Crossing the railroad tracks in the River Arts District, a large brick building looms high over Lyman Street. As the artistic haven of Asheville, the RAD is home to hundreds of artisans, each as unique as the next, all with a wild and wonderful story of how they ended up in Western North Carolina.
But, for Olga Dorenko, her journey—physically and emotionally—is a little longer than what one might come across in the RAD. Entering the brick building known as the Warehouse Studios, Dorenko sits behind her desk, her signature smile and laugh echoing throughout the second floor of the structure, which is home to several other artists.
“I just love people,” she said. “And for me that’s a big plus, because lots of artists like to create, but they’re shy and they hide. Even if my English isn’t perfect, I love meeting people and talking with them.”
With her thick Russian accent, Dorenko has become a beloved fixture in the RAD. A lifelong painter, her work is an explosion of color that provides the observer with a sense of warmth and clarity, a sort of dreamlike state when viewing her swirling landscapes and devil-may-care scenes of Americana.
“People will say to me, ‘Your pieces are happy,’ and I’ll say, ‘Yes, because I am a happy person,’” Dorenko said.
Finding an early passion for painting as a child, Dorenko entered art school in the former Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.). Her parents always encouraged her creativity, even if what she wanted to do didn’t fit the mold of the Communist nation.
“It was very hard in the Soviet Union. This was at a time when everyone was the same, and everyone did the same thing,” Dorenko said. “It was the same ole, same ole. Even if you went to art school, the teachers would still say you were doing something wrong because you didn’t fit into their formula.”
But Dorenko’s creative spirit never wavered. Though her father was in the military, he also was a musician, while her mother, a teacher, also dabbled in the arts. And just when all seemed to be against Dorenko, she found artistic strength from her mother’s words of wisdom.
“She always told me ‘to be different,’” Dorenko said. “I owe a lot of who I am and what I became to her and how she would tell me that all the time.”
“People ask me what inspires me, and I say life—how I feel, what I do everyday, sometimes it’s just whatever I’m seeing. I have my view. I’m a painter and I can express myself. Not everybody can express themselves.” —Olga Dorenko
Following art school, Dorenko got married and had a son. But, eventually, she had aspirations to head for America in search of her dream as an artist. With green card in hand, she and her 12- year-old son immigrated to the United States in 1998.
“I was very excited to come to America, but it was difficult when I arrived,” she said. “Coming to America was like landing on the moon, but you don’t know how to live on the moon.”
Finding herself in Winston-Salem, Dorenko found work on commission, painting murals and doing odd jobs. For her, any work was bountiful work, especially if it put food on the table.
“I painted a lot of Old Salem. It helped me and my son survive,” she modestly said.
Soon, she entered local arts shows. And during one the events, she met the man who would eventually become her husband, an artist from Illinois. By 2004, they packed up and headed for Asheville.
“I love the people and the culture here, the beautiful mountains and the soft weather, especially after living in Siberia for several years. I’m allergic to the cold now,” Dorenko chuckled.
Being part of the extensive community of artists in the RAD is something Dorenko doesn’t take for granted. Rather, it throws more logs onto the fire of her creative intent and vision, something each artist in the RAD harnesses and radiates back into the world.
“There’s all this energy between the artists,” Dorenko said. “Everything pops here like popcorn when you meet other artists and see their work.”
Standing next to Dorenko in her studio, she truly makes you feel at home, welcomed with such a sincere sense of kindness and zest for life, you feel like a magnet to her whimsical work.
“People ask me what inspires me, and I say life—how I feel, what I do everyday, sometimes it’s just whatever I’m seeing. I have my view. I’m a painter and I can express myself, not everybody can express themselves,” she said. “And maybe you can see the train differently or a tree differently. I’m lucky as a painter, I just pick up the brushes and it just comes out of my mind and my fingertips. It’s not just about selling a painting. You can feel like your time on this planet isn’t wasted because you’re doing something that people enjoy.”
This post is adapted from our annual Welcome to Western North Carolina magazine. Click here to read more online, or click here to order your own free copy. Learn more about Olga Dorenko at olgadorenko.com.