From Russia with courage

VAN GOGH INFLUENCED: Field of Dreams  and, below, The Lighthouse. Bottom, Sergey Cherep.
VAN GOGH INFLUENCED: Field of Dreams and, below, The Lighthouse. Bottom, Sergey Cherep.
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JOHN Vincent on the unusual tale of how a paralysed toddler overcame the odds to become an established artist.

IT is a classic story of triumph over adversity. A small Russian boy, unable to walk or talk for several years due to a serious illness, finds comfort in painting. Astonishingly, he graduates from art college and is then forced to sell his paintings on the streets through organised crime syndicates. Without a word of English, he flees to America where he ekes out a living as a lavatory cleaner and rubbish collector before achieving success as an artist.

Sergey_Cherep_-_The_Lighthouse

Sergey_Cherep_-_The_Lighthouse

That, in a nutshell, is the background of Sergey Cherep, 42, from St Petersburg, whose colourful, bold paintings are on show at Bohemia Galleries in Gillygate, York, until September 3 – thanks to a chance meeting with gallery owner Steve Eccles over a coffee in New York five years ago.

Sergey’s story is a remarkable one. After contracting meningitis when three, he found he had a natural aptitude for painting, attended a pre-school for artists before winning a place at a prestigious college in St Petersburg, gaining extensive knowledge in all the classic art forms.

Sergey, still deaf in one ear from his childhood trauma, recalls: “It was very disciplined. The teachers told us what to paint – there was no freedom. There was no such thing as abstract because it was considered very Western and evil. The school was free. They gave me the paint, the brushes and the teachers, everything was paid for by the government. Russia went with talent. But once we got our diplomas we were supposed to get a job and contribute back to society.”

Glasnost and free enterprise were being introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev as the 18-year-old Sergey graduated from art university in 1988. But the young artist was forced to sell his cityscapes through crime gangs which controlled the streets, giving them 70 per cent of his profits. Determined to fulfil his destiny, he left his old life and family behind and headed for America in 1992 after wangling a visa with the help of a tourist.

Sergey_Cherep_-_Field_of_dreams

Sergey_Cherep_-_Field_of_dreams

In Atlantia, Georgia, he stayed with a friend of a friend from art school and scraped a living with a series of lowly-paid jobs cleaning lavatories and collecting rubbish at the Internal Revenue Service. Painting only in his spare time, he learned the language by listening to co-workers and trying to read discarded newspapers.

One day Sergey showed his artwork to his manager at the IRS, who was so impressed he set up an art show in the cafeteria and Sergey sold three paintings. Soon afterwards he sold a picture for $1,000, almost twice as much as he made in a month at his cleaning job.

Sergey’s career gained momentum when he met his future wife Renee at a Christmas party in December 1995. His talent and her head for business made a formidable combination and soon the artist’s work was widely recognised and exhibited in several leading galleries.

In 1994, during a visit to California’s Napa Valley, his art changed from the traditional European and Russian style of stark realism to bright, vivid images of land and sea in primary colours. He favours a Van Gogh style, using bold, unrealistic colours and expressive brushstrokes. “My paintings are like fairy tales... I allow for the fantastic to happen,” says Sergey, who rises at 5.30 each morning to start sketching. Prices start at £400 for paintings on show at Bohemia Galleries. They include The Lighthouse (£5,000) and Field of Dreams (£2, 500).