- You were born in Harlem, New York, to Russian parents. You loved jazz in America, you chose Western world to earn a living and finally you perfectly adapted to American way of life. How did you combine your rich Russian roots and American lifestyle? What kind of family life did you have with your parents and how is it going now with your wife?
My Russian roots are totally meaningless to me. I've been trying to ignore them all my life. I am an American... The Russian part is accidental. I found out I never did like Russians or their overall attitiude concerning their achievements and general attitiude. I had been hearing how great they are all my life from my household. My parents did come from very high social status in Moscow. It was all military and endlessly important according to them.
Of course when they arrived with their lives intact and all their fortune gone they weren't able to acclimate themselves to America. Living in Harlem, New York was quite a change! The only enjoyment I get out of being of Russian heritage is the music. The classical music was as great as any in the world and even though I am a jazz fanatic I still appreciate the Tchaikovskys and the Rachmaninoffs and all the rest. As far as my marriage goes I am a total great success! We've been together for almost sixty years and we've had eight kids. We're crazy about each other more so than ever before. I am completely and totally blessed with my marriage. My wife is of Irish decent and is one quarter Cherokee Indian. Wow! What a combination.
- During The Second World War, you were serving in the Army, in Europe. What kind of experience was it? While creating your outstanding style of art, did the things that you observed there inspire or motivate you? After living in such a terrible, real war scene, did your point of view for life change?
My Army and Air Force experience was all to the good. I was stationed in Italy for a year but by the time I got over there the war was over. So I never faced any awful combat experiences and in Italy the climate was wonderful for Americans. The Italians loved us and the whole experience was like a long vacation rather than a military stint. Of course the physical damage to the country was still evident and was very shocking for an eighteen years old. Other than that, nothing much except I will always love Italians and Italy in general.
- In a dangerous and scary world, you have raised eight children with your wife, Carol. Did any of your children follow your way and become a painter? What kind of life did they choose as the children of such a great artist?
Three of my eight kids seem to be artistically motivated. They make a nice living in the art business. However I don't think any of them are very motivated to be GREAT at art. They enjoy it and are comfortable with it. They certainly don't regard me as a great artist. Most of the time they are fairly well accustomed to hearing my name in reference to my business but to them I'm still their dad and that's about it. Occasionally I'll paint something that they seem to liken and admire. But not always. Mostly they like for me to stay out of their lives! I am not very good with kids and my really great friend and critic is my wife. But of course I love all eight of them. But the less I see of them the happier I am!
- Unfortunately, illustration is losing its soul because of the rapid developments in digital technology and hand made illustrations are about to disappear. As a very talented artist, creating outstanding illustrations with your brush and paint, what do you think about the future of illustration? Do you enjoy the contemporary digital styles or do you miss the old days?
Illustration always was and I suppose always will be. The bedrock of illustration is story-telling. I personally don't like that too much. If I wanted to tell stories I'd try to write, not paint. I suppose you could call me more of an image maker than aything else. I don't really care about a story. I want you, as the viewer to make up your own story, whatever you see. That's what is imprtant to me. Most of today's leading illustrators and artists are terribly busy trying to tell you a story that they want you to see. They also want to tell you all about themselves! As a matter of fact they really want you to know more about themselves than what they have painted! I think a good painter's job is to let the viewer decide. The viewer is the other half of the equation! That's when a painting becomes a painting and not just an illustration, when the viewer decides what the "story" is by looking at the painting and not being concerned about the painter and what the painter had in mind. That's what makes you come back over and over again to see the picture! A good painting never leaves you alone. You return to it because it keeps beckoning to you to tell you all about itself. Over and over... and frequently different every time. And if it is really good you'll see things you never saw before.
As far as whether the digital age has any effect on painting. No I don't think so. Painting is too personal and I don't believe any mechanical or technical devices will ever discourage it from being. I don't care about the method. Just paint something that I want to look at and ponder over.
- You are charming us with your stunning style, very artistic brush strokes and great skills in using the light. You say "You are a lone wolf" in your field but you should have some artists or art movements that impressed you. Would you please share them with us?
Of course there were certain people who impressed me that came before me. That is also very personal and different to every artist . I do think however that there are two truly great artists working and alive today. One is James Reynolds and the other is a sculptor named George Carlson. These two are all alone. They have influenced hundreds if not thousands of artists and illustrators. For every five brush strokes done today in western art, three of them belong to James Reynolds. He must be sick and tired of seeing his work duplicated endlessly by everybody. A real giant, a real painter. In every sense of the world. He has no peers. He's old as hell now. Probably as old as I am and consequently his output has been diminished by physical health reasons. And he has never been paid what he deserves. It's quite amazing. So many artists have picked his brains and yet nobody ever speaks of him hardly any more. There are new "stars" on the horizon as in any buiness but none of them can wash his brushes.
Then there is George Carlson, a relatively young sculptor. I'm not into sculpting but when you see one of Geoge's pieces in person all the other sculptors and heirs to the throne fall away and look like amateurs. Of course they also try their damndest to copy George.
There have been several others who have influenced what I do. Probably my all time favorite is always Frank Tenny Johnson. I'm completely self taught so as I grew up I used everything and everybody to get better. Right now I'm trying very hard to forget everything I've ever seen by others. It's very difficult but I believe I've found a few things all by myself inside me somewhere; that look promising.
I keep trying anyway. Of all the pictures I've painted I think after forty years of i, I like about ten of them... just barely. The rest I can do without and usually I wish I hadn't painted them. That's hard to live with after all these years but I also think it's very "growth-positive" and healthy. It's so hard to paint a good picture.
- As an artist with Russian roots, you loved jazz in America and it's one of the greatest inspirations in your life. How does music affect you while working and do you like classical music, too, especially the Russian masters like Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Tchaikowsky and Rachmaninoff?
The love of jazz came with my address. It was the first music I heard and it was and is still the best music to me even though it is practically dead nowadays. There is really no "need" for jazz anymore. Jazz was too hard to do well. Today you get a bunch of kids who make noise, not music and it substitutes for, study and hard work and dedication. Money and fame is the engine the so called "music" is the vehicle. Jazz made you work. The great jazz artists were truly great. Not just followers and fame seekers. There was as whole different reason for jazz to exist and it demanded one hundred percent effort or you got thrown out! So the great ones rerally made the great music. Today there are no standards except for personalities and appearence! Of course the classics are still here for the same reasons. I love jazz because I grew up where it was played. I heard the best all the time. I was there. So I appreciate it. And I love it. When I paint I listen to it. My work gets better if I play it. I smile a lot inside when I hear great jazz. What else can I tell you?
- You were born in Harlem, New York, then you went to Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis and Oklahoma City for some freelance illustration work and now, you live and work Austin, Texas. Why did you choose Texas for the rest of your life? If Texas didn't exist in the world map, which place would you choose to live and work in?
I live in Texas because I like Texans. They are good. They are real and you get the whole gamut of course from hicks to the brilliant ones. You have it all here but to me friendliness of Texans has always been the place to be. And the main reason.
If I had to leave the States I'd probably go find a place in Italy. Here I simply prefer the people to other people. They are very real and fit me like a glove. I'm only sorry we have so many people coming to Texas from other states. I'd just as soon they stayed home. However since I'm pretty much of a lone wolf I'm not too bothered with them. There are good ones and bad ones. Texas is also a good market for my work. The western stuff works good here and of course it is basically our history so it all falls in place for me. I couldn't be happier living elsewhere.
- Most artists have their dream projects. Some can make it come true and some cannot. If you had a limitless budget, what kind of dream project would you create?
Budget has nothing to do with it. With me it's the painting. My dream project is to paint a picture that I really like and cannot find fault with and it all came from within, not without. That's a mountain to climb. That's my dream project and of course as an artist you never get there if you keep trying. I've had everything else. There's really nothing else in my life that I lack.
- Theme of the current issue of Bak Magazine is "Fear". What does this word mean to you?
Fear... I don't know. I don't think of it. I haven't known it for years. If it approaches, I talk to my wife and it goes away.
"My Russian roots are totally meaningless to me. I've been trying to ignore them all my life. I am an American."
- Oleg Stavrowsky / Bak 13