My name is Ardak Kassenova, my visual style is not limited to but veers more towards Contemporary Impressionism. I’m the Creative Director and Co-founder of ZenART Supplies along with my husband Roberto. I’m now based in London but I grew up in Kazakhstan. Art was a constant part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my parents and grandparents surrounded me and exposed me to all things creative.
Early Life and My Family
I was born in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan on the 1st of April, 1979. I have one sibling, my older sister Zhuldyz. Being born and spending my formative years with the republic still under the Soviet Union meant that there were no computers or video games around for me to play with. Both my parents were distinguished academics in their respective fields and were staunch supporters of the importance of education, so my childlike curiosity and thirst for knowledge never lacked the support it needed. They enriched my life in so many other ways.
My father, Kanay Kassenov, was quite the Renaissance man. He was a geologist and engineer by profession, and a poet, activist and inventor in his free time. He actively opposed the social and ecological problems of his time, almost always against the Soviet propaganda of that time. He was one of the first activists of the Nevada-Semey movement, protesting against the nuclear testing at Semey Nuclear Polygon in Kazakhstan, where he was born, and which eventually resulted in its closing. He was highlighting the problems of air and water pollution, rational use of natural resources and water, and offering the solutions with his inventions. He was writing articles and fighting for the rights of the people who got affected by ecological disasters, and promoting the use of Kazakh language in Kazakhstan in the Soviet times. He was followed by the KGB, but despite all of that he was a great father, and loved us dearly, giving us the lessons of courage and perseverance, love for nature and people.
He had lots of very talented and free-thinking people among his friends, and our home was always full of poets, lawyers, composers, academics, musicians, artists, and honest hard-working people. He was very inventive and resourceful, and we had lots of ingenious items he would make himself. He was always encouraging us to explore new skills, especially arts – to paint, to sing and dance, play the piano, write poems, play chess, and many other ways of furthering our development.
I got his words instilled in my mind: “Material possessions can vanish, be stolen or lost, and only your knowledge, values and skills will accompany you throughout your life and let you shine wherever you are.”
My mother, Tamara Gissanova, was a teacher and later became the Head of Bibliography at the National Medical University. She was a teacher in every sense of the word, nurturing not just my innate curiosity, but that of her grandchildren’s and other relatives’ as well. She instilled in me my deep love for books, providing me with a well-rounded collection of reading materials to choose from in our extensive home library and would also bring home other resource materials from work. Through her, my sister and I learned how to search for information in libraries during a time of no internet and computer access. Mum was always motivating us to strive for excellence whatever we did, and she’s still our best cheerleader and inspiration.
But it didn’t stop there, she was quite talented in many other ways – cooking, sewing, making so many creative things. She taught us how to knit, crochet, embroider, do patchwork, model and sew clothing, how to understand and eventually make the patterns ourselves, along with cooking and baking as well. My mother was being constantly creative and sharing, so it really rubbed off on us quite naturally. Since I was a child, I had already decided that I wanted to be an artist because it really inspired me to be surrounded by all the creativity.
All of my grandparents were survivors of the great Kazakh famine of 1930-1933 (also known as the Goloshchyokin genocide) and the First and Second World War. Despite all the hardships they went through, they remained strong, teaching us the value of hard work, gratitude, happiness from helping others and enjoying each day to the fullest – a true source of inspiration for me. They were all very well versed in a number of the arts – singing, dancing, crafts and many other more, which they undoubtedly passed on to us.
I was lucky to be part of a family that gave importance to a well-rounded education. Growing up, we were surrounded by my parents’ circle of friends from various fields – poets, writers, musicians, scientists, and freethinkers. Visiting museums and attending concerts were a part of our routine. My mother subscribed to a special pass so we could go weekly to the events of the local Philharmonic Hall. Both my parents made sure to support our artistic endeavors by finding the best teachers and classes they could and supplying the necessary instruments and materials we needed.
A Lifetime of Learning
My Mum taught us how to read, write, and do maths early on and that allowed me to enter primary school one year ahead of the usual age (6 years old instead of the usual 7) at the advice of the teacher. I had such a natural love for learning that I was writing short poems and recording them in a notebook that I made myself at the age of 4. I decorated the covers of my handmade notebooks and sketchbooks with collages and cut outs, too!
Since my parents would often bring us to museums, we got to see artefacts, paintings, and sculptures in person. While at home, Encyclopedias and catalogues from major museums became a source of wonder. One of my favorite books back then was a little book filled with artworks from the Hermitage Museum at St. Petersburg. I loved just looking at the photos of the artworks, before even learning how to read. Paintings at home and at my aunt’s would mesmerize me, I spent so much time just looking at the intricate details and brushstrokes.
I was lucky enough to have such great teachers at school from the very beginning. They were very good at explaining the different elements and principles of art. We would draw, paint, sculpt, do collage, and a particular favorite of mine – creative recycling. I had such a vivid imagination even back then, I loved seeing and looking for patterns and faces or figures amongst the clouds, trees, shadows. It was no big surprise then when we were asked by the teacher at the age of 5 to draw who we’d want to be in life, I immediately drew myself as an artist.
My parents worked hard to give us the best education they could. Seeing all the sacrifices they made, it pushed me to do my best and I was rewarded with the only scholarship in school – a whole year of schooling for free at one of the best private lyceums. And in 1995, I received my certificate in Accounting from the esteemed Kazakh State Academy of Management, now called Narxoz University in Almaty.
Besides my academic pursuits, I also excelled in Music School (No. 2 in Almaty) and graduated at the top of the class. I was a choir soloist, pianist, and was quite good in solfeggio and composition. My teachers urged me to pursue music as a career, they were encouraging me to study at a conservatory.
But alas, the instability of life caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union made my parents think it was wiser to pursue a career in business and economics instead. After all, I also did very well in other subjects, especially in Mathematics. I followed their advice and received a full scholarship plus a government stipend as the best student from Kazakh State Academy of Management. The stipend was similar to a small salary that it allowed me to help my parents out with some of the expenses. In 1999, I graduated with a Degree in Marketing and Economics with merit, this in turn got me my first job at the British Council.
One of my regrets in life was declining an offer for an exchange programme at the Department of Mechanics and Mathematics at the Moscow State University while I was studying for my first degree. My parents were fearful of my living alone far away in a big and tough city, and I caved in to their fears. This taught me a valuable lesson, to not let other people’s fears and opinions affect how I make decisions for my own future.
My insatiable hunger for knowledge and self-development continued. I decided to self-fund and continue my studies in Glasgow, UK at the University of Strathclyde at the Computer Sciences Department, where I gained my Master of Science degree in Information Management. This was a huge investment for me because I had to pay International student fees plus very high living expenses, and many people couldn’t understand why I was doing it.
I believe that education opens up new doors, and I believe in life-long-learning. I was part of the national e-government, communication, educational and social projects in Kazakhstan. I was constantly studying at different jobs, and I still do lots of self-study on any topic I’m interested in. Until 2012 I was in corporate with my last job at an Oil & Gas solutions company when I found that it didn’t interest me. I realized that I wanted to work for myself instead from then on.
Art Practice Through Years
Almaty being the capital of Kazakhstan is rich and thriving with the country’s classical and pop-culture. Growing up in the city allowed me to juggle my life between academics and my extracurriculars – especially art! I made sure to make time for some art classes I could take after school.
My first clients who commissioned my works were my classmates, they would ask me to draw their portraits in pencil for the graduation album. I would work on them during breaks or after classes. I endeavored to be active in art by joining art competitions – and won a few prizes, was commissioned by the school and university to create large-scale posters for various events, and also some lettering for the university department. Art was never left behind, later in my various workplaces, I continued to be a part of the concept designs for logos, packaging, web-sites and publications though they were not directly under my purview.
I took and completed courses on Product Design at UAL Central St. Martins, Figurative Life drawing at the Royal School of Drawing, Developing Artist Practice at UCL Slade School of Fine Arts, and the masterclasses of Anastasia Shimshilashvili, as well as other courses that took my interest through different online platforms. Next on my list is to attend Summer School at the Repin Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, once the world has recovered from the Covid situation.
Art and Travel
Travel during my childhood was limited, mostly it was just to visit my grandparents and other relatives in the rural areas. My first taste of travel outside that was when my sister and I were chosen to perform as part of the Republic Children’s Opera Theatre. We traveled as a group with our teachers to Moscow and Belgorod (Western Russia), and it was an amazing experience. It was a huge festival where we met lots of interesting people from different republics, we made new friends, and singing on a big stage gave us a confidence boost and a sense of independence for me especially, as I was very shy. It helped me overcome it, I became more open, and learned how to confidently express myself and perform in public.
Most of my international travel happened after graduating from the university. While I was at my first full-time job at the British Council, I also took my first trip to the UK in 2000, and I had a great experience. I visited London and Cambridge, took a course at Saffron-Walden, and fell in love with all the art inspiration and the British culture. With just a little map book of London, I wandered around, explored my way through the main art galleries and museums, and took some bus tours. After that, I would be visiting the UK every year. And later I even decided to pursue a Master degree in Glasgow, because Glasgow was filled with Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s art and architecture, he was a great inspiration to me in those days. It was a great decision, and I enjoyed the cultural diversity of Scotland and explored its natural beauty!
My dream to explore different cultures to create lasting memories, and be sources of inspiration for my paintings pushed me to do more travelling. So far, I have been to South Korea, Thailand, the US (loved Niagara Falls and Hawaii), Italy, Greece, Spain, Indonesia, mainland China and Hong Kong, Russia, France, Kyrgyzstan, Germany, Switzerland, Romania, and others that don’t come to mind now.
Love And Family
Italy was a love at first sight experience for me, since my youth, Italy was always at the top of my list of countries to visit but something would always come up to postpone that long-awaited trip. Perhaps fate had other plans for me, for ever since I met my husband Roberto (an Italian by the way) in 2008, I have since visited Italy numerous times already. Now with an added bonus of visiting my Italian family.
Soon after moving to London in July 2008, I met Roberto. By the end of the year we were engaged, and the following year we exchanged vows on three different occasions – the first in London, followed by another in Kazakhstan, and the last one in Italy.
Conceiving our first daughter, Tamara, took some time. I had to undergo two IVF treatments which greatly affected my health, but was thankfully rewarded with my giving birth to her in August 2013. Throughout my post-natal depression and intense hormonal imbalance, Roberto was very supportive. I was able to focus more on my art and painting, joining an art club and meeting fellow artists.
We wanted Tamara to have a sibling, and since she was such a lovely baby, we decided that it wouldn’t be too difficult to have another child. And in October 2015, Laura was born. I was quite active during my pregnancy with her, swimming and painting, and it was also during this time that the idea of creating our own brand of art materials came to mind.
The Birth of ZenART Supplies
I was painting at the time when the difficulty of going to physical shops with a baby and a toddler in tow, plus the seemingly endless options and quality issues and other struggles with the art supplies just suddenly gave me the idea of creating my own brand. One which will bring harmony to the customer’s mind with the promise of high quality unique art sets.
When my husband and I founded our art supplies company, we decided to call it ZenART Supplies because art for me has always been a form of meditation. ZenART is a journey to Zen – your harmonious self, calm and energised, through ART – the universal language of soul, which speaks when your mind is quiet. To be one again with my soul by switching off all the clutter in my mind. It’s when I can let go of all the problems and free myself from stress, it’s a very important part of my life. Whenever I don’t get to paint, I really feel so miserable – so I really try to get some painting time in to feel at peace.
Art has been a wonderful friend to me, it really helped me whenever I go through a lot of stress and it has helped me overcome a lot of the challenges in my life. It’s the place where I come back to and I just know that I am home. Whenever I’m about to start any painting, I also write a poem. A kind of small wish because the art I create is my good wish for someone or anyone who will be viewing it, wishing to bring some good to their life. Once you understand why you’re creating it, what the message is, it just comes naturally. The same positive energy that I put into my artwork, I always try to bring to our products.
ZenART Supplies is a family-run business, our dream is to create and provide high quality art supplies at an affordable price, to give guidance to the aspiring artists on their choice of art materials, how to take care of them, and help them throughout their artistic journey through useful advice, articles, and tutorials. We also invite artists to be part of ZenART’s thriving online community – Painting Inspiration Daily on Facebook, where fellow artists can get together and support each other.
I worked closely and collaborated with other professional artists to make sure to design and produce the best possible tools and materials. The often heard advice from my art teachers was of great guidance to me – they were always encouraging me to use professional or artist quality ever since – or at least “the best you can afford”. At some point in your artistic development, the quality of your tools and materials will definitely matter. It may even prove a hindrance to further experimentation of your mediums.
ZenART Supplies’ goal is to “Inspire the Artist in Everyone” by providing quality materials at unbeatable prices. I was frustrated with what I would find in the shops, either they were high end and expensive or cheap but low quality. That made me decide to fill the void between these two extremes. To not only have well curated products, but to package them in sets as well. Everything you’ll need according to your needs.
French Impressionism has always been near and dear to my heart. It has been a source of inspiration for ZenART Supplies and of my own visual style. The idea of not trying to paint as real as you can but instead painting an ‘impression’ through small and thin visible brushstrokes, and paying close attention to how the changing qualities of light and the atmosphere affect the person, object, or landscape just gives you the freedom of your own personal interpretation.
By not focusing on making my works as realistic as I can, I can fully enjoy painting and it becomes a form of meditation. Instead I’m more conscious of the emotion and message I wish to evoke in my creations through the use of colors and textures. There’s an endless possibility for play and exploration.
And with that I’ll leave you with one of the poems I wrote.
Poem by Ardak
Creativity is something inside me
It’s so hard to explain with your logic.
Creativity is what do you dream of
And it flies away or flicks back in second.
Inspiration is everywhere around us,
Keep your inner child curious, happy.
Think of art as an echo, expression
Of eternal soul’s blissful whispers.
It comes late at night when it’s quiet
When the whole world is sleeping and dreaming.
When accomplices are moon and my armchair
When I can’t stop wild spirits inside me.
Keep awake my canvas and brushes
And exchange flows of energy currents.
It’s the time when my mind is so silent
I dissolve in such mindful moments.
It can spread from dawn till the dusk time
And feeds hunger for my self expression.
Come and join the solitude wonder,
Capture life moments forever.