Stalin himself became involved in the movement and began dictating the parameters of the style in which the artists were “encouraged” to create works of art that would promote Soviet ideals.

 During the height of the movement, on May 9, 1948, a half world away, Diane Rankhorn was born into an East Tennessee hard-scrabble, scratch-a-living existence. Geraldine Forrester’s baby girl (the middle one—there was an older sister, an older brother and a younger sister) was about to grow up with every Southern stereotype you’ve ever met. Poverty, a dysfunctional family and sexual abuse. Geraldine didn’t own a house or a car or a college degree, and she didn’t often know how she would put the next meal into her kids’ mouths, but she was an artist. She was the kind of artist that’s just born that way, not even knowing she was an artist for a long time. She was the sort who’s always just making stuff. Couldn’t help herself.

She once made her family a sofa out of packing crates. She also made Diane a coat out of a pair of curtains. Not a coat of many colors like Dolly Parton’s, but a sister to it. Then there was the time they were invited to an anniversary party at the country club. Back then, poor people didn’t mingle with the rich that often—except in church—and this was a wealthy couple from the church.

Geraldine Forrester wasn’t going without a gift, even though she had nothing and her wealthy hosts wanted for nothing. So she made a gift from scratch. She found an old brass plaque she’d had for years, found a chain to put on it, and carried it in unwrapped to present in the receiving line. Diane was a teenager and mortified, but she later learned that the wealthy woman had hung Geraldine’s homemade gift proudly in her living room.

And once, when there was nothing to make for supper, Geraldine broke the law to feed them. Living over a store, she broke into the store through a medicine cabinet. You can debate all day over how the means don’t justify the ends, but in the end, it boils down to one thing.

“We were hungry,” Diane recalls.

Later, when there was a little money, her mother discovered paints and canvases and painted one after another just for herself, lavish brushstrokes, luxurious colors. Romance on the beach, in a sleigh, in front of a fireplace. Her own unique versions of magazine and calendar art. But her most memorable painting: a self-portrait when she was dying of lung cancer, with smoke coming out of her mouth and curling all around her head. Paintings that never made it into a gallery or a museum, although Diane sold one after her death to a collector of folk art at the Folk Fest in Atlanta. Paintings that never made even a local exhibit but filled the hunger in her soul and gave her kids something tangible to keep. Geraldine didn’t have a house or a trust fund to leave them, but she left at least one of them the spirit of an artist. The kind of spirit that won’t burn out but just keeps eating at your insides your entire life, with you not always knowing what’s causing the heartburn, just knowing it’s relieved, and in a big way, when you make something.

Her mother read quite a bit, but, other than Geraldine, very few in that little part of East Tennessee encouraged Diane to read books, much less to go to college. But Diane had it in her to study—she says she craved learning like most kids crave candy—and when she started to school she liked it a lot and managed to make straight A’s. That didn’t have much effect on the kids who looked down on her because her family lived in rented rooms up over a store or because they’d heard the police had been called the night before when her parents had a knock-down-drag-out fight. The real poverty began when she was twelve and they divorced. Her father did not see fit to support them, and they lived on eighty dollars a month and what her older brother was able to provide.

How do you move beyond things like that? How do you leave a small Southern town if you can’t go to college, and the only jobs for a high school graduate who can’t type are in the mills? When the only jobs available are jobs that sustain life but kill that spirit? What you do is, you marry the first handsome man who asks you and move to another small town and have babies, and then you forget for a very long time that you have a mind of your own and can even make decisions. So you get depressed and have a breakdown.

“Ultimately it was art that was my way out,” Diane says. “Because art, in and of itself, can’t hurt you.”

In her thirties she went back to school and ended up with a degree in fine arts—cum laude—from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Nobody—not even Geraldine Forrester—said they were proud of her for doing that, for being the first in her family to get a college degree. But she had one now, and she couldn’t be stopped. She painted every chance she got, and she read books. Read more than ever.

“I love the way words lie on the page when they’ve been linked together by the likes of Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor,” she says, “They showed me other people sometimes think the same as I do. Before ‘meeting’ them, I thought I was alone in my scrambled head.”

Later, she would fall hopelessly in love with Dostoyevsky, Chekov, Bulgakov and the like—writers from that place which would change her life forever. Her love of these writers—and of art—would lead to two decades of work with the Socialist Realist painters in the Voronezh region of Russia. “Going Home on the Morning Train” is the book that came of this uniquely one-woman-effort to illuminate and preserve some of the best of the art world.

I had known Diane for a while, and in 1999, she invited me to travel with her back to Russia with the idea of collaborating on a book. She had been traveling to Voronezh since 1993, and we both believed this was a story that needed to be told. Much of Diane’s travels throughout Russia was done by train (hence the book’s title), and we felt a book would go as smoothly as those old Soviet rail cars.

We couldn’t have been more wrong.

She shared her stories, but the years wore on and life got in the way. She lost her husband, Len to cancer. That same day also saw the death of Pavel Kudasov, a key ally in Russia. Plus, the U.S. economy went bust and art brokering suffered, and we both became grandparents. The train ran sporadically and never smoothly, but it ran. Sixteen years later, much has changed, but the story is as intriguing as ever.

Diane’s life was never to be the same after the plane landed at Moscow’s Sheremetzevo Airport in July of 1993. The coffee can airport, she calls it.

“It looked like somebody had saved thousands and thousands of oversized coffee cans and glued them to the ceiling,” she recalls. ”They were covered with years’ worth of dust and grime. Like some Southern Gothic thing.”

The Iron Curtain had fallen to reveal the wreckage left by the rottenness that had closed that land off from the rest of us for over seventy years. For the art world, it would be like discovering King Tut’s tomb. A whole era of art buried. Of course, it burst upon the art scene because it smelled like money.

“Not that I started out to be an art dealer, Russian or any other kind, and I never made any money that wasn’t immediately put back into the work,” Diane says. Her intention was, and still is, to connect with like-minded souls—friendships forged out of the most unlikely circumstances—and to aid art and artists alike in whatever way she could.

Not a lot of people in Tennessee took notice when she was born on that ninth day of May, but it’s safe to say they were dancing in the streets over in Russia. May 9 is Victory Day, and it’s big. Victory Day celebrates the end of the Great War, the one we know as World War II.

Throw Mama from the Train

On that initial trip, which was a mission trip and completely unrelated to art, she rode the rails through the steppes, and the conductor was a Ukrainian who took a fancy to her. He spoke a bit of English. He gave her a five ruble Ukrainian note and a sandwich made from fatback, as well as a glass of goat milk. The others were convinced she would be dead from food poisoning before they got to Volgograd, but they were most likely just jealous she got that fatback.

Failing to feel sick, Diane wandered back to the open area between cars to view the scenery. It was midnight in July, and for miles there would be nothing to see and then some huge factory would appear way out on the horizon. There were no street lights and very few houses with lights on. But she didn’t have to see it to know something strange and exotic was out there, feeling it in every cell of her body, and that was enough.

What happened next happens in movies, but seldom to ordinary people, whether they are missionaries or common tourists. All of a sudden, a young man missing several teeth stood in her way. His slurred words were foreign but unmistakably rude, threatening. He put arms on either side of her and pinned her to the low wall.

“He was very drunk,” Diane recalls, “and the best I could tell, he was trying to throw me off the train!” 

Incredibly (some would say, miraculously), she was rescued by a fellow Tennessean who came along just in time to pull the man off her. Then they both began to laugh and couldn’t stop. It was all they could do and better to laugh than cry. And the whole thing sealed a friendship for life with the man who had saved her life. Looking back, she still laughs about coming so close to being stopped before she got started, and in such a dramatic manner. But at the same time, it makes her even more determined to make sure this important and compelling story can be told.

Charlton Walters Hillis, has a fine arts degree, but her first love is creative writing, primarily the short story. She and Diane Rankhorn’s nonfiction book about an art buyer in the Voronezh region of Russia is called “Going Home on the Morning Train.”

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