Portrait of an artist

Utopia, a small, artsy restaurant in Adams Morgan, currently houses the work of a rising young artist who unveiled his first “professional” art exhibit Tuesday at 8 p.m. Although this is the first time the public has been able to see his artwork, junior Ross Smirnoff has already made a name for himself at GW. Many students have encountered his art on campus and showed their support for him at the opening reception.

The exhibit, which is past the bar in the “gallery” of the cafe, will remain open to the public until Dec. 20. Though he is excited about his entry into the professional art arena and the prospect of becoming a distinguished artist, having his work opened to the public carries a deeper meaning for Smirnoff.

“I just want to spread my ideas and touch as many people with my work as I can,” he said.

Smirnoff said he does not title his paintings because “titles are too constricting.” He refers to his individual pieces as “the blue one” or “the green one.”

“I want people to draw their own conclusions from my paintings,” Smirnoff said. “I don’t want them to change their interpretations because of one word that doesn’t even really mean anything.”

He is not kidding. When asked what a particular painting represented, he simply answered, “You tell me.”

Each of his paintings has its own meaning to Smirnoff, but what he likes most about his work is its “universality.” His abstract style makes it difficult to determine what category his art would fall under; he prefers to classify his work as his own, “even though art history may have a different opinion.”

After naming a long list of admired artists, including Picasso, Basquiat and Kollowitz, he repeated that he likes to do his “own thing.”

A fine arts major with a concentration in painting, Smirnoff spends a lot of time in class working on his art. He also said he paints whenever he has free time.

Smirnoff said he incorporates different artists into his work but mostly paints from his surroundings. One of his paintings, which he gave to a friend, has a building in the background that appeared to resemble Thurston Hall but was set in a different location.

“I see elements of Ross’ work everywhere,” said friend Roman Groysman. Smirnoff extracts more ideas from his everyday environment than from other people’s work.

A little girl on a beach inspired one of his favorite paintings, “the blue one.” An angry father quickly halted the girl’s excited dash toward the ocean. To him, the painting represents the excessive “power that parents have over their children,” which is difficult to escape.

Smirnoff’s paintings cover the three unmirrored walls of Utopia’s back room, but to Smirnoff and his friends, this is somewhat familiar. His work filled his Madison Hall room last year and was an attraction for other students.

“The paint got everywhere, but luckily the school didn’t make me pay for it,” he said.

Smirnoff has been painting for years; he discovered his artistic talent as a Long Island eighth grader, when he decided “hockey wasn’t for me.” After taking a slap shot in the mouth, which required 36 stitches, he began “doodling” in a sketchpad and “just never stopped.”

Smirnoff found that he most enjoyed drawing faces “because they can convey so many emotions.”

Faces continue to be a dominant theme in his more recent work. Smifnoff said he uses several mediums in his art – oil for a more defined, potent effect and acrylic for brighter, innovative images that “look cool.” A painting can take him anywhere from one day to several months to complete.

“I’ll start with one layer and paint over it until I like it,” he said. He also loves to draw, and often uses only black and white. Though his parents support his passion, he does not attribute his talent to genetics but rather, to practice and experimentation with different styles.

Smirnoff said that although GW’s art program is not as extensive as other universities, he enjoys being “a big fish in a small pond.” He said he believes the department should place greater emphasis on individual expression; however, he enjoys the diversity of majors that GW’s student body presents.

“Everyone is doing something different, and not many people are doing what I am,” he said. After graduation Smirnoff plans to broaden his horizons further by traveling around the world, “spreading his art” to as many places as possible.

Smirnoff does not have an exact plan, but after Utopia, he said he would like to go to the National Gallery – “with a few exhibits in between,” he added, smiling.

Smirnoff said he does not paint his paintings for sale, but if someone really likes one or it has a special meaning, then he is willing to sell. Smirnoff said he already sold some to his friends for the “best friend rate.”

To Smirnoff, his gallery opening at Utopia, at 1418 U St., could not have been more appropriate. Not only does the name of the restaurant reflect his enthusiasm, but his display is also allowing him to bring his work into an area that is in short supply of art.

Jason Maxim, a close friend and waiter at Utopia, introduced Smirnoff to his boss, who agreed to the display after briefly viewing Smirnoff’s portfolio.

“It just fell into place,” he said.

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