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Capturing the Beauty -of the Human Form and of What Forms the Human

A conversation with Nana Bagdavadze

By Parinaz Ziai Bahadori

September 2021

DNA Beauty Within by Nana Bagdavadze

DNA Multiverse 2 by Nana Bagdavadze

Imagine being told that your younger sister has cancer and your bone marrow may be her only salvation? Now imagine it is 1988 and you have just started a young family in Tbilisi, Georgia with a successful career as a portrait artist. This story is one that happened to the artist Nana Bagdavadze. It is a story of fate and a network of kind people who each welcomed her and her family to the United States and changed the course of her life and art career forever.

Nana Bagdavadze was a gifted musician at a young age and studied music from the age of 6 to 11. But she also liked to draw and was obsessed with drawing faces. Even though they were not artists, her parents encouraged Nana to study art and apply to a special arts school for gifted students. She continued her pursuit of art at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Tbilisi (one of few Academies of this sort in the former Soviet Republic) and was a recipient of a scholarship to continue her studies there. Nana spent ten years immersed in the rigorous study of classical portrait painting as well as other experimental forms of painting.

Ivo Pogorelich portrait by Nana Bagdavadze

But in her mid-20’s, when Nana had become an Assistant Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts and was married and a mother, her family was hit by the terrible news that her sister had chronic leukemia. It was at this point that fate served them well. First of all, Gorbachev’s Soviet Union was opening up gradually so some Soviets could leave - albeit with difficulty. Nana‘s family had some relatives in San Diego so they applied to travel to the United States. In the meantime, they met Bob Walsh, president of the Goodwill Games, which he had founded with Ted Turner. Walsh was from Seattle but had traveled to Tbilisi in order to help set up the Goodwill Games between the United States and the Soviet Union. Somehow Nana’s family heard about this special person and arranged to meet with him. He promised to help and stayed in contact with their family. He told them that the Fred Hutchinson Cancer in Seattle might be the place where they could seek treatment. Upon his return to the United States he raised money to help bring Nana and her sister to Seattle so they could take part in an experimental bone marrow transplant. Nana’s bone marrow saved her sister’s life and the doctors who treated her sister received the Nobel Prize two years later. Her sister survived and now lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.

This dramatic chapter in Nana's life changed her forever. Nana had been painting portraits of some contributors to Bob Walsh’s fundraising for her sister’s operation. Through word of mouth, she got more commissions to paint the portraits of the movers and shakers in Seattle. One time she even was flown to DC to do a surprise portrait of Charles Ryan, a famous lawyer. She met with him and tried to memorize his face, then went back to the hotel to paint the portrait with the help of a few photos to jog her memory. She found this to be the best method of doing a portrait: studying the person’s face but never copying one picture per se. For 20 years she stayed in Seattle and was patronized by Kay Bullitt, a Seattle Civil Rights activist and philanthropist, who “adopted” Nana so she could work on her art in a studio in Bullitt’s home. She evolved as an artist and exhibited her work in many galleries.

Kay Bullitt Portrait by Nana Bagdavadze

Amanda Stevens Portrait by Nana Bagdavadze

By the mid 1990’s the political situation in Georgia was terrible and Nana decided to remain in the United States with her sons to teach and paint. She continued this career in Seattle for a number of years. But in the back of her mind she was fascinated by all the scientific breakthroughs on DNA’s and started to find many beautiful parallels between the beauty on the surface in portrait painting and the beauty of the microscopic world that underpins the human body. She had moved to Washington, DC at this point and had married a physicist. Her passion became these DNA paintings. This opened so many doors and dialogues with scientists in the Washington, DC community including Francis Collins, the head of the NIH, and with scientists at NASA.

Francis Collins with Nana Bagdavadze

Nana tries to touch on what is in the interior of human beings, her portraits reflect the soul of the person and the DNA paintings capture the inner beauty of the complex information that allows us to exist. Biological forms are the first inspiration, but she gives herself free license. She wants to go inside and examine humans physically and spiritually and see what biology is capable of. She hopes the 21st-century will be a century of reflection. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic Nana decided to curate a show with the Art4UsCoop and the theme she proposed was a quote by Dostoyevsky, “Beauty will save the world.” Nana believes that Dostoyevsky might have meant that God created us to witness the beauty he created. As an artist, she makes us pause and appreciate this beauty in that moment.

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