City’s famed artist Simeonov recalls greatest works

City’s famed artist Simeonov recalls greatest works

MIHAIL SIMEONOV stands with one of his more recent works, “TALL MEN WALKING,” made of aluminum. (BREEZE PHOTO BY NICOLE DOTZENROD)
Work will be on display at City Hall next month

PAWTUCKET – Sitting in their converted mill loft tucked behind Lorraine Fabrics, 90-year-old artist Mihail Simeonov and his wife Lily share the story of how they came to Rhode Island. It was one of many unlikely and unbelievable stories the couple has collected, from narrowly escaping communist Bulgaria to Mihail’s experience casting a living elephant in Kenya.

Alone in a quiet train car in New York, Bulgarian-born artist Mihail Simeonov picked up a section of The New York Times. An article about Pawtucket’s growing arts scene and historic factory buildings, where artists live and work, piqued his interest.

“It was very appealing to me, so I said, ‘Lily, we’re going to Pawtucket,’” he recalled.

They’ve called the city home since 2005, relocating from New York City where they had lived since settling in the U.S. in 1970.

Simeonov, who signs his work MIHAIL, will be exhibiting his artwork at Pawtucket City Hall this September in a gallery show presented by the Pawtucket Arts and Culture Commission.

Born in 1929 in Bulgaria, he says he was influenced early on by his uncle, recalling visits to his art studio as a young boy.

“I loved the smell of paints, when he was doing little things. I loved most of all his way of life,” he said. “I never thought of doing anything else. I thought I would be an artist one day.”

In 1944, communism came to Bulgaria. “It was just hell,” he said.

You couldn’t attend university without a permit from the local “public worker,” who refused to issue one to Simeonov.

“I was considered to be an enemy of the people because my father was a protestant priest … so, anyway, I made my own permit and started university,” he said with a chuckle.

He entered the Academy of Fine Art in Sofia Bulgaria in 1946, graduating in 1954.

For 10 years he enjoyed a prominent art career in Bulgaria, crafting public monuments, “…until I got into a heavy problem with the communist dictator at that time, personally,” Simeonov said.

“He came to my studio and made a scandal about my work. He didn’t like the monument I had just installed in Sofia,” he said.

That monument, Mihail’s depiction of Paisii of Hilendar, father of the Bulgarian Enlightenment, in Cathedral Square, had become a symbol of the rejection of communism. Within days of its installation, it was covered with sheets and roped off from the public; all of Mihail’s pending contracts were closed and the bulk of his artwork was destroyed.

“Everything was gone. My friends had to buy me a coffee or give me a cigarette. Things got pretty dangerous,” he said.

His friends managed to save two of Mihail’s statues, including the one at the center of the controversy, by sneaking out in the middle of the night to hide it away before it was melted down.

They helped Mihail and his wife to escape to Tunisia, where the couple stayed for seven years.

Charmed by the country’s rich colors, bright water and culture, the sculptor took up painting. He also completed statues of the country’s president and national monuments while there.

After two years of gathering documents, the couple was granted permission to come to the U.S. When he presented his immigration paperwork in New York, a uniformed man threw the documents in the trash, opened his arms and said, “welcome.”

“That was America at the time,” Mihail and Lily say in unison.

In his New York studio, Mihail began developing ideas he had sprouted in Tunisia.

Slowly, he started to take casts, or molds, “…but in a way to understand things,” he said.

He cast the sand and salt flats of the Sahara, the grass in Alsace, France, and the sidewalks of New York City. “He even cast the equator in Kenya,” Lily said.

Asked what he would cast to represent Pawtucket, the artist smiles and shrugs, not taking the bait. He’s eager to tell his next story.

“All of a sudden I said, ‘I’m going to cast an elephant.’”

He did.

“The good thing was, the idea was so exciting for so many people that everybody was trying to help me,” he said, including the Pentagon and the White House.

Four years after he sparked the idea, Simeonov was in Kenya in 1980, accompanied by a team of wildlife specialists, journalists, helicopters and a veterinarian in search of a solitary male elephant.

“We were having breakfast in the morning, and all of a sudden someone said, ‘the elephant is here!’ The elephant was 50 yards from us, looking at us with eyes not very friendly,” he said.

After the elephant was immobilized, Simeonov got to work taking a cast with alginate, a material used by dentists. The elephant was released, unharmed, 72 minutes later.

“That was the easy part,” he said. The challenge was finding a proper place for the statue, along with raising a half-million dollars to cast it in bronze.

It took nearly two decades and three secretary generals before Simeonov’s piece, “Cast the Sleeping Elephant” statue was inaugurated at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on Oct.18, 1998.

Come inauguration day, Simeonov watched in disbelief as workers scurried to bring in plants to surround the statue in an unsuccessful attempt to cover the elephant’s nether regions.

“There was a huge scandal all of a sudden about the penis of the elephant,” Simenov said. “In one afternoon I had more than 10 interviews from journalists in Japan, Australia, all over the world explaining (the size),” he said. “It’s an elephant!”

Twenty years of work was then reduced to some less-than-flattering headlines, such as The Chicago Tribune’s “24 inches of bull elephant statue at UN get attention.” “Mihail’s elephant looks as if it has an appointment with a lady elephant, and she’s just around the corner, with Sinatra on the boom box and a bucket of martinis,” the New York Times wrote.

There were suggestions of castration. Lily even recalls a group of teenagers running around the garden on inauguration day yelling, “don’t cut it!”

Though the elephant has not undergone surgery, he remains tucked away in the bushes at the U.N. headquarters, partially hidden from sight. While it creates an air of mystery around the installation, the shrubbery does distract from the true meaning of the piece, according to the artist.

“The elephant is a symbol of all wildlife. When he was cast, the heat of the elephant … the heartbeat was in the air. It was all over the world. Boom-boom-boom-boom,” Simeonov said, tapping his hand over his heart.

“An elephant is bigger and more powerful than us people. I was trying to build him up to institution.”

He helped form The Trust of the Sleeping Elephant, an international enterprise intended to raise awareness for the project and its mission of conservation. For a while, their efforts helped put a stop to the ivory trade in Kenya, but Mihail noted that 60 elephants still die from poachers every day.

“When I started the elephant project there were 2 million elephants. Now there are 600,000,” he said. “People are so destructive. They will destroy everything, including the planet. They don’t care about things like the elephant.”

He said his elephant is meant to stand forevermore.