SAXTONS RIVER — There are occasions in life that gift us serendipitously. Often they move us.
Such was my experience when I met Russian-born Alexey Neyman, an 83-year-old Jewish artist whose work was sold at the Creative Connections Gift Shop and Gallery in Ashburnham, Mass., recently in support of Ukraine.
Neyman's exhibition, “The Habitual Light of Memory,” was mounted to raise funds for Ukraine. The works raised over $4,600 on the first day of the exhibit, and the funds were immediately sent to the International Rescue Committee's Ukrainian relief effort.
That's because Neyman, who was born in Moscow and frequently visited Ukraine, lost his grandparents, one of whom was a rabbi, to Nazi cruelty in Ukraine during World War II. He still has family and friends in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and Poland.
He and his daughter, his son, and his Polish son-in-law are actively supporting refugees and will soon bring family to the U.S.
* * *
But there is more to the artist's story.
“In this time of crisis in Ukraine,” the gentle artist with twinkling eyes and a ready smile says, “artists can contribute to the efforts of humanitarian aid, which is why we are donating proceeds from the art show to help Ukraine. It's also why I went to protest the war in Times Square right after the war broke out.”
Formally trained as an architect, Neyman still designs Russian Orthodox churches and supervises their construction. He also studied the art of painting with Valdimir Weisberg, a renowned Russian painter and art theorist, for 10 years.
Neyman is dedicated to “the philosophy of art,” which is contemplative and includes understanding how colors work in various mediums. He believes as well that “color has a life of its own,” as Weisberg and Cézanne did.
The result is a body of subtle, evocative, soft paintings that draw the viewer into them - paintings that are often inspired by people Neyman knows and that depict places he has lived or visited.
“I like to immerse the viewer in a visual experience they might not get elsewhere because the qualities and properties in works of art require an awareness of the color as an instrument,” he says.
* * *
One painting that conveys that idea is a portrait of the artist's longtime partner, who is from Ukraine. In her portrait she wears the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
“My heart is with the people of Ukraine, and with the people of Russia who are protesting the war,” Neyman says. “Everyone will pay a price that is too high. Being genuine and straightforward in my work is the one thing I can do in response to all war crimes.”
Listening to Neyman's quietly powerful words, which closely align with his artistic sensibilities, moved me mightily.
They were the words not only of an artist, but of a humanist, an activist, and a man of deep character. They were also wise words spoken softly by someone who helped me believe that there was still hope for the world.
* * *
There is another reason I was moved to know Alexey Neyman.
I, too, am Jewish, and my grandparents and parents were born in Ukraine. They fled the Russian pogroms of the early 20th century and in doing so, unlike some of the artist's family, survived the atrocities.
Another connection we share is that we both engage with the world creatively - I as writer and Neyman as artist, both addressing human rights and social justice. That, too, was part of our serendipitous meeting.
Painting for nearly 60 years, Neyman's work has been widely exhibited in the U.S., Russia, and Europe, as well as in private and state art collections including the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
But perhaps his greatest gift to others is his gentle, human words: “Ukraine can't be explained by human language. Art helps.”
Neyman's art has indeed helped, not only aesthetically but practically. His work of expression and remembrance continues.
So, too, does our friendship.