Irina Ourusoff: A Life in Several Acts

Surrounded by her work in other mediums, Irina Ourusoff demonstrated her rug-hooking technique in her Georgica studio.

    Darting from painting to rug hooking to full-time gardening to being a sailboat cook — to bridge games to daily yoga — Irina Ourusoff barely has time to draw breath, much less have a conversation.
    Living in the house in East Hampton that her parents bought 50 years ago, Ms. Ourusoff opens her studio each summer to visitors making the rounds of the two-day tour run by the Artists Alliance of East Hampton (slated this year for July 23 and 24). She also is a member of the Garden Club of East Hampton, has shown her rugs at craft shows for the past decade, and exhibited her paintings of Noah’s Ark as well as her large, surrealist canvases at Guild Hall and Ashawagh Hall. And when she’s not doing all that, she is a volunteer at the Ladies Village Improvement Society’s book shop.
    In the 1960s, Ms. Ourusoff taught dance and art to little girls at Anita Zahn’s school on Lily Pond Lane. Her parents, aristocratic Russians who grew up in Belgium, moved to Paris after the Nazis invaded that country, never imagining that they might take Paris as well. Born in Belgium, Ms. Ourusoff spent much of her childhood in Paris during the occupation, but once her father became an interpreter for the League of Nations in 1948, the family moved to New York City. Ms. Ourusoff graduated from the Spence School and from age 11 to 16 took ballet classes for two hours every day after school at the School of American Ballet, founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein.
    “As a child I was not artistic,” she said. “I wanted to be a ballerina.” Perhaps thinking it would be too strenuous a career for his daughter, when she turned 16 her father said, “Basta!” She continued her schooling at the Parsons School of Design, where she learned about both arts and crafts, a thorough preparation for teaching art, which is what she began doing as a very young woman at Nightingale Bamford and Spence, where she also taught French and Russian.
    “I can do sculpture, I can paint, I can do graphic art,” she said recently at her house off Georgica Road, which is filled with the pieces she collects, the artwork of various family members, and her own work.
    Between the ages of 20 and 60, however, Ms. Ourusoff did nothing artistic at all.
    Instead, after graduating from Parsons in 1958, she had a job briefly at an advertising agency before being snatched up by the State Department to be the interpreter in Moscow for the “kitchen debate,” a series of impromptu exchanges between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that took place in a kitchen of a model home, part of an American exhibit at a Moscow park. Ms. Ourusoff stayed in the U.S.S.R. for the whole summer. When she came back she joined the United Nations as a trilingual guide.
    After she had her two daughters, Ms. Ourusoff moved to the information department and then translated treaties into three languages in the treaty department, whence she was grabbed by John Train to work for his investment counseling firm. In 1980 she took time off to work for two months as an interpreter at the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. In the early ’80s she accompanied Mr. Train to a ceremony at Buckingham Palace at which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Templeton Prize, for peace.
    Ms. Ourusoff picked up her gardening expertise during a 10-year sojourn in Medbury, N.H., running a nursery singlehandedly on a 20-acre 18th-century farm. She began hooking rugs there and was president of the Durham Art Association before returning to her East Hampton house, which had been rented out during her stay in New England.
    For her rug hooking, for which she uses a cotton-acrylic mix of thread, she accepts commissions and mainly does portraits of people’s pets from photographs. (The rugs can be hung or used on the floor, and they are machine washable.) Animals are also the most frequent subjects of her watercolors.
    Meanwhile, for 20 years, Ms. Ourusoff has cooked twice a year on friends’ sailboats, where, she said, she is able to function in the galley without getting seasick, even when the boat is heeling over. One of the things Ms. Ourusoff collects are embroideries made by sailors in their downtime, some of which are very old.
    In addition to her surrealistic canvases, she paints delightful variations on the theme of Noah’s ark for children, on commission, and does collages as well. Asked whether she had ever been interested in illustrating children’s books, Ms. Ourusoff said, “That bores me. I prefer to use my imagination.”