I first started painting in the late 1950s. This was during the nonconformist period in Soviet Russia. I think perhaps the starting point of this movement was the sixth World Festival of Youth and Students, which took place in Moscow in the summer of 1957. It was held under the slogan “For peace and friendship” and had, of course, a propagandistic character that met the objectives of the communist regime. Still, it had many positive moments. Soviet executive bodies, confused and distracted by conflicting movements in the upper echelons of power, failed to pay attention to things they normally did, which allowed a temporary sense of freedom to surface. During two weeks of that summer, Moscow was full of unusual bustle. Things that had seemed absolutely impossible only a couple of months earlier became reality in the Moscow streets. Ordinary Soviet people could meet foreigners and talk freely with them (with the help of body language, of course), and none of them were pursued for it. Picasso’s “Dove of Peace,” although invented for another occasion, became the symbol of the festival, and Picasso’s name thus became known to a wider circle of people.
During the festival, there were many exhibitions by international artists. At these exhibitions, Muscovites could see abstract paintings. That exposure was the impetus for creating their own nonfigurative works, which were strikingly different from the socialist realism style prevalent at the time.
I was living in Moscow, and it so happened that I spent summer break of 1957 in the city. The struggle for peace, as the theme was deemed by the communists, was the key point of the festival, but I did not pay much attention to it, especially because the hysteria of that struggle was, in truth, not particularly intense at the time. All this struggling for peace was not enforced by the Soviets at full capacity. They were capable of much more. But at that moment, they were a little more relaxed. For this reason, the festival, with all its exhibitions and its spirit of relative freedom, had a positive impact on me and on many others as well.
Was I one of the nonconformists when I started painting? Well, if I answer this question considering only style of painting, then I can be counted among the nonconformists of the period. However, I think it is not enough to consider only painting style. The important characteristics of nonconformism at the time were first, a lifestyle, and second, the nature of the artist’s relationship with the Soviet authorities. The latter was crucial. In order to be called a nonconformist, it was first necessary to belong to a local bohemia, or at a minimum to have a lifestyle close to bohemian. In addition, painting had to be the most important thing in life – or at least one of the most important things. It was also necessary to be in a state of minor but permanent, and perhaps most importantly, intentionally open conflict with the authorities.
I, however, did not have all this at that time. Since the mid-1950s, I had become increasingly attracted to mathematics, and by 1959, I was already a student of mathematics at Moscow State University. My life was not chaotic. On the contrary, I had a pretty clear idea of what I would do in the future and how I would do it. I was planning on an ordinary professional career and had very few thoughts about getting involved in something else. Therefore, I certainly did not belong to the local bohemia.
Of course, I was in permanent disagreement with the existing regime. But that was hidden, and only people close to me knew about it. None of us had any ability or desire to fight actively against the political establishment. That struggle seemed to us very dangerous and absolutely futile, or at least certainly not leading to any attainable goal in the foreseeable future. To be willing to engage in such struggle, one needed to have special courage, but neither I nor any of my close friends had such courage. Besides, it seemed the existing regime, maybe corrected a little, was quite suitable for most of the population. For this reason, I thought only about how it might be possible to flee the country.
My only open conflict with the Soviet system was the fact that I was always smiling. However, there was an unwritten rule in Soviet Russia: Nobody may smile. If you were smiling, ordinary Soviet citizens became irritated. In school, I was constantly scolded for smiling. "What's so funny?" was a disapproving question I heard constantly. The school principal once said, looking straight at me, "Some of you have just lost a human face, because things are always funny to you.” I heard similar comments at the university and in general throughout my life in Soviet Russia.
Once, back in high school, things took quite a nasty turn. I got on a tram with a group of my friends, and of course, I was smiling. The tram conductress became very upset. She probably thought if I was smiling, I was not going to buy a ticket, although I always bought a ticket in a tram. As soon as I ascended a couple of stairs, she hit me on the head with a broom. At that time, tram doors were always open, and my school cap fell off my head and rolled down the stairs, out the door, and away on the pavement.
At the next stop, I got out of the tram and walked back to look for my cap. As I approached the spot, I saw a policeman coming toward me with my cap in hand. I told the policeman what happened to me in the tram. He said that for my hooligan behavior, he would take me to school and ask the staff to punish me. He really brought me to school. Unfortunately, it so happened that on that day, only teachers who hated smiles were present, and they were very pleased by this turn of events. They warned me that I would soon sink so low, it would be necessary to send me to a colony for juvenile delinquents.
The fact that a smile rarely left my lips surely was not such a big crime against the society in which I then lived. Further, and perhaps most importantly, I did not do it on purpose. I think my face was somehow especially adapted to smile.
In short, I was not a nonconformist in every sense of the word, although I definitely possessed some signs of nonconformity. Looking back, I would say that I was about one-third nonconformist.
In December of 1962, Moscow avant-garde artists experienced a setback. A comprehensive exhibition to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Moscow Union of Artists (MOSCH) was held at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall. At the same place, Ely Bielutin had organized an exhibition of avant-garde paintings. When the Soviet party boss (the Corn Man, as we called him) saw the collected works, he got so infuriated that he yelled at the artists, promising to deport them from the Soviet Union. "The Soviet people do not need it!" – that was the politest thing he said to Bielutin.
Further turmoil followed, but what seemed at the time to be great trouble led to great success later, although nobody knew that would happen, and all avant-garde artists struggled in this difficult period. But despite all the problems, they decided not to give up. Instead, they began to exhibit paintings in their own homes. They invited everybody to come to their apartments during weekends while still dreaming of making possible broader and more open exhibitions.
Soon after the Manezh exhibition, Ekaterina Pomanskaya, the mother of my university friend Lesha Pomansky, brought my friends and me to a party at Bielutin’s residence. Pomanskaya was a member of the MOSCH, although she was in some opposition to the organization, and for this reason, she always suffered. She knew all the Moscow avant-garde. She also knew Bielutin well. That was how we got to his party. It was, if I am not mistaken, somewhere near Mayakovsky Square.
The party was a lot of fun. There were, of course, many eyewitness stories told about how the Soviet corn-leader bellowed in the Manezh Gallery. It was at this party where I heard for the first time the word "faggot," pronounced the same way the Corn Man pronounced it when referring to avant-garde artists. There, at the party, for the first time, I also heard many jokes that I was to hear again countless times. One such joke was, "All members of MOSCH are not worth a single member of Bosch." It seemed to me very funny, and right on target. Even now, when I recollect it, it always makes me smile.
Bielutin talked a lot about what happened at the Manezh Gallery. One story he shared was about Lesha Pomansky’s mother. At some point, as the Corn Man was becoming increasingly furious, Dmitry Polyansky, a big fish in Soviet governance, poured oil on the Corn Man’s flaming temper. Polyansky said his daughter had recently been presented with a picture of Ekaterina Pomanskaya called “Lemons.” But actually, he said, what was depicted was not lemons but just shit. Naturally, Polyansky’s remark had a powerful impact on Pomanskaya and her reputation. She was in big trouble with the management of the MOSCH.
No one felt depressed at Bielutin’s party. In fact, everyone was excited by the pleasant company and, in general, by the whole situation. Then, somewhere close to the end of the gathering, Bielutin raised his clenched fist and shouted, "We'll teach them a lesson!"
Who Bielutin intended to educate was more or less clear, but what kind of lesson was that supposed to be? I do not think anybody knew. I am not sure even Bielutin knew. The Soviet authorities, however, had a much clearer understanding of what kind of lessons they would be teaching, and to whom, and they inflicted them quite generously.
It turned out, however, that Bielutin was right. The Soviet avant-garde did teach everybody a lesson, one that proved more intense and impactful than Bielutin or anyone else at that time ever could have dreamed. Artworks created by leaders in the Soviet avant-garde movement are now featured in museums all over the world, and the prices these works command are astronomical.
In the mid-summer of 1966, my friends and I spent a few weeks in the Ukraine, in Crimea. Lesha’s stepfather, Zeitlin, arranged for us to live in the state Artists’ House in the town of Gurzuf. He too was an artist and a member of MOSCH, but unlike Ekaterina Pomanskaya, he was an “obedient” member, and therefore successful. I met him only once or twice. Lesha’s mother I met more frequently. She was a wonderful artist and an extraordinary woman.
I am obliged to Lesha and his mother for all my art education. Lesha, apparently, never created any artwork, but I received a number of technical tips from him. I learned about different painting techniques. I learned where to get canvas, how it should be primed, and how it should be mounted on a stretcher. I learned how to build the wooden frame and strengthen it with cross braces to prevent warping. Lesha also explained that paints should not be mixed without paying attention to their components; otherwise, they may fade.
I learned many other useful things from Lesha as well. In particular, he told me there were two extremely different groups of Moscow artists. His mother belonged to one of them; his stepfather belonged to the other. Members of one group cleaned their brushes with a newspaper. Member of other group cleaned their brushes with soap under hot water. I internalized all best ideas offered by the Moscow school of fine arts. I cleaned my brushes with a newspaper and then washed them with soap under hot water. Now, half a century later, I have improved upon this technology and replaced the newspaper with a paper towel.
The roof of the Artists’ House was under a canopy, and in the middle of the day, the artists settled down there with their easels. When I arrived for the first time, I wanted to join them, but the only thing I had brought to Crimea, in addition to clothing, was snorkeling equipment. That was a problem. Fortunately, there was a small art shop at the Artists’ House. It held the solution to my problem. I bought primed and unprimed cardboard, paints, paint thinner, and even Chinese weasel brushes, and settled down on the roof, near the artists who painted en plein air. Really, it was peinture sur le motif. They painted what their eyes actually saw. Their pictures were comprised of the sea, and rocks, and boats. They were “real” artists. All of them.
I built an improvised easel and also began to paint en plein air. Well, maybe my eyes saw everything in a different way. As a result, my pictures were substantially abstract.
When I knew I was being watched, I had a little fun: I looked at the sea, then at my picture, then at the sea again, and then touched my canvas with a brush. That shocked the local public a lot.
I returned to Moscow with all the trophies I had purchased at the art shop, continued to paint pictures. I also started getting to know the artists of the Moscow underground. On Saturdays and Sundays, as Lesha’s mother advised, I visited Moscow artists’ apartments. It was easy to become acquainted with the underground art community: Once I learned about a painting exhibition in one apartment, I always found an ad there with the address of the next apartment exhibiting work.
I closely tracked how Ekaterina Pomanskaya worked. At some point, I learned she produced linocuts. It is quite possible Picasso’s linocuts influenced her. “Lemons,” the work criticized by soviet authorities at the Manezh Gallery, was also a linocut. I liked Pomanskaya’s works very much, so when Lesha taught me how to make a linocut, I decided to try the technique myself. I got linoleum and wood carving tools: chisels and gouges. Then I made a very simple printing press. Other necessary tools included a special paint for the press, which Lesha found somewhere for me, and a rubber roller, which all of us used for glossing photos. Lesha, however, warned me that his mother did not trust that roller much and instead used a plain tablespoon when working on the details of her linocuts.
I made a couple of linocuts. Then Lesha guided me in making a couple of monotypes, again using techniques he had learned from his mother. She used a regular glass instead of copper etching plate as the matrix for her monotype images. So did I. Unfortunately, neither my linocuts nor my monotypes survived. All of them were lost somewhere during my move from Russia to America.
Not so long ago, Lesha Pomansky gave me two of his mother’s original linocuts. I keep them in my Millburn house. I have liked one of them, “Pomegranate,” since the 1960s.
Four years after the Manezh exhibition, the first milestone exhibition of paintings by the Moscow nonconformists took place. Twelve artists took part in this event. Eight of them belonged to the so-called Lianozovo group: Evgeny Kropivnitsky (the guru of the group), Oscar Rabin, Vladimir Nemukhin, Lidiya Masterkova, Nikolai Vechtomov, Olga Potapova (wife of Evgeny Kropivnitsky), Lev Kropivnitsky (a son of Evgeny Kropivnitsky and Olga Potapova), and Valentina Kropivnitskaya (Oscar Rabin’s wife, and a daughter of Evgeny Kropivnitsky and Olga Potapova). The other four participants in this event, who did not belong to the Lianozovo group, were Dmitry Plavinsky, Anatoly Zverev, Eduard Steinberg, and Valentin Vorobiev.
The exhibition was hosted by the club-house “Friendship,” which belonged to the organization where I worked at that time. This organization was called P. O. Box 702. The name P. O. Box instead of a regular name meant that the organization was considered secret. At that time in history, secret organizations existed throughout the country, although I seriously doubt any actual technological secrets could be found there. What the Soviets were trying to keep secret were things like the exact nature of the work being done in a specific organization, or how low the quality was of all the work the organizations were doing in general, or information about technology being "borrowed" from the West. Our P. O. Box met the criteria for all three such types of secrets.
From our side, P. O. Box 702, the young people, including me, and technical personnel from the club-house worked together to arrange the exhibition. From the artists’ side, the organizer was Oscar Rabin. Liaising between the P. O. Box and artists was Alexander Glezer. He knew our youth, although how he knew them, I do not remember. But Glezer and our young people knew each other very well. It is possible that Glezer worked for us or for a related organization. Actually, it was he who organized the Exhibition of Twelve.
Glezer shared his idea to sponsor an exhibition with our young people, who knew absolutely nothing about avant-gardists. They then started asking me questions about the artists. In our organization, I was the indisputable authority on fine arts. When I learned they were talking about Rabin and his friends, I gave my immediate go ahead for the exhibit. The only thing I did not mention was that it was very risky to get involved in this business. For our young people, what happened next seemed as thunder from cloudless heavens, because they were absolutely naive in that sense.
The exhibition opened on Sunday, January 22, 1967. It was assumed the exhibition would last for some time. I, however, was not at all sure about that. I suspected it might be shut down the same day it opened, so I decided not to wait until Monday to see it and went to the opening. On Sunday, I was the sole volunteer representing our organization at this event. All the others who intended to visit the club-house decided it was not necessary to spend their Sunday there if it was possible to view the exhibition later, on a workday.
On the opening day, I was 100% confident the exhibition would be immediately shut down and considered à great scandal. I decided this because I saw plenty of cars with quaint foreign outlines conveniently parked around our super-secret organization. I expected the KGB would take strong, tough action.
My prognostications proved correct. The exhibition lasted only a couple of hours before being closed by the KGB. I had left the building a little before this happened, so I learned about the shut down the next morning, Monday. I went to the club-house before my work shift and saw absolutely empty halls, with the ends of cut rope dangling sadly down all the walls.
Our P. O. Box was then caught in crossfire between the KGB and other Moscow organizations of the Communist Party. For some reason, the KGB forgot about our youth. Under fire was the head of our local branch of the Communist Party, Zlata Preobrazhenskaya. In his book “Contemporary Russian Art,” Alexander Glezer wrote in detail about all aspects of the exhibition, including his negative impression of Zlata. If his words about Zlata were paint, they would all be a tone of gray. I am far from doubting the truthfulness of the exhibition’s peripeteia as Glezer portrayed it. The described sequence of events is certainly plausible. But Zlata deserved, in my opinion, to be described using more light tones.
Why do I think so? Well, for one thing, right after the closing of the Exhibition of Twelve, I expected to receive at least some complaints from Zlata regarding my role in the exhibition, but there was none. On the contrary, it seemed to me that when we accidentally met, Zlata greeted me with obvious sympathy. Once, we had a short conversation on a subject of no particular consequence here. At some point, I happened to be in disagreement with her, and I pushed my countering argument a little bit further than she liked. When she thought I was about to say something seditious (in her point of view), she looked me in the eye and said with a faint smile, “Stop! I know you. I see you can tell me something wrong. I don’t want to hear that.” Our conversation was abruptly over. For those who know nothing about that time, I have to say that given Zlata’s position, it would have been normal, actually mandatory, for her to listen to me and pass the content of our conversation to the authorities, to the KGB.
In spite of the fact that Glezer and I both were at the Exhibition of Twelve, we did not meet each other. In fact, I have never met him, even when he moved his Museum of Modern Russian Art from France to New Jersey. I met with those who headed the museum in Jersey City only after Glezer had left it.
After the Exhibition of Twelve was dismantled, the Moscow artist-nonconformists became gloomy, but they did not surrender. They were operating underground, continuing to create their works and even selling them from time to time. Many of them even managed to make a living through their art, although they sold their pictures for almost nothing.
I know those sales brought in a pittance because I know how much pictures by the recognized Russian masters cost at that time. Once, I was involuntarily involved in sales of such pictures. One of my friends, Kira, had unexpectedly received a big inheritance when her uncle died. He was a good doctor, and he had access to the limited state medical resources. Such doctors were quite wealthy at that time. Their activities were, to a large extent, illegal, but they were privately protected by certain high-ranking officials. This uncle left Kira his entire fortune: money, jewelry, and paintings by Russian masters.
At the time, I lived in Neopalimovsky lane. Kira lived in an old house on the next street. She told me the walls of her apartment had such big holes that she could see everything outside. To keep diamonds, sapphires, and paintings in such a house would be stupid, so she brought all her things to our apartment. I hung all of her pictures on the walls. There were works by Ilya Repin, Boris Kustodiev, Nickolas Roerich, Abraham Manevich, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, and Konstantin Korovin.
At that time, Kira was single. She lived silently and unnoticed. The things changed suddenly and utterly. She started to attract wealthy men. We began to see decent people in our house. They made clever conversation; explain us what calvados is, at what temperature it should be tasted, and how the serving glass should be curved at the top to concentrate the aroma. They also asked us about prices for the jewelry and paintings Kira had inherited. It was not long before a small work by Repin was sold for 500 rubles. A large work of Kustodiev’s, “Flowers,” was sold in time for 800 rubles. Kira was told not to sell the Roerich for less than 5000, but this value attracted no buyers. The best offer for Roerich was 2000, which is why this picture stayed at our house longer than the others.
This was several years after the monetary reform of 1961. My salary at that time was about 100 rubles a month. A bottle of vodka cost 2 rubles and 87 kopecks.
Kira was introduced to people from galleries. She was invited to the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val, which was close to our apartment, to see their “foundation,” that is, what was hidden behind the walls of their depository and unavailable to a wide audience. Kira took me with her. There were several big rooms containing nothing but shelves, with small gaps between them. On these shelves were kept pictures by those Russian artists who, in the opinion of the country’s leaders, “were not needed by the Soviet people.” Pictures were placed very close to each other, and without any organization. Some were in frames, others were just on canvas stretchers. The smell of dust was strong. It was possible to look at a picture only by picking it up from a rack and setting it on the floor, leaning against a nearby wall.
On the top of one of the shelves, there was a huge painting that caught my eye. I began to pull it, but it was about one and a half meters wide and so difficult to hold by the stretcher frame without touching it with my hands. I tried my best, but when the painting began to fall on me, I was forced to touch the canvas. I put it on the floor and leaned it against the wall. The artist and his wife were flying over their hometown, Vitebsk.
I had been fortunate to see an album of Mark Chagall’s work shortly before my trip to the Tretyakov Gallery. I could have guessed there probably were some of his works in Russia. But it was difficult for me to believe that I was standing there, viewing his “Over the Town,” only 10 walking-minutes distant from where I lived.
I was always surprised by the extreme inconsistency in the banditry of the Soviet authorities (I now understand I should not have surprised). They considered the work of the Russian avant-gardists to be garbage. But for those who wanted to export this “garbage” and take these pictures abroad, things became difficult. Avant-garde paintings started to be considered the equal of other artworks, and then obtaining a permit to export pictures transformed into a very complicated business. Most of the time, the owner of the “garbage” had to pay a bribe. He had to find the right people so the bribe offered on one end would be safely accepted on the other end. The offeror of a bribe most often extended a deep (and sincere!) gratitude toward the offeree, who felt profound satisfaction due to both the financial output of the deal and the feeling that a good deed had been done.
In 1989, a coworker and close friend from those years, Gena Ioffe, was leaving Russia forever, or so it seemed. He was married to Anna Plavinskaya, a daughter of Dmitry Plavinsky. Gena and Anna were bringing with them works by Russian artists. Of course, they had received all the necessary permits for their export. Among these works, Gena had a present I had given him, a collage I had created entitled “Baba with Earrings.” I accompanied Gena to the airport and watched how the customs official checked all the artworks and export documents. Everything was fine until he got to my work. The customs official asked to see the permission for export. Gena replied that permission for this picture was not required, because it was created by his friend, and he nodded his head toward me. The customs official looked at me up and down and eventually agreed: My work did not require permission.
“Baba” was one of my last creations before departing Russia, and it was special because I had been trying to create something using a technique other than painting.
Back in 1970, I had tried doing something with clay. One day back then, I was returning home from somewhere in the rain. My shoes splashing rainwater from puddles. Then I noticed some white gleams in the middle of a slushy patch of ground. I marked the place, and when the rain was over and everything dried out, I returned and managed to dig up something that looked like white clay. Certainly, this clay was very muddy, but I knew how to deal with that. I tapped my clay against the concrete steps of the porch, a trick I learned from the boys in the house where I lived my first 17 years. The dirt gradually began disappearing, and soon I had a decent piece of clear clay in my hand.
Using this clay, I made a plate and left it to dry for a couple of weeks. Then I put it in a plain gas stove to harden. Fortunately, my plate did not crack, although I think it was fragile. While I do not believe any structural changes happened in this firing, the plate was a little better that just greenware. Pleased, I “glazed” the plate with oil paint. The result looked very bad.
I wanted to understand what had gone wrong, so I took a regular ceramic saucer and put an image on it. This time, I used oil paint mixed with epoxy glue. I liked the outcome of my efforts with this saucer a little bit more. In a photo from the end of 1970, I examined it. I do not look too respectable. However, at that time, I was 28, and I already had three children.
Ten years later, I made my second, more serious, attempt to work in ceramics. By this time in my life, my friends and I had established a beekeeping partnership. When not busy with our bees, we intended to be engaged in some other, additional business. One venture was supposed to be ceramics.
We had a great plan. We were going to buy a house in a village, bring our bees there, and then, in our spare time, dig a big pit in our yard and line its walls, floor, and ceiling out of bricks. That was supposed to be a kiln for firing ceramics. Then we were going to find an open-pit mine from which to excavate clay. This way, we intended to craft and fire Japanese ceramics.
My friends and I did buy a house in a village (in the Voronezh Region). Our village was called Bogana. There, in the backyard of our house, we intended to launch our ceramics project. However, its details were not quite clear to me, and probably not only to me. Why would we fire Japanese ceramics in the middle of nowhere, in a small village, in a plain pit lined with a layer of ordinary brick and heated by birch firewood? How were we going to glaze our Japanese ceramics? In what open-pit mine were we going to dig up components for glazes? I do not think we even knew what glaze was, because this word, as I remember, had never been uttered within our earshot.
Another problem with realizing our project was that our house in Bogana was our base. We kept the bees there only during the off seasons: in the fall, winter, and early spring. In the middle of spring, we moved our bees more than 100 kilometers east and stayed there until the end of main nectar flow. We came to the base during the high honey-production season rarely.
One more problem with our ceramics project was that we had too many people involved in it. Each had his own ideas about what we should do and how it should be done. As a result, the project proceeded slowly and irrationally. Digging the big pit in the backyard of our house was not difficult, and that part of the plan was accomplished by the end of our second year. Soon after, we bought bricks, but then we did nothing with them until a couple of years later. By that time, it was clear we would never finish our ceramics project. However, nobody was upset, because from the very beginning, its priority was low. Some time later, we did finally place the bricks in the ground and put our “kiln” to good use. We used it as the foundation for a good shed for indoor overwintering our bees. It may come as no surprise that in Russia, I was never able to fire ceramics. As I recall, I often thought about claywork, but in Russia, it was difficult to make my dreams come true.
The next my attempt to develop my skills in ceramics was undertaken significantly later, after my departure from Russia. I arrived in America in the fall of 1991 and at first could think of nothing except how to find job. Any job. I found “any job” in 1992. By 1994, I was working for Chase, the largest bank in America at the time. With my financial situation secure, by 1996, I realized I needed to think about more than just making money. I decided to take a ceramics class offered in the neighboring town of Summit. The course was offered at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. I liked the first one so much, I took more classes over the next several years, studying and working under the guidance of the only ceramics teacher I have ever had, Carole Chesek.
I found learning at the Visual Arts Center wonderful in every respect. My only problem was that I made my ceramic plates very quickly. I sent them for firing one after another, and the people responsible for firing began to grumble a bit. They complained that my work constituted a significant portion of the items from the whole ceramics class, and they began to introduce restrictions that they had never had before. Carole took my side in a small confrontation with the kiln people, and it seemed the issue was resolved.
But then something else happened that was difficult to explain. One day, after a firing, my plates were not returned to me from the kiln. I complained about it to Carole, and she suggested that perhaps they had been assigned to the next kiln loading. She advised me to wait several days. I followed her recommendation, but my plates were never returned to me. Carole said she could not imagine how such a thing might happen. She said that although anyone could come into the building, never in the history of the studio had ceramic works been taken, and if that was what had happened to my art, I should be proud of that.
At some point, Carole realized the new firing restrictions were bothering me more and more. She advised me to establish a ceramics workshop in my own house. Recalling my Bogana experience, I was not very enthusiastic about the suggestion at first, but then I realized I need not dig a big pit in my backyard, nor did I need access to an open-pit mine to acquire clay. I could buy everything in a ceramics shop that was a 20-minute drive from my home.
Further, I hoped that if I could do everything alone, by myself, I would not have to deal with any of the confusion and irrationality I had come to associate with ceramics production. I had this hope for the following reason. Back in Russia, I had been fortunate to read Fred Brooks’ book on software engineering and project management. The central idea of the book was that “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” This idea is known as Brooks’ law. Considering that maxim, along with my experiences in the beekeeping partnership and in American banking, I formulated a new law: While completing a project, if you can make everything by yourself, it is better to work alone from the beginning, without any help.
When someone helps with a project, of course it is possible to distribute the work and there may be benefits from that distribution. Unfortunately, however, in a team, enormous amounts of time and material resources are spent keeping everybody informed and up to date, coordinating all aspects of the work, and managing the work environment. An additional pitfall is that some team members can work 10 times faster or slower than others.
When I realized I could make everything for my ceramics projects by myself, I started to think about making everything alone, without any help, though I knew no self-respecting artist would do that. Miro did not cast his bronze figures himself. His sculptures were cast in bronze at foundries in Barcelona and Paris. Picasso got important technical help from professional ceramists working in the Madoura Pottery workshop in Vallauris, Southern France.
A friend of mine (I will call him Jake here) once described to me the creative process of working with one particular internationally-known sculptor. The sculptor supplied Jake with only very general ideas about how the sculpture should look. Then Jake would start the work by creating an initial model in plasticine. The famous sculptor and his wife would then visit Jake, whereupon Jake received more instructions, this time on how and what to change. He might be told, “Here, the hand should be raised a little,” or “The girdle should be a little wider here.” The funny thing was that the sculptor himself did not ask Jake to change anything; the tips and changes came from the sculptor’s wife.
Once the plasticine figures were in finished form, they were sent away for further standard processing to which neither the sculptor nor Jake had any connection. The end result was nice bronze figures, which I later saw in galleries – under the name of the famous sculptor, of course.
Despite my awareness that outside input can be helpful, I still decided I would set up a ceramics studio in my house in Millburn and produce all the work by myself. Following Carole’s advice, I bought a kiln and all the furniture for it. I allocated about 500 square feet in the basement of the house and about 300 square feet in the garage for my workspace. Gradually, I filled both places with many open shelves and tables.
I fire my ceramics in the garage. Now I have two kilns there, all the necessary furniture, and other equipment and tools needed for firing. My garage is not attached to the house, which would have been inconvenient if I had wanted to keep my cars there. But for my purposes, a detached garage turns out to be a big advantage. During bisque firing, carbon monoxide emissions can exceed threshold limits. This and other chemical emissions are not good for your health; that is why firing areas always should have adequate ventilation.
Other than firing, I do all of my work in the basement, which is primarily dedicated to my ceramics workshop, although one room serves as an exhibition facility for much of my work.
I cannot say I keep my best work there, however. The best pieces are on the walls of the main rooms of my houses or in possession of those to whom I have presented my ceramics.
On Sunday, August 18, 2002, we gathered at our house in Millburn for a barbecue to celebrate the official opening of my garage workshop. The occasion had been organized very solemnly and included a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The mistress of the house, my wife Natasha, cut the red ribbon. Then we spent a lot of time looking at the garage exhibition, drank plenty of champagne, and ate a great deal of food. So the opening of the workshop was very successful.
I never intended to throw many pots. Nevertheless, I have a pottery wheel, and I often use it in my work. There is, however, one additional reason for keeping a pottery wheel. I have many visitors who want to look at my workshop. Those who go down in the basement first ask about a pottery wheel. Actually, people usually do not use words such as pottery wheel because they do not know them. Instead they start wrinkling their brow and gesturing with their hands until I help them with the language of ceramics. It seems to me that not to have a pottery wheel for such situations would be tactically incorrect.
I fire everything in electric kilns. So far, I have been fortunate and have not experienced a kiln disaster or suffered other serious kiln problems. I have not even had my greenware blow up in the kiln. I have avoided such losses for two reasons: First, I do not make thick-walled pieces. Second, I dry my greenware over a period of about two to three weeks. The lengthy drying period results in greenware that is bone dry before it goes through its first firing. I have never thought about an overnight warm up. I consider it an unnecessary precaution. Instead, before the bisque firing, I keep the temperature low in the kiln for a couple of hours, with the lid slightly open and the spyholes open. I am going to continue employing this strategy until the first explosion in my kiln, which, I hope, will never happen.
I fire all my ceramics twice. I bisque fire my items to cone 06, and most of the time, I glaze fire them to cone 6. Therefore, almost all of my ceramics are stoneware.
I do not make clay myself. I buy it, ready to use, in ceramics shops. First, I started with plastic clay that has a smooth throwing body. It is good for many purposes, and it is ideal on a pottery wheel. The only problem is that flat items (in my case, plates) made of plastic clay can warp. At first, I did not pay much attention to warpage, but later, I began to fight with the problem. For several years, I tried to solve it by myself. First, I tried making my plates thinner. They continued warping. Then I tried making them thicker, and then thicker still. None of these strategies led to success. Then I complained about my problem at the Summit studio and was advised to craft each plate from a single, whole piece of clay. It turned out adding extra pieces to clay generates heterogeneity that causes warping. That obvious explanation did not occur to me on my own.
After that, I began to use only whole pieces of clay. I experimented with them for a couple of years but realized that items made of homogeneous clay were still warping. Then someone advised me to use clay with grog. My plates stop warping, but they began to crack frequently, especially my bigger plates. When I complained about that problem to someone, I was advised to use plastic clay. The problem-solving suggestions had come full circle. However, I eventually solved the problem on my own, and my plates stopped warping.
I make about half of my glazes myself, using raw ingredients I buy in ceramics stores. I follow recipes based on ideas I got in classes at the Summit studio. It would be inconvenient to go to a shop each time I need one or another component for a glaze. On the other hand, there are an enormous number of potential ingredients. Therefore, I keep only the most useful chemicals at home. Doing that I restrict myself with the size of my shelves dedicated for that purpose. The number of “most useful chemicals” turns out to be around 70. Those 70 compounds enable me to make about 50 different glazes.
In addition to homemade glazes, I use about the same number of commercial glazes. Sometimes I add chemicals to the commercial ones to change them a little to meet my needs. I face one problem when I prepare homemade glazes or modify commercial ones: From time to time, I find the ceramics stores do not sell a product I need for my recipe. Sometimes it turns out a store sells it under an alternative name; sometimes it simply stops selling the product. Glazing ingredients may be discontinued as a result of a fire at the mine where they are procured, or because the extraction process becomes unprofitable, or because needed resources are exhausted, or for many other reasons.
When glazing chemicals become unavailable, ceramics stores sell a substitute. However, I am far from sufficiently educated to know how to distinguish between an alternative name and a substitution. Further, when it comes to substitutions, I do not possess sufficient knowledge and experience to understand how small differences in chemicals will influence the resulting glaze and whether or how undesirable outcomes can be avoided or minimized.
For example, F4 Feldspar is considered to be the same as Sodium Feldspar, Kona Feldspar, Kona F4, F4 Spar, and NC-4 Feldspar. The similarities might be real, at least in a practical sense. But I know there are differences in all eight of the components that make up NC-4 Feldspar and F4 Feldspar, to cite just one comparison. Though I have both F4 Feldspar and NC-4 Feldspar, I have never tested the ways in which they differ. I have never had time for such experiments. I simply switched from one to another. When I realized I could not discern any essential differences between them, I stopped being upset when I was forced to use one or the other ingredient and forgot about the problem.
I can say the same about such names as Zircopax, Zirconium Silicate, Zircon, Zircopax Plus, Superpax, Zircosil, Excelopax, and Ultrox. At some point, I stopped worrying and trying to distinguish between alternative names and substitutions, and instead accepted that all of them suit me fine.
Once a person overcomes concerns with using alternative products, glaze preparation becomes a very simple operation. But making glazes does require a very good scale, because even a very small error in weighing ingredients can lead to bad results.
I often employ the slip-casting technique. Most often, I use it in the creation of various elements for my ceramic works. I usually make the molds for slip-casting myself. Creating molds is a time-consuming process with many steps involved, especially if their design is complex. To produce such molds, one should have a good stereometric imagination. Many who need molds for their work reject the idea of homemade molds, mostly because they lack stereometric imagination. I heard about a young man who had no stereometric imagination and who decided to order customized molds. However, customized molds are very expensive, and the young man decided to take on additional work so he could afford such a luxury. He began to teach mathematics in a college. One concept he needed to teach was stereometry. However, that did not bother him at all, because teaching something versus doing or using the same thing requires completely different skills. One of my friends, who had, by the way, a lot of brains but was perhaps too self-critical, said me, “I am not able to do anything in this life, so there is nothing left for me but to teach others.”
My molds do not look particularly elegant, but they meet their functional goals. One disadvantage of using handmade molds is that they are often cumbersome. When they are filled with liquid clay, they become very heavy and difficult to lift, turn, and hold in position for several minutes while the clay is removed. For this reason, for the heavy molds, I use a hoist system in my basement. I screwed a hook into the ceiling and attached a chain puller to it. This allows me to lift and turn over very heavy molds entirely by myself.
Sometimes I substitute use of the press-molded technique for slip casting. I press clay into the mold to get some parts for my works, although I do not use this technique often, and then only for small parts.
I have always felt that my preparatory procedures – developing ideas, sketches, and so on – need not take years of effort, as they often take for real masters of art. I have never dedicated as much attention to detail as I have noticed in, say, my colleagues at the Summit studio. I saw girls there make a mug on a pottery wheel and put it under plastic to keep it moist through the week. A week later, after careful contemplation, they attached a handle to the mug, and then again put it under plastic. After another week and more thinking, they attached a floret to the mug. Then a week later – one more floret. All that irritated me. I always tried to do everything fast, in one trip, although such haste was not always advisable.
On one occasion, my teacher, Carole, suggested that I test glazes before using them on my ceramics. “Life is too short for that,” I said to her. In response, she immediately slapped me lightly on the forehead. Ten years after that episode, I realized I was wrong. I made two boards for testing plate glazes. One had cold colors, the other had warm colors. Each plate I make has two, and sometimes three or even four shades of colors. It turns out it is very beneficial to have such boards, and now I do not understand how I could have lived without them.
People often ask me where I get ideas for the subjects in my ceramics. They also sometimes ask where I get my color ideas. I receive similar questions about my literary works. People ask me how I get ideas for story plots. I always answer such questions openly. I tell them my inspiration does not come from my imagination. I take all of my literary ideas from Pushkin. Of course, it is true only for those of my books that have been written in Russian. Quite recently, one of my Russian books was translated into English. In that case, I obviously took all my ideas from Shakespeare. And what can I say about the subjects and colors of my ceramic works? Every one of them has been inspired by Leonardo da Vinci. These answers, it seems to me, should not surprise those who ask such questions.
Speaking seriously now, I want to mention two sources that really did inspire me to create two series of artworks. The first source was the extended series of variations Picasso painted in 1957 based on Diego Velázquez’s 1656 work, “Las Meninas.” As soon as I saw a couple of reproductions of these “Las Meninas” after Velázquez, I also decided to create variations. Soon after, in 1960, I created my oil work, “Boy on a Cube. After Picasso.” Then, for a long time, I forgot about the idea of variations. I recalled it only when I started to do ceramics. That remembrance inspired a series of four ceramic plates: “Requiem for Guernica. After Picasso”; “The Cow with the Subtle Udder. After Dubufett”; “Construction Workers – Adam and Eve. After Leger”; and “Military Violinist. After Chagall.”
The second source from which I draw inspiration is the rock art of native Americans. I have series of plates I made while influenced by the rock art of American Indians. I feel myself under the influence of that art even now.
My earlier experience with painting led me to recognize that a two-dimensional environment was too tight for me. My hope was that ceramics would give me a chance to transcend two-dimensional limits. However, it turns out that even my sculptural ceramic works seem less than three-dimensional, though my plates, which are supposed to be flat, are definitely more than two-dimensional. In the end, I consider myself a two-and-a-half-dimensional potter.
Another of my art pursuits is creating collages. At some point in my life, I started to favor Scotch whisky over all other strong alcoholic beverages, and of the varieties of Scotch whisky, I began to like single malt whisky best. The price of these precious drinks is below the cost one might expect based on quality and taste, especially compared to other drinks. To commemorate the inarguable perfection of my life-changing realization, I began to create a set of collages under the general, honorific name “Single Malt Art.” Each of my collages has a theme or “parallel subject,” and all are somehow related to what I am doing in my life.
The very first parallel subject was a violin. I started to work on this collage in 1991, right after I came to America. Although it was not until a little later that I got the collage in final form, I still date it by year 1991. In all my next collages, there are parallel subjects related to music and other things. But most of my themes are related to ceramics.
I am often asked how I get such wonderful flattened bottles in my collages. I know it is not necessarily to answer this question; it is enough just to look at the person who asked and keep silent. Usually, within a couple of seconds, it will dawn on my inquirer that since I do ceramics, I have a kiln, and that is where I flatten my bottles. Sometime I am next asked why the labels on the bottles do not burn down in the kiln. Once again, it is not necessary to hurry with an answer, because invariably, someone standing next to me and listening in will solve the riddle and point out that the labels can be unstuck, the bottles fired, and the labels put back on the bottles.
Curiously, nobody asks me why the bottle corks do not burn away in the kiln. People might assume I remove the corks before firing, but then they should ask why the bottle neck is not flattened along with the bottle and why I can insert the cork back into the bottle neck. Because nobody has ever asked me those questions, there has been nobody to help me work out the answer, so even now, I myself do not know why that works out so well.
Over time, I have come to realize that the scarcest commodity in an artist’s house is exposed and available wall space. When the walls in Millburn were filled, I gradually moved my exhibition of “Single Malt Art” works to my house in Delray Beach, Florida.
When I ran out of wall space in Delray, I started creating more work in Gouldsboro, Pennsylvania, and as a result, most of my “Single Malt Art” collages are now concentrated there. Unfortunately, the Arts Council of Our House has not approved the work for display in the main rooms, alongside my ceramics, so I have placed all of them in the poolroom. The exposition of my artwork in Gouldsboro is introduced by three scarecrows, one in the work “Vasilisa Vasilievna,” and one in “Marivanna,” both of which are mounted on our peninsula, and one more in “Boris Borisych,” which is proudly installed on the beach.
Around a decade ago, I realized I wanted to return to painting. Of course, I decided to start with oil on canvas, but after my first attempt, I did not like the quality of the primed canvas I had purchased from the local art supply store. Then I decided that instead of buying pre-primed canvas, I would prime it myself using the techniques I once learned from Lesha Pomansky based on tips from his mother.
I bought fine-quality, unprimed canvas from the same art supply store. Then I began to look for the necessary primer ingredients. Back in Russia, a basic constituent of primer was children’s tooth powder, so I started to look for it, but for some reason, I could not find it. Maybe I was looking in all the wrong places. Had I kept searching, perhaps I would have found it, or something with the same properties, but fortunately, at just that time, my wife’s sister was planning a visit from Russia. At my request, she brought me a couple of boxes of excellent tooth powder.
Encouraged by the success of procuring this important ingredient, I began searching for the second component of the primer – fish glue. Securing the fish glue proved to be a much easier task. I found many varieties, which saved me having to make fish glue myself from the membranes of fish air bladders.
I considered finding the fish glue to be a coup, but my friends started asking me why use fish glue; why not buy a glue specially designed for use in primer? When I started to agree with them, they went further and began to suggest I replace the children’s tooth powder with something special, such as a chalk powder. When I accepted that idea, they began to tell me they believed I could easily buy a ready-to-use primer and probably even ready-to-use primed canvas. I agreed with them again and said I knew I could buy primed canvas. In fact, I could get that canvas already attached to a stretched frame of any size. I could even buy it with a painting on it and installed in a suitable frame.
I eventually handled the problem of priming the canvas, but I did not do much work in oil. Instead, I began painting watercolor portraits, something I had started doing in my youth, back in Russia. Unfortunately, I have only a few of my works from that early period of my life.
In America, one of the first watercolor portraits I painted was of my literary mentor, Nadezhda Braginskaya. I presented her with the finished piece on October 19, 2005, the Lyceum Day*, which we in our inner literary circle considered essentially the main event of the year.
At first, Nadezhda did not like my work. She asked me why she was depicted with such small hands; what did I mean by that? When I did not know how to answer, she asked me to show her my 1980 portrait of my daughter Anna, which Nadezhda had seen many times. She examined it closely, and after some time, she said, “Okay. Let it be so.” And she let me hang her portrait on the wall of her apartment at Roosevelt Island.
The last area in which I practice my art is in the creation of teapots and kettles. Sometimes teapots and kettles appear as parallel subjects on my “Single Malt Art” collages. I have many of them in ceramic. I cannot explain why they appear so often in and as my work. Perhaps their general shape touches and attracts me. Regardless, this interest led to my series of kettles and teapots in metal.
Initially, I did not consider creating teapots and kettles from scratch. Instead, I was going to take already-made teapots and kettles I happened upon and alter them to suit my purposes, although even that turned out to be more involved than I initially anticipated. Once, in Russia, I repaired my car, replacing the rusted metal floor with a new one. I did it under the supervision of a professional welder. The soldering of teapots and kettles turned out to be a much more delicate exercise. I had to be completely retrained. I had my contractor in Delray Beach teach me some basic soldering skills, and I bought the simple equipment and materials he advised. In the end, creating tea pots and kettles turned out to be uncomplicated.
The very first kettle I created took a few attempts, but the result was simply beautiful – at least it looked beautiful to me. For some reason, my kettle spouts always seem to bring skeptical smiles to men's faces. But the women’s faces are always joyful and even enthusiastic when they see my work. What is the reason for this? Nobody knows.
My first kettle was quite functional, and I even organized its ceremonial testing at a tea party in our backyard in Millburn. However, later on, functionality became less of a focus, and thoughts of testing finished products did not cross my mind. As I continued to create kettles, I also realized I was running out of room to keep them, so I began creating teapots. Surprisingly, doing so did not resolve my problems with storage and display space, and I finally moved all my teapots to my house in Florida. They have been residing there ever since.
I do not like participating in public exhibitions of my work other than those held at my home and on the Internet. One exception was when I presented one of my ceramic plates to the Museum of Russian Art in Jersey City, which occurred after Glezer’s directorship had ended. I exhibited one other time, long ago, in the 1960s, when I brought my artwork to Ekaterina Pomanskaya’s apartment. She lived in Verhnyaya Maslovka, where most Moscow artists lived. Pomanskaya suggested I bring my work to her apartment so some of her friends – artists – could see them. I do not know exactly who saw my art at the time, and I do not remember whether I ever knew. However, one day, when I was visiting Pomanskaya with my friends, the members of Lianozovo’s group, Genrikh Sapgir and Igor Kholin, showed up. They looked at my work and made a couple of politely positive comments about them.
Certainly, I keep track of what I am doing. To accomplish this objective, I use a very simple database to store information about all my artwork. For ceramics, for example, that includes all kinds of technical information, such as the structure of the clay, types of glazes, the way I used them, and many other sometimes very small details. Everything I have made I exhibit on my website: www.slavabrodsky.com.
To photograph my work, I use simple equipment that allows me to keep all the colors as close to reality as possible. After I finish taking photos of items, I use special procedures to adjust the photo files to conform to the size and form of my website. I do not manually create all the supporting files; there are too many of them. After all, I have about 1000 ceramic items. I wrote software procedures that allow me to obtain all these files automatically, directly from the database. I created a code for my website. The code is very simple but serves its purpose and allows me to maintain all aspects of the website easily, without any help.
Why do I create all these teapots, kettles, collages, paintings, and ceramics? This question is as difficult to answer as the question, “What is the meaning of life?” We do not know who we are, why we are here, and where we are going. Well, and I do not know who I am and why I do what I do. But I do know that my body of work and the attributes of the individual pieces – genre, form, dimension, and even source of inspiration – serve as a vehicle for me to dispense my unique aesthetic vision, not to convey profound ideas or to express my opinion about any aspect of our wonderful, mysteriously unfathomable and unpredictable world.
* The Lyceum Day honors The Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoe Selo, which was opened on October 19, 1811. The first graduates included Alexander Pushkin, so October 19 is a special day for those who speak Russian. The Lyceum was closed on May 29, 1918. In 1924, twelve former students of the Lyceum who celebrated October 19 were executed. Twenty other students were sent to the Solovki prison camp.