Eugene Yelchin is a painter, author, and illustrator born and educated in St. Petersburg, Russia. Yelchin’s creative work extends across many disciplines including book publishing, film, and advertising.
Q Congratulations on winning the very prestigious National Jewish Book Award for Best Illustrated Book for The Rooster Prince of Breslov. I’ve seen this book and it is such a contrast to what I have seen of your paintings and drawings. I am curious how you segued into illustrating children’s books?
A. I have always had a huge respect and a fascination with an illustrated book. A book that allows equal, or even more weight, to the image than it does to the word is very appealing to any visual artist. At the same time, I have a sentimental attachment to a book as an object. In Soviet Russia where I grew up, books were very difficult to get. Books had enormous value; personal, social, even political. When I was a boy, my parents would take me along on their visits to a family of friends. That family happened to have a wonderful library. I didn’t care much for adult conversation, so during those visits I would devour their books, one after the other. The real jewel of their collection was a six-volume set of Captain Mayne Reid’s novels, a nineteen-century’s writer famous for his adventure stories for boys. Each volume was filled with spectacular illustrations full of wonderful naturalistic detail. Twenty-five years later I visited the son of that couple in Minneapolis. When he immigrated to the US, he managed to bring most of his parents’ library. In the middle of our conversation, I spotted the Mayne Reid’s set on his bookshelf. When I opened the books, I realized I still remembered every illustration in minutia. Every detail was deeply ingrained in my memory. Apparently, back in Leningrad, I studied those illustrations quite intently. So ever since I was a kid, books moved and fascinated me. Our house in Topanga Canyon is now full of books, books, books.
Q. Which is the greater challenge, writing or painting?
A. According to my family sources, I took up drawing and painting in earnest when I was three, so I am more comfortable with that set of skills, of course. Writing is challenging for many reasons, not least of all because I am trying to write in my second language. This is when I feel my limitations the most. Overall, in any creative work, regardless of a discipline, whether we write, paint, act, or make a film, we are forced to face our limitations. No matter how experienced you are when you begin a creative process, you feel limited. You realize you do not know anything about making art. You’re an imposter! The creative process is always challenging, and it challenges you on two levels: skills and character. Do you remember that movie, The Hustler, with Paul Newman? In that movie this challenge is very clearly defined. If you have great skills, but lack the character to win, you cannot win. If you only have the character but not the skills, you cannot beat a skillful opponent. You must have both to succeed. Skills are a technical issue and with time and patience and constant learning – artists are always learning - one could potentially improve. But facing your own character? Looking at yourself? Looking at your fears? That’s a different story. It’s scary. I found that the work that I feel closest to tends to be emotional work. You have to be very, very open with yourself, and as a result, with others, which is how work becomes emotional. When you see the work that is honest, you really see raw emotion in it. That’s what as a viewer, listener, or a reader, you are reacting to at first. The intellectual or aesthetic appraisal of the work comes later. If you are afraid of the emotions you are feeling in the work of art within yourself, you are not going to like this work no matter how beautiful it is aesthetically. You’re going to be afraid of it. You will dismiss it. You will say -- this is a lousy piece of art, I don’t like it.
Q. Is there some work you would like to do but have hesitated to do for some reason?
A. There are so many stories one could tell, so many paintings one could paint, but I feel that now is not the time. Now I try to stay focused inward, to my past, particularly my Russian past. Through making personal art you’re discovering things about yourself, things that might have been repressed or ignored. My Russian, or should I say, Soviet past is charged with fear that was passed, unchecked, from generation to generation. I need to examine that fear. What used to scare me the most? Does it still scare me now? Unless you make art out of things that scare you, it’s not going to be good. In September, Henry Holt publishers will release my first middle grade novel called Breaking Stalin’s Nose. I wrote and illustrated it and it is the longest thing that I have written so far, and the most personal work that I have done in publishing. I always felt that Hitler’s terror is well documented, but Stalin’s terror– millions and millions of innocent lives lost – is not widely known. The book is dedicated to my father, who was lucky to survive what is called the Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s. This is when the story unfolds, in the 1930s Moscow during the worst period of Stalin’s rule. The main character is a ten-year old boy, brainwashed by the system and in love with Stalin, dreams about becoming a Young Soviet Pioneer. Soviet Pioneers were similar to the American boy scouts, but highly politicized. I used to be a Pioneer. But the night before the boy is finally to become a Pioneer, his father, who is a high-standing member of Stalin’s Secret Police, is arrested. The next day at school, he has to make a choice - to fulfill his dream, or walk away. The book is really about making a personal choice when the only choice available is the one dictated by the government.
Q. Why would he walk away?
A. I won’t say; you’ll have to read the book. I will only say that at some point the boy gets to speak to Stalin’s nose. And it’s not a pleasant conversation.
Q. Do you believe that a particular theme comes through your work?
A. I tend to gravitate toward the humanistic works of art, those works where one examines what it takes to be human. It does not have to be a tragedy, or drama, or anything lofty. Often humor is where you encounter humanism the most. But humor could be hurtful, mean. I come from a culture that can be highly ironic. Even classic Russian literature that tends to be humanistic is filled with irony and sarcasm. To avoid that is a struggle. In the work that I try to do, I consciously attempt not to use irony, because to me, irony is a sort of distancing tool.
Q. How does it work as a distancing tool?
A. It protects you from your subject and keeps you safe. There is something about direct involvement with your subject matter, putting yourself right in the midst of it is, I think, humanistic and compassionate. I guess that is what my theme would be, or at least that is what I am trying to do. You can see it clearly in my paintings.
Q. For example?
A. Over a period of several years I have been making a series of small paintings called Section Five. Section Five was the fifth paragraph in the former Soviet passport where you were to designate your nationality. Each painting is a portrait based on a photograph of my face, diminutive in size to recall a passport photo. However in the process of painting, each face becomes different, not mine anymore but any Soviet Jew who suffered anti-Semitism. The portraits are painted in thick oils without using brushes. I paint with my hands. So this is a direct kind of work, expressive of real emotion. There’s no irony, no distance - not even the distance of eight or ten inches of a brush. And, to me, that is the kind of ideal scenario, where I feel that my theme comes out, and my vision of life comes out, in a very honest and direct way.
Q. Of course, you cannot work like this in children’s publishing.
A. Painting or writing is a solitary personal work. Publishing, theater, film, or advertising is creative work done in large groups of people. You are one of many. You contribute usually to someone else’s idea. Collective work has its own challenges, but it could be very gratifying to participate in a creative effort particularly if you work with talented people. For example, this movie is out now – it’s an animated feature from Paramount called Rango. The director, Gore Verbinski, who directed the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, is an extraordinary talented person. Three years ago, when he only had a paragraph of the idea for Rango, he asked me to design the characters for it. The concept was desert animals in a spaghetti western, and it was pretty much it. I loved it. I made close to 200 drawings and a great deal of them became talking and walking characters in the story. I made a contribution to the look of the film, and to the narrative. And to see it up on the screen is very gratifying.
Q. Do you ever have a difficult time coming up with ideas?
A. Coming up with ideas is not that hard. But you have to be hard on the ideas. Will your ideas survive the demands of a discipline you’re working in? Will it fit the format? Could this idea become a picture book for little children, for example? Or, is that idea meaningful enough to spend an untold amount of time trying to write it as a novel? And more importantly, is this the right idea for you to be working on now? Will it speak to others in today’s culture? Often there is no easy answer. I do however feel certain responsibilities because of my Soviet background. There are certain stories I have to tell. Breaking Stalin’s Nose is certainly one of them. I’m working on another juvenile novel that takes place on June 22, 1941, the day that Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. I am planning to tell another story that would expose extreme anti-Semitism in Russia in the late 40s – early 50s. There is no shortage of ideas, but finding the authentic and honest ones is where the challenge is. In today’s noisy, uncertain, stressful culture obeying your inner voice, your intuition could feel like a privilege. Sometimes you don’t allow yourself to hear your true voice; you repress it. Allowing your inner self to lead your way in art is a fascinating and mysterious process and a privilege I value more than anything.