A Man and His Canvas

“Can You Paint My Dog?”

By Madeleine Overturf

Halfway across Prague’s Charles Bridge, Ylevgeni Shtchemenko whisks his paintbrush across his canvas, transforming his model of the moment into Helen of Troy.

The Charles Bridge provides a studio for artists like Ylevgeni Shtchemenko (photographed).Photo by Madeleine Overturf.

The Charles Bridge provides a studio for artists like Ylevgeni Shtchemenko (photographed).
Photo by Madeleine Overturf

A crowd watches, waiting to see the attractive 20-year-old Greek woman become even more stunning on paper than in real life. Some spectators applaud as he wraps the portrait into a portable cylinder and hands it to her. Then an elderly woman approaches. She beams as she sits across from Shtchemenko, preening for her star turn. Reaching into her bag, she whips out a rotund, hairy daschund. “Can you paint my dog?” She cackles.

Crafting pet portraits and enhancing mother nature with a brush are integral to the daily routine of Schtchemenko, 53, the only oil painter to ply his trade on the city’s most famous landmark, a pedestrian path over the Vltava River that links the Old Town and Lesser Town .

The Charles Bridge is a melting pot of hallowed Czech history and post-communist kitsch. Built by Bohemian King Charles IV in 1357, the medieval monument that served as the Holy Roman Empire’s only direct trade route for 500 years) is now viewed by some as a symbol of ancient Prague tainted by travelers and their quest for picturesque views and souvenirs.

Recently, the souvenir creators have come under scrutiny for the measures they employ to protect their economic gain.  Artists like Shtchemenko advertise portraits, others hawk pan flutes and miniature landscapes of Prague. Near a venerated statue of the crucifixion—one of 30 figures representing various saints that line the bridge’s borders—a jazz band sells CDs for 500kc ($25 USD) a disc. Shtchemenko is mystified as to why such an array of goods would annoy anyone.

“Here is the best and most democratic system,” he says while wiping off his oil-stained brushes. “All is open for you.”

Originally from Kyrgyzstan, Shtchemenko has worked the Charles Bridge crowd for two years. A lanky, six foot tall man bundled up in worn courderoys and a fleece twice his size, Shtchemenko cracks a bashful smile across his weathered face when asked about his work. Like all of the bridge’s “licensed” 35 artists, he draws caricatures of patrons, where their facial features are exaggerated to be comically grotesque, but he prefers portraits where he can paint the subject, naturally and thoroughly, through his eyes “as the most beautiful in the world.”

His portraits tend to add glamour that only black-and-white oil strokes can imbue. After seeing her portrait, one of Shtchemenko’s patrons exclaimed that he had made her look like Carmen Sandiego.  Like the tourists who become his clients, the wiry man who stands with the dignity of a soldier but hunches his whole body when he paints is on the bridge when it’s convenient for him.

“If you come to your job in the morning with a smile,
you’ve hit the jackpot,”

“I have no boss,” he says while running his hand through his floppy, coal gray hair. “It’s a special place for artists.”

The wealth of creative opportunity the Charles Bridge provides makes it a magical place for artists like Shtchemenko. He learned his craft by being forced to draw portraits of Lenin and Marx while attending Kyrgestan’s Art Institute in Karakol. Out of his classmates, he’s one of the only employed in the arts and now paints anything the customer desires, be it birds, family caricatures for Christmas cards or children as their favorite Harry Potter characters—all requests he’s received on the bridge. But these deviations from his original training don’t bother him. “I’m lucky—I like any kind of job,” he stresses.

The desire for better work led Shtchemenko and his family—one wife, two children—to leave Kyrgzstan in 1993 for Israel, where he lived until five years ago. He then moved to Karlovy Vary, a spa town in the Czech Republic, as its year-round resort status ensured a steady influx of vacationers looking to beautify themselves, whether at the hot springs or on the easel. “I make the picture someone wants —not like a camera,” he says. “For this, people pay money.”

Shtchemenko’s classic oil portraits take about forty minutes to complete. Costing  $45 USD  each, Shtchemenko paints an average of one or two a day, though the summer months can multiply that amount fivefold when tens of thousands cross the bridge each day. In between the roughly three hours of work he gets a day, Shtchemenko reads historical classics—his favorite author is Jack London.

Shtchemenko (left) shows off his work on the bridge.Photo by Madeleine Overturf.

Shtchemenko (left) shows off his work on the bridge.
Photo by Madeleine Overturf

He speaks to his clients as he paints to create a relationship that he believes results in a better product. “First condition – if you trust, the portrait will be good,” Shtchemenko explains. “If you don’t trust, your hands don’t listen.”

After two years in Karlovy Vary, and at the suggestion of a friend, Shtchemenko  headed to Prague for a more lucrative portrait career. Painters on the Charles Bridge make a healthy living. An average minimum wage job in the Czech Republic pays 8,500 crowns a month. A bridge artist can make 3,000 crowns in one day.

Shtchemenko credits the Bridge artists’ prosperity to the caliber of artists it employs.

“It’s possible for everyone,” he emphasizes. “There is no limit for you if you have good enough quality.” He had to apply for a license and prove his artistic credentials with the Charles Bridge Artist’s Association before being allowed to seek customers there.

But just as tourists worldwide are often held in disdain by locals, not every Praguer is a fan of souvenir hawkers taking over the Charles Bridge.

As a protest against the exclusive licensing system, critic Milan Martinec painted portraits of tourists for free on the bridge recently and was forcibly removed by the police, who were called in by the artist’s association. The group alleged that Martinec broke the law, as he did not possess a bridge license like Shtchemenko.  Martinec eventually received an apology from the deputy mayor of Prague, but the association remains resolute that he violated their codes.

“People who can draw on the bridge, perform or sell must pass a rigorous selection process,” Roman Kotrc, president of the Charles Bridge Artists’ Association told the Prague Metro newspaper. When later asked about the specifics of the selection process, the association declined to comment.

“[The association] poisons the air on the Charles Bridge as it protects its own cash cow, restricts my freedom and it boils my blood,” Martinec wrote on his blog. “Moreover, they are rednecks and their arguments are totally demented.”

Many in the Prague art community echo Martinec’s thoughts, pointing out that the art the association claims to be protecting is no more than touristy kitsch. “I think no one truly thinks that on places like Charles Bridge a great art will be produced and sold,” said Tomas Pospiszyl, art critic, historian and previous curator of the National Gallery in Prague. “Without regulation that place would be a mess, but isn’t this a sort of monopoly?”

Painters pay 350 crowns per day per square meter of space they occupy to the artist’s association, and 500 crowns in dues every three months. To Shtchemenko, the protection it provides makes it a small price to pay for a job with so much joy and freedom.

“If you come to your job in the morning with a smile, you’ve hit the jackpot,” he says, jolting his paintbrush in the air with excitement. “You make happiness for the people–It’s like the lotto to win millions.”

All the days are different,” he says, staring into my eyes with focused compassion as he sketches them on his easel. “It’s the people.” At this point, a couple approaches, and before they say anything Shtchemenko addresses them in Hebrew.

“I can tell– Israelis love their portraits,” he explains. When I comment on his multi-lingual skills—he speaks Russian, Czech, Hebrew and English—he blows a “Pfft” sound between his lips, passing it off as nothing. He then tells me in the same casual manner that he learned English from cassette tapes in his car. “Just hard work can help you.”

Madeleine Overturf is in the NYU Tisch class of 2014. Her hometown is Anchorage, Alaska.

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Categories: Culture, Fall 2013 Issue Number 3

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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