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Ilyar Stolyar Retrospective at DAAS CO-OP this February

It’s often said that to really know someone, you first have to walk a mile in their shoes. But to get to know artist Ilya Stolyar, all you have to do is view his retrospective this month at DAAS Co-Op Gallery in the Fort Myers River District.

The paintings in the exhibition reflect Stolyar’s journey from teenage Russian immigrant to moody, broody Jersey boy, to a visual artist who enjoys Southwest Florida for more than just the sun and our bright cerulean blue skies.

Speaking from experience, it’s never easy to move to a new place and school as a teenager. Think Footloose, and the culture shock that Ren McCormack suffered when he moved to a small town where, horror of horrors, dancing was banned. But that’s nothing compared to moving 4,000 miles from a small town in the Baltics to metropolitan northern New Jersey.

In Russia, Stolyar had lots of friends and was actively involved in sports. In New Jersey, he didn’t know a single soul. And then he was told that he’d have to repeat high school in order to get an American diploma. Entering a new school is tough enough. Try doing it as a 17-year-old sophomore who knows very little English!

Fortunately, he landed in Karen Patterson’s art class. Even though he hasn’t seen her in 21 years, he still remembers her name.

“I knew very little English. In art class I didn’t have to say anything. I just had to make something," he said. "And that was new for me. It really worked for me. I didn’t have to communicate with anyone. I was embarrassed about my English. This was the perfect outlet, this art class.”

Trapped in a world of linguistic isolation that was complicated by a severely dysfunctional home life – he describes his father as “a horrible alcoholic" – Ilya fell into a state of deep, dark depression. He became sullen, resentful, filled with anger and hate. So in those early days, he painted almost entirely in black and white. One of his early compositions depicts a Buddha wearing a metal diving helmet that constricted his ability to see, hear and talk.

But with the help of Karen Patterson, and several other art teachers and professors, Stolyar was able to use art as a healing strategy. Soon, he began relying on art not just as a means of self-expression, but as a portal into self-exploration. He became fascinated by other cultures.

“I came from a country that was very secluded with what we could know or experience,” Stolyar points out. “And then in the U.S. it’s so multi-cultural. There are people from all kinds of different places, with different kind of cultures, with different kind of sexual preferences that I was never exposed to. It was mind blowing to me, so with an open mind, I started learning about everything, different cultures, different religions.”

Stolyar found eastern culture, particularly Buddhism, especially appealing. It wasn’t just that is was different. It provided the balance he so desperately wanted and needed.

“There’s a lot of things in their culture that are all about being calm, peaceful, devoid of emotion, just stillness. And I found peace in that for myself as well.”

Many of the images that appear in his compositions are appropriated from these cultural explorations. As a surrealist, Stolyar employs them as symbols and metaphors. But they also represent stepping stones, artistic landmarks in a journey that has no destination.

“The goal is to keep looking,” Ilya amplifies. “I know I will never find anything. Maybe some people will. I know I will not. The point is to keep moving, keep looking. When I stop, I die, in my mind.”

Still, Stolyar finds himself today in a much more positive, colorful place. One has only to look at his most recent rendering, a painting of a Tibetan girl whose title is drawn from Bob Marley’s song “Exodus.”

It’s the only composition in which Stolyar’s subject is smiling. But it’s not just any smile. Rather, it’s a Mona Lisa-like enigmatic grin that belies self-confidence and inner peace.

“Open your eyes (And look within)
“Are you satisfied? (With the life you're livin'?) Uh!
“We know where we're goin', uh!
“We know where we're from
“We're leavin' Babylon
“We're goin' to our Fatherland”

“The whole purpose is to develop myself into something that I should be, which should not be negative or hateful; which should represent love,” Ilya reflects. “And that’s what I want to feel about myself. I always tell people that I am love and that’s what everyone should be. So it made me a more positive person. I look at the world very different now.”

Lots of artists approach pop artist David Acevedo about exhibiting at DAAS Co-Op. Stolyar is one of the few that DAAS has approached to do a show.

“He has a background to his work that is unique to my mind,” says Acevedo. “The color scheme that he uses. The balance and the composition. The edginess of having an abstract background with a figurative subject in the front. That counter position of the image against the background.”

Acevedo has an unerring eye. Since it is inception in 2008, DAAS has built an unparalleled reputation for finding and exhibiting emerging and mid-career artists who have an edgy, unique story to tell.

Ilya Stolyar is one of those artists.

“Ilya actually hits all the marks. We’re super excited to have him. I can’t wait to have everything on the walls and for people to come and see the show.”

So you don’t need to steal his shoes to get to know Ilya Stolyar. Just come see his show at DAAS. The CO-OP Art Gallery & Gifts is located at the Butterfly Estates complex at 1815 Fowler Street in Fort Myers.

The opening reception is scheduled for 6:00-9:30 p.m. on Friday, February 4, 2022 in conjunction with Fort Myers Art Walk. The exhibition will be on display through February 27, 2022.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

This Spotlight on the Arts feature is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.