Dissident art


Recognizing art, and its power

BLUFFTON, Ohio—In the repressive Soviet Union of the 1980s, dissident Aleksandr Kalugin kept his art under cover in a grand piano—“hidden in plain sight,” as Olwen Pritchard put it Nov. 12 at Bluffton University.

But Pritchard and her husband, Dr. James Satterwhite, a Bluffton professor, acquired five etchings from Kalugin and eventually brought them back to Bluffton, where they are now on permanent display in the university’s Musselman Library.

Bluffton celebrated the couple’s donation of the lithographs with a program where Pritchard recounted their friendship with Kalugin, who was imprisoned—and frequently institutionalized—for his art. The program also included a broader presentation on dissident art by Philip Sugden, an assistant professor and chair of art at the university.

Satterwhite’s and Pritchard’s association with Kalugin dates to Satterwhite’s 1989 sabbatical in Warsaw, Poland. There, two people—including his Russian language teacher—encouraged the professor of history and political science to look up the artist and human rights activist when he went to Moscow for its International Book Fair for Peace Church Publishers, Pritchard said.

The couple did just that, meeting Kalugin and his wife, Tamara, and after seeing his work, “I knew I wanted us to bring something back,” Pritchard recalled. In exchange for the etchings, she added, they traded 36 VHS tapes on which Kalugin could record his art when he applied for projects elsewhere.

She described the native Estonian as “very self-effacing,” but “he came out through his art,” which often incorporates fantastic, carnival-like details. It landed him in trouble with Soviet authorities soon after he began exhibiting it in the early ‘70s, and its nonconformist nature earned him a Western audience.

Arrested following his participation in a controversial public art exhibition in 1974, Kalugin began an odyssey through roughly 30 psychiatric hospitals, where authorities tried “to get him to change his way of thinking about life,” Sugden said. But his wife’s contacts with “the right people” in the hospitals enabled him to continue to produce art, the Bluffton artist noted.

“I respect and admire dissident artists a lot because you have to be fearless to do that kind of work,” said Sugden, who is traveling to Cuba over the holidays to film a documentary about such artists there.

Their work isn’t about making money, governments or belief systems, he maintained. “It’s about people; it’s about fairness,” he explained, citing dissidents from Afghanistan, China and Brazil, among other places.

“These artists are pretty powerful people,” Sugden said. “They understand the power of art.”

Bluffton President Dr. James Harder, in his welcome to the program, saluted Pritchard and Satterwhite, now a professor emeritus who also visited Kalugin twice in the ‘90s. “Both have lived, studied and championed the cause of human rights,” the president said, adding that the university presents the Jim Satterwhite Award in Peace Scholarship and Activism to a student each spring.

The five donated Kalugin prints can be seen on the second floor of Musselman Library.   


Dr. James Satterwhite and Olwen Pritchard
Both have lived, studied and championed the cause of human rights,” said Bluffton President Dr. James Harder about Dr. James Satterwhite (left), professor emeritus of history and political science, and his wife, Olwen Pritchard. Behind them is one of the prints by dissident artist Aleksandr Kalugin that they have donated to the university's Musselman Library.