Natalia Dubina (left) taught art in her homeland of Belarus at Brest State University, where she also painted portraits of the 12 university presidents. Discovered as a student in EMU's Intensive English Program, Dubina was commissioned to produce the official portrait of Loren Swartzendruber, EMU's eighth president. (Photo by Justin Roth)

Presidential portrait artist, from Belarus, savors new season at EMU

EMU President Loren Swartzendruber smiles slightly, standing near the Campus Center entrance. Portrait artist Natalia Dubina painted pink- and white-blooming trees in the sunny landscape surrounding him.

Dubina, who has studied part-time since 2011 in EMU’s Intensive English Program (IEP), laughs ruefully as she gropes for words to explain the personal feeling behind her chosen setting of flowers and springtime. It has to do with the campus signifying hope and new options in her life. She arrived four years ago from her home at Brest, in Belarus.

The oil painting, unveiled in June, portrays Swartzendruber’s face as recognizably as any photograph. Yet perhaps inspired by a favorite artist she names – Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844-1930) – Dubina’s seemingly lifelike works incorporate personal selection and creativity.

Getting to know Swartzendruber during the portrait process, Dubina found him down-to-earth and unassuming: “He is very polite; very happy. I felt very comfortable with him.” In portraiture, she considers it most helpful “to see the real person.” It also helped that Swartzendruber supplied her with numerous photographs – aids, she feels, to acquiring a sense of a subject’s personality.

She has worked without such help. In 2007, Dubina created a commissioned portrait gallery of the 12 presidents of Brest State University (founded in 1945), where she had received undergraduate and masters’ degrees and taught art. To depict one early administrator, she had to work from only a “tiny little black and white photograph.”

Dubina’s current portfolio includes floral still lifes, Belarussian and Shenandoah Valley landscapes, portraits of family, friends and historic figures, and a self-portrait in elegant 18th Century dress.

In 2009, after winning a U.S. Green Card Lottery (i.e., a Diversity Immigrant Visa), Dubina came to live with her sister in Harrisonburg near their brother and his children – a move undertaken “to help my parents [living in Brest]. They are getting old.” She shares earnings with them from her food-services job at James Madison University, telephones them daily, and returned to Belarus to visit them this summer.

“When I came to America I didn’t have a dream,” she says. Yet recently she began to dream again of a future full of creativity, having received a written evaluation of her Brest education, certifying that she holds the equivalent of a master’s degree.

Now, she says, “I just need English.”

Four years ago, Dubina knew no English – she was embarrassed to be asked “How are you?” and be unable to answer. She was, however, fluent in Russian and Belarussian (her country’s official languages), plus Ukrainian, and knew some Polish and German. She came to EMU because friends said “this is the best place for learning English.” IEP draws students from around the world, mostly seeking educational or career advancement.

Dubina teaches art to children and adults at her church, First Russian Baptist near Bridgewater. Comparing American education with that in her homeland, she says “I am interested in seeing how the schools are different.”

The Swartzendruber portrait hangs in the President’s Room on the 3rd floor of Hartzler Library, available for viewing except for times when the room is being used for classes or meetings.