Melissa Hefferlin and Daud Akhriev decided it was time for an adventure.
The married couple, both of whom are professional artists, weren't talking about some well-heeled, expertly arranged safari in Africa, nor were they envisioning a backwoods hike through the Rockies. They were looking for a spiritual quest of sorts, something to ignite their creativity, to excite and engage them.
So they moved. To Olvera, a town of about 8,500. In Spain.
"We approached middle age and thought the time for an adventure was kind of now," says the 46-year-old Hefferlin. "Luckily, both our spirits sought a walkabout at the same time. We wanted something contrasting with the climate of Tennessee - no point in living two places which are exactly the same - and somewhere really small and tranquil for lots of time to consider new work uninterrupted."
They now live eight months a year in Olvera, which sits north of Gibraltar in the Andalusia region of Spain, then come back to Chattanooga and their home on Southside for four months. Throughout the year, Hefferlin's artwork is displayed at Gallery 1401, while Akhriev's pieces are at River Gallery. Akhriev also created the "Four Seasons," the female sculptures that sit on the south end of the Market Street Bridge and on nearby East First Street, and he has created murals at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, the Collegedale Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Samaritan Center and Baylor School.
And back in their adopted country, they've landed a monthlong art exhibition. At the Palacio de Congressos in Ronda, Spain, a 2,500-year-old town just south of Olvera (where Ernest Hemingway developed his love of bullfighting), the pair have opened "Movement and Light Textures: A World of Cultures," an exhibit of 100 pieces of their artwork that will run through July.
"I would like to say that moving between countries has been helpful in my work, like a cold shower," says Akhriev, who grew up in Russia. "With the changes between being in Russia, Spain and the USA your eyes must constantly readjust to the new imagery.
"Seeing the way in Spain that the arts of dance, song and food are an integrated part of village life is a constant inspiration," he says. "Though the travel itself is wearing, the shock of different vibrant situations feeds my work."
The collection - which are all individual works by the couple, no collaborations - is in a variety of media, from pastels to oils on linen and prepared wooden panels, from linoleum block prints, to watercolors, tempera, and graphite and charcoal drawings.
"We do not collaborate on shared canvases," says Hefferlin, who grew up in Collegedale and graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1993. "We converse with one another about various elements of a painting but not to the point of collaboration. "
Their artwork for the exhibition includes flamenco dancers in full swing, horses and riders, landscapes and still lifes, all reflecting the culture and daily life of Andalusia.
"The light of Andalusia is like a living being in your life, so powerful is its influence on choices you make - what side of the street you walk on, when you eat, when you sleep," Hefferlin says. "The cultures of dancers, cowboys, expatriates, older people and children. So - light, texture, movement and a world of culture: Voila!"
Akhriev, 54, notes that the Andalusian region is a melting pot of Spanish and Moroccan influences - Morocco is just across the 9-mile-wide Strait of Gibraltar from Spain - and his artwork not only reflects those cultures but his own upbringing in Russia.
"When you have two cultures next to each other, such defined cultures which have strong flavors visually such as Morocco and Spain, these strong visual influences by their contrast help you to see the visual elements of other cultures in more clarity," he says. "Seeing Morocco and Spain helped me to better see the visual character of the region where I was born, and of the USA, which is my adult home.
"This show we are hanging now is about the beauty of diversity, the passion offered by different cultures. This gives me strength, to perceive beauty from different points of view."
Getting an exhibition in the Palacios de Congressos was a matter of asking questions, Hefferlin says. As tourists, the couple had visited the hall - a former convent that was the regional headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition - and inquired about who could exhibit there. They were told about a juried competition and decided to enter.
"I had to do that in my very rough Spanish," Hefferlin says.
When back in Chattanooga, both teach art at Townsend Atelier and, in the past, they've also taught at UTC and done private lessons. Hefferlin has been an art professor at Southern Adventist University where her father, Ray Hefferlin, still teaches physics.
Both also have a longstanding relationship with Baylor, working with several art teachers there, including Betsy Carmichael, who teaches drawing and advance placement art. Over several summers, Carmichael accompanied groups of Baylor students to Europe, where Akhriev would teach classes and help them with their artwork.
"They absolutely love Daud's energy, and he has a great rapport with the kids and really likes working with them," Carmichael says. "He has real philosophy that he needs to give back in some way."
Last fall, Akhriev created a 400-square-foot mural in the Ireland Fine Arts Center at Baylor, a depiction of the nine muses from Greek mythology. Made from clay and ceramic tile - some of which was made in Baylor's art studio - the mural was a collaboration with art teacher Mary Lynn Portera. Hefferlin, meanwhile, was at Baylor this past spring, teaching a class on linoleum block printing.
"She's brilliant," Carmichael says. "She's great at explanation, highly trained and able to communicate pretty complex ideas. She can work on the spot with the students and demonstrate and answer questions because she has a great understanding of art history and puts everything in context."
Akhriev and Hefferlin met when she attended the Repin Institute of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Akhriev's family still lives.
"It was still Communist Russia, and I was the only American to study there in the Communist time," Hefferlin says. "I was there for a year, and Daud was graduating from the six-year bachelor/master degree program."
By the end of the year, they were engaged, and they returned together to Chattanooga in 1991, the same year he eventually earned a master's degree in easel painting.
"One of the great things about a 14-year education from the former Soviet Union is that you come out on the other side trained in literally everything," she says. "You are just trained, period. So whatever his whim dictates, he can just commence."
Contact Shawn Ryan at email@example.com or 423-757-6327.