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Russia: The Little Print Studio That Could

  • Robert Lyle

Washington, 10 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - A small artists print workshop, started in Moscow on little more than the good intentions of an American and a Russian artist, is now celebrating five years of success with an exhibition of its works in the United States.

The Moscow Studio was the brainchild of Washington artist and teacher Dennis O'Neil, who met Russian artist Boris Belsky during a 1991 visit to Moscow. The two came up with an idea to do a mutual three-week screenprint workshop under the auspices of the Union of Artists of the U.S.S.R.

O'Neil and a colleague from Washington's Corcoran Gallery could get no funding for the idea, so they bought their own tickets and shared the cost of shipping enough screenprinting supplies for the three-week workshop. Silk screen printing with water-based paints was virtually unheard of among print makers in Moscow then, so O'Neil had to bring everything needed, or have it shipped in. They even got a Los Angeles ink supplier to donate $1,000 worth of ink and ship it to Moscow free of charge for the workshop.

Belsky arranged for four other Soviet artists with some experience in screenprinting to attend the workshop and the event was a huge success. Gigoshvili and Nino Peradze from Tbilisi, Elena Kudinova from Kharkov and Alexander Yastrebenetsky from St. Petersburg made up the original group and they were overwhelmed with the possibilities with the new water-based process.

While O'Neil was still in Moscow, the Union of Artists offered the free use of a building on Gogolevsky Boulevard in central Moscow for the following summer of 1992. But the collapse of the Soviet Union a few months later spelled a major change as state support for the arts came to an end.

So, O'Neil applied for assistance from the Trust for Mutual Understanding, a private organization, and received a $25,000 grant to continue the work in Moscow. That summer, O'Neil took two more American artists to Moscow and for most of the summer, they worked with more artists brought together by Belsky, but faced the same problems with having to virtually build their own facilities and bring in all the necessary supplies.

They operated on the idea that it was "open to all artists, regardless of their politics, and that those selected to work would be chosen because of talent, regardless of doctrine or point of view."

As O'Neil recalls in an article he wrote for the current catalogue of the Studio: "All artists now had similar needs for funding, workspace and help with marketing their work. It was not only the Union artists who had lost their market when the State ceases to exist: the market for 'dissident art' had evaporated as well."

Because of its location at Gogolevsky Boulevard, the workshop attracted a larger circle of artists, producing 17 prints that summer and plans were well underway to keep the workshop going as part of the new Russian art scene.

"Russia in 1992 was a grand experiment and we were part of it," said O'Neil.

But then, shortly before returning to the United States in the autumn of 1992, the Union of Artists began to crumble and its assets were in dispute. While the fight moved to the courts, the Studio at Gogolevsky Boulevard was locked with a wax and wire seal and except for what Belsky could carry out, everything was lost.

Belsky and O'Neil were determined not to let the studio die, however, and with some new grants from the Trust for Mutual Understanding and the U.S. government's AID program, along with some volunteer support from artists in Washington, the Moscow Studio was reopened in June, 1993 in new studio space made available in the Surikov Institute at the Russian Academy of Art.

Once again, the studio had to be constructed from scratch, using even the shipping crates themselves to construct drying racks, and the artists having to help run 122 meters of rubber hose spliced with steel pipe to bring water -- a critical element of the print making process -- to the workshop.

Plans to operate for six months gave way to a permanent operation and now more than 104 artists have worked in the gallery and their work has been shown in Moscow as well as in two exhibitions mounted in provincial Russian towns.

Russian art scholar Yuri Nickrich, who is curator of the studio's exhibitions, says that now seven regional Museums around Russia have requested showings of the work coming out of the workshop.

A loose committee of O'Neil, Belsky and some other regulars of the studio invite artists from Russia, the other CIS countries and Western nations to work on specific projects at the studio. Since few artists in the former Soviet countries have yet had much experience with this particular type of print making, artists of every sort are invited if the committee believes they can translate ideas into silkscreening.

"We allow any artist, irregardless of their background of being painters, sculptures or even not visual artists, to realize this purely aesthetic idea," says Belsky.

The studio provides all the materials the artist needs and whatever technical support is required to create the work and produce the edition run. The artist pays nothing for this, but is required to donated one-half the finished prints to the Studio, which sells them to raise money for operations. The artists keep the other half of the works and are free to sell them on their own.

Artists do not have a specific tenure at the studio, taking whatever time is necessary. One visual artist did a single print in one day while another pair took more than a year to create a special illustrated book of sonnets. Most artists are in residence for a few weeks and there are usually four working at any one time. At least one new artist normally arrives each month.

About 60 percent of the artists are from Russia, the rest primarily CIS countries. Artists from Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Belarus, France, England and the United States have worked in the studio in its first five years.

As a celebration of its success, and to bring the work being turned out by contemporary Russian artists to the wider audience in the United States, O'Neil and Belsky brought a representative show of the studio's output along with 26 of the artists themselves for a two-month tour of major galleries in Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago.

The exhibition in Washington was opened Sunday with a symposium on the state of art in Russia and neighboring countries, at which Tipper Gore, the wife of U.S. Vice President Al Gore, agreed to make welcoming remarks.

Mrs. Gore visited the studio in its early days of 1993 and was so impressed she asked to be included in the program opening the showing in Washington at the Corcoran Gallery.