Charlevoix, Que., artist with ties to Russian composer sells art to benefit Ukraine

·5 min read
Painter Everist Prokofiev, who turned the guest room of his home in Baie-Saint-Paul, Que., into an art studio, says he has family ties to Sergei Prokofiev, the famous Russian composer.  (Marika Wheeler/CBC - image credit)
Painter Everist Prokofiev, who turned the guest room of his home in Baie-Saint-Paul, Que., into an art studio, says he has family ties to Sergei Prokofiev, the famous Russian composer. (Marika Wheeler/CBC - image credit)

As Everist Prokofiev paints in the morning in his home studio, classical music plays in the background.

"It helps with the flow," he says.

His paintings are often large, bright depictions of birch forests with thick leaves, or flowers with lush petals. He sculpts the acrylic paint on the canvas using only metal pallet knives and without brushes.

Prokofiev, 62, spent much of his life in the Toronto area, but since late 2020, he's been living in the retirement home he built on his summer property in Baie-Saint-Paul, in the Charlevoix region of Quebec.

For more than a century, the picturesque region east of Quebec City has been a magnet for artists. Renowned painters such as Jean Paul Lemieux and Clarence Gagnon have immortalized its beauty: the breadth of the St. Lawrence River, the rolling pastures and plunging mountains.

Prokofiev has turned the guest room of his new home into a studio and has opened a gallery, Galerie d'Art Charlevoix, just off Baie-Saint-Paul's main street.

Marika Wheeler/CBC
Marika Wheeler/CBC

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, shattering peace in Europe and upending the lives of millions, Prokofiev felt compelled to act. He started a fundraiser for the International Red Cross, donating 20 per cent of the value of the paintings to assist Ukrainians displaced by the war.

Musical roots transformed

Prokofiev's roots in Eastern Europe run deep.

His parents met at the University of Warsaw, where they both studied music. His father, Prokofiev said, is a great-grand nephew of the famous Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev.

His parents separated when he was an infant. Some years later, his mother escaped Poland with her new life partner, a piano tuner, and a young Everist.

The family settled in Ontario and opened a piano store on Dundas Street, eventually starting a music school in the back of the shop. His mother taught piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto into her mid-70s.

Little Everist was expected to learn to play an instrument, but from the start, that was a struggle. He always preferred to draw and doodle and spent hours at the piano crying while his mother tried to teach him to play. When she sent him to someone else, he spent his lessons talking to the new teacher about her watercolours rather than practising his scales.

Violin and guitar weren't any more of a success.

"Every good Polish boy has to learn to play the accordion," he says. "I dreaded that."

Finally, his mother gave in and sent him to art school.

Marika Wheeler/CBC
Marika Wheeler/CBC

He may never have developed much affection for playing the accordion, but he's realized music has found a way into his art.

At a show of his paintings a few years ago, a woman who was a music scholar asked him a question which "kerfuffled" him. She wanted to know if the leaves on his trees were music notes. It was only then that it clicked.

"I'm creating musical notes on this very strange music sheet called a painting."

"This is my connection to my past, whether to my childhood — is it ingrained in my DNA?" Prokofiev asks. "I don't know, but I am composing. There is a flow to this — I literally feel the flow."

"Can I say that I feel the sound?"

Rattled by Russian connection

Prokofiev is proud of the connection to this namesake.

At the gallery in Baie-Saint-Paul, an antique writing desk displays a vintage radio and a vinyl of Peter and the Wolf, one of Sergei Prokofiev's best known works. A collection of the composer's letters sits near a book celebrating Ukrainian art in Quebec.

Marika Wheeler/CBC
Marika Wheeler/CBC

Pointing out how the borders in Eastern Europe have shifted over time, the painter and gallerist said he identifies as "Russian, Ukrainian-slash-Polish."

Prokofiev said the similarities between what is happening in Ukraine now and what happened in the country of his birth during and after the Second World War, when first Nazi Germany and then the U.S.S.R. occupied Poland, hits close to home.

"Although I was very young [when we left], I heard all the stories, and it's frightening and you know it's terrible, so in a small way we would like to help," he said. "I certainly can't go to Ukraine and help them fight, but I think the least we can do is help monetarily."

Marika Wheeler/CBC
Marika Wheeler/CBC

Russia's actions have also rattled his sense of attachment to his father's home country.

"There is so much in Russian culture that is very interesting, and now I feel sort of abandoned by it, or I have abandoned it," he said. "I don't know if I want to say I'm [related] to a Russian composer, even though I'm proud of it — so it's very conflicting for me."

Friends with same sentiments

Prokofiev has found a "bit of the old country" in friends he's made in the years he's been coming to the Charlevoix.

Vladimir Horik, 83, is a first-generation Ukrainian-Canadian who came to Quebec as a young man when he was posted to the Valcartier military base. Horik said his first reaction when he heard of the war was a desire to go and "join up to fight."

He said he was "surprised" and found it a "wonderful gesture" when he learned Prokofiev's gallery was making donations to help the humanitarian effort in Ukraine.

Horik does not sell his art at the Galerie d'Art de Charlevoix, but his grandson, Gabriel-Marin Horik is the director there, and he approached the artists who are donating part of the sale of their work to the Red Cross, to get them on board.

"It's hard to do something when you are in Charlevoix, Quebec," the younger Horik says. "It's the least we can do."

"I hope that we will maybe influence other galleries to step forward and maybe do something similar, or another kind of event to support Ukraine."

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