In a small Leningrad flat that eventually became an underground mini-gallery for American tourists, Vladislav Sukhorukov painted for 15 years fearing a knock on the door from the KGB.
Under Mikhail S. Gorbachev and perestroika, freedom of expression is easier to come by in the Soviet Union today. But art supplies and sales to visiting foreigners like Paula Spellman of Ojai are not.
With a 100% tariff on art leaving the Soviet Union and still a sometimes-scrutinizing eye on the politics of a painting, Spellman knew it would be almost impossible to take Sukhorukov’s works out of the country. So she worked, instead, to take him out.
The 40-year-old dissident artist, whom Americans call Slava, paints now in Spellman’s tiny, cluttered attic, surrounded by newly acquired colors and the brushes he stuffed into three bags when he flew into New York City six months ago.
His paintings have a surrealistic mood and often depict religious and political themes. The artist prefers dark, bold colors, and his admirers describe his work as powerful.
Spellman and her husband, Bill, a dentist in Ventura, have had an interest in Soviet culture, architecture and history for years and traveled to the country in May, 1989, to live for a few months in Russian homes. When they met Sukhorukov they were enthralled with the dramatic messages on his canvas.
“We decided we wanted the world to see it,” Paula Spellman said.
For seven months the Spellmans worked with various agencies to bring the artist to the United States.
Finally, Sukhorukov, who had been working on a television show with National Geographic, appealed to the show’s producer, who cut through the red tape with the country’s consulate and landed an airplane seat that ordinarily would have required an 18-month wait.
Although Sukhorukov calls himself “a citizen of the planet,” his passport expired late last month, and the Spellmans say he may be forced to return to the Soviet Union if the U.S. government denies his request for an extension or a two-year visa.
He has 10 paintings on exhibit in a Los Angeles gallery that wants to hire him as a full-time artist, and Paula Spellman has been trying to set him up as an artist in residence at private area high schools.
But it may be another week before Sukhorukov learns whether he can stay.
“If he has to go back after six months in America, after tasting the freedom of expression, I don’t know what that would do to him,” Paula Spellman said. “He was a misplaced person to ever have been born in Russia.”
Since his arrival in California, Sukhorukov has built a following that includes Soviet experts and gallery owners impressed by the artistic messages that blaze from his oil paintings.
“I was absolutely entranced with his work,” said Sharon Tennison, president of the Center for U.S.-U.S.S.R. Initiatives, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco that sets up exchange programs with the Soviet Union. “Slava has a very spiritual quality to his work, a universal quality.”
Michael Ayzenberg, a partner and director of the Sherberg Gallery, which is showing the artist’s work in Los Angeles, called the paintings original and philosophical. The gallery has sold two of the paintings for $4,000 each.
When Sukhorukov arrived in Ojai, he spoke little English. But Paula Spellman, a former teacher and speech therapist, read Russian fairy tales with him and coached him to speak coherent sentences.
“I have much to say. Not enough language,” Sukhorukov said. “I only want. I only dream. I want to see America.”