Ex-Soviet engineer, 85, blossoms as sculptor

Leonid Korchemsky was born to tinker.

So said the sculptor’s father many years ago in his native Kiev.

Copper sculptures by Leonid Korchemsky

Today, at 85, the self-taught artist and former civil engineer solders paper-thin sheets of copper into spare, elegant figures in a basement workshop stuffed chock-a-block with tools.

The JCC of San Francisco will exhibit his work in the Katz Snyder Gallery, opening Sunday, June 21.

Korchemsky lives with his artist wife, Anna Perlstrauss, in a Richmond District home, where he designed and constructed a new kitchen (“I do the whole thing myself,” he said, placing a steady hand on a support wall). Their work has been exhibited in galleries and private collections in Belgium, Russia, Israel and Canada.

His home is filled with art. On a table, a copper scenario less than a foot tall depicts a man facing the Western Wall flanked by two children. His arms stretch upward in awe and reverence. It speaks to Korchemsky’s talent for gesture that such a spare likeness can express profound emotion.

Korchemsky’s sculptures crowd the surfaces, and Perlstrauss’ pointillist paintings festoon the walls. The sculptures reflect their subjects: The faces on a trio of jazz musicians are as freeform as their music.

Some pieces show a mischievous sexuality: Blue glass eyes protrude from the face of a man watching an exotic dancer. He holds a phone to his ear.

“He is calling his wife to say he is in a meeting,” Korchemsky said.

Korchemsky began to focus on art after his retirement in the mid-1990s. Initially he created collages and small clay sculpture, and also painted with acrylic. But he eventually found his beshert — metalwork and thin copper, from which he now crafts everyday scenes of shtetl life.

He was born in 1928 in Kiev, Ukraine. His father was a tailor who worked in the theater and his mother took care of their three sons. During World War II, in which his oldest brother was killed, the family escaped to Tashkent, where Leonid became the major family supporter — at age 13.

“I worked in a fix-it shop,” he said. “They sometimes paid me, sometimes not.”

He remembers questioning whether he was too young to succeed at the work. His father reassured him, saying, “Leonid, you were born with a hammer in your hand.”

Fascinated by heat and light, and undaunted by danger, he worked with electricity and at one point made cigarette lighters.

The experience cemented his career path. After the war, he studied civil engineering and worked in the field for years.

In 1979, he brought his family to the United States, first to Houston, where they were placed by a Jewish agency, and then to San Francisco.

Dark wood and rich colors fill Korchemsky’s two-story home. Color photos share space with black and whites from the old country, including one of a darkly handsome young man — the brother, killed in the war at age 20.

Korchemsky built an addition downstairs — first for rental income, now “for the grandchildren.” He designed and installed a garden with a water sculpture, and crafted an entire phonograph, with the horn-shaped Victrola speaker as the only original part. It works; he plays a bit of an early jazz 78.

His daughter and her children live in Los Angeles. She has asked him to move near them, but this is his home, he said.

If he enjoys showing the fruits of his own labors, he takes as much pleasure in the work of his Shanghai-born wife, a soft-spoken woman with an even manner and a kind face. 

A wall of indigenous masks attests to the couple’s wide travels. Red tacks fill a large world map posted on the wall of the workshop, reflecting all the countries they have visited.

Clearly, this is a man who has entered his eighth decade with not only a lively mind and boundless energy, but with steady hands.

While most of the sculptures can be measured in inches, the detail is precise; one reveals two figures holding hands, their fingers intertwined. “You’ll see at the exhibit,” he said, “many, many more.”

Copper Sculpture by Leonid Korchemsky is on display June 21 to Oct. 15 in the Katz Snyder Gallery at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.