Inspired artist, social rebel

Meet Vadim Stepanov, a surrealist whose personal canvas is vibrant and colorful.

vadim art 88 298 (photo credit: )
vadim art 88 298
(photo credit: )
Vadim Stepanov seems to delight in challenging the establishment. As a child in his native Russia, he horrified his mother by drawing pornographic pictures. As a teenager he dropped out of school to become a free-wheeling, drug-using, American-style hippie. And as an adult in Israel, he has thumbed his nose at the Russian expatriate community and earned notoriety by setting up house with several women at one time. Now almost 37, this long-haired, wild-eyed painter wishes that people would stop talking about his lifestyle and focus on his art instead. "I don't know why it's so important how many women I live with or don't live with," he says in careful, heavily accented English. Stepanov was born in 1969 in the remote east Russian town of Susuman, the second of two sons in a simple wood-carver's family. He says he showed no special talent for art as a youngster, although "like all children," he enjoyed drawing. It was just that his subject was, to say the least, unconventional. "Even when I was nine, I liked drawing pornography," he says simply. "I remember my mother seeing one of my drawings, screaming and tearing it up." How did he come to be drawing pornographic images at an age when most of his peers were busy playing soccer? "That's my problem - I never liked football. I always liked girls," he shrugs. When Stepanov was 10 his family relocated to Moscow, thousands of kilometers to the west. Moving to the big city liberated even more of young Stepanov's bohemian impulses. After reading a book by Jack Kerouac, the American novelist credited with shaping the 1960s counterculture, Stepanov decided to drop out of school at 15 and become a self-declared hippie. He spent the next couple of years experimenting with drugs, traveling around Russia, working at odd jobs and hooking up with assorted women. At 17, he married his first wife. Then Stepanov got a job that changed his life - working at the studio of renowned Moscow artist Leonid Purygin. "In the beginning, my work with him wasn't anything to do with art," he laughs. "My job was to bring him his bottle of vodka every day. This was a big challenge because the shops didn't open until noon, and I had to get it to him at 8:00 in the morning. So I had to be very inventive." Stepanov shrugs at this stereotypical Russian story. "I can't help it. That's how it really was." Eventually, with Purygin's encouragement, Stepanov tried his hand at painting. "My first painting was really ugly, but I was lucky. The very next day some people came to Purygin's studio and took some of his and his students' paintings for an exhibition, including mine. So my very first painting was put in an exhibition." Over the next few years, Stepanov began studying seriously under Purygin, working in what is often described as a na ve or primitive style similar to his master's. Soon he began developing his own, more surrealistic style using Russian icons and fantasy figures as themes. His paintings were exhibited at several galleries and, he says, he was able to make a good living from his art. "In particular there was one man, a collector, who came to the studio and bought a large number of my paintings. I didn't know his name, but he always wore expensive clothes and, best of all, he paid in dollars," Stepanov recounts. But in other respects, life was not so comfortable. By the beginning of the 1990s the Soviet empire was falling apart, and the political situation in Moscow was unstable. Stepanov, by then 21, decided to emigrate. "That's how I am… Whenever I decide I want to do something, I have to do it five minutes later." By then, he was already divorced from his first wife and married to his second. Stepanov's preference was to move to the US, but when that proved too difficult, simple pragmatism took over. His wife's mother was Jewish, which entitled the couple to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. The Stepanovs were among the massive influx of immigrants who arrived in Israel from the Former Soviet Union in 1991. He set up home in Kfar Saba and began working as a painter, soon attracting the attention of gallery owners. In particular, he has had a long association with the Bernard Gallery in Tel Aviv, which first exhibited his works in 1993 and continues to display his art regularly. But his unconventional lifestyle has attracted attention as much as his art, with even the Bernard Gallery promoting a recent exhibition under the headline: "Vadim Stepanov, a unique and extraordinary artist who lives with his three wives in Kfar Saba." "It's just not true - I don't live with three women," he protests. But he does admit that at various times he has lived with two women at once. And his list of exes is certainly longer than that of most men. He separated from his second wife some years ago, and has since had three children by three other women. The children, now aged eight, five and four, are scattered around Israel with their mothers, and Stepanov is living with yet another woman. "Just one," he smiles. While Stepanov seems to attract women like flies, he is not particularly popular among the Russian expatriate community. In fact, he says, "They hate me." Stepanov maintains that the community is unjustifiably snobbish about Russian culture and critical of Israeli culture, and he rocked the boat by criticizing them for this attitude. "They also can't forgive me because I don't want to be interviewed by their newspapers or radio stations," he says. He appears to prefer Israelis over his native countrymen, and points to an energy and excitement in this country that he enjoys. He says he knew fate had taken a hand in bringing him to Israel when he had an exhibition in Ramat Gan a few years ago. An Israeli man approached him wanting to buy a number of his works. When Stepanov replied that he'd have to wait until the exhibition was over, the man said, "Don't you remember me? I was the one who bought your paintings in Moscow many years ago." "That was a complete surprise to me," says Stepanov. "I didn't know that the man in expensive clothes who paid in dollars was Israeli. I thought he was European… and now here I am in Israel so many years later, and I found my collection here." Stepanov's most recent exhibition was entitled "12 x 10," with 12 of the paintings being old works from the Israeli collector's personal stock, and 10 being new ones done in Israel. Nevertheless, Stepanov admits he does not fit into the local culture. Not only is he a non-Jew in a Jewish country, but after some 15 years here he still speaks only a few words of Hebrew. Neither fact seems to bother him. "I don't speak Hebrew, so I'm not inside; but Israelis like foreigners, so it's OK. And I have my family [the children] here in Israel, even though I'm not Jewish." In typical fashion, he is non-committal about future plans. He says he is planning a couple of exhibitions and hoping to collaborate with artists in other media. At the same time, he doesn't know if he will stay in Israel indefinitely. "There's a chance I might be able to go to the US to work, so I may go - we'll see." As for the women he leaves behind - well, they will just have to live without him.