Kevin Adams: ‘This is slowly becoming a piece of history’
On Sunday afternoon, just as it was being announced that an increasingly divisive Vladimir Putin would lead Russia for another six years, Washington artist Kevin Adams was giving a lecture at his Gay Street studio about the unprecedented opportunity he was afforded to visit, paint and exhibit his works in the then-Soviet Union.
The year was 1989, and with the approval of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Adams was permitted to see for himself just how open and transparent — politically and socially — the USSR was becoming under glasnost, the policy instituted by Gorbachev to begin democratization.
“It was something I wanted,” Adams explained Sunday. “It was the time when there was this supposed ‘growing openness’ between our two countries and I wasn’t quite sold on it. I needed proof.”
Furthermore, said the artist, “I knew that to go over there and share my work was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Surely in presenting his application to enter the socialist state, it didn’t go unnoticed that just two years prior Adams was an officer and combat artist in the U.S. Marine Corps. In fact, one of his more noteworthy murals was of a U.S. fighter plane pursuing a Soviet MIG-25.
But Gorbachev and his government — at that point two years shy of dissolving — were surprisingly receptive. In fact, Adams observed of Gorbachev, the eighth and last leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: “I’m confident that’s the only reason I got there.”
“I spent one year getting ready,” said the artist. “My paintings were from all over the United States, from the East Coast to the West Coast — Montana, Arizona, California, the majority of the East. I purposely tried to do a broad range of landscapes because my whole purpose was wanting to share what the United States looked like for the people in the Soviet Union who otherwise would never have had the opportunity to see [it].
“At the very first opening of several exhibits [from southern Siberia to Moscow] there were so many people who came they all couldn’t get in,” Adams recalled, his voice choking with emotion all these years later.
The reception the Russians gave the American artist was incredibly warm — school children and everyday citizens to local and state officials alike — many bearing gifts and flowers as they glimpsed the American landscape through the artist’s eyes.
Adams’ six-week tour of the Soviet Union, which he described as only “softly” controlled by the government (at one point the artist thought it best to ask permission before climbing atop a displayed Soviet tank to be photographed), was such a success for both countries that Gorbachev agreed that two prominent Russian artists, Michael Ombish-Kuznetsov and Alexander Belaiev — both members of the National Soviet Artists Union — could travel to the United States the very next year to paint alongside Adams and show their art.
In fact, Adams had lived with Ombish-Kuznetsov’s family during much of his working trip, and now he was happy to return the gesture for his Russian counterparts, single-handedly orchestrating their visit.
The extraordinary paintings the Russians brought with them included everything from social realism accomplished at the behest of the Soviet regime — including Ombish-Kuznetsov’s “Workday Routine,” which depicts the fruits of labor under communist rule — to the artists’ original creative works (undertaken, as Adams put it, when they “needed to breathe.”)
To this day Adams maintains contact with the pair of artists he would get to know quite well during the time they spent painting and touring each country. In Russia, for example, when not painting rural or urban scenes, Adams was treated to the ballet, opera and welcomed into family events; while hosting here in 1990 he saw to it that his pair of visitors experienced and painted as much of the American landscape as would fit into their schedules, from Minnesota lakes and Eastern Shore beaches to the skylines of Chicago and New York City (and visits, of course, with Adams’ own family).
“I think they arrived a little anxious, the same way I arrived there a little anxious,” Adams replied to a question from the audience. “But I think by the time they left there was an awareness and understanding that there were more similarities [between the two countries and people] than differences.”
Most incredibly, Adams today still cares for dozens of the Russian paintings brought and exhibited here in 1990 — from Belaiev’s “Icarus” to the telling “Workday Routine.” Better yet, they can be viewed through March 31 at the Gay Street Gallery in Washington.
And should those thought-provoking works not be intriguing enough, when Adams was visiting the Soviet Union artist Natalia Tolpekina approached the celebrated American and asked if he might sit for a portrait.
“I sat three times, and I realized then just how exhausted I was,” Adams said. “So I looked forward to my sittings, and I actually fell asleep.”
Tolpekina titled the finished portrait (or so she wrote on the back of the sizeable canvas) “Kevin Adams in Sibizia,” dated October 1989. It too can be seen at the gallery, along with the other Russian paintings.
“I still love sharing their work,” Adams said, “because I feel day by day it’s becoming more significant, and more and more important. This is slowly becoming a piece of history.”