The young teenage artist, Cacti Thorny, deals with life in Russia through drawing other-worldly characters, that seem as far away from our world as they are hauntingly connected. Her surrealist-feeling digital images, portray young girls with estranged and alienated faces, often in positions of self-harm. With post-apocalyptic energy Cacti shows us the melancholia of the things that can’t be said. From experiencing fear and loneliness, to morbid curiosity. We talk to Cacti about life as a teenager in Russia during a pandemic, surrealism, the influence of Christianity in her work, and the importance of raising mental health awareness.
Hi Cacti, to start, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m 16, I’m an aspiring artist. I have a cat. I really enjoy being pretentious, and currently I’m really into worrying about my future.
What’s it like being a teenager, growing up in Russia? 
It’s a beautiful country, and it’s got such an amazing art history, but being alive right now gets a bit much sometimes, especially with the coronavirus and the never ending stream of [problems in] politics. There is an absence of hope, and many people feel this way, not just teenagers.
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Your paintings portray young girls with very estranged faces, possessing an almost alienated character, who are often depicted in positions of self-harm. This dark and melancholic aspect of your work feels very pressing, it feels like a way of communicating something that can’t be said. Can you elaborate on this?
Most of my subjects are far away from what’s going on in the real world, but not disconnected from it. The world my characters inhabit is kind of post-apocalyptic with red skies and constant violence. But the thing is, for many right now that is their reality, so it’s young girls experiencing that world, but also my fears, yet at the same time they are far away. It's about experiencing this sickening sort of loneliness. As for the self harm, I like to imagine that my subjects don’t feel pain, and they’re opening themselves up out of this morbid curiosity and displaying themselves as living cadavers.
Mental health is a very pressing matter in our times, especially currently with the pandemic. Do you think art can play a therapeutic role in dealing with mental health problems? How has this period of confinement been for your mental health in relation to your work?
I am going very much insane. This current state of the pandemic is frightening. Even though schools are open, I’m hearing of 17,000 cases being reported every day, and so many deaths. With all this, how are people supposed to go to work and school. Shouldn’t we mourn? To me, this is inhumane. But I really can't speak about lockdown since I technically haven’t been isolated from friends due to seeing them everyday at school.
Art can definitely play a therapeutic role, especially if you’re a bit closed and finding words to describe situations is hard for you. Here, in Russia, therapy is taboo, many people don’t believe it works or they see it as a waste of money. It’s hard to find a therapist that’s affordable and highly qualified. For teenagers it’s also hard to get your parent's permission, some also need therapists that are LGBT friendly, and God knows few can ask their parents for such a thing.
Some works have a Magritte-like, surrealistic feel to them. How did you get fascinated by Surrealism? Do you actively search for inspiration by looking at art history?
I love Surrealism, Magritte is definitely an inspiration. I don’t remember a specific moment when I got fascinated by Surrealism, I think it’s been there since my childhood. I remember watching Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared on YouTube when I was younger, maybe that has something to do with it. A lot of morbid things fascinated me as a child, instead of making me turn me away. I’m not well versed in art history, that’s not something I’ve looked into. Of course, there have been famous paintings that have really stayed with me, for example Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth or works by Miyoko Ito and Agnes Martin.
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Some figures are portrayed with halos, depicted in praying positions, or wear giant crosses on their bodies and others are presented like angels. What is the relationship between Christianity and your work?
I grew up kind of a Christian, I didn't go to church but I did believe in God and all of that, then I spent a year at a religious school where I did read parts of the Bible. Christianity can be quite interesting and beautiful, I visited St. Petersburg a while back and the churches there were lovely. Maybe I would have gone into it naturally had it not been instilled into me.
Can you talk us through your work process, do you paint by hand and then transfer the images to a digital form? How important is the balance between working analogue as well as digitally for you?
I do almost everything digitally, I like to keep my digital art separate from my traditional paintings, at most I sketch future ideas on paper. I love working analogue, but it is a less forgiving medium so I don’t paint traditionally as often.
To me, your work feels like a form of escapism, but more so through dealing with personal struggles by delving into other realms. In our digital age, information is handed to us at all times, making it hard sometimes to distinguish fiction from reality, as well as truth from falsity. How would you describe your perception of reality in relation to your art and your daily life?
It’s not really escapism, and it’s funny because I like to think of my art as quite impersonal, but looking back, it’s quite obvious that I'm not completely detached. My art is in my own way to reflect on world events. It’s important to stay grounded right now with the constant flow of information, really keep an open mind and stay away from making idols of people. I’ve kind of become a pessimist during these last few years, but there are moments of real hope.
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Are the characters you depict constructed in your head, or are they based on real life people? How do you get inspired by a certain character, what is it that excites you enough to create that particular portrait?
None of my portraits have been of people that exist, unless they are fan-art. I do use references, mostly of runway models, but the characters themselves only exist in my head. I think a lot of portrait artists draw characters that are a bit too ‘pretty’, and I am guilty of that myself, so right now I’m trying to step out of my comfort zone and not fall into the same clichés. I get inspired by everything, I don’t really seek inspiration out and sometimes I go for weeks without getting excited about anything but when it’s there - it’s there.
You are still so young, what are your dreams for the future? How do you see your work evolving? Would you like to study the arts?
I have a couple movies that I would like to shoot, I really can’t see myself doing anything but something artistic in the future, there’s really only three things that interest me - art, philosophy and politics and a lot of my favourite pieces of art are the ones in which they’re heavily interconnected. I still am finding myself and figuring out what I want with my art, what subjects interest me. Hopefully one days I’ll be able to debut a film.
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