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Famed Russian Painter and Santa Monica Resident Knew Light and Color  

By Melonie Magruder
Staff Writer

April 26, 2011 -- Constantine Cherkas, renowned Russian painter and formerly a longtime Santa Monica resident, died earlier this month in San Diego at 91.

Constantine Cherkas. Photos courtesy of Charles R. Sena

Cherkas and his wife, Kira, moved to their home on 15th Street in 1963, having emigrated to the U.S. from Vienna in 1949.

During their four-decade tenure in Santa Monica, Cherkas established himself not only as an artist whose brash combinations of color and light strikingly captured the vivid landscapes of Southern California, he and Kira became the go-to team for restoration of master works in the collections of Dorothy Chandler, J. Paul Getty and the estate of Randolph Hearst, Jr.

Cherkas was born in Moscow and apprenticed with famed Russian colorist Ilya Mashkov. At age 17, he became the youngest artist to be admitted to the Moscow Academy of Fine Arts, where he acquired the classical skills of composition and brush stroke that allowed him to become a master restorer later on.

He married Kira in 1941. While on honeymoon in Kiev, he was captured by the Nazis and sent to a German labor camp in Munich, along with other artists and intellectuals whose work threatened Nazi propaganda.

Konstantin Zaharoff is an engineer currently living in Marin County who was imprisoned with Cherkas at the Bavarian labor camp.

“Constantine managed to escape the camp and traveled to Vienna to apply to the art academy there,” Zaharoff told the Lookout Monday. “They wanted to accept him, but they found out that he had escaped from the labor camp so they told him he had to return there first. A couple of days after he returned, the camp released him and he went straight to Vienna.”

The Cherkases spent several years in Hollywood before arriving in Santa Monica. Constantine set up a studio in his backyard, where he prolifically turned out vibrantly colored images of everything from southwestern art to cubist-inspired scenes of San Francisco.

"Moonlight Over San Francisco Harbor by Constantine Cherkas

Peter Cherkas, one of the couple’s three sons, said of his parents, “I think they came to California for the climate and stayed for the light. Dad would do these experiments in his studio by covering his skylights with colored gauzy material. He would paint on the beach under an umbrella made with the same kind of material.”

Cherkas’ work was first represented in California in an exclusive gallery at the old Biltmore Hotel downtown. For many years, he was featured at the National Heritage Gallery in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

A man of keen intellect, Cherkas was famous for opening his home and studio to collectors, friends and neighbors, insisting that they critique his latest works, and spending long evenings in conversation rooted in art, culture and politics.

Ron Gallimore and his wife Sharon were neighbors to the Cherkases on 15th Street for 30 years and treasure several of Cherkas’ canvases.

“Constantine would always invite us over to check out his latest paintings,” Gallimore told the Lookout Monday. “Sometimes, we’d arrive and the canvas would be hanging upside down. He insisted it didn’t matter. He wanted to know what we liked about the painting. He was totally into color and shapes.”

Gallimore said he would arrive and the Cherkases would be cleaning the frame of a $50,000 painting they were restoring and Kira would sheepishly admit that they were using the commercial product Mr. Clean.

“Just dilute it a little,” she insisted. “It works fine.”

The Cherkases moved to the old gold mining town of Julian in San Diego County about eight years ago, where he continued to paint. He was so moved by the tragedy of 9/11 that he spent months creating two large paintings of the disaster, one of which is on display at the offices of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.


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