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Heart of Glass

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By Ted Kleine

Khaim Pinkhasik was born in 1940, the Year of the Dragon. This year will also be the Year of the Dragon, and a few weeks ago an Indian man in a turban walked into Pinkhasik's glass-mosaic studio and told him, "The karma in February is going to start--you're going to get work, you're going to be famous. For many years you were doing bad, but in 2000..."

Pinkhasik readily admits that few people visit the Pinkhasik Art Studio, at 2620 N. Halsted. On a day in mid January a Russian friend comes to talk in the morning. In the afternoon there's the mailman and a guy who wants to wash the windows. Passersby admire Pinkhasik's work--a glowing orange tiger, a copy of an Erte painting made of hundreds of shards of glass--but they don't come in.

He'd been told Lincoln Park was a wealthy neighborhood, a neighborhood of art lovers. But in the eight months he's been there he's had only a few commissions. He's been working on a "zoo," a mosaic of animals, just to keep his hands busy--slicing and pasting glass while listening to Russian folk music on an old cassette player. "I am not interesting to get money, only money," he says in a heavy Russian accent. "This is my food. For a human being, food. For me, glass. I'm not a regular person. I know this with my art. Italian masters come to me, they say, 'He paint with glass.'" On the wall of his studio is a stunning triptych of a slave market in the American south, which he did at the request of a black art dealer.

Perhaps this will be Pinkhasik's magic month. Three of his works will soon be on display in the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows, which is opening February 11 at Navy Pier. Two were inspired by fairy tales Pinkhasik heard from his grandmother growing up in the Soviet Union. One shows Father Frost "bringing snow and wind and all kinds of shit with his magic stick" while his granddaughter, the beautiful Snow Girl, gathers round her a fox and an owl, a wolf and a deer. The second shows a bee that moves into a little house in the woods and then is followed by a dragonfly, a fox, a wolf, and finally a bear that destroys the house. The other work is a Chicago Bulls logo.

The museum's founder, E.B. Smith, a stained-glass collector from Long Grove, discovered Pinkhasik six years ago. "I thought there was wonderful craft, an enormous amount of work," he says. "There are just thousands of pieces. I think he has a wonderfully original vision rooted in his childhood in Russia."

Stained glass is typically made of painted, often large, pieces of glass held together with leading. But Pinkhasik glues colored glass--often hundreds of small shards--onto clear panes. "It's amazing anybody would take the time to do it," Smith says. "Most artists don't want to put the effort in."

Pinkhasik was a small boy in Minsk during World War II. One day he was walking past the fence that surrounded a camp holding German prisoners, and a soldier called to him and asked for some flour. Pinkhasik stole some from home, and later the soldier rewarded him with a glass mosaic made of broken bottles glued to wood. "He mixed the flour with hot water to make a paste for the glass," says Pinkhasik. "The guy, he did mosaic. He would break the bottles. I like it very much, his creations. I like it very much on a piece of wood. I'm a little boy. I'm very attached to this. Nobody was interesting in these little things, only me. After school I start working with little bottles. I am finding window glass in the garbage. I paint it with oil paints."

Years later Pinkhasik found work as a tool-and-die maker, but "something is attaching me to let me go back and do mosaic." He says he eventually managed to build a "beautiful life" as an artist. He got a commission from a museum dedicated to the revolution, for which he did huge wall panels of soldiers fighting the German invaders, of farmers holding aloft sheaves of wheat, and of the face of Lenin looming over a red map of the USSR. "I did 29 walls [of Lenin] in Belorussia, in public buildings and many stores. Everybody in Russia believes in Lenin. They love him. This is our father, our god. Behind the stage of a nightclub I'm going to put a wall of our father, of Lenin. They open up the curtain. It was perfect--come to life. But I'm tired of doing it so many times--Lenin, Lenin, Lenin. I was thinking, here's the lips, here's the eyes, and now I'm going to put shit for brains. I was thinking very negative."

In 1980 he began hearing rumors about pogroms and became afraid that the Soviet Union was no longer safe for a Jew. "I decided I have to go out from this country," he says. "It's going to be a mess."

Pinkhasik settled in Louisville, where he found work in a stained-glass studio. In the Soviet Union there had been very few shades of glass, so his works had been painted and therefore opaque. Now he began rooting through garbage bins for shards of bottles and windows, just as he had when he was a boy. "I see the colors of glass, thousands of colors of glass," he says. "So many colors of glass, you can do anything you want." He made a picture of a rooster walking through a Russian garden, his first translucent piece. "When I done the piece and I put him to the light," he says, "I know this I'm going to dedicate my life--is so beautiful. And because I'm a Jewish man, I'm going to dedicate my life to Jewish. I start different scenes--Fiddler on the Roof and Moses. I did 17 scenes in my home after work."

But Louisville's synagogues wouldn't buy his mosaics, so Pinkhasik brought his family to Chicago. He didn't get much business here either, though a contractor who did some work on his apartment bought a few pieces. "I was broke," says Pinkhasik. "I didn't speak no English." Worse, he says, "There's no life in my home--aggravation, fighting, shmighting." When the quarrels got too bitter, "I put on my clothes and I leave home and I never come back."

For five days he slept in a park. He was cold, he missed his four children, he looked and smelled like a bum, he wanted to die. Then the contractor who'd bought the few pieces saw him stumbling up Western Avenue. He offered to let Pinkhasik work and sleep in a storage building he owned. "He gonna feed me," says Pinkhasik, "and I have my life to start over."

Pinkhasik eventually saved enough money to open a studio at the corner of Montrose and Rockwell. "I start to create beautiful things to put in my window, and I have money to eat--so beautiful." A businesswoman saw his work while riding by in her limousine and asked him to do a picture of water lilies for her bathroom. A man asked for a portrait of his wife in the nude, another asked for a replica of a Salvador Dali painting, saying, "It's impossible for me to buy a famous piece of art, but can you do this in glass?" A Mexican restaurant wanted a portrait of the owner's family for the front door.

Churches and synagogues asked for windows. One of Pinkhasik's most intricate works is in the lobby at Congregation B'Nai Tikvah in Deerfield: a 12-sided platform shaped like a Star of David. Each panel depicts happy, dancing children celebrating one of the Jewish holidays. Above them glow constellations of stars--613 stars, one for each commandment in the Talmud.

Later Pinkhasik did a glass portrait of George Bush, whom he met when a patron took him to a dinner in Florida. "I went and sat next to the president and give him the portrait," Pinkhasik says. "When he see himself in glass he become like a baby. He say, 'How you do this thing in glass?' I say, 'I know art. You are a politician, but I know art.'"

Pinkhasik found a new wife after placing a flyer on the wall of a Russian delicatessen, and he moved his studio to Edgebrook, on the far northwest side. "I did lots of work in Chicago, private homes. My art was displayed in Billy Graham museum in Wheaton. Business come like crazy--people coming all over to see me."

But after several years in Edgebrook, "People say to me, 'You have to move to a richer area where people has money.'" So last June Pinkhasik moved to Lincoln Park. "It's been a dead business for eight months--nobody knows I am here," he says. A few weeks ago he went into the hospital for "his nerves." He says he became overwrought at the strain of not working, at the specter of failure.

Yet sitting on his desk is an invitation to a February 10 gala dinner celebrating the opening of the Smith Museum. His work will be up. The mayor will be there. And Pinkhasik will be one of the guests of honor. The Year of the Dragon will be five days old.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dorothy Perry.

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