Short biography of Peter Shapiro

P.E. Shapiro – sculptor, born in Moscow in 1933.  Son of the famous Soviet chemical engineer and American mother a chemist.  His father, E.S. Shapiro, invented popular fragrances for women “Red Moscow” and “White Lilac” and was a chief engineer of “TZh” – fats and oils trust, which also produced all the perfumes in the USSR .  Sculptor’s mother, Nina I. Hollander, came to the USSR after graduating from the Columbia University in order to assist in the development of socialism in the country.  After his parents were arrested in 1937, P. Shapiro went through all the hardships destined for the son of the “enemies of the people”.  He was denied enrollment by the Soviet art schools.  However, that did not influence his choice of profession and did not prevent him from serving the art of sculpting with honesty and talent.   

The professional life of sculptor Shapiro started in 1953 when he presented sculptures of L.N. Tolstoy and Ludwig van Beethoven at the two state art exhibitions.  At those times, a Soviet sculptor could not avoid Lenin theme, so Shapiro’s marble sculpture of Lenin was mounted at the Vnukovo airport.  In plaster, stone or bronze, the master immortalized many Party leaders and political figures of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc: L.I. Brezhnev, Fidel Castro, Salvador Aliende… Many people posed for sculptor Shapiro: marshal G.K. Zhukov, A.I. Eremenko, S. Rudenko and B.P. Bugaev, minister N.S. Patolichev, academicians P.N. Pospelov and V.K. Vasilenko, chess player A. Karpov, figure skater I. Rodnina, cosmonaut V. Lebedev, poetry writers P. Antokolsky and A.Vosnesensky, Venko Markovski, writers A. Chakovsky and E. Permyak, Josef Nort, artist I. Glazunov, composers A. Novikov and D. Schostakovich, pianist Van Cliburn, opera singer I.S. Kozlovsky, movie director R. Karmen, actress G. Sergeeva, actor I. Pereverzev…

 During Perestroyka, the sculptor was fortunate to meet many political leaders from across the ocean, as well as Europe , and work on their portraits.  A large portion of his work is devoted to Iceland .  Reykjavik features the whole portrait gallery of the sculptures created by Shapiro, including one of Haldor Laksnes, writer and Nobel Prize winner.  The Greek Museum of Saloniki has acquired his amazing sculpture – a portrait of a Russian woman Angela, attracted by her Ancient Ellada look.   

In 1993, the consulate department of the United States Embassy in Russia issued an American passport for Peter Shapiro as he was born to an American mother, which prompted the sculptor to move to America , where he lives and works now.  At his new location, he created multiple portraits of prominent political and public figures of the United States :  Albert Gore, Robert MacNamara, Connie Morella, John Proctor, Carter Brown, James Billington, DuPont and others…

“Career”?  I am not familiar with this word”

 The term “work” usually describes something banal and routine.  The word “career” definitely sounds more optimistic and inspiring.  The two are interdependent, with a certain correlation: there can be no career without work, but work is very capable of never turning into a career.  The latter is the case of the famous sculptor, whose sculptures now adorn museum halls and portrait galleries all over the world.  He uses an ordinary term “work” to describe what he does for living.  In the fifty years of labor, he never learned the word “career”.  This year he celebrates a triple anniversary:  he recently turned 70, his “work” passed a 50-year mark, and he considers himself to have been born again exactly a year ago. 

 So, our guest today is the member of the World Academy of Аrt and Science, member of the National Sculpture Society, member of the Association of Russian Artists, sculptor Peter Efimovich Shapiro, who answers our questions with his signature humor and spirit.

 Y.G. - Your friends claim you have an amazing talent to bring together people to execute a project, that you can see in advance the outcomes of such collaboration.  Collaborations that lead, as a rule, to something extraordinary, like the “Russian World” TV station, so helpful to the Russian-speaking Americans here.  Are you aware that people call you the generator of ideas and the propeller of social life of the Russian community in the Washington , DC area?

 P.Sh. - Why just Washington ?  You should see the bigger picture!  My studio in Moscow on Dubrovka, now infamous, was always full of friends and guests.  And my small home here is crowded, even though I have only lived here for ten years.  It often happens that I would give one idea or another to my friends, they will start working on it, and their efforts will eventually produce some results, often very decent.  I am always glad when newcomers manage to find their way in a new place, plant their roots, become a part of those novelties that every immigrant encounters.  All I did for the “Russian World” TV station was finding a right door for them to knock on at the right moment, so that now we could all watch it in our living rooms. 

 Y.G. -They say it is necessary to have a clear vision of the goal you want to achieve in order to have a successful career.  What objective do you have in mind when starting another sculpture?  

P.Sh. - The goal is always the same: to reflect my character’s personality, the inner world, as well as the external shape, as close as possible.  If you achieved this goal pretty easily, you are soon to be disappointed.  I know this well, as I am very impatient person and always want to accelerate things.  However, it is unacceptable while creating a piece of art.  I, therefore, always try to hold my horses, but sometimes I still get carried away. 

 “Career”?  I am not familiar with this word.  When I was younger and still lived in the USSR , I often exhibited my work at the various art competitions.  Even though at times I failed to receive the judges’ recognition, during those times I certainly wanted to win, to be the first… the best.  But that was not a pursuit of a career.  Career has to do with financial achievement.  My goal has always been to show to everybody, and above all to myself, what I can do as an artist.  That is the natural desire of any person who loves their work and treats it responsibly.  Besides, for me my work is more of a way of life.  I am not really capable of doing anything else. 

 Y.G. -How are you sculptures doing, alone in Moscow ?

 P.Sh. -Hopefully, some of them are not too bad.  Those that are waiting for me in my studio are probably bored without me.  Others, exhibited in museums and galleries, are doing well, I’m sure.  People come to see them, bring them flowers, sometime talk to them.  I do not think visitors ever talk about me. 

 Y.G. -Your sculptures talk about you.  The E.B. Vakhtangov’s bas-relief on the wall of the world-famous theater has long become its signature, even though many leading actors of the Vakhtangov Theater may not know sculptor Shapiro’s name.  The bronze bust of Beethoven, rightfully residing for many years in the Beethoven Hall of the Bolshoi Theater, has told everybody back in the 60s of then young sculptor Peter Shapiro and his talent, about his extraordinarily sensitive fingers, capable of expressing “a storm of a great composer’s eternal passion” with a help of ordinary clay. 

 P.Sh. -I am glad there is no open window next to your fireplace.  I can literally feel the great white wings growing on my back.  It is too early to speak of me as an angel, I am still alive.  In America , they speak so well only of those who passed away.   

Y.G. -Oh, I’m just paraphrasing many famous and competent people.  Composer Machavariani was one of those who talked about your talent.  Many visitors have been greatly impressed with the bust of R.M. Gorbachev, exhibited in the Moscow International University , headed by G.K.Popov.  Raisa Maksimovna is a contemporary and people remember her face well.  I know that Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev highly praised your work, saying that he sees his wife in this sculpture and expects that one day it will come alive and speak to him.  The sculpture of Academician V.K. Vasilenko, innovator in the field of therapy medicine, founder of a large school of research, recipient of the USSR State Award and a teacher to many famous names in medicine today, captures his signature pose of demanding thoughtfulness, which you, Peter Efimovich, recognized and reflected with a precision of a photo camera.  What do you remember from your conversations with this extraordinary person?

 P.Sh. -O! Vladimir Kharitonovich was the nicest person, a war veteran.  For many years he supervised the Department of Internal Diseases Propedeutics of the Sechenov’s Moscow Medical Institute #1.  He authored 150 science papers and was well respected by his students and followers, not to mention his patients.  I would say they worshiped him.  He had a great sense of humor.  When writing review to my work, he kept calling himself a “victim”, and his friends – “picky and annoying” audience for my work, even though they easily recognized him in the sculpture.  The USSR Ministry of Culture bought his sculpture from me.  Where is it now?  I am not sure. 

 Y.G. -In the center of Washington , D.C. on the Connecticut Avenue at the entrance to the Russian House there is a sculpture of A.D. Sakharov.  Its bronze replica is owned by James Billington, Director of the Library of Congress, who keeps it in his office, next to his own portrait by Peter Shapiro.  In Manhattan , NY , the bronze bas-relief of Sholom Aleichem adorns the building of the “Forwards” newspaper at the Sholom Aleichem Place .  The National Portrait Gallery in Washington , D.C. features the sculpture of the famous American cardiologist and scientist, Michael DeBakey.  They recently mounted a sculpture of Harlan Cleveland, Professor Emeritus and President of the World Academy of Art and Science, in front of The Hubert H. Humphrey Center at the University of Minnesota .  Your work is countless.  Do you know the exact number of the sculptures you have created?

 P.Sh. -I doubt it.  Somewhere around 500…

 Y.G.  -In your tiny apartment in Rockville I felt like a thousand pairs of eyes of your “models” were looking at me from the walls.  They are all extraordinary people.  You have been lucky to meet with the greatest people on Earth.  Are you still in touch with any of them today?

 P.Sh. -I have definitely had conversations with everybody I was working on, at times very deep and open conversations.  Many of those I have sculpted are very prominent people.  As a rule, the more prominent the individual, the easier they were to talk to.  Many of them have become my friends, some even relatives.  In addition, since you always keep in touch with your relatives, so do us.  Unfortunately, some of them live across the ocean from here.  However, we use the reliable phone communications to stay in touch.  Some of them are able to come to America and visit me, like in good old times.  The distance is not an obstacle for us. 

 Y.G.  -According to mass media, the last sculptures you created were of Placido Domingo and Anna Akhmatova?

 P.Sh. -I have finished the sculpture of Anna Akhmatova a while ago, hopefully it is in St. Petersburg now.  I would like to know where it has been mounted.  As for the portrait of Placido Domingo, that was the work before last, as I had already started to work on another sculpture when I had to stop for a long time due to my disease.  And very serious disease, according to my doctors.  However, not to be too modest, I want to tell your readers that I am not just a patient, but an exceptional cancer patient number 141!  In December of last year, right before Christmas I was given a scary diagnose: Stage IV small-cell carcinoma of the bladder, with metastases to the bone marrow.  According to my attending physician, Dr. Amin of the Lombardi Center of Oncology, this form of cancer is very rare and is usually found in lungs, with only 2% occurrence in bladder.  He told me there was only a 25% chance that chemotherapy would help my weakened body.  That was when I felt like a center of universe!

 On a serious note, everybody knows that the good health is essential for productive work.  When you are sick, you care neither about making plans, nor about goals and creativity.  Trust me on this one!  Although, as they say – “there are no healthy people, there are just people who don’t see doctors”.  My advice to everybody is to remember this saying and to deal promptly with your health problems.  I was lucky to catch this problem on time.  I thank my many friends, who make up my true wealth.  If it was not for persistence of Tamara Fojt, for her tenacity and dedication, I doubt I could enjoy the warmth of your fireplace tonight.  You would probably have to do with my clay self-portrait (which they say looks very much like me). 

 Y.G.  -I know that you went through a surgery last summer.  Was that related to your current condition? 

P.Sh. -No.  I had a surgery for the abdominal aortic aneurism.  I let it grow up to 7.5 cm… But they didn’t let me die the death of Albert Einstein!  Again, Tamara did not let me die!  She alarmed everybody and took me to see the doctor.  Tamara has been living in America for 25 years now.  For the last 12 years, she has been researching science articles, processing medical data for entering into the PUBMED/MEDLINE database.  She speaks several languages (unlike me!), has University degrees from both Soviet Union and America .  She keeps studying here, planning to receive medical university degree here.  Her energy is amazing! She is doing great!

 Y.G.  -Was the cancer discovered during your last surgery?  

P.Sh. -No.  Back then, they just told me I had a right-sided diverticulitis of the bladder, and that’s all.  That happened in July.  The surgery went well: Doctor Fox in the Shady Grove Hospital operated me on, and he did an excellent job he should be really proud of.  However, in September I started to have very strange exhausting pains, and not where my infection originally was, but under the shoulder blade.  The pain was not in the muscle.  Then I was hospitalized again, this time in the Georgetown University Hospital .  I had to go through long, tiring tests before they gave me the verdict. 

 Y.G. -Were you scared?

 P.Sh. -Well, it was certainly unpleasant… No matter how hard I was preparing myself, I was not ready to hear this.  But I didn’t go into the total despair.  My friends flooded my hospital room and were there with me in place of my relatives.  Given, it is very important not to be alone at the difficult moment like this.  My loyal and dedicated friends never did leave me alone.  And now, since we are on the subject, I want to express my sincere gratitude to them for the support.  To my friends and my relatives.

 Y.G. -What happened next?  How was your condition treated?

 P.Sh. -Then came the long days in the Lombardi Center of Oncology.  Narcotics to help me deal with excruciating pain… Multiple blood infusions… Preparation for the chemotherapy…  And several cycles of chemotherapy.  Meanwhile, Tamara was researching the scientific data for alternative ways to get rid of the infection and to strengthen the immune system by eliminating the cancerous cells.  Home, hospital, home, and hospital again… All that was difficult and tiring, but what choice did I have??

 Y.G. -Did you have any radiation treatments?

 P.Sh. -It’s good you should ask, because I didn’t.  It was decided not to undergo the radiation treatment, but wait for the results of the chemotherapy.  Between the chemotherapy cycles, the nurse would visit me at home to give me injections to boost the bone marrow activity.  So, when I took the last tests, Dr.Amin triumphantly announced: “Peter, the cancer is gone!  It is the 141st case in the medical history when this type of cancer completely leaves the body!”  All my friends and relatives were extremely happy.  On the radiographic picture of my bladder, the focus of infection was replaced by a mere calcified diverticulum.  I love this twisted word!  I am yet to learn to say it fast. 

 Y.G. -While listening to your story, I am amazed at your perseverance and the courage of those close to you.  My audience and I completely understand what a difficult time that was for you.  Today you look nothing like a person with such a serious condition.  I know that you have resumed working on your new sculpture, which may soon adorn one of the museums, too.  What is sculptor Shapiro planning now?  

P.Sh. -I would like to visit my old sculptures in Moscow .  I frequently ask myself: how are they doing over there without me?  Maybe they have grown a bit?  I would like to visit my old Moscow friends and simply walk down Staryi Arbat.  

Interviewed by Yelena Giamber, Washington , D.C.

Translated by Maria Bukhonina