Ukrainian artist finds his inner child by making dolls

odessa, ukraine | Ukrainian Jewish artist Mykhailo Kolomey painted churches, made theatrical costumes and even ran a local TV channel before he turned to making enormous, nearly life-size dolls of well-known figures a year ago.

“I’ve been everything during my life, and now I have reverted to childhood,” the 54-year-old Odessa native says.

Seventy of his dolls, portraying well-known literary and political characters, went on permanent display recently at Odessa’s literary museum, where they occupy their own room.

The exhibition, a veritable Madame Tussaud’s of Odessa history, illustrates the rich Jewish heritage of this southern Ukrainian city. Odessa once counted Jews as one-third of its residents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it was known as an intellectual incubator of Jewish cultural and political thought. Today, there are an estimated 30,000 Jews among its 1 million inhabitants.

There is the likeness of early 20th-century writer Isaac Babel, the chronicler of Jewish life in pre-Russian Revolution Odessa. Over here are characters from Konstantin Paustovsky’s “Time of Great Anticipations,” a Russian-language novel about Odessa and its Jewish community during the Civil War years. A puppet portraying a well-known local rabbi who left the city abruptly a decade ago shares the stage with the puppet likeness of Boris Berezovsky, a Russian oligarch with Jewish roots, shown with a beggar at his side asking “for $1 million,” according to the artist.

“Berezovsky is very popular in Odessa, and the locals have a lot of jokes about him,” Kolomey says, adding that he likes Berezovsky more than the other oligarchs.

Kolomey, who is not involved in Odessa’s Jewish community, says that when he was rejected from university in the 1970s because he was Jewish, he had no idea how he would make a living. Now he’s found his calling in making people smile.

The exhibition, which he calls “Art El,” or “Odessa in Dolls,” has already become a popular stop for school groups and tourists. “School teachers tell me they love bringing kids here, because the students are more eager to learn about a person or read a book when they have a colorful image in their mind,” he says.

Odessans are known for their humor, and Kolomey’s work is no exception. Each puppet, whether it represents a world leader or a character from a novel, is given a light-hearted interpretation. Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine, is shown daydreaming in a rocking chair made of gas pipes, alluding to the ongoing gas wars between Russia and Ukraine. Nineteenth-century Jewish musician Alexander Pevzner is shown in Marc Chagall fashion, flying through the air with his violin.

Kolomey says his next project is a puppet of Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. It will be, he says, “witty and funny,” in line with the politician’s public image.

“The dolls are quite ironic, but it’s not a mockery,” Kolomey insists. Some of the dolls, he says, have already been acquired by their real-life prototypes, mostly businessmen and politicians. Viktor Yanukovich, who ran unsuccessfully for the Ukrainian presidency last fall, is now the proud owner of his puppet, a gift of the artist. Berezovsky, however, has not stepped forward to buy his doll.

Each doll is unique and, therefore, quite expensive, costing up to $15,000 depending on its size and the amount of work involved. Kolomey says he and his team — Odessan sculptor Ihor Nosyk and costume designer Antonina Suvorkina — use a technique he created himself, applying a secret combination of polymers and other materials that makes the dolls practically unbreakable and conveys more realistic facial expressions.

What began as a hobby has become a round-the-clock activity.

“We run to the city’s flea market during the day to hunt for costume fabrics and accessories, and we make the dolls during the night,” Suvorkina says. She says it can take up to three months to finish a single puppet.

Suvorkina quit her design job to work for Kolomey, and she says she loves her new work. But sometimes the dolls are too lifelike. Suvorkina recalls being afraid to stay alone in the room with the President Bush puppet, which she was outfitting. And she nearly fell in love with one of the other male dolls.

“Each doll has its own character, and you have to deal with it,” she says.

Though doll-making of this kind is new to Ukraine, Kolomey says, he hopes to generate interest in his passion, and is looking for municipal support to open what would be the country’s first doll museum. He dreams of a contemporary building with glass walls and a studio where students could learn the art of making life-size dolls.

“So far, the authorities are not really interested,” Kolomey says. All of his funding comes from unnamed local sponsors. “In the West, collectors go crazy about dolls, they build whole castles for their collections. Here, it’s not yet that popular,” he says.

If the Ukrainians do not help take care of his collection, it will most likely be transferred to private collections abroad, an alternative Kolomey views with some dismay. “I wouldn’t like the collection to be sold outside of Ukraine,” he says. “I want it to stay in Odessa as an example of the city’s uniquely ironic and creative atmosphere.”