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In the Studio: Leon Okun

by Allison Malafronte

Leon Okun standing outside his studio in Julian, California This month’s In the Studio coverage comes from across the country in California, where so many artists historically have settled and where many more continue to call home. This visit to the West Coast was a bit of a homecoming for me as well, as I used to spend a lot of time in California and hadn’t been back since 2013. While living in Laguna Beach that summer, I met editor, curator and artist Vanessa Rothe at her studio and gallery on Ocean Avenue, and I was especially impressed with the small contingent of contemporary Russian painters she was representing. In addition to the portrait and still-life work on the wall, Rothe had dozens of little landscape sketches from these prolific artists in the back room, which she curated into her gallery from the Russian art dealer Akhmed Salakhly. Every time I was in the studio, I would pore over boxes of those sketches, marveling at the color and light in the paintings and noticing the high quality of many of those artists’ work. I also noticed that the prices were fair considering the high skill level, and that visitors to the studio and passersby were showing interest.

My curiosity about contemporary Russian realistswhether they are still working in the same tradition as some of their famous predecessors, what method of training is most common and how it differs from American and American-European schools, what the culture and market are like for exhibiting and selling workhas remained largely unanswered due to my inability to speak directly with resident Russian artists. That’s why I was excited to learn during my recent trip to Laguna Beach that one of the Russian artists Rothe represents, Leon Okunwho was born in Russia, immigrated to America when he was thirteen and returned to Russia when he was twenty-five to study at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts (The Repin Academy)currently lives and teaches in Southern California. We were able to coordinate a visit, so I spent the last Sunday in October at Okun’s studio learning about his training in Russia, the evolution in his work and style since his student years, the direction he sees himself going in the future and the differences between American and Russian art culture.

The artist has his student work displayed throughout the studioThat morning, my friend Lisa and I travelled south from Laguna Beach to where Okun’s studio is located in Julian, an hour east of San Diego. It was a pleasantly surprising drive, as we were anticipating the typical sights of San Diego but instead encountered a beautiful, old-world backcountry that looked as authentically nineteenth-century California as an Arthur Mathews painting. After carefully making our way around the canyon-like terrain of the Cuyamaca Mountains, past the dirt roads of the main street of the historic townwhich is preserved to maintain the visage of its 1840s founding during the Gold Rush—we arrived at our destination. Okun rents his studio, a former stable, on the property of one of his students, Susan Butler. After meeting Susan and Okun’s wife—the artist Varvara Agabekova, who also attended the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and still teaches there—and looking at the many large artworks and antique Mexican furniture throughout the house, Okun showed us outside to the studio. The early afternoon was quickly turning cold and rainy, and as the artist stood outside, unbothered by the mildly inclement weather, he explained how much he enjoys being away from the upbeat, eternally sunny city of San Diego in this quiet countryside of constantly changing character.

Back inside the studio, we began the interview by discussing Okun’s upbringing and art training. When Okun and his family emigrated from Russia to America in 1993, they settled in San Diego, near other relatives. Okun descends from a long line of engineers and was planning to study computer science, but he knew from the moment he took his first life-drawing class at the age of nineteen that he was an artist. He also knew that if he wanted to be a professional artist he had to get the best possible education. After a disappointing search for art schools and universities in New York City and Boston, Okun looked into Watts Atelier of the Arts on a fellow artist’s recommendation. Watts Atelier—founded by the artist Jeffrey Watts and his wife Krista Watts in 1994 and located in Encinitas, California—gave Okun a great initial start, but after three years he felt like he was hitting a ceiling. One of Okun’s most influential teachers and mentors at the time, Los Angeles digital artist and conceptual designer Ron Lemen, encouraged him to keep pushing forward and seek out further education. As a result, Okun decided to return to Russia, and it was then that he stumbled upon the 250-year-old famed St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. Okun was so enthusiastic when he saw the school that he immediately signed up for evening drawing classes to assess the skill level of the students and the instructional approach. It was extremely challenging, he said, and that’s exactly the kind of environment he was looking for.

One of Okun’s portrait drawings, following the constructive drawing style of the Russian academy Okun’s paintings are more influenced by Russian and California Impressionism

“The St. Petersburg Academy is a very competitive school to get into, so I knew after taking evening classes there that I had to go back to America and spend a few years building my skills and putting together the best possible portfolio,” the artist explained. Under the guidance and encouragement of Ron Lemen, Okun’s plan worked, as he was accepted into the academy in 2005 and moved to Russia to begin what would be six straight years of intense training. “Once you get into the academy, you feel as if you could spend the rest of your life there,” he remembered. “The school itself is enormous, with a huge castle-like campus housing many different departments—fine art, sculpture, art history, architecture, traditional graphic arts—as well as the major State Russian Museum and the famous Hermitage Museum. Everything is happening at such a high level, and as you begin learning about all these different genres you just want to learn more and more. I anticipated attending for a few years but ended up staying for six years—four for my B.F.A. and two for my M.F.A.and even that didn’t feel like enough. We all knew that we were being taught by the best teachers, and we also felt the incredible history surrounding us. The St. Petersburg Academy raised some of the best painters, and knowing that Repin and Serov walked the same halls gave us a tremendous sense of responsibility. We knew we were being given something extremely important and eventually it would be our turn to pass it on.”

This image from V.A. Mogilevtsev’s book shows a class of artists from the St. Petersburg Academy in 1908 (left) next to a photograph of academy students in 2008 (Okun is pictured on the “Repin Stairs”) in the same classroom

Recounting some of the memories from his student days and the foundational traditions of the academy, Okun next showed me a book that was published in 2011 by his drawing teacher, V.A. Mogilevtsev, titled Academic Drawings and Sketches. In the book there is a picture from 1903 of one of the classrooms at the St. Petersburg Academy filled with artists drawing and painting a model. Next to it is a picture of a group of students from Okun’s generation, standing in that same classroom. In both pictures the “Repin Ladder” is pictured, and in the recent picture from 2008 Okun stands on those stairs looking down at a group of students gathered around a teacher. As the story goes, Repin was an incurable workaholic, and his inability to stop drawing and painting while at the academy resulted in many sleepless nights and accompanying health concerns. His doctor insisted that he build a room somewhere in the studio so he could at least take occasional naps, and the loft room that the ladder led to is where those pauses took place. Although the napping room is now Mogilevtsev’s office, the ladder remains in remembrance of Repin.

A close-up of the life-size figure painting Okun did while at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts

At various points in our discussion, Okun shared both his student work and some of his current work. While comparing the life-size portrait of a woman he painted while at the academy to a more current, colorful painting of a woman sitting on a swing, I asked him at what point his style began moving from academic to impressionistic. “They say it takes five years to get over an art school and ten years to get over an academy,” the artist laughed. “As I settled back in San Diego after graduating, I slowly began to realize that the kind of art that speaks to me most, and the art that I want to create, doesn’t necessarily have to do with tight rendering but rather with emotion, color and a graphic sensibility. I also think there are natural tendencies artists default to. Some artists are colorists, some are tonalists, some are more about line. I love color and the fact that it can say so much on its own without form. In addition to Rembrandt and El Greco, I have also been greatly influenced by Cézanne and the great California painters, especially Armin Hansen, whose work looks very Russian to me. My style of painting now combines the Russian academic foundation of my training, the light and color of California and Russian Impressionism and the freedom of Expressionism.”

As Okun explained to me, drawing and painting were distinctly different enterprises at the St. Petersburg Academy. Back in the early days of art history, artists primarily used drawing to understand form, and that’s how it is still taught at the academy. “It’s informative and dry, it’s not painterly,” he said. “The focus is on form construction, anatomy and volume. But when you paint, different considerations take over, especially the presence and vibration of cool and warm color. That’s why male figures are predominantly used for drawing at the academy, and always under artificial light for more effect. Painting, however, is done exclusively with natural light, and a female model is preferred for its fluidity, flexibility and rhythm. I noticed when I returned to the States and began teaching here that students don’t always have a thorough understanding of color. I don’t think enough is taught on this subject—I see a lot of drawings with some paint added passing as full paintings. At the academy, we were criticized by our teachers if our paintings looked like drawings, if they weren’t advancing to that next level. You had to see that clear distinction between the structured form of drawing and the painterly understanding of color.”

The artist explaining the differences between drawing and painting and his student and current work

In addition to drawing a line between drawing and painting, another hallmark of Russian art, and probably its principal calling card, is composition. “If I had to summarize all of Russian academic training in one word, it would be composition,” Okun said. “It is what the best Russian painters are known for, and it’s what is constantly emphasized throughout our training. Everything is done with respect to composition. Many parts of the process may be accidental, but the finished painting is never accidental. The artist is trained to be a composer, to see everything through the eyes of an artist, and to control the painting’s progress toward a desired end result. Many times that may mean making adjustments and design decisions—exaggerating certain elements, leaving out others, stylizing form—for the sake of the final composition.” Reaching for a book on one of his favorite Russian Soviet painters, Evsey Moiseenko (1916-1988), Okun showed me his painting Comrades, and explained that more recently this has become an iconic painting of composition at the academy and is referenced often. “This is how composition is now taught at the academy,” he said. “Intricate scenes with a very strong graphic sense. It’s all about shapes and the rhythm between shapes. You find and emphasize the nuances and contrasts—big shapes next to small shapes; rectangles, circles, squares; light on dark, dark on light—to make your composition most effective. Nature is your guide, but you don’t have to copy everything exactly as you see it.”

This kind of artistic license can of course only be granted to those who have conquered the foundational elements of design, including drawing, proportion, perspective, etc. On this topic, I wondered what method of measurement is used at the academy for both the structured drawing exercises and the more complex paintings. Okun explained that the Russians believe in training the artist’s eye to know structure so well that they can eventually construct and compose instinctually without measurement aids. He stressed that although The St. Petersburg Academy’s curriculum was influenced by the nineteenth century French Academy, they do not use their methods of training the eye, such as copying Bargue drawings or using the sight-size method. “The sight-size method is helpful if you’re doing simple student exercises or working with one subject,” he explained, “but once you start composing larger pieces with multiple figures and multiple points of action, you can’t measure that way. You have to stay flexible and rely on your eye.” He went on to explain that Russians revere Michelangelo as the model in this respect: the artist masters anatomy and proportion to the point that he or she can change and rotate the figure and move elements around ad infinitum while still maintaining accuracy.

The Russian artist Evsey Moiseenko’s painting Comrades  Moiseenko’s painting Still Life With Irises

Continuing to leaf through the pages of images by Moiseenko, I noticed that he was a painter who was born during early Modernism and came of age during Post-Modernism. I thought it was interesting that Okun recalled his teachers referencing everyone from Renaissance draftsmen to painters such as Moiseenko, who clearly incorporated modernist influences in his work. “I think that’s another big difference between the Russian academy and other academies,” Okun said. “The Russian academy held onto its roots in realism while still embracing and being open to modernism and the avant garde. This painting for instance [pointing to Moiseenko’s Still Life With Irises] is realism accepting Picasso and Modigliani. The academy and its artists saw many movements in art history—the French Academy, Soviet Impressionism, Modernism, Abstract Expressionism—and through it all, they let those influences in, they weren’t afraid. There was a generation of academy students and teachers who went through World War II (Moiseenko, Mylnikov, Eremeev) who were like superheroes in the history of the school. They were absolutely fearless in their art, could paint anything, and were known for combining tradition with modernism.”

Still Life With Venus Bust, 2013, oil, 27 x 35 in. Private collection   Okun’s palette

As our conversation concluded that late afternoon, we discussed Okun’s continued search for what is most important to him in subject matter and style, and some of the avenues he pursues to stay challenged professionally. While sharing a book on Corneliu Baba, one of his favorite Romanian painters, Okun explained why he paints and what he wants to focus on in the future. “Portraits and paintings of people, that is my primary vehicle of communication,” the artist said. “I want to explore the people and environments closest to me, wherever and whatever they may be. Working from my imagination doesn’t appeal to me. My style could be very abstract in application, but it has to be based on something real. That’s why I admire Corneliu Baba and Armin Hansen—they were painting what they knew and cared about. It’s like a writer picking a subject and understanding it to the fullest. Steinbeck understood Monterey intimately and could therefore write so naturally about it. Hansen was also very connected to Carmel and to the fishermen in that area, and that authentic connection is felt through his paintings. When Corneliu Baba paints his wife [The Artist’s Wife], you feel like you know her even though you’ve never met her. These are the qualities that appeal to me in art-making and the kind of honesty and sincerity I want my work to carry.”

Okun’s painting of his wife, the artist Varvara Agabekova

Okun also spoke of various aspects of exhibiting and selling his work, explaining that it’s a more of an American concept to be creating paintings for galleries with quick turnaround and little public education. In Russia, the artists paint for museums and other cultural institutions—although he admitted that a good portion of those paintings end up in the museum’s basement or are bought, en masse, by Asian collectors and are therefore not as publically available as the artists would like. Nevertheless, the way in which art is exhibited and appreciated is different. “I remember returning to the States after graduating from the academy and feeling an immediate culture shock,” Okun recalled. “I had just come from this medieval world where it is high art around the clock, and then I get out here and feel this pressure to start painting and selling a product. That’s why I teach [at The Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art, Laguna College of Art + Design, and privately in his studio] and do portrait commissions. This way, I can let my art be whatever it’s going to be. If I want to throw paint from far away on the canvas one day, I can do that. I’m free to explore and grow in any direction I wish.”

Autumn Still Life, 2016, oil, 20 x 24 in. Collection the artist Part of the artist’s growth process involves regular trips back to Russia and Europe to fill up on museum-quality work and to connect with a community of like-minded painters. Okun is a member of the St. Petersburg Artist Union and participates in their annual competition every year. “Being involved in this union has been very beneficial,” he said. “When you are alone in the studio, you can’t always gauge where you are and the areas in which you need to grow. When I go back to Russia and participate in this competition, I can measure where I am compared to my peers. The union exists for that reason, so artists can see if they are progressing or stagnating. Living in San Diego can be challenging in this regard—there aren’t a lot of museums or places to see high-quality art, like there are on the East Coast and in Europe. Also, if you teach a lot like I do, you are around people who usually praise you instead of perhaps critiquing you or pointing out where you could be improving. The St. Petersburg Artist Union is healthy for me and keeps me humble.”

After looking through a few more art books and Okun’s paintings, it was time to head back up the hill to the house, where Susan, her husband Steve and Varvara had prepared a Mexican-style dinner, Russian tea and Julian’s signature apple pie. During the dinner discussion, Susan shared stories about how Leon and Varvara’s teaching and presence in her life has helped her grow as an artist, and how the recent trip she took with them to Russia opened her eyes to the great cultural and artistic history of St. Petersburg. I was also able to speak with Varvara, see images of her art and learn more about some of her experiences teaching and living in Russia, where she spends half of the year. As Lisa and I drove back to Laguna Beach, we felt as if we had not only traveled back in time that day but also to another country. I felt grateful for the chance to uncover yet another side of California I hadn’t seen before, while finally getting the opportunity to learn a little more about the fascinating traditions and history of Russian art. 

<i>Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, 2014, oil, 16 x 12. Collection the artist