Bulgarian émigré grounds students in traditions of classical art
If you have trouble articulating why the misshapen face drawn by your 3-year-old is just a scrawl, while a misshapen face drawn by Picasso is art, Kiril Tzotchev, a modern-day Renaissance artist operating out of Sea Cliff, can help.
“Art is proportion and composition, and that’s based on mathematics,” Tzotchev says. “Teaching in the US is always ‘express yourself,’ but that has to come once you know the rules. People express themselves without rules and it goes nowhere. You have to know the rules to break the rules.”
Tzotchev is primarily a sculptor but thoroughly versed in the classical European art skills, including drafting and painting. His work is shown and sold by galleries in Europe and Manhattan. In October, he was featured in the “7 Painters & 7 Sculptors” exhibition at C.W. Post.
Of course, he teaches too. The multifaceted artist founded the Classical Art School of Long Island in 1997, which he now runs out of his studio on Glen Cove Ave. He teaches through the Nassau County Museum of Art and Art League of Long Island (ALLI). He serves as an advisor to high school seniors preparing fine-art portfolios for college applications, to Parsons or the School of Visual Arts, for example.
“His students just love him,” says Joann Nielsen, program director at ALLI, where Tzotchev is universally known simply as Kiril. One of his students even donated sculpting equipment to ensure his classes could continue.
Kiril also applies his talents in a rare type of work: creating “life casts” of breast cancer survivors with Dr. Ron Israeli, a post-mastectomy reconstructive specialist based in Great Neck.
Kiril’s own art education encompassed a rigorous five years of broad training in art history and classical technique, including drafting, painting and sculpting, at the College of Fine Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria. “Art was taken very seriously, and taught based on the rules of classical tradition,” he says.
From age 14 to age 19 he spent at least eight hours a day on classes and studio work. Then (after a two-year stint in the Bulgarian army) it was time to specialize. He embarked on six and half years of intensive study of sculpting, earning a MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts at the University of Sofia.
“Fortunately,” he says of the long study, “it was a free education.”
That rigorous education gives him confidence. “I have so much experience, such training in different processes and approaches, that it’s difficult to surprise me with something new,” he explains. “No one can surprise me or put me down with respect to skills or techniques.” At the same time, he knows that great art is often not recognized right away. “I’m trying not to judge myself,” he says, “because I know only time will tell.”
Tzotchev brings classical discipline to his teaching, and his students express a similar confidence stemming from that understanding. “Kiril’s demanding in that, if you’ve got muscles in the wrong place, he doesn’t like it. And he’s not afraid to pick up a knife and go at it like a butcher,” says Art Bernstein, primarily a wood sculptor whose abstract, organic forms have been featured several times in the Annual Long Island Professional Artists Showcase at CW Post and elsewhere. (www.bernsteinart.com) “But he’s got a great eye,” Bernstein continues. “Sometimes you know a piece doesn’t look right but you don’t know why. He quickly picks out the part that’s wrong.” An accomplished artist in his own right, Bernstein has been studying with Tzotchev for years. “Kiril grew up in communist Bulgaria, and they frowned upon art, so to be chosen [for the academy of art] means you’re a prodigy, and he was chosen,” Bernstein explains. “He’s a brilliant artist. No one made it through [that system] without being brilliant.”
But brilliance didn’t spare him from sometimes blistering critique. He says the intentionally misshapen forms his own thesis project, the mammoth “Mommy, Daddy and Me,” drew angry reaction from his instructors at Sophia. “My little revolution,” he jokes.
Was it hard to get out? “It was very chaotic when I left,” Kiril says. “They didn’t pay attention to guys like me.” His artist compatriots mostly relocated to Europe or Canada, he says.
Kiril works strenuously not only to spot what’s wrong, but to explain it in a useful way. That means getting beyond feeling—whether one “likes” it or not.
“I demonstrate [problems] like an engineer—not through emotion or feelings. And I give them examples from the masters; I always try to prove my point with history,” he says. “Art is subjective. If you rely on feelings, you can get crazy.”
Arriving in the US in the early 1990s, Kiril spent a couple of years in Brooklyn and Queens before moving to Sea Cliff. Now divorced, the 52-year-old sculptor lives with his 12-year-old son, a budding actor who has already notched roles on Broadway and in big movies such as next year’s Spiderman. The artist, who in his youth in Bulgaria also appeared in some films, is happy to play the “stage dad.”
It’s not easy to live on the Gold Coast on an artist’s income, but Sea Cliff is an island of affordability in a sea of potential patrons. “Most of the people here can afford art,” Kiril says. “And even if they don’t have taste, with me, they get it.”
So between creating and teaching, he finds a good balance. He doesn’t want life to be too easy.
“In Europe, there is more government money and programs for artists—free studio space, stipends and such. It gives time to create art freely, without thinking about survival,” he says. “But is this the right thing to do for art? If you don’t go through a struggle, then the art may not be anything that represents anything.”