8th April 2016
Words by Dan Carrier
Images by Anya Campbell
Medina McLean spent a childhood immersed in canvases and oils, born into a world where artistic expression was the cornerstone of her home life, so it is no surprise that she has developed a tremendous talent. A dealer inspector in The Ritz Club, Medina is also an artist in her own right and her work features in the 2016 Ritz Calendar, an annual reminder of the range of people The Ritz nurtures. She has also drawn on her family’s legacy to create a series of stunning images that speak of daily life at the world-famous Piccadilly establishment. Medina is originally from Kazakhstan and comes from a family that is internationally fêted for its works. Her father, Tabyldy Mukatov, is a celebrated artist whose pieces are on permanent display in the country’s national museum. Her mother, Kulaim Aitbaeva, is also a good artist, while her uncle, Salikhitdin Aitbaev, has achieved huge success in the fields of both figurative and traditional art.
Tabyldy was born in the oil-rich harbour city of Atyrau, located at the mouth of the Ural River in the Caspian Sea and known around the world for its famous black caviar. “My father considers himself to be from Dzhailau,” says Medina — the Kazakh word dzhailau (“grazing land”) sums up the landscape he grew up in. “He is from a family of cowboys who looked after horses. His paintings are very much influenced by this,” she says. He spent his childhood working on a traditional Kazakh smallholding and his work has clearly been influenced by this — the vast horizons, sunsets and dawns breaking — and this has in turn influenced his daughter. “He told me how, as a child, he was always drawing; anything from making outlines in the sand to sketching on large pieces of paper,” Medina says. “He was always doing something, finding an outlet for his creativity.” Life changed when her father finally moved to the city of Almaty, the country’s former capital. Following his graduation from the Ukrainian Polygraphic Institute in Lvov, he found work in Almaty as a book illustrator. “It was there that he met my mother,” recalls Medina. “He was interested in poetry and the different techniques and materials employed in art.”
Her mother’s story is similar: she left her home town of Kzylorda harbouring ambitions to become an established artist in the fine arts. Joining her elder brother, Salikhitdin Aitbaev, she travelled to Almaty to study art. Her work is intricate in style, with lots of attention to detail, something which is also echoed in Medina’s art. Salikhitdin Aitbaev is an iconic name in Kazakh painting. He was a leading light of the avant-garde of his generation in the 1960s, when he refused to accept the official style of the Socialist Realist painters and their theatrical manner of depicting life. He is now recognised as a pioneer artist and his work commands large prices at art auctions all over the world, including Sotheby’s. He worked in the same rambling arts space as Medina’s father, in the building where she spent her youth.
Under the rule of the Soviet Union-backed government, artists had strict parameters within which they could work. The State built two large buildings for artists, sculptors and poets to live in. “We were brought up in a building with other artistic families,” Medina recalls. “My father’s studio was located in the centre of the city, on the fourth floor of the Art workshop building, and my uncle’s studio was upstairs. While my uncle preferred playing Vivaldi, Mozart or Bach as he painted, my father was consumed by the traditional sound of a Kazakh instrument known as a dombra, or he’d listen to the poems of Omar Khayyam. I spent most of my childhood dashing in and out between the studios.”
Being so close to this building full of creatives meant that Medina had early experience of how artists work. “It was a brilliant studio, and a place where you didn’t have to worry about spilling paint or making a mess,” she says. “It was busy and full of life, full of poets and painters, full of half-finished canvases. There would always be classical music playing and I spent many happy hours in the studios, watching them work and sometimes using their materials myself.”
However, having a place to live and work provided by the State has its drawbacks. “It was during the Soviet regime and the government considered artists and poets to be the most dangerous type of free thinkers. They knew artists would be good at expressing themselves and they were afraid of them,” Medina says. “This level of rule also meant that the work being produced by the people in the art studios was also being checked by the government to see if it was acceptable to them.”
Yet her father thrived. “He is a true Kazakh and considers art a way of expressing the traditions of the nation, through images that his countrymen could relate to, such as horses or warriors. He is a very patriotic person, but also an internationalist. This shows through the work he has done, the influences he has taken and how he gives them a Kazakh twist.” Surrounded by artists, Medina was also given specialist art books at an early age, part of her parents’ efforts to provide an artistic and cultural education. “They would give me and my sister Leila art books — which were quite hard to get hold of — for our birthdays,” she recalls. “They would be tomes on Velásquez, Picasso, Matisse and Klimt, as well as Old Masters, Japanese art and religious icons. We would sit in our living room and my father would show us these great, classical works and ask us what we saw and if we had noticed one particular detail.
“To be honest, I wasn’t overly interested as a child, but it really stuck with me and gave me a solid background and understanding of art movements from an early age. My parents would spend money on extremely expensive art books — some costing as much as a month’s wages — because the books meant that much to them. They would also host big parties where there would be plenty of fine red wine, laughter and discussions about art. It was very interesting to grow up in this environment with very eccentric people who held a very different view on life.” As Medina finished school, the political landscape shifted: “Perestroika made the nation’s art change. It gave us much more freedom to express the art we felt. The artists were able to do more, to challenge, to shock, to follow their own path.” With this as a background, it is hardly surprising that she headed off to study at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Almaty. As the country opened up to new influences, this too had an effect on Medina’s life. “I embarked on a five-year course and it was while I was a student that I got my first job, which would eventually bring me to The Ritz Club,” she says.
It was through a chance encounter at the Academy. A fellow student in one of Medina’s classes told her she had heard that a new casino was opening in the centre of Almaty and there were good jobs on offer that they could fit around their studies. While still working on her technique in oils, watercolours, ink, etching and collage, Medina sought work to pay for her studies. “I was in an oil-painting class and a friend asked me: ‘Are you interested in coming to a casino? There are jobs being advertised.’ I said I’d go with her to offer some moral support. I had no idea I would actually be interested in getting a job there, nor that I would be chosen.”
I was looking at The Ritz with a different eye — the eye of an artist . This is a beautiful, beautiful place full of grace, full of colour and full of life
“A British operator was setting up the casino in the newly independent Kazakhstan and interviews were being conducted by a 23-year-old English gentleman, who was to be the new manager,” she recalls. “He approached me and asked if I would like to apply for a job. I said: ‘No thank you. I’m only here because my friend wanted company.’ He still said I should apply and that’s how I met my ex-husband, with whom I have two beautiful and talented daughters, Daniella and Alexandra.” Medina started working at The Ritz Club in 2006. “I have always kept up my art, though,” she says. “I remember when I first moved to London, I went for a walk through the West End and came upon Bond Street. The private art galleries enthralled me and it was in one particular gallery window that I saw a real Picasso for the very first time. I was absolutely mesmerised. “I love London and whenever I am feeling sad or lonely, I take myself off to one of the art galleries or museums to surround myself with the unique atmosphere in the buildings and the familiar smell of oil, paint and canvases. It’s like being given a welcome hug and I immediately feel happy and at home.”
When Medina started work at The Ritz Club, her colleagues learned of her fascinating background and passion for art. So when the club began to plan their special, limited-edition calendar for 2015, they invited Medina to paint a series of watercolours depicting scenes of London’s Royal Parks. “Over the years, the calendar has become something of a tradition. In 2014, we made the decision to explore the possibility of finding our very own artist-in-residence,” says Roger Marris, Chief Executive of The Ritz Club. “We were delighted to discover the talent pool within the casino. Our first aspiring young artist, Milana Kunkulyte, kick-started the process and we were absolutely thrilled to continue to support such inspiring, artistic talent among our very creative staff when we saw Medina’s incredible work.” The Ritz Club once again commissioned Medina for this year’s calendar, which is a joint venture between The Ritz Hotel, The Ritz Club and Ritz Fine Jewellery. The theme of the 2016 calendar pays tribute to the wonderful staff, who all play such an important and significant role in the businesses, whether it is behind the scenes or front of house. “I really wanted to capture the essence of the place, but to highlight its details was challenging,” Medina says. “How do you recreate this sense of space on paper? How do you begin to do these interiors justice? The Ritz is such an iconic building and is a work of art in itself.”
So she started in the surroundings she knew best — the exquisite opulence of The Ritz Club — and worked her way through the rest of the building, speaking with colleagues as she explored the landmark site. “I found it fascinating to observe how the hotel works, as well as the people working within its gracious interiors,” she says. “I was looking at The Ritz with a different eye — the eye of an artist. This is a beautiful, beautiful place, full of grace, full of colour and full of life. I hope I have captured its essence through my art.”