Mother, Marine, Artist
Freezing temps and overcast skies awaited our rifle training in Kansas City. Anya is 4’10’’ and probably weighs about 100 pounds soaking wet. The SBR was perfect for her to train with because she is so petite. We had an awesome day on the range and followed with an impacting interview in which Anya shared HER story.
Anya is the woman behind the incredible American Heroes Through Graphite of our fellow marines. Her work has been displayed in galleries and auctioned off to support the needs of our brothers and their families.
Nick: Anya, When did you come to the U.S.?
Anya: When I was 12, from Belarus… You know the deal... opportunity, and white picket fences.
Nick: When did you decide to join the military and why?
Anya: When I was like 14-15. Well, I wanted to be a marine. I heard it was hard, the hardest. I did a lot of research and I found out that it’s a very small branch so that was a big deal for me because I obviously knew that not everybody wants to do it, or can do it. And then, they just stand out from everything else and that’s why I liked it. It’s sharper, the discipline.
Nick: So what really fueled your decision to join the American military after only being here in the states for a couple of years?
Anya: I just fell in love with the United States and wanted to give back. And being a female and that was accepted here, that was it, I wasn’t going to college or anything like that. This is what I wanted to do; I wanted to be in for life. I wanted to give back; it was more of a patriotic choice.
Nick: So you went in in 2001?
Anya: Yes. I signed the contract when I was 17.
Nick: Okay, so during that time you had a son?
Anya: After the deployment, yes. When I came back I had him and I knew that was a time of constant back-and-forth deployments.
Nick: So you’re a single mom, you’re a veteran, you’re a woman, what kind of advice, is there anything you feel like you could be a role model for other women, other single moms, other veterans out there?
Anya: Well, see I don’t like the term single mom to begin with. You’re either a mom or you’re not a mom. When it comes to my son, I birthed him, he’s my responsibility; I don’t ever think that I need help from the other half.
Nick: So how long were you in the Marine Corp?
Anya: 4 years. I decided to get out because I wanted to be deployed all the time, but I didn’t want to leave my kid.
Nick: Did you draw or paint or anything prior to that?
Anya: Well I did some stuff in the Marine Corps for my friends, so it’s all scattered all over, I don’t know, I just do it and give it away.
Nick: But you knew you had the ability to draw?
Anya: Yea, but I never really took it to the level it’s at now. But I don’t remember not drawing, ever. I never went to school for it though. But I just always saw art school as, “You’re not going to get anywhere kind of thing.” It’s kind of like, no, because I never believed that you could make money off of art… I just thought it was an empty education.
Nick: So when did you start doing what you’re doing now?
Anya: Exactly 1 year ago.
Nick: What was the driving decision to do that?
Anya: Somebody said the right things I guess. It just kind of all tied in. It wasn’t until I started talking to James, my boyfriend, and him telling me about him being deployed, the more recent deployments, and so I showed him my hobbies. I know how to draw but I haven’t done it for many years… and he was just like, “You’re fucking nuts, you have to do this.” The very first one I did is the one that’s the cover photo on my page was of him. The next big one was Aaron Torian. I saw his story come thorough in the Marine Corps times, and it’s just some people you see… there was something about him that I knew right away that he had to be remembered.
Nick: When did you start the American Hero’s Through Graphite page?
Anya: I think end of January, beginning of February 2014. We started it basically thinking let’s see what happens, and it just blew up.
Nick: We talked a little bit about this before, what inspires your art? Can you draw anything? Does it have to be a certain thing? What makes you pick up your pencils and get drawing?
Anya: It’s a connection thing, on like a, you can say spiritual level, respectful level. It has to really grab my attention. I won’t do just anyone; it has to spark something in my interest. Who it is, their story, I like to know their names—
Nick: --friends, family
Anya: --yea, it all has to flow. Because when you’re doing portraits, it’s not like you’re drawing a still life picture; you’re drawing someone that lived, breathed, and left a big imprint on people lives. And that’s pretty important.
Nick: So obviously you’ve made a huge impact in the veteran community and some of our fallen heroes. You’re involved in some non-profit organizations. Did you see that playing out or did that kind of just happen? Is it something you’ve always been passionate about? Or life just kind of took hold and things kind of unfolded?
Anya: I didn’t plan any of this at all. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know what people were going to think or judge me or anything like that. I had no idea what I was going to be doing. If I was going to be donating and I had no idea how people were going to respond. Obviously one portrait may get more attention than others you know depending on who it is that I'm drawing. You know you have your seals that books are written about, everybody knows who they are. You know not everybody knows lance corporal Johnson from Iowa but equally to me when I draw them, they’re just as important as the other guy.
Nick: So where does this go, what’s the goal? How big does this get?
Anya: I don’t know because I want to expand and do other things too. Obviously the non-profit organizations. I want to continue to donate, it’s very hard for me to say no because it’s for a cause that I really love. I mean hopefully I’ll be able to do it full-time for sure. For sure full-time. There is a connection there for me… 22 veteran suicides a day. The numbers are crazy. It’s our generation’s problem.
Nick: We already talked about how you kind of pick your pieces and how your connection, talk about the creation process from how working on a piece taking it to connecting with the family or connecting with the team or the people you did it for.
Anya: Let’s say if somebody has a request, I always want to know their names, where they’re from, exactly their story, what happened to them. I want to talk to the person that’s requesting you know how do they know him. I connect with it on more of an emotional level.
Nick: So is it typically a request that comes in?
Anya: Sometimes I pick my own. I don’t know how to explain it, whether it’s something in their eyes in that particular photograph, it’s something that just gets a hold of me and it doesn’t let go. I think about it all the time until I do it.
Nick: So Aaron, what about Aaron Torian’s portrait how long did it take?
Anya: --2 days. It’s an emotional rollercoaster for me drawing these guys, especially the ones that passed because you think about what happened, how new it is, who’s still mourning, who’s hurting. I’m drawing and I’m not thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner later, I’m not thinking about my week. It’s like a trance. Sometimes I hear voices, conversations, it’s really strange. I use my hands a lot. It’s a big no-no when you’re drawing but I use my hands to like blend …touching their faces.
Nick: You talked about delivering to families, can you elaborate further on that?
Anya: If I can deliver it, I’ll deliver it by hand, absolutely.
Nick: What’s their reception of that?
Anya: Some of the stuff they write breaks me down because it really makes them it takes that pain away that someone took the time to commemorate my husband or my son.
Nick: Why does one of your drawings, one of your paintings have more of an effect than just a photograph?
Anya: I’ve had a lot of people say that you can tell how much emotion goes into them and it just screams this is not I'm not just sitting in a booth and “next, next.” Each piece has its own fingerprint. I can be around gear all day it’s the same issue and each piece of gear has that person’s fingerprint of their own.
Nick: So you recently were invited to Texas, what was the purpose of that trip?
Anya: Yea, I woke up and I was on the guest list for a private screening for American Sniper…I did a picture of Devil of Ramadi.
Nick: How did that happen?
Anya: That was something I did on my own. It’s just what I wanted to do. Everybody has drawn Chris Kyle and it’s always based on a portrait, that’s fine. I wanted to do something different. This one doesn’t have his face exactly.
Nick: What made you want to connect to his story?
Anya: Honestly it was the art. He means just as much to me as any other of these veterans who have given their lives. His story was legendary. I wanted to try something different. I did work on black paper with white chalk. A lot of prints sold. I was able to donate it to a Chris Kyle post. They were very happy with it and it sold. And then I donated three hundred of them.
Nick: Three hundred prints? That’s quite the donation. Who did those donations go to?
Anya: They went to the guest’s bags for the private screening of American Sniper. Chris Kyle’s family and friends were in attendance. That’s why I went. To honor a veteran, honor and bless his family. It was absolutely incredible, emotional, and I was not prepared for the outcome.
Nick: I got to meet Jeff Kyle, Chris's brother at Shot Show. He seemed really impacted with your work.
Anya: People loved the prints. Jeff came and asked me for my autograph and it brought me to tears. I felt so honored to be invited and connected to the story. The screening was beautiful. Lots of vets and friends in attendance.
Nick: I can speak from what you did for T (Aaron Torian) is huge. Being able to capture that depth and immortalize that into an art is pretty awesome. I think that you being able to do that for Chris Kyle and tie it into the movie and everything is exceptional. With a lot of guys…something happens, and they kind of just fade away. And you’re able to capture something that doesn’t fade away.
Anya: I want it to stay.