In Painting the Town, Russian Folk Artist Hits a Wall

The town of Borovsk, south of Moscow, became a canvas for local artist Vladimir Ovchinnikov, 69, whose work drew visitors and revenue.
The town of Borovsk, south of Moscow, became a canvas for local artist Vladimir Ovchinnikov, 69, whose work drew visitors and revenue. (By Vladimir Alexandrov For The Washington Post)
By Nora FitzGerald
Special to the Washington Post
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

BOROVSK, Russia -- Not much was happening in Borovsk, population 12,000, a place of cottages slouching on grassy slopes. Then, five years ago, amateur folk artist Vladimir Ovchinnikov was possessed by a vision that the town should become one giant artist canvas.

"I had an idea that all the local painters would enlarge their works on the town's walls," said Ovchinnikov, 69, a retired construction engineer. "After all the other artists refused -- they were too sick, or too old, or they said there would be no money in it -- I approached the former mayor with this idea of painting the walls myself."

The mayor thought it was a splendid idea. So the tireless pensioner splashed images of churches, historical figures and still lifes on public buildings, private homes and walls, 100 works in all. Curious day-trippers flocked to Borovsk, just 63 miles south of Moscow, to take in the outdoor exhibition, giving the town a welcome financial boost.

It was all very captivating until the muralist recast himself as a political and satirical commentator, the self-styled Diego Rivera of Borovsk. His painting of a religious martyr proved controversial, as did a wall-size political cartoon. The official reaction quickly changed; some of his work was whitewashed.

Today, Ovchinnikov plays a role venerated in Russian society: dissident artist and victim of petty bureaucrats. "I haven't made a single offensive painting from the point of view of artistic or moral principles," he protests. "I am told the people love my paintings."

He was born in 1938 in the Soviet republic of Tajikistan, where his father had been exiled. Rehabilitated after the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, the family bought a house in Borovsk. That was as close as to the capital that certain former "enemies of the people" were allowed to live during Soviet times.

In his spare time, Ovchinnikov began painting canvasses. Today his cottage is chock full of efforts from those days -- so many rivers and horses and flowers and women. These do not stand out above the ordinary images found at any street market. Yet there is a consensus here that when he first stepped up to a wall, some magic happened. It's as if he poured his newfound inspiration over Borovsk.

Today, facades illustrated with figures and scenes from the past invite visitors into a sidewalk history lesson. A painted map of Borovsk details the town's points of interest and includes characters portrayed in some murals to come. Nearby, a migrant farmer typical of Borovsk 100 years ago holds an oversize cucumber under a Soviet-style slogan, "How wonderful are our cucumbers."

Across from a shop selling ice cream, beer and meat, a massive horizontal drawing of Tsarist soldiers on parade in 1911 commands the attention of passersby. On Lenin Street, Napoleon rides in front of the Borovsk villa he is said to have slept in.

Across from the mayor's office, Ovchinnikov painted cats in real windows and then created imaginary windows with paint. His wife, a poet, added verse to some of the paintings, in perfect script.

"I like these paintings very much," said Larisa Rudyuk, who is retired and lives in Borovsk. "I am really pleased and I think it's a real credit to the town."

Ovchinnikov's fall from official grace began when he painted the image of a 17th-century martyr, Avvakum, leader of a religious group known as Old Believers, who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church to protest changes in liturgy. In the picture, Avvakum appeared to be gesturing angrily.

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