a son. The other kids were astounded that someone of Yevtushenko’s stature would welcome them. They were treated like royalty.
The bigger picture
Looking back, I can see God’s presence and providential guidance threaded throughout a lifetime.
What are the chances that my bleak, shame-filled childhood, which I once considered a curse, would become an absolute blessing? My painful past has enabled me to identify with orphans, to understand their hurt and want to share Christ’s love with them.
What are the chances that our family would start praying for Russians and years later seek to serve them?
What are the chances that a poor, weak Russian orphan who was labeled a “special needs” child would graduate from a prestigious Russian art university and meet Yevtushenko?
What are the chances that Yevtushenko would live in Tulsa and agree to attend a reception and then subsequently invite several Russian orphans to his museum and home in Russia?
It can’t all be coincidence. No, something bigger is at work. Something divine.
I truly believe that God has a plan for us that is good, and it spills into the lives of others.
God is creating a masterpiece. He is taking all the messy, ugly, painful and broken pieces of lives and creating something awe-inspiring.
Just wait for it. A masterpiece is unfolding.