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“Going to Mexico in the 90s, without knowing the language and without money, wasn't the best idea, but I was comforted by the thought that I could come back: I had a return ticket in my pocket,” Alexey recounts.
In his student years, he started reading the books of Carlos Castaneda, and they made such an impression on him that he became obsessed with Mexico. So after graduating from BSUIR (Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics), he didn't go into the work he had trained for, but went to Mexico instead.
Alexey picks up the story again. “I got settled, made some friends – and a year flew by without me noticing. I had to leave. I went to the consulate with a friend. There, they took an interest in my grandmother and her Jewish surname. They decided to check, and confirmed that my grandmother was a Jew. For me, this was a complete surprise. As a result, I left Mexico and went to Israel.”
He lived in Israel for a year, in order to receive citizenship and a new passport. While Alexey was waiting for his papers to be processed, he found out that he had been called up for the Israeli army.
“I asked for permission to leave [the country] for two weeks, for my grandfather's funeral – which was a lie. They let me leave, and I returned to Belarus,” says the hero of our tale.
Back at home, he found he had a new family: his mother had married a French man and had traveled with him to his country. Alexey went, too, to get to know them.
“My stepfather Jean practiced the craft of blacksmithery. He had his own forge, but he wasn't just a blacksmith; he was a sculptor in metal,” says Alexey. “He taught me his craft, and I became his assistant. But I didn't assist him all the time – just a couple of months a year – because I was going back and forth between there and Minsk.”
Alexey lived like this for five years, until his Israeli passport ran out. Going to the consulate, Alexey discovered that they wouldn't extend his passport until he settled matters with the army.
“I went to Israel. I discovered that I had been listed as a deserter for four years, and as a result of that, I ended up in military prison for half a year. Then I did my [military] service, extended my passport, and went back to my mother in France. And then, for a number of years, I went back and forth,” the sculptor recounts.
Too Indecent to Display
“And then my stepfather died, and his forge fell to me. I continued to work with his clients, and carried out commissions. But it was basic stuff, whereas I had always wanted to get closer to art, to make images, even if those images were in metal,” Alexey goes on. “I thought a lot, and at a certain moment, I decided: what if I made sculptures out of nuts? Not abstract figures, either, but something real. And I tried to make my own portrait.”
Alexey began casting thousands of nuts, bit by bit. “Just like the way a painter creates a work out of hundreds of brushstrokes. At first, it seemed impossible. But, little by little, a face, a neck, then the chest, and the nape of the neck emerged, and it turned out to be a bust.
“I tried to make the spine out of hex nuts – first my own, and then my wife's. It turned into something fit for the bedroom.”
Alexey took the composition to a gallery opposite the Tsentral cinema in Minsk, but they told him it would be indecent to display such a thing, saying, “You can see their butts!” The gallery suggested adding the head and some [decorative] marsh reeds, and only then did they allow it to be put on display.
“Since then, my work has regularly appeared in the gallery, and they invite me to exhibitions. Last year, I won the Dana Arts Day competition, which was put on at the Dana Mall [shopping center]. I put four works into the competition, and all of them were sold,” Alexey says.
In four years, he has made around 50 sculptures out of nuts. These are mostly portraits of famous people – Dali, Einstein, John Lennon, Bob Marley, and others. He also makes sculptures of the people who commissioned them, working from photographs of his patrons.
“A portrait takes one- to one-and-a-half weeks. If it's a bust, then a few weeks, or even a month. But I don't hand over the work straight away. For a couple of days, I look over the work and start finishing something off, or redoing it. It's rare to do everything perfectly the first time,” Alexey acknowledges.
“How many nuts are needed for each work is easy to reckon. A thousand nuts weigh 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds). That means you need to divide the weight of the piece by 2.5, and that gives you the number of nuts – give or take 100,” Alexey says. “I buy them in boxes of 25 kg at the hardware center in Uruchcha [a northeast suburb of Minsk].”
These are non-galvanized steel nuts, which are manufactured at the Rechitsa Hardware Plant. Interestingly, other countries only manufacture galvanized nuts, but those give off toxic fumes during the casting process, which affect one's health, and so Alexey has to transport nuts from Minsk to France. They take up half of his suitcase and excite the suspicions of staff in the metro.
“Big suitcases always get scanned, and 10 kilos of steel nuts show up very well on screen. The nuts are taken for an explosive device, and I am taken for a terrorist! But I explain that I'm a sculptor and everything's fine.”
Away From the Hustle and Bustle
Alexey set up his workshop long before he became interested in using nuts. He simply bought a garage – not for parking in, but for working in. In this “awful place” – as the sculptor calls it – there's a big table, boxes of nuts, an angle-grinder, pliers, a hammer, and an Iron Man mask – everything needed to turn several kilograms of steel into a chef d'oeuvre. The finished sculptures are stored at home.
“The most important thing for my work is to live in Minsk. The lifestyle here has a positive effect on the creative process,” says Alexey. “Here, there is silence. Everything is at hand. I don't have to rush anywhere. I can go to the garage and create.
“But whenever I go to Israel, for example, I get caught up in the bustle. And people there think only about money. Whereas, here, it's possible to live, not thinking about material things – and just work.
“Casting nuts for hours on end helps me to meditate. With its help, I switch off mentally, which helps me not to react to external irritations and save my energy. This is how I combine the pleasant with the healthy.”
Three or four times a year, Alexey travels to France to see his mother, and does blacksmithery while he's there. “I might make a garden arbor for someone, or a gate.”
The money from these orders is enough for him and his family to live on for several months. In addition, the sculptor sells one or two pieces a month. In three years, he has sold around 30 sculptures made of nuts. There are a further 20 at home – Alexey is keeping hold of them for his exhibition.
“I don't lack for money, but I want to publicize myself and put my sculptures on display in front of a wide audience so that they can be appreciated. I had always thought that modesty was a virtue, but it turns out that you need to do a little self-advertisement in order to achieve anything. This grates on me, but what can you do?”
Alexey admits that he doesn't know how to sell, so he takes a while to find a common language with clients. He asks 1,000 Belarusian rubles ($511) for a portrait, and 2,000 rubles for a bust. However, these are online prices, whereas in the gallery, as a rule, the sculptor indicates the possibility of a 30 percent discount.
“Price isn't the main thing for me. I'm already happy that my work is on display in the center of Minsk and that people can see it. I've sold about a dozen sculptures through the gallery, but that's not much.”
Meanwhile, sales in France are going reasonably well. Alexey gets orders either through his website or through social media (for example, Facebook or Instagram). Although people often ask him to teach them to make the same sculptures, Alexey refuses. “Even I still don't understand how I create them.”
“I have sold sculptures to Israel, the U.S., Kazakhstan, Russia. But they don't end up there forever; they go on to other countries,” Alexey acknowledges. “Buyers re-sell them, and for a lot more than they paid.
“Then friends message me to say they saw my sculpture in [the Russian city of] Nizhny Novgorod, and share a picture. But I sent that sculpture to France, for example. However, it's nice for me to see how they're spreading through the world.”
“My family is a real support. When I was a child, I looked at my parents and thought that it [their life] was so ordinary – a family, kids. I wanted to discover some other, new, meaning of life. That's why I ended up starting a family a little later than most. Now some of my classmates already have grown-up children, while my son Artem is only two.
“But now I understand that a family, parents, children – this isn't an ordinary story, but the truest one. They are my main critics. They toss out ideas, and I'm always receptive to them.
“My sculptures are like paintings. Hex nuts for me are like brushstrokes for a painter. That is my art. The reflection of my true self. There are elements of monotony in this process, but mostly creativity. It sometimes happens that I get into a state of creative torment because of a lack of ideas. I can't get anything done. But as soon as the muse arrives, I write it all down and then go and create. And I can't imagine living without this.”
#PragueMediaPoint Conference for journalists, media professionals, and scholars
The 2019 edition of Prague Media Point will highlight these types of inspiring examples and more. We will offer a mix of scholarly presentations, including keynote addresses; sessions with innovators explaining their solutions; and networking opportunities to promote the exchange of know-how. As in years past, the conference will have a special regional focus on Central and Eastern Europe, though we look forward to covering cases and trends from other parts of the world.
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