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About Utah: Siberian born, American treasure

SALT LAKE CITY — You might say the Americanization of artist Galina Perova began on a boardwalk on Catalina Island not long after she came for a visit from her native Russia in 1989 with 400 rubles in her purse and, warmed by the feel of freedom, decided to stay.

She set up her easel and started to draw seascapes.

A while later, a woman tapped her on the shoulder.

“I’d like to buy that,” she said. “How much is it?”

Stumped for an answer, because to this point in her life all her paintings had been taken by the then Soviet state — that’s the price you paid for having your talent honed by the Communist party. She eventually stammered out, “15.”

The woman said OK, but first she had to go to the bank.

She returned and handed Galina $1,500.

As the woman left clutching her new painting, Galina thought — and she kept this to herself — “I meant 15 dollars.”

Still laughing as she tells the story a quarter of a century later, Galina references a quote from the movie “The Jerk.”

“I was like Steve Martin: ‘Fifteen big ones!’” she says, before adding, “I did wonder why she needed to go to bank for 15 dollars.”

When your birthplace is Siberia and you describe your years in Soviet Russia as, “I feel like I’m in a huge concentration camp,” it helps to be blessed with a terrific sense of humor. Galina Perova has that. She also has one of the biggest painting talents Utah — and America — has seen in a long, long time.

The irony of course is that if it weren’t for the Soviet system she wouldn’t have had the rigorous training that helped make her what she is today. If the state identified you as a prodigy, it did not go halfway. At 14, Galina was invited to leave her family and move to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to do nothing but study art. For the next 11 years. A short day was 12 hours, with homework after that.

“I would not sleep because I wanted to be great artist,” she says. At 18 she was exhibiting. By 25 she graduated with her Red Diploma, a huge honor. Shortly after that, in 1986, she did a painting called “The Subway Car” that stopped people in their tracks and was exhibited around the world. She was a star.

Still, she strained at the Soviet leash. She always had. When she was in elementary school and the teachers routinely beat her, she tunneled under the playground fence and escaped, announcing, “I’m going to America.” For that she was expelled — from kindergarten.

Painting saved her. In third grade she enrolled in an art school in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. Then, at 14, she and her talent were sent 2,700 miles across the country to the prestigious Repin Academy of Art in Leningrad.

“Russia was awful,” she assesses, “but we could be proud. We had the best sports people, the best artists, the best composers; and education was very important. But what they didn’t realize, smart slaves, that’s not a good idea.”

Her way out came unexpectedly. An American architect named Ray Kingston was touring Russia in 1989 and happened to stop by the art academy, where he admired her work. The academy was including some of her paintings in an exhibition in New York. Kingston asked Galina if she’d be interested in also showing them in his hometown of Salt Lake City — and would she be willing to come along to talk about them?

So it was that on March 12, 1989, Perova and her paintings found their way to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the University of Utah campus, where Kingston taught architecture.

She’d made it to America.

She had one suitcase, the 400 rubles (about $600) and was traveling on a guest visa. Kingston suggested that she stay and teach art at the university. They contacted Sen. Orrin Hatch, who helped arrange for the guest visa to be changed to a teacher visa.

She taught at the U. from 1989 to 1992, all the while watching from afar, and with considerable amazement, the complete collapse of the USSR.

“I couldn’t imagine it would fall down like that,” she says.

She left teaching to paint full time, and, to make America her permanent home, applied for U.S. citizenship (she got it in five years on the dot). She converted what was once a Seventh-day Adventist church in Sugar House into her art studio. Two and a half decades later, her amazing range is everywhere. She paints landscapes, still lifes, flowers and building-size murals, such as the one at the Eccles Health Science building at the U. and her panorama on the walls of the district courthouse in St. George.

Her portraits have become the gold standard. The Huntsman family asked her to do one of Blaine Huntsman in the early 1990s. Since then she has painted the likes of World Bank president James Wolfensohn, University of Utah President Arthur Smith, Hinckley Institute director Kirk Jowers, Salt Lake City mayors Deedee Corradini and Rocky Anderson and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, among many others. Currently, she is working on portraits of Utah’s federal judges. (Samples of her work can be seen on her gallery website: perova.com).

She has a second studio in the Washington, D.C., area, but here is her home. “I love Utah,” she says. “I’m surrounded by such magnificent diversity.”

Much of her work is on commission, meaning two things: She’s in demand, and she’s paid before she begins. The price usually isn’t made public, but her masterpieces have been known to go for six figures.

Whether she knows it or not, that woman who bought the seascape 26 years ago on the boardwalk in Catalina had an excellent eye and actually made a very good deal. For a mere 15 big ones she bought a genuine Galina Perova original.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.

Email: benson@deseretnews.com