Passersby often ring the doorbell just out of curiosity. With its pointed roof and arched windows, the building appears to be a church. But the sculpture of a frowning giant above the door hints otherwise.
Few pass the threshold — the doorbell doesn’t work and the building at 115 College St., in Somerville is usually closed to the public. But those who do enter are apt to feel they’re walking into a Grimm’s fairy tale. Inside, nearly every inch of the church’s walls and ceiling have been covered in frescoes depicting myths from around the world: Dragons, centaurs, genies, goddesses, kings and queens all greet the eye with the glow and vibrancy of stained glass.
Russian-born artists Nicholas Shaplyko and Katerina Sorokina have worked for the last several years to cover the 10,000-square-foot 19th-century Masonic temple in their artwork. The couple purchased the building in 2002 with the intention of turning it into a living, working and exhibition space, however, they say local officials have prevented them from opening it up to the public due in part to lack of parking. But they’re quite content to call the church home. They say it is both accommodating to their large-scale work and cozy enough to live in.
“You feel not like a bug in a box here,” Shaplyko says in a thick Russian accent. “It’s not too big to make you feel small.”
The artists have named their home the Museum of Modern Renaissance and their goal is to transport people back to a simpler time.
“The first Renaissance brought beauty and humanity back to society, and we think it is time to do it again,” says Shaplyko. “A museum [today] is a warehouse where paintings are stored. But the word museum actually means the house where the muses live, not the cemetery where they die and dry like butterflies on a pin. We created our museum so you enter a single piece of art. It surrounds you…You become a part of this world like Alice in Wonderland.”
Through the looking glass
Today, the front door opens.
Shaplyko and his wife, Sorokina, both elegant and dignified, seem like a king and queen who have sprung from one of their own paintings. Shaplyko is tall and dark with a close-cropped beard. And Sorokina, petite and blonde, wears leopard print leggings and lots of oversized jewelry.
The immersion into art is immediate. The front entryway has been transformed into a vast solar system complete with Roman planetary gods. On one wall a pensive Neptune sits, holding a trident between his fingers like a poet might hold his pen, while across the room a blue-bearded Jupiter stands poised to fling a lightning bolt.
In the chapel, you’ll find a kaleidoscope of frescoes painted on canvas, then mounted onto wooden frames and secured to the walls and ceiling. Here, Christian saints stand head-to-head with pagan gods, and lions from Chinese legend walk outside the gates of spired Russian cities.
Behind the chapel is the artists’ studio, an addition designed by Shaplyko in an altar shape because a studio, the artists say, is a sacred space for creating art.
“People come to the church to pray, to concentrate their energy, and get some connection,” Shaplyko reflects. “Many people do it every day. Churches are like a transformer; [they’re] an energy source.”
The room is a tropical paradise with sun streaming in from six skylights and large potted plants lining the bright-painted walls. A fireplace flickers in a cozy corner. It’s made of ceramic plates painted by Sorokina in Sicilian-inspired patterns.
A small staircase leads down to the artists’ living quarters. Two huge tables, recently built by Nicholas, sit in the dining room. They’re so large they seem fit for King Arthur’s feast. The artists often invite friends over for wine, dinner and conversation. “We discuss religion and philosophy,” Sorokina says.
The couple chooses to live without a television, preferring to spend free time reading, traveling or entertaining. TV, Shaplyko says, makes people feel as if they’re participating in life when actually “they’re sitting on the couch eating popcorn.”
Last is the living room with its rows of fiery orange bookcases painted with bright suns. There is a Russian rug on the floor, and Indian textiles draped across a low couch lined in bright pillows. The room fairly glows with all the warmth of a kerosene lamp.
“After we finished this room,” says Shaplyko, “I was always thinking I forgot to turn out the light because through the door it seems like the light is on.”
Ancient values, modern times
Shaplyko and Sorokina, both in their 40s, met two decades ago on a white water canoeing trip in Russia. Though they work together to create all their paintings, and consider their styles to be complementary, the two artists come from very different backgrounds. Shaplyko, who is also a skilled carpenter, studied architecture and went on to own a successful design firm in Russia. Sorokina, who designs fashion as a hobby, is self-taught. She grew up in a family of art collectors where she says she honed her eye for color and pattern.
“She feels and dreams in colors,” Shaplyko says of his wife.
When creating a painting, Shaplyko lays out the overall composition and Sorokina chooses the colors and adds detail. The artists, who work on commission, paint anywhere from six to 10 hours a day. Paintings begin on canvas covered in black gesso, which adds depth to colors. When creating art, the two say, they strive to be free-spirited, working without preliminary sketches. “Artists should be like children,” Shaplyko says. “The child has no regulations… A child doesn’t know what it’s all about; he just wants to explore and create. He sees an empty space on the wall, he grabs a crayon and fills it up.”
The couple chooses to create only uplifting images. They dislike the work of artists like Frieda Kahlo, who depicted pain and struggle, saying that art should be an escape from the world.
“We are striving to make people feel good,” Sorokina says. “Sometimes friends ask if they can come in and sit [in the museum] because they need this energy.”
Shaplyko and Sorokina moved to the U.S. in the early 1990s. After a couple years in Brighton, they moved to Somerville when they found the church. They have exhibited their work in galleries around the world, including India, Italy, France and Russia (Vladimir Putin owns a painting). Though they’ve had local gallery exhibits in the past on Newbury Street, and at the Cambridge Multicultural Center, the couple seems in no hurry to pursue more. They admit that creating art — not selling it — is their priority.
“To paint and sell piece by piece is like an 8-to-5 job,” Shaplyko says. “I think art is bigger than that.”
“The house where the muses live’” appeared in Good Life Magazine, 2008