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Five Men in a Russian Car

Five Men in a Small Russian Car
A Travelogue of Russian Art by Eric Rhoads

Jet-lagged and sleepy-eyed, I left my 1930's-style hotel room after my first night in Moscow. It was 4 a.m., and I was to meet my host, John Wurdeman, a Russian art dealer and owner of Lazare Gallery, in the hotel lobby. I remember standing in this amazing old hotel and looking up to the rotunda to see a scene of Stalin leading a charge of Russian soldiers. Though Communism was long gone, the remnants and reminders were everywhere.

Five men packed in a tiny car

John greeted me and we walked through the biting cold sleet to the parking lot, where three other men awaited us in a tiny Russian car, much smaller than a Volkswagen. Introductions were made to two men who spoke no English, and one who did. Our translator was John's son John Henry Wurdeman, a brilliant artist who studied in Russia and now lives in Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union. All five of us piled into this tiny car and began our five-hour journey in the cold black morning as sleet and snow fell.

The wipers barely worked and mud covered the windshield; mud was everywhere in the crumbling roads. On the outskirts of Moscow we stopped for gas, also taking a break to stretch our sardine-packed legs. I went looking for fluid and paper towels to clean the windshield and was told they don't have that at gas stations in Russia, which only sell gas. No snacks. No coffee.

five men in a russian carMeeting a National Treasure

I'm along for the ride because I had expressed interest in accompanying John on an art-buying trip one day. Suddenly I'm with strangers who share a common desire for art, Russian is being spoken at high speeds, and our translator explains that we're heading inland to a small town where we will visit several artists, including one who is a registered national treasure (so declared by Joseph Stalin). By 10 a.m. we arrive and meet Mikhail Kugach, a legendary Soviet-era artist. We view a show of his works in a small local community center. It seemed wrong -- these are works that should be hanging in the best museums in the world.

Mikhail Kugach

We then made our way to the Academic Dacha, which was built as a home for Catherine the Great while she watched over the construction of the great canals of Russia. She then donated the charming little red house to the Russian Academy, which she had founded. This house and the wooded property were designed exclusively for artists to study plein air in the summertime, a required curriculum for all artists, whether landscape or figurative painters. The school believed plein air is the best way to learn color and form.

The Academic Dacha

Inside the Dacha were probably tens of millions of dollars worth of paintings by Repin, Levitan, and dozens of other Russian greats, each of whom had lived at Dacha over several summers. Many returned and built their own dachas nearby so they could be part of the artist community that had developed there.

Inside the Academic Dacha

Following lunch I was questioned about my interest in art, first by Mikhail, then by his son painter Ivan Kugach. Though I didn't understand it at the time, they were seeing if I was worthy to meet the great painter Yuri Kugach, a Russian legend and one of the great painters of all time. No one had told me because they didn't wish to disappoint me in case I was not approved for the meeting.

After about a 15-minute walk from the Academic Dacha, we entered small cabin, heated by a wood-burning stove. There in the tiny studio was Kugach, a charming man of 90 who acted and looked 70. We had a charming visit, and I had a lifetime memory. That visit alone is a story for another time.

The Story of a Living Russian Master

Two weeks later I had seen much of Russia and had bonded with these four gentlemen, who became lifelong friends after being packed in a car together for 14 days. I became especially close with Nicholai Dubovik, professor at the Russian State Academy's Surikov Institute in Moscow. His story is fascinating.

Nicholai was an orphan during the Soviet era, and someone in the orphanage noticed he was always drawing and showed skill. At 14 years old, he was enrolled in an art school in Moscow, where he became a ward of the state. We visited the school, which to this day has 7-year-olds living and studying seriously on campus full time. The class I visited was drawing a model from life -- at age 7. By the time these kids reach high school level, their skills are unbelievably developed.

Of the entire graduating class, only four are selected to enter the Surikov Institute. Nicholai Dubovik was one of those selected, and he entered the rigorous six-year program. Historically, the artist graduates of the Russian Academy are the finest artists in the world, having developed incredible technical skills and having mastered anatomy, of which four years of study is still required.

In Russia, painters like Nicholai are honored treasures. Russia values its painters, musicians, dancers, who are considered great celebrities.

A Special Friendship

I made a special friendship with Nicholai and his family. I was honored to visit his home and his studio and to meet his wife, Olga Belakovskaya, also a brilliant artist and professor and their son Kolya, who was studying at the Surikov at the time and who has become a terrific artist.

A few years later, the entire family was coming to America for a show of their art at John Wurdeman's Lazare Gallery, so we arranged for them to visit us at the family lake home for a week. We painted together every day, and I sat for portraits by Nicholai and Kolya. They made me look very Russian. (I hear that a lot anyway.)

Dubovik painting Eric's portrait

One of the reasons I like Nicholai is because he is such a warm, welcoming man, and he is passionate about art. He walked me though the Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow and told me the story of every painting. We were there for hours. He is also a brilliant instructor. He studied under Takhir T. Salakhov and the great Vyacheslav Nikolaivic Zabelin (1935-2001). Nicholai is a member of the famed Moscow River School of Painters founded by Yuri Kugach.

plein airStudy and Paint With a Russian Master

Now you'll get a chance to study under the professor who teaches at what is arguably the best art school in the world. Nicholai Dubovik is flying over from Moscow as a favor to me in one of his rare U.S. visits. He will do an onstage demo in our Russian Day at the Plein Air Convention & Expo and will also do a demo in the field when we paint outdoors in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. He is bringing Olga with him, and we've invited her to paint with us as well.

Russia's Role in Art History

Art dealer John Wurdeman is passionate about Russian art, and he will do a lecture and provide images of other historical greats. He will also explain why Russia played a critical role in preserving generations of technique when the rest of the world had abandoned them. And he will discuss how the Russian greats were sent to teach in China, the reason so many brilliantly trained Chinese artists have emerged today. Following this lecture you'll see the importance of Russia in the world of art and how it had a huge impact on the plein air movement worldwide. This is a rare opportunity.

A Historic Experience

Nicholai Dubovik is just one small part of what we believe will be a fabulous experience of learning. The Plein Air Convention is driven by the desire we feel for painting en plein air. (I am a plein air painter, as are PleinAir editor Steve Doherty, our CEO, Jim Robinson, and several of our other team members, like Charlie Bogusz, Kathleen Lawrence Davis, Richard Lindenberg, Kristan Chamberlain, Cinnamon Rossman, and Khrystal Allen. We publish PleinAir and Fine Art Connoisseur because of our passion. We're not some giant, faceless corporation that couldn't care less about the content.)

Our goal is to help you grow as a painter, elevate the overall quality of plein air worldwide (there are painters coming from, among other countries, Brazil, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, and France) and to improve your ability to sell artwork with our Marketing Boot Camp. I presented a one-hour sample of the five-hour course -- which is optional (and free) if you attend the convention -- at the California Art Club Winter Symposium last Saturday in San Francisco and received an e-mail from someone who referred to it as "spellbinding." I hope that's a good thing, and I hope I can live up to it and make you better at selling art. My goal is to double your art sales in one year.

Momentum Is Building

I would be honored if you would come to the Plein Air Convention. We're limited to 750 people, and I'm thrilled that almost 50 percent of the seats have been sold, and already a couple of nights at the fabulous Red Rock Resort are sold out. The hotel told us they have never seen a conference sell so many rooms this early.

But don't let that stop you. You won't want to miss this first Plein Air Convention and Expo. We're pulling out all the stops to make this a memorable and valuable experience for you. I do suggest you act fast before we have to hang a "sold out" sign and create a waiting list in case someone drops out. More than 150 clubs are promoting the event, and I'm seeing comments on Facebook every day from people who say they are coming but haven't got around to registering yet.

I have so many deep friendships in this industry, and this is going to be like a giant gathering of friends to share stories, share paintings, critique one another, paint together, grow together, and watch demos from some of the finest plein air artists in the world. I'd like you to join in this historic gathering of artists. We think it will be the largest gathering of artists in history.

To register, go to, or phone 561-655-8778. If you're a member of an arts organization, several are offering discounts, which you can find here.