BORIS CHETKOV: A LIFE PART 1 by Tori Boggs

 Chetkov with sisters 1936

Chetkov with sisters 1936

Born on 26 October 1926 in Novaya Lyalya in the Urals, Boris Aleksandrovich Chetkov was born into a prosperous peasant family. His earliest memories were tinged with the velvety glow of nostalgia: he described escaping from his parents’ dull flat to his grandparents’ farmyard, ‘colossal’ to a young boy’s eyes; the animals, hard work with his grandfather and the practical jokes his grandparents played on him. But all too soon the idyll was over: his family was forced into collectivization, he spent time in the Gulag system and fought in World War II, all before the age of 19.

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford

Chetkov's Family by Tori Boggs

  Chetkov's mother and father Aleksander in 1970

Chetkov's mother and father Aleksander in 1970

Novaya Lyalya, in Sverdlosk Oblast, is an unassuming town surrounded by forest and lying in the shadow of the Urals, the vast mountain range stretching north-south across central Russia. In 1926, the year Chetkov was born, Novaya was barely a town, just a snaggle of houses along the River Lyalya reliant on farming, mining and water traffic. Though sleepy and rural, this part of the world was (and is) an area with a proud history: the locals are steeped in tradition and folklore, proud of their abilities and fond of standing on their own two feet. Servility does not come naturally to those born near the Urals. It is perhaps no surprise that the area was a hotbed of Bolshevik activity at the turn of the 19th century and that the Romanovs were sent to the administrative capital, Sverdlosk (now Yekaterinberg) during the revolution of 1917. And, of course, it was in these ancient forest-bound mines that received the sad corpses of Tsar Nicolas and his family in July 1918, the brutal end to the old order that ushered in the new. Being born in the same district, a mere eight years after the birth of Soviet Russia, Chetkov’s life experiences would mirror the worst the new world order could offer: its failures, its rare joys and its dark truths. Yet he moved through it untouched by it all, his irrepressible spirit staying the course.

Born on 26 October 1926, Boris Aleksandrovich Chetkov was one of five children of Aleksander Chetkov, himself born into a prosperous peasant family. Boris’s mother came from the great Ural city of Perm, but she lost virtually her whole family (icon painters and miniaturists) during the revolution. She eventually washed up in the village of Soltanovo aged 18 and there married Aleksander. Boris’s grandfather, Andrei had a hint of mystery and romance in his background: he was left at the door of a well-off childless couple in Soltanovo, “wrapped in a very nice silk blanket with lace trim. There was a birth certificate saying the baby’s name: Andrei Chetkov. Nothing else was known about his origins. So the people adopted the baby and started raising him. He turned out to be a very smart and hardworking boy.”

Perhaps because of his mysterious origins, Chetkov’s grandfather Andrei had an intense drive. Aleksander and his siblings were expected to get up at cockcrow and work til dusk. Andrei amassed a large house, meadows, croplands and more. Until one dreadful Sunday the Chetkov house caught fire, and no one lifted a finger to help. They cut their losses, took what they had and moved to Novaya Lyalya. Chetkov, his father and his grandfather were all marked by an incredible facility to pick themselves up and start again. By the time Boris was born, Andrei was living in a fine new house – a remarkable turnaround borne out of a prodigious work ethic.

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford

1926-1934: IDYLLIC BEGINNINGS by Tori Boggs

Chetkov’s memories of the first eight years of his life were tinged with the velvety glow of nostalgia and happiness. He described escaping from his parents’ dull flat to his grandparents’ house, across the railway line. He talked about the farmyard, ‘colossal’ to a young boy’s eyes; the animals, working with his grandfather and the practical jokes his grandparents played on him. He also remembered the bright pictures on the walls – for example a reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son in the Tavern – big books “bound in leather with copper clasps. I was fascinated by those books, the ones with pictures of horses. I constantly leafed through them.” It must be noted that horses – that symbol of beauty, wealth and power, come up time and time again in Boris’s work. Most important of all, there were the riches of the attic. For such a hard-working, unsentimental man, Andrei clearly had an eye for beauty and a profound respect for the tools which helped him create his life and his self image. His attic was filled with farming and cultural implements that he had kept as a “as a memory, for himself, of the household he used to have.”

“My grandfather bought everything and displayed like it was a museum. There were harnesses, huge wooden duga troika harnesses with traditional ornaments, all kinds of troika bells… whips from thick to thin… decorated antique spinning wheels, Spinning wheels, a spindle, a painted sledge with a bell... It all was like a folk museum of applied art… the grand sleds with ornaments used only on great holidays like New Year or Maslenitsa. The troika was so beautiful.” Boris Chetkov

His words echo those of Wassily Kandinsky, some years before: “I clearly remember I stopped on the doorstep before this unexpected spectacle. The table, the benches, and important-looking stove, the cupboards and dressers, everything was painted with colorful sweeping ornament… when at last I entered the painting closed around me and I entered it.”

All this beauty sunk in and met with a rising passion: “I little by little absorbed those things and educated myself.” On the surface Boris was a classic urchin in the Mark Twain mold: nearly getting run over by a train, running, fighting with other local boys, chasing geese, falling into the River Lyalya while trying to climb on logging rafts, romping with his dog, shooting stones at his school’s windows and much more. But from the age of four he spent every other spare moment drawing. His mother made an album from paper offcuts from the local factory and bought him watercolors and brushes, and young Boris drew and painted what he saw around him, illustrated the fairy tales [link to folklore piece] that his family told to him and sucked the world around him into his heart. In many of his later works he painted villages and farms with an intensity that only comes from a deep love and understanding.

It was during this early childhood period that he met Nikolai Evgrafov. The artist was a member of Pavel Filonov’s school of analytical realism, also described as ‘anti-Cubism’, which represented objects not by their surface geometry but by elements of their inner soul. Evgrafov was noted for his “unswerving professional honesty… and social audacity”. In the era Boris would have met him, he was painting pictures of poverty and squalor – at the height of Socialist Realism, bravely refusing to plough the Soviet furrow. This profoundly anti-establishment painter admired Boris’s work and told him to keep painting. To a young boy already pushing boundaries and mistrustful of authority, it must have felt like a kind of blessing.

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford

1935-1942: ‘BARRACKS UNIVERSITY’ by Tori Boggs

  Chetkov aged 10 with his sisters, 1936

Chetkov aged 10 with his sisters, 1936

Not long after this, when Boris was about eight, he and his family moved away from Novaya Lyalya to Krasnouralsk, where his father had started working as the manager of the passport-issuing department. For a time they lived a good life, but peace and safety in the time of Stalin was always a tenuous affair. Aleksander lost his job after falling foul of the Communist Party during the Great Purges of the 1930s, narrowly avoiding being shot. The family started a peripatetic lifestyle, living in Kazan, Sverdlovsk, Perm, Krasnoyarsk and the cities of Siberia and Ural. Each time they had to move, they would start at the bottom, in a tiny room in a barracks. Aleksander would once again summon up the innate Chetkov ability to turn his hand to anything, go to an industry showcase, show off his skills and soon they would move up the scale of workers, gaining an apartment.

“People would start coming to him to repair a bucket, a kettle, a lock, fit a saw – he could do everything. Can you imagine that? He was one of a kind. He knew everything about things, I remember he needed just a look at a saw to say whether it was good or bad.” Boris Chetkov

But soon the family would be on the move again, and this peripatetic time marked the end of emotional security for the young Boris. His entire life can be said to have been marked by one powerful characteristic: the ability to live in the now and to move on when necessary, and the years of his childhood marked by the ‘barracks university’, of having to constantly start again must have taught him about the fragility of believing in permanence.

“Boris grows up in a world where attachments cost dearly and can be temporary. In his early life, Chetkov quickly learned how little you can truly control. He learned that no matter who and what you are it can be taken away fast. What can I control? Only what I do and how I do it. This is what gave Chetkov such constructive urgency – you see his almost obsession to constantly create and experiment as there is no certainty that it was going to last. Each moment was precious and fleeting so must be honored to the fullest. Nothing could be taken for granted. No material possession is as important as the things you use to manifest as a unique individual, the things that come from within you… nothing material could effect his internal world of colorful vitality and imagination.” Peter Hoffman

This period also marked an emotional withdrawal from his family and a souring of his relationship with his father. Perhaps even at this young age, while respecting his father’s abilities and work ethic, Boris started to feel that he should be accountable for his own well-being. There are two incidents that stand out, two hard lessons that taught him, in effect, to be careful about who you trust. In Krasnouralsk the Chetkovs adopted a young girl. She started to steal food from the family (for her brother) and also hoard food and wet the bed. Boris’ father simply discarded her: “It didn’t work out in the end and my father had to bring her back. We rejected her.”

At the same approximate time Boris had a dog, a red pointer called Jack. They were close in the way only a boy and a dog could be, endlessly romping together. Boris revealed: “He was so clever, so good. He was my only joy.” However Jack regularly got out, and would chase the neighbor’s goats. He chased them one time too many and Boris came home from school to discover Aleksander had put his beloved Jack down. Boris stated, baldly, “It ruined my relationship with my father.”

Boris ran away from home, sleeping in haylofts and living off the land until he was found and taken home. He started playing truant from school and also stopped drawing (the only time, along with Gulag, the army, and when he had brucellosis that he did so). When staff from the trade school in Novaya Lyalya arrived in town looking for recruits, the teenage Boris went with them, leaving his family behind without a backwards glance.

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford

1942-1944: GULAG by Tori Boggs

The idyllic farm that Boris remembered so fondly was no more. He lived in the school’s halls of residence, learning various crafts: “I studied laying bricks and such. Also we learned about woodwork and metalwork, everything needed”. He would often visit his grandmother, who was now living in a flat with her daughter, Boris’s aunt Tonya. Tonya was a staunch communist, worked for the police and in Boris’s words, “gave her favors very freely.” She hated having him around, and when the alienated Boris got into trouble, she saw her chance. At the industrial school the ‘local’ boys like Boris would fight with the ‘Orel’ boys. Two of Boris’s friends stabbed an Orel boy in a scuffle. They were arrested, and although Boris had not been involved he was also arrested, as an accomplice. Tonya, despite her contacts with the police, did not lift a finger to help and Boris – willful and troublesome for sure, but still only 16 – was sentenced to a year in the Gulag. It was another horrible life lesson.

His descriptions of arriving at the Gulag are vivid: “We were pushed out of the wagons one by one. It was snowing and very cold. We were surrounded by guards with their police dogs, straining at the leads and baring their teeth. Guards would scream ‘to your knees!’ from time to time; those who remained standing were hit by a rifle. Then we were counted and started walking through the forest. We later found out it was a lumber factory in Nizhniy Tagil Gulag. We constantly heard axes ringing and saws squealing. It was 1943, I was 16 years old, very skinny and pessimistic. I was responsible for [wood for] the fire and had to carry things from place to place. All in freezing weather, -25-30 degrees. I felt that other prisoners treated me with some leniency; they didn’t swear at me, never took away my food and kept saying, ‘Don’t work too hard, boy’. Yet I couldn’t relax: the guards were constantly on the look-out, and in any case sitting down could lead to frost-bitten hands and feet.” Boris Chetkov

Fortunately Boris was sent on to a prison factory – which at least was warm –manufacturing mine parts 14 hours a day. With the Chetkovian skill of making the most of the hand you are dealt, not only did he make friends, he thrived. He was even made a shift foreman, though he didn’t relish the job, jumping out of the factory’s broken windows at any sign of trouble. And, in an extraordinary turn of events, his father ended up at the same Gulag. The two bunked together, keeping out of the way of the hardened criminals, until Aleksander was forced into a penal battalion and sent into the teeth of the Second World War. His son was soon to follow.

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford

1944-1946: WAR AND RECOVERY by Tori Boggs

  Chetkov in 1946. Image probably taken just after Chetkov got out of the army

Chetkov in 1946. Image probably taken just after Chetkov got out of the army

The moment Boris came of age he was conscripted into a tank regiment, trained up and sent to the front during the dying gasps of the World War II. Even here, during training, he distinguished himself – albeit in his trademark constancy of effort and experimentation regardless of circumstance.

“At the exam, I had to drive the tank between the obstacles [like] ditches, timber, wood, with all the crew on board. At one such, I didn’t manage the tank and it turned over and fell into a pit. The crew got injured; I kept pulling various levers, and the members of the crew all were swearing: ‘What the hell do we need this mechanic for, we won’t get into a tank with him ever again!’ A tractor pulled us out, and a captain said to me: ‘Everything can happen at the war, well done for attempting to fix the situation’. So I became a first sergeant’s mechanic.” Boris Chetkov

Boris survived the war, fighting in Latvia where he was part of the Soviet forces that eventually broke the infamous German ‘Courland Pocket’ in Latvia between October 1944 and April 1945. Incredibly, despite having been injured more than 20 times, Aleksander also survived the war, and father and son reunited in Novaya Lyalya.

Aged 18, Boris had already seen more than most. But he had the resilience of youth and the passion of a true artist, and little by little, he started drawing again. His father did not support him, seeing art as a waste of money, but after the war, what was there to lose? Older members of the community told him, “You boy, go ahead. It is interesting to be an artist. Go ahead and keep drawing.” They were not the only ones. His uncle came to visit, saw his work and took him back to his home in Irbit to study with the local art association, an experience which did little for the young painter’s education as they churned out endless Stalinist propaganda. However Boris discovered the power of oil-paint, vividly recalling: “In close proximity I could see all the brush strokes, but move away a little – and all the images appeared in clarity”. Every Sunday he would visit the local art gallery and take in their collection of Russian and Western art.

When Boris was about 21 or 22, his family moved to Karaganda in Kazakstan and Boris decided to leave Irbit and go with them. This would prove to be an extraordinarily wise decision.

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: Boris Chetkov in his own Words.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford

BORIS CHETKOV: A LIFE PART 2 by Tori Boggs

In 1948 Chetkov joined his family in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. It was to prove one of the formative decisions of his life: here he met his first mentor, Vladimir Eifert who saw the true artist in the young man. For three years the renowned art historian taught Chetkov everything he knew, before sending him off to art school in St Petersburg. In that city and later Moscow also he thrived, despite a near-fatal brush with brucellosis and the negative attentions of the Communist Party. After graduating he became the chief glass artist of the 1BBW glass factory, a role that was to inform his art in wonderful ways.

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford

1949-1952: VLADIMIR EIFERT by Tori Boggs

  The Chetkov family in 1954

The Chetkov family in 1954

“It was in spring. Narrow streets, camels, every kind of people come to trade, colorful and vibrant colors around, noisy markets with plenty of bric-a-brac on sale. I was enchanted by this world, overwhelmed with this multitude, this diversion of peoples and lifestyles. And I hurried to the market every day to make sketches, to draw from dusk till dawn drawing everything I saw around - despite the obvious public disapproval.” Boris Chetkov

Boris Chetkov stopped drawing only four times in his life. Once as a youngster, when he fell in with a ‘bad crowd’. Again in the Gulag, as a soldier and for the last time while was mortally ill. It was an essential part of who he was: even in the army he was identified as an artist. Everything had led him to this situation: his mother’s encouragement, that of Efgrafov, the men in his village, his uncle, all allied with his own burning desire to draw. While his time at an art school in Irbit may have whetted his appetite for painting and oils in particular, the next stage of his life was to prove the springboard for Chetkov’s burgeoning talent.

In 1949, when he upped sticks to join his family in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, he was to meet one of his most important mentors, Vladimir Eifert. Already 22 years old, his springtime arrival in the bustling southern trade city was mirrored by an explosion in Chetkov’s artistic interest. He found a job at the local mine as a set painter for the men’s club and in addition spent every spare moment drawing in the markets. One day he was told that a famous artist from Moscow was in town, looking to take on an apprentice.

Vladimir Eifert had been the director of Moscow's Pushkin Museum of Fine Artsand was one of the most competent art experts in Stalin's Soviet Union. However as an ethnic German, he was exiled to Karaganda in 1941. He and his wife were resettled in a desolate village, where they worked on a collective farm. Eifert formed a circle of pupils and taught them to paint, eventually creating a golden era of art in Karaganda. Chetkov was to become one of those students. In the hall where the artist was picking his pupils, he described the scene: “There I saw a balding, serious and very cultured man. He was walking around and the guys laid out their works, a lot of them.” He hung back, but Vladimir Eifert approached him. “He looked at the drawings and said, ‘Well, draw you cannot. Where did you study?’ I said nowhere. And he said, ‘You can’t draw but you feel the emotional state of a person. I’ll take you as my student.’”

Along with his meeting with the Armenian artist Ervan Kochar years later, Chetkov credits his time with Eifert as seminal: “I saw my own work for what it was… I began to really understand drawing and art.” His training was rigorous and thorough. Chetkov and his fellow student, Nikolai Zhirnov, had to arrive at their lessons properly dressed in suits. They studied art history, theory of art, composition and were set assignments – mostly still life and portraits – to develop them as artists. Chetkov woke at 4am and worked til midnight. He was, “So enthralled, nothing else existed for me.” Eifert encouraged his pupils to paint outside even in freezing conditions, and loved painting en plein air himself: art was his consolation after banishment. Galina Lavrentyeva, a confidant of Eifert's wife, revealed years later: "He liked to paint the sky. It symbolized freedom and infinity.”

For three years Eifert taught Chetkov everything he knew. Then, in 1952, he told his students, “You are real artists now guys, but you still need an official diploma.” Chetkov left for Leningrad.

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford

1952-1960: ART SCHOOL AND BRUCELLOSIS by Tori Boggs

  Teacher FK Shmelev shows Chetkov's work to fellow students at the Sverdlosk Art School, c. 1953

Teacher FK Shmelev shows Chetkov's work to fellow students at the Sverdlosk Art School, c. 1953

With no connections or money, he was lost in the big city, but was fortunate to fall in with some other young men studying to take entrance exams for the well known Tavricheskaya Art School (now known as the Roerich Art School). At first he was intimidated by these big city boys, but in the end Chetkov passed and they did not. His massive work ethic once again stood him in good stead.

Sadly what should have been a glorious experience for the young artist quickly turned sour. In order to support himself Chetkov worked as a loader in a food warehouse. At the end of his first year he caught brucellosis, a very unpleasant, extremely infectious disease which causes high fever and muscle pain, and is frequently fatal. Chetkov wasted away in hospital, coming so close to death he was actually taken down to the morgue before someone realized he was still breathing. His parents took him back to their new home in Sverdlosk (now Yekaterinberg), and in a last throw of the dice, they paid the huge sum of 400 roubles (about three months salary) to the local vet (experienced in treating brucellosis in animals) to try and save Chetkov. Amazingly his potions worked, and the young artist made a full physical recovery.

However the long disease left a scar on his psyche. He was more single minded, less inclined to trust the world, more desirous of searching for deeper truths. What little mental reserve or boundaries left after his stark early life experiences were completely burnt away in the furnace of his passion to paint from the heart and soul. He had survived death: he was an artist on his own terms and only on those terms; he wanted to make every moment count.

“When I start working on a new project, I never think of work I have done before; I forget all the uncertainties, insecurities or inner torments. If I have a difficulty starting new works, say, two to three days, I would walk around my studio and look at my previous works as if for the first time, they are all forgotten to me. At exhibitions, many tell me that my works don’t have an identity, because they do not belong to any school, and all art should belong to a particular one. I don’t agree with this. To me, following someone’s teaching is like feeling trees or making shoes, boring. Art should be an experiment, without any set rules. No limits, no horizon; not many understand this.” Boris Chetkov

Chetkov did not return to Leningrad, instead enrolling in the highly respected Sverdlovsk School of Arts (now known as the Ural State Academy of Art and Architecture in Yekaterinberg). Here, slowly recovering, he studied under VF [or FK] Shmelev, who himself had been a protégée of Ilya Mashkov, one of the most prominent members of the renowned Jack of Diamonds avant garde group in the 1910s. (Years before, in a backwards echo, Mashkov had been thrown out of art school for being too ‘freethinking’)
Shmelev was so impressed by Chetkov that he took him under his wing and started teaching him independently. He told Chetkov that he should paint in a certain way, but never insisted on it – Chetkov described him as ‘free and easy’. In any case it was already too late to mold Chetkov into a specific school of painting (if indeed it would ever have been possible): “I had my own vision, I saw the world in a different way. I saw colors and relationships. It was too late, I couldn’t paint like they did.”

Chetkov was lucky with many of his teachers. While Socialist Realism was the only art genre allowed in Russia at this time, and indeed the only form of art taught, there was still a rump of pre-Soviet artist-teachers who had survived the purges of the 1930s. Chetkov’s free style was, if not encouraged, certainly allowed to flourish: there was space to grow under determined individualists like Eifert, Shmelev and later the master watercolorist Sergey Vasilyevich Gerasimov and avant-gardist Vladimir Vasilyev.

While studying in Sverdlovsk, Boris got married for the first time. It was not a success: he felt pushed into it by his parents and the girl, who told him she was pregnant. It was not true, though in the end they did have a son together. Boris spent two years dutifully working in a school in Sverdlovsk as an art and technical drawing teacher but he was not happy. He explained, “I told [my parents] that I didn’t need a married life, that it was rubbish for me. I always wanted to study and I didn’t want a wife.” Chetkov would later interrogate the concept of family and continuance in images such as Childhood of my Son, a wistful work describing an idealistic pre-Stalin setting that would have been far removed from the actual childhood of his son.

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford

1960-1965: GRADUATION by Tori Boggs

  Chetkov and his thesis work, 1959

Chetkov and his thesis work, 1959

In 1960 Chetkov returned to Leningrad to enroll in art school again. However it became a torturous process. His style was too forthright, too developed: “It is always tough to teach someone who is already educated. It is better and easier to take students from high school, to shape them the way they want. Teaching me demanded an effort: maybe I would need extra work, special studies. They didn’t know what kind of person I was either. What if he is stubborn? There’s no place for him here.”

In another moment of sheer serendipity – which also shows Chetkov’s incredible ability to live in the moment, and to see its potential – he met the Director of Admission from the Stroganov University of Arts. Director Voloshin took one look at Chetkov’s work and told him to come to Moscow. After passing his entrance exams with flying colors, Chetkov entered the textiles department before later transferring to ceramics and glass. This was a very happy time in Chetkov’s life. He said, “I studied and felt completely at home, I was friends with professors. I got excellent grades. I went to museums with my professors. We used to talk about art and creativity.”

The head of the department was Vladimir Vasilyev, an avant garde artist who had achieved some prominence in the 1920s. While under his protection Chetkov gained excellent grades. However in his last year Vasilyev died and was replaced by a zealous Communist Party member, Seleznev. “A couple of times after Seleznev’s appointment I noticed a student standing behind a column and scribbling something in her notepad while I was discussing art and, in unflattering terms, Socialist Realism.”

After surviving the Gulag, World War II and a near-fatal disease, something as minor as the disapproval of the Communist Party barely checked Chetkov’s stride. He continued to discuss western art movements, to paint as he wished and develop as an artist without reference to ideology. But the party increased his efforts against him and the writing was on the wall. Seleznev was trying to get approval from the university board to have all of Chetkov’s excellent grades removed and downgraded to fails, thus in a stroke removing him from the university and rendering his years of study null and void. Fortuitously the head of another department pulled some strings and got him transferred to Mukhina School of Arts in Leningrad to finish his last year. Chetkov left without looking back.

Even here it was touch and go; harried by the Communist Party, he barely scraped by: “At the autumn exhibition, my works were painted over; my paintings and drawings were marked with a mere 3 (C). However, I was allowed to uphold my diploma, even though my fellow communist students were clearly not happy about it.” The final comment on his five years of work was, “he is not an artist but a good craftsman.”

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford

1966-1979: THE GLASS FACTORY by Tori Boggs

  In the laboratories with the 'experimental team' at 1BBW glass factory

In the laboratories with the 'experimental team' at 1BBW glass factory

After an unsuccessful stint as a teacher, Chetkov was allocated to Glass Factory 1BBW in Bolshaya Vishera, just outside the lovely city of Veliky Novgorod. It was 1965 and Chetkov came in to the factory like a lion. Artists were low down the pecking order, something Chetkov, with his need to create, to experiment and push the envelope, could not tolerate.

“The factory had a set plan of how many objects it needed to produce, and the artists’ ideas were not a priority. If they wanted to see their design implemented, they would have to make casts themselves – but they lacked the necessary skills. I invited craft workers to our laboratory. I showed them the sketches, and discussed the ways we could implement the designs. I was told that to create a product with a new design, they needed ready birchen forms; just as we expected, they refused to make them themselves. So, I took a saw, axe and a crow-bar and went to the warehouse. We prepared bricks of wood and brought them to a turnery… we made the casts and get them straight to a joiner’s department. There were other difficulties along the way; we constantly felt unwelcome. Finally, the compromise was reached: the casts were to be produced… [in the years to come] our works, mostly of my design, were taken abroad to take part in exhibitions in abroad including America and France.”Boris Chetkov

Chetkov had found his métier. The quality of glass from the factory improved to a point where this little factory started having its works chosen for exhibition. Chetkov was made Senior Glass Artist, and pulled a dedicated team around him. He constantly developed as a glass worker, his love of color in paint feeding into his love of color in glass. “Working with glass is enchanting, it carries you away, liberates your fantasy; the artist becomes a magician when he creates an object from a shapeless hot paste… Glass gave fire to my soul, and it left a deep burn in it.”

It left a deep burn in Chetkov’s art too. His ability with color, already masterful, was let completely off the leash after he started at the factory. As glass work fed into paintings and back into glass, a master painter started to shape himself over the fire of his passion.

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford