ADVERSUS | STYLE | Interview with Leyla Sandshiko. Painting is a dive into the subconscious

Interview with Leyla Sandshiko. Painting is a dive into the subconscious

Everything in my life is connected. What you see on my canvases comes from very deep and far. – Leyla Sandshiko

Leyla Sandshiko
Interview with Leyla Sandshiko. Painting is a dive into the subconscious. Ph. Charlotte Mesman

We meet at Fortune Town, Bangkok’s famous electronics department store, at three o’clock in the afternoon. Initially I suggested doing the interview in the morning, but since Leyla works at night and sleeps a bit longer in the daytime – something I didn’t know – we catch up when the Thai sun is already high in the sky.

Leyla Sandshiko
Leyla Sandshiko in her studio. Ph. Som Patchanan

Despite her petite stature, I immediately spot her in the crowd. She wears an oversized black and white oversized shirt, black sunglasses, and bare legs in ankle boots. With long black hair and fair-skinned, she could easily be mistaken for Japanese.

Leyla has been painting all her life but she only took it seriously when she moved to Thailand, where she acquired great name recognition in the international art scene in Bangkok. In the past years she has put together a large oeuvre and she holds several exhibitions and art events every year, both in Thailand and in Russia, as she always has new work to show. The demand for her art and expertise is growing steadily. Leyla Sandshiko is a name to remember.

Leyla Sandshiko
Leyla Sandshiko representing her Electroshock collection. Ph. Som Patchanan

Leyla’s studio is within walking distance from our meeting point. ‘See all those luxurious apartment buildings? When I first came here six years ago, there was nothing to be seen of it. It is unbelievable how fast Thailand is changing. Now they want to put all the overhead electricity cables underground. Too bad. At first I didn’t like them – I was shocked by how it looked – but now those poles heavily loaded with twisted lines and wires of all sorts look like true works of art to me. My Electroshock collection is inspired by it.’

Leyla pushes open the door of a 1970s old style Bangkok building, once a hotel with service apartments, plump and solid with bare corridors and walls, spacious rooms with balconies, also on the higher floors. ‘Here I have space and I can listen to music all night without disturbing anyone.’ When I enter her studio, I am overwhelmed. There are paintings everywhere and thousands, perhaps ten thousand of collector’s items. Leyla’s studio is a Wunderkammer full of little treasures and various art objects, many by herself.

Leyla Sandshiko
Painted tea table by Leyla Sandshiko. Ph. Charlotte Mesman

My attention is immediately drawn to a canvas with two eyes staring at me penetratingly. ‘This is amazing,’ I say. ‘What do you see?’ Leyla asks. She takes her cell phone and slides it across the canvas. In this enlarged version I see even more eyes, birds, animals. The more I look, the more I discover. Usually Leyla’s work is defined as abstract, but that is really too simplistic. Art with a challenging 3D effect would be a more appropriate definition.

My eyes now move from canvas to canvas. In a black and white painting I discover a horse. In another one a geisha. Faces, eyes, mouths, sensual women, creatures from dark underworlds. More and more images, almost visions, whirl before my eyes.

Meanwhile Leyla prepares Arabic coffee for me and a fragrant Thai tea for herself. She unfolds a coffee table, serves our hot brews in delicate porcelain cups and adds some precious saucers with fresh cheesecake on it. Her movements are graceful like a cat’s, for sure the result of the intriguing mix of freedom-loving Kalmyk and proud Turkmen blood that flows through her veins. Leyla was born in 1973 in the Kalmyk city of Èlista in southeastern Russia and her name, given to her by her Turkmen grandfather on her mother’s side, means ‘Night’.

I sit down in the leather sofa, notebook on my lap, pen in hand, ready to fire my questions at her.

Let me start me with a bold question. Your work leads the observant viewer into a mysterious, dark world. What do you use?

[Leyla laughs.] Hahahaha, I get that question a lot. The answer is: nothing. I have never smoked in my life and the past six years I have hardly touched alcohol. I am a very moderate drinker. Only on rare occasions I allow myself half a glass of wine. It seems wrong to me if I drink more. But I have a wild imagination. Only one word can trigger a whole story in my head.

Then where do those images come from?

Leyla Sandshiko
Leyla Sandshiko. Ph. Charlotte Mesman

Maybe it’s the night. I only work at night. I doze in bed [in a corner of Leyla’s studio is a double bed with a invitingly soft plush bedspread], listen to music, meditate, and then suddenly inspiration strikes me. When I work, I am in a kind of trance. I absolutely do not have any sense of time and I never know in advance what I will be painting. It may happen that the next day I myself am surprised by my own work. For me, art is an endless dialogue with the universe. There are countless invisible worlds that surround us, and then you also have the world of our own thoughts, our soul. I try to capture those worlds with my painting and make them accessible to the viewer. It’s like diving into the subconscious. Sometimes I am scared of it myself. That face there in red [Leyla points at a canvas]; it emanates a strange power. The other day during an argument, I destroyed it. I still don’t know what got into me. Maybe a Muay Thai fighter woke up in me [Leyla is practicing Muay Thai] or maybe it was Genghis Khan’s blood boiling [Leyla laughs as she is joking about herself].

You have trouble with color. Yet I do see colorful works here.

Leyla Sandshiko
Leyla Sandshiko for Monsoon Tea. Ph. Charlotte Mesman

For me life is in black and white, maybe because I mostly live in nighttime. Now take this painting. When I look at it, I think up the colors in my head. Compare it to the old black and white TV or a book that is written in black on white. When I watch a movie in black and white, I see it in color. And just say two words to me and it is a colorful cinema in my head. But most people don’t experience it that way. They actually want to see colors. That’s why I sometimes use them anyway. And also because if I only paint in black and white I quickly get the question whether I’m not doing well. Why so dark? Are you depressed? people keep asking me. And sometimes you just can’t do without color. For example, I am currently working with a local tea Chang Mai tea manufacturer, Monsoon tea, on a limited edition tea line – Looking For The Summer – for which I’m trying to capture the taste and smell of the tea in the packaging design. It is a very interesting collaboration as tea means a lot to me. I am a big fan of tea ceremonies and a connoisseur of tea culture. In this case, of course, I have to use vivid colors.

But you do paint in red.

Yes, I do. I can’t explain it, but it seems to me that I use it on an unconscious level and it reflects my character from the point of view of color psychology. I am kind of a leader, a self-confident person, I am always on the move, I always try to achieve my goal. At the same time I am sometimes quick-tempered, I can be suddenly aggressive even if I have a (seemingly) calm character, and I am stubborn as a bull. Red is passion! This color is very mysterious; I am also a mysterious person [Leyla laughs]. But I don’t often use red in my outfits.

You graduated from university in Management and Audit. How does that reconcile with your painting?

Not. From an early age I wanted to become a painter. But after graduating, I found a job as an accountant in a security and detective company. Do not laugh. I worked there for five years. Every day looked the same, even if sometimes I went with the detectives on a job, despite the fact that I was an accountant. I got along much better with them then with the rest of the office. But mostly it was boring. I heard all those women around me talking about nothing and then I suddenly thought: ‘If I don’t do anything, I’ll be here all my life’. Until one morning I woke up and thought: ‘I’m going to be a fashion designer’.

That thirst for creativity has to come from somewhere.

Leyla Sandshiko
Leyla Sandshiko interpreting her Muay Thai art and fashion. Ph. Phyo Khine Myint

My family loves art. I grew up in the midst of art. I have always painted, and I also went to music school and danced in the National Folk Dance Ensemble of Kalmykia. All that tugged at me while I was working in that mind-numbing office, but later this experience came in handy. Then I actually started designing clothes. At first I started making my own clothes. My friends liked my knitwear designs so much that they wanted them too. That’s how I started my own fashion brand. I invested some of my own savings, found a few manufacturers and some small boutiques in Moscow willing to sell my designs. I even showed my collection in Paris with a design team from Russia.

Paris was an eye-opener for you, you told me.

Yes. It was my first time abroad. That in itself was very exciting. But the pinnacle experience was the opening of an art exhibition to which I was invited. I had never seen such artistic people. We are now talking about the Paris of twenty years ago. It was a bizarre company. I remember a woman with half white/half black hair. She must have been a celebrity because a few years later I saw her on television. The whole event was fantastic, with a well-known DJ, and all. I was completely overwhelmed by everything. That evening, even if I did not know it yet, I began a new chapter in my life. It’s strange how all the things, and people, in my life are entangled and how everything is connected.

What exactly do you mean by that?

Let me give an example. When I was working in the security company, on my way to work I always passed an old-fashioned billboard that read “Parties, catering, events” in big letters, and I often wondered what its exact meaning was. Now I see it as a kind of message, a sign that was given to me, along with that art exhibition opening in Paris. Because when China started producing more and more fashion, making it very difficult for small Russian designers to survive, I started organizing events with a friend.

You became an event planner?

Yes, I have always been organizing parties for my friends at home: Japanese tea ceremonies, a mandarin party with the floor covered with mandarins. When I started as an event planner, I didn’t know anything about the organizational side, but through hard work and hiring good professionals I planned corporate events and glamorous parties. I coordinated fashion shows, birthdays, weddings, team building and exhibitions. It was all about keeping the budget as low as possible but making it look expensive. It was interesting but hard work, a lot of stress. I had to deal with famous and rich people for whom whatever you did was never enough. I learned a lot in those years. It may sound strange, but there was a lot of psychology involved. If I didn’t like the client, I would say straight to his face that I wasn’t going to do anything for him or her. In the meantime, I no longer had a life of my own. I usually worked evenings and nights, a habit I’ve kept till now. It was a glamorous life but glamour and money isn’t everything. I became exhausted and depressed. I lost interest in everything. What at first seemed an eternal holiday, was no longer fun.

How did you get over it?

Leyla Sandshiko
Brooch art and glamour dumbbell by Leyla Sandshiko. Ph. Charlotte Mesman

Art. Art helped me get over my depression. Art helps me deal with my emotions. Because all that time I still dreamed of becoming an artist. At that time I began to make bouquets of brooches. I search for vintage brooches, pearls and cameos and tied them together with wire. Once, when I was in a well-known club in Moscow and had a brooch bouquet with me, the captain of a well-known Russian football club wanted to buy it from me.

Let me understand this well: you had a brooch bouquet with you?

Yes, the way you have a bag with you. I like to dress in self-made clothes and accessories. I make everything myself. Also the accessories for my home. I don’t like standard things. I only like things when they are special, unique. I once had a boyfriend who got off the train every time we saw each other carrying the same bunch of flowers. I thought: “If he only brings me one more of those meaningless bouquets, I’ll break up with him.” Anyone can buy things. But look at these coffee cups. Not one is the same. These cups are all vintage. I have bought them here and there in Thailand. I do not want to spend more than 100 Thai Baht [a little bit more than $3] for each. It costs nothing but something like this has its value. Such cups can’t compete with a set of coffee cups that all look the same. And look, this tray I made myself. Put a red cup on it and you have a piece of art. Isn’t it nice to serve your husband an espresso like this? I personally love it.

Back to that club in Moscow where you walked around with your bouquet…

In short, I asked the captain $500 for the bouquet and he tried to lower the price to $300, but I declined his offer and eventually he paid the full price. At the time, $500 was a terribly high amount. Shortly afterwards I met someone who was looking for a suitable birthday present for the 50th birthday of a famous businesswoman. Why not give her a bouquet of ‘jewel flowers’ that won’t wilt? Flowers always make a beautiful gift, but at the same time jewel flowers form a tangible, lasting memory of that milestone in her life, I said. That is how I sold my second bouquet.

Let us talk about Thailand. How did you get here? How come we are now sitting here with a view on the metropolis of Bangkok?

Eventually I got sick and tired of organizing all those luxury events. I had panic attacks, headaches, back pain. The doctors’ fees sometimes even exceeded the revenues of projects I had been working on for months. It all made no sense anymore. At that point I decided to visit Thailand where many of my friends spent their winters. I had traveled quite a lot in the meantime. Europe, Turkey, Egypt, but Thailand hit me like a sledgehammer. After my glamorous life in Moscow, I didn’t understand this strange Asian world. The street food restaurants, all those motorbikes, and that people, so sweet. I was confused and couldn’t stop crying, it was a shocking experience. Then returned to Moscow and realized that I can’t live without Thailand anymore. I closed everything, gave away many belongings, and went to live in Thailand, despite all the protests of my friends, acquaintances and family.

Woow. Intense.

Yep. I also married a Thai man. I organized a gorgeous wedding for myself. After all I am a professional wedding planner [Leyla laughs her irresistible laugh]. And then I started painting. Something I had wanted to do all my life.

Why just then?

Leyla Sandshiko
Painting by Leyla Sandshiko

Because I needed to paint. I needed it to deal with my emotions, to overcome my depression and fatigue, from all the hard work in past. Painting is like therapy. Life in Thailand as a foreigner is not easy. It is very hard to gain respect from the local people. I tried to getting starting as a wedding planner but I didn’t like it, it was too hot, all those weddings on the beach, burning sun, burning sand. I also was constantly worrying. My husband was often away for work, I was often alone. And there are so many beautiful girls around here [Leyla laughs]. When I wasn’t with him, I kept thinking about him all the time, where he was, what he was doing. Our cultures are so different. It was only logical we often argued. Until one day I got up and thought: ‘I have to do something.’ I started painting, went to art galleries, started frequenting the Thai art circles and I taught myself to put negative thoughts away. I did that by imagining cutting them with imaginary scissors. That’s how I eventually got over my depression. Instead of worrying or arguing with my husband, I put all my energy into painting and creating name recognition. When I paint I forget everything. It is a healing and meditative process.

You have now built up a large collection and have held many exhibitions.

Yes, I regularly hold exhibitions, in Thailand, as well as in Russia. The starting point is usually a theme, such as my ‘Counter Punch’ exhibition here in Bangkok. That collection was inspired by Muay Thai, the classic Thai martial art, and also by the performance of the famous Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara. I have started painting this art series during the covid-19 downlock here in Thailand. That is how the idea was born to create a collection where art meets these ancient box techniques. All paintings from my Counter Punch collection are made by hitting the canvas with box gloves soaked in acrylic paint. This collection is more conceptual than my other work. It has a deeper meaning, as these abstract canvases symbolize my vision of life: whatever happens, fight back!

I don’t have to ask you where your inspiration for your painting comes from.

Leyla Sandshiko with Arash Goyan
Leyla Sandshiko with Arash Goyan. Ph. Angelina Korn

From everything. From emotions and events. From things I see like those masses of electricity cables hanging over the streets here in Thailand, from things I do like practicing an ancient Thai sport like Muay Thai, but also from meeting people, meeting other artists like the Persian artist Arash Goyan with whom I made a collection. At night, when the time is right, I sit in front of my canvas and let it all come. Everything flows, everything comes together, everything is connected.

My life is filled with lots of interesting stories. With this interview I already told you some of my memoirs, but it is only a small part. Come over for a cup of tea and I will tell you more :-)

Charlotte Mesman, Bangkok, April 2022. Thanks to Anastasia Maslova and to Leyla Shandshiko, of course.

Official website:

Current & upcoming events 2022

Leyla Sandhiko x Monsoon Tea art show and tea blend presentation is happening on April 28th at Monsoon Tea Asok Tea Shop and Kombucha bar, 4pm till 6pm.

Also, for the second year in a row, Leyla is participating in the international art fair ‘Mango art festival‘, May 3rd to 8th at River City Gallery, Sathorn 11 Art Space booth G-4.

Meanwhile, selected works from “Digital Dreams” and “Blondie Chain” art series are displayed on both floors of Bartels Craft Bread, Coffee & Juicery (760, 1 Sukhumvit Rd).

Several pieces from different collections are also displayed at Muguet de Café and Art Space in Siracha (Porestva Hotel, 95/1 หมู่ที่ 10 Bang Phra, Si Racha District, Chon Buri).