Cardboard wings of talent

A homeless artist from Gomel won St. Petersburg's tastes

A homeless artist from Gomel won St. Petersburg

Every day dozens of artists gather on Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg. But there is one colourful figure which stands out even against this background. A smiling gray-haired old man with a bushy beard, sitting by the church of St. Catherine and drawing passers-by. He moved here a few months ago from Gomel and immediately became famous. The city has already witnessed his two exhibitions, while the number of admirers of his talent exceeded five and a half thousand. They do not only discuss his works, but also club together to pay his board and lodging. After all, this extravagant personality does not merely draws in the streets, - he literally lives there.

- The sun shines for everyone, - says Valery Lyashkevich, and his voice sounds much like that of some fairy-tale old man of forest.

I am in Minsk, he is in St. Petersburg, we are separated by 800 km, yet we have the same roots - the Belarusian ones. He was born in Chkalovo village of Gomel region 62 years ago, attended art schools in Yaroslavl and Bryansk, and 25 years ago even tried to enter the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. He failed to become a student, but got a job there as a… janitor, which gave him a roof above his head and the world of art at hand.

- From half past five to half past nine I was busy cleaning, and after that I drew people on Nevsky till darkness. Unlike other guys, I did not only drew noses and eyes, but put social content through artistic symbols, - he recalls. - But I got fired, and found myself out in the street. I could not find neither a studio nor a house, everything was against me.

Valery Lyashkevich explaines his dismissal simply: his works began to arouse interest among famous masters, and they started asking the Academy’s management questions about the strange janitor. So he was got rid of. Anyone can hurt an artist.

Presently he returned to Gomel. Since then, entrances and staircases have become home to Valery Lyashkevich, while Soviet-style crayons his constant companions:

- I can not paint oils, I have no place to dry the paintings… - explains the artist…

…- Once I saw him on Nevsky. He looked like from another world. Stooped, he was slily smiling and drawing something of his own. He said he had returned because it was the best city for artistic explorations.

The person telling me this is photographer Erica Parfenova. It was she who discovered Valery Lyashkevich to the world. She took a photo of him, then sympathized, and felt sorry for him, and finally got the Internet community involved in his rescue. His admirers group has grown more than five thousand and a half by now.

- We have opened a bank account for everybody willing to donate. Most of the money was spent to pay expenses charged by a left-luggage office at the Moscow train station, where his works are deposited. It’s 6000 Russian rubles per month. Then we embarked on searching for a shelter, because he slept inside condominium entrance halls, and it was winter. We got an arrangement with a hotel, and now he lives there at thousand rubles a month.

For Valery Lyashkevich, however, the possibility to exhibit is much more important than comfort. Two of his exhibitions have already been held, scoring the audience of several thousand. Those events were arranged by the Festival of artsArt non stop”, represented by Catherine Hudobko.

- We specialize in opening interesting individualities, such as musicians, photographers and artists, to the general public. Valery Lyashkevich fits for this, - explains  Catherine. - We have large plans for the autumn. We are planning a large exhibition of his paintings at «Erarta», one of the largest museums of modern art in St. Petersburg.

Two paintings and eight reproductions have been bought at the exhibitions by private collectors. A reproduction costs 1000 Russian rubles and a painting goes for 10 000 Russian rubles. If somybody complains about the price, the artist says with a sly smile: «They will be much more expensive after my death, just you wait».

- We took an interest in Valery Lyashkevich at once. He is original, and doesn’t belong to any bohemian group, who have become a little boring, - Michael Nasonov, cafe-club “Nico” manager, says. - More than one hundred people came to look at his paintings in two first hours on the opening day and they kept coming the whole month till the exhibition closed.

As I talked with St. Petersburg bohemia and listened to Valery Lyashkevich himself, one question was running through my mind: “What about Gomel? Why didn’t they discern an artist in this informal man in the cultural center of our country?” My calls to the museums and to the city council have lifted the veil of mystery off the Belarusian period of his life.

It turns out, people here remember him perfectly well. Every day he would sit either near the Kiev’s Park downhill or in the Soviet Street stooping over a sheet of paper and drawing. Sometimes he would hide in a cardboard box from wind, resembling Diogenes. That finally came to be his nickname, the other being Gomel’s Van Gogh.

- Valery came to us in the early 1990s, showed his works and told that he was the greatest artist of the time, - old employees of the Gomel regional local lore museum say. - He talked much about symbolism and about him being the only person to understand Van Gogh’s paintings. His image of the Virgin Valery compared with a dollar sign and saw a symbol of power in it.

Even people of arts had been conquered by the conceptualism and symbolism of Lyashkevich. Gomel regional lore museum made a catalogue of his works for him, organized an exhibition and following the National Museum of Art bought his paintings twice. There are 15 of them in the funds, all of them in charcoal and lead.

-We had his works evaluated by the expert council under the Ministry of Culture. They examined it and found worthy of attention, - says Tatiana Litvinova, head of the art department in Gomel regional local lore museum. - We have tried to help him here, but if he found himself in St. Petersburg, I’m really glad for him.

Valery Lyashkevich sins against the truth, when he says he had’t received good treatment in Gomel. In 1990s, when they were trying to make him popular, he was given a room at a hostel, but he left it. He was even offered shelter by the member of the Culture City Council, who took him in just from the street. But alas, the lifestyles of the clerk and artist proved to be too different.

-  Why did you leave the hostel? - I asked Valery.

- There was much smoking and drinking there. Besides, my works could have been stolen, - said he.

He came back to the Kiev’s Park downhill. Dressed in his thin jacket and the never-changing sandals, he sits leaning against a shop window with a small box for money placed next to him. He takes any money for his pictures. If some sympathetic soul - God forbid! - brings him a meal, he is offended. Because he`s not a simple homeless, you know, - he’s an Artist. As his new friends from St.Petersburg would put it, he is a creative freak by principles, an intellectual and philosopher, who prefers freedom to material welfare.

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