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Meet Mila Gokhman

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mila Gokhman.

Mila, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I was born in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine (formerly Soviet Union), in 1934. I was not able to attend university to study literature and languages, which was most interesting to me, so I went to a technical school and became an engineer. After a few years, I abandoned my engineering profession to follow my passion for art. I began my artistic history with flower arrangements and window displays. Then, in 1967, when visiting a friend in Tallinn, Estonia, I met her neighbor, a woman who worked in a leather factory. She gifted me a bag of leather scraps and some glue. The next day, January 7th, I found cardboard and started making art. I consider this my birthday as an artist and celebrate it every year with my friends. For many years thereafter, leather was my preferred material. As a self-taught artist, I developed my own techniques and produced unique, handcrafted leather works, creating my own leather universe. I made small leather relief panel pieces I call “etudes.” These are mostly abstract works constructed from a palette of leather scraps. I also made leather jewelry, garment accessories, purses, book covers, and more.

In 1972, I began to collaborate with one of the best fashion houses in the Soviet Union, designing leather jewelry and accessories and creating collections for international shows and festivals. I worked with the Kiev Fashion House until I left Kiev in 2000. By 1977, I was also making collages out of cut and pasted paper. Most of them have strong connections with music, the lines and colors expressing sounds. During the 1980s and 1990s, many articles were published on my work and I had a dozen solo exhibitions in museums and palaces in Kiev, St. Petersburg, and Tallinn. 26 Long Years, which presented the full range of my artistic production, was held in the Taras Shevchenko National Museum, Kiev, in 1993. This was a huge show: one hall had my leatherwork, one had paper collages, and one had a mixture of the two. Before leaving for the United States in 2000, I had a final career retrospective at the Kiev Planetarium Gallery. Scores of people attended and there was much press and TV. It was indeed the rewarding outcome of thirty-three years of hard work.

In March 2000, I moved to the USA. For several years, I was taking care of my mother and was unable to work as an artist. Then I found a new interest in making bead jewelry. I produce only one-of-a-kind works, finding new ways to combine and harmonize different materials and colors. I also have continued to make new and beautiful paper collages, mostly using paper hand-cut from wallpaper sample books. Since coming to California, I have had only one small exhibition–a two-person show at Grand Central Art Gallery at California State University, Fullerton, in 2010.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
The obstacles were many. Although I am a non-practicing Jew, there was state anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, which limited my choices. As an artist who found my own way, I was not part of the official academy, so was rejected from active participation in artistic life. The official style in art was Socialist Realism. Galleries and museum halls were filled with paintings of steelworkers in gilded frames. I am a humanitarian and my art is abstract and free, inspired by nature, poetry, and music. In the Soviet Union, you should work for the government, but I didn’t. I worked for myself, and I was simply lucky I was not sent to a labor camp, as other artists, writers, musicians, poets were, some of them my friends. I worked 14 hours a day, worked and worked for no money. Leather was controlled by the government and I struggled to get materials. My happy fate was that people would help me by bringing me leather, or I bought it illegally. The fashion house where I collaborated for almost thirty years didn’t pay me, but they had material that came from the government. They would call me and say, “Mila, we have new leather,” and I would go running. It is impossible for Americans to understand why. My parents and friends supported me, gave me money to live and to travel to my exhibitions, and I traded and gave away a lot of work. There was much corruption and many disappointments, promises of exhibitions on the highest level that never happened. In 1990, I was invited to exhibit at the Artists Union Palace in Moscow, a very high honor, but had to pay thousands of dollars, which I couldn’t do. I came to the United States in 2000 with a huge collection of my work. I have paid much money and exchanged jewelry and collages to frame it on a professional American level. My work is waiting to be seen.

What are you most proud of? What else should we know?
I am more grateful than proud that my life has had some meaning for myself and, I hope, not only for myself. I am happy that I found myself in art. I think of art as a philosophical category that saved my life and gave me fulfillment. It is most important for my heart, for my soul, for my view. Art is my religion. Maybe I am proud that I didn’t stop working. I was working with leather for 14 hours a day–I couldn’t stop–I had so many ideas. I introduced many techniques of working with leather. I didn’t repeat anything–everything is unique. I was on my own, only by chance of having materials. In spite of the obstacles, I didn’t stop working. In recent years, art helped me overcome disease and be happy in what I was doing, despite my art not being seen.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
I was hoping to make a name in the world. I hoped to have a retrospective of all my art and design in America, as I did in St. Petersburg in 1981 and Kiev in 1993, all very seriously produced and prepared. To show all of the work I brought with me and all of the work I have been continuing to do. It is most important for me to see for myself on walls in a serious place what I did in my life because I believe I was doing important work, significant enough to be shown. New friends here in California are helping to promote my work. At the age of 86, I am now in Los Angeles an emerging artist! One of my pieces is in the LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) 2020 Benefit Auction [on Artsy through September 9]. My friends recently made a website for me where you can see more about me and my art:

Contact Info:

Image Credit:

Portraits of Mila Gokhman, Los Angeles, 2020, by Michele Mattei. Photo of Malachite Set leather jewelry by Phillip Ritchie, Costa Mesa, 2006. Photograph of Gokhman’s leather body/clothing ornament, Alexei Kolmykov, Kiev, c.1995.

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