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A Talent of Biblical Proportions

Russian artist Gennady Spirin brings fine art to children's lit.

As Gennady Spirin signed his way through a stack of posters he helped design to advertise this year’s National Book Festival, one thing became clear: that the meticulous beauty of his children’s book illustrations could be found in every pen stroke of his signature.

Less an autograph than hasty calligraphy, Spirin’s name becomes engulfed in majestic loops from the bottom of his letters, ending with a large oval reminiscent of an Ichthys on the back bumper of a mini-van. They are vines from a giant beanstalk or wisps of hair on an angel’s head. They are examples of exactly what Spirin has done for decades as an award-winning children’s artist: use overtly beautiful flourishes to transcend expectations of his field.

"When people hear about a gallery that specializes in children’s book illustrations, they think of cute, silly things. My gallery represents the very finest, most distinguished artists. It’s a very serious art," said Elizabeth Stone, whose King Street gallery hosted Spirin on Sunday, Oct. 1 for a signing and reception. "He works with the best writers, and he illustrates the very best stories — legends, tales from around the world. Very diverse. And his signature is beautiful, too."

Elizabeth Stone Gallery, 1127 King St., Suite 201, has an exhibition of Spirin’s work running through Oct. 28. Hours and further information can be found by visiting www.elizabethstonegallery.com or calling 703-706-0025.

SPIRIN WAS BORN on Dec. 25, 1948, in a small town outside of Moscow. His artistic skill was identified early on, and he was soon learning his craft in a pair of prestigious art institutes in Moscow.

His style developed over the years, as Spirin used a rich palette of watercolors in creating works that combined traditional Russian art technique with the great traditions of the Renaissance.

He’s gone on to illustrate over 40 children’s books, winning the Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators in New York City five times.

His paintings are unmistakable: lush colors saturate every image, creating both depth and a palpable dreamlike quality to the pictures. Telling several stories concurrently, the drawings are anything but simple, flooding the frame with different visuals that fully realize the environment — from a forest glen to a Medieval carnival to Biblical locales.

That challenging style has limited his appeal in some children’s literature circles, according to Stone.

"Gennady never speaks down to children," she said. "He feels that they should be introduced to fine art all the time. His books are misunderstood; librarians feel that they’re too adult for their children or their libraries."

Spirin, through his interpreter Tatiana Popova, said he understands who his audience is and what they want. "Usually the children are much more talented and smarter than the adults."

IN THE COURSE of his career, Spirin has been inspired by a great many authors and works — everyone from Shakespeare Chekhov to Julie Andrews and Madonna (yes, that Madonna).

The greatest inspiration, both in his art and in his life, has been the Bible. Spirin has illustrated "The Easter Story" and "The Christmas Story," along with several other Biblical pieces, managing to transform iconic images with his revolutionary style.

"You don’t need to find a new way of doing it," he said. "You just do it. I’m usually very, very careful in illustrating it. It’s a big responsibility."

So big, in fact, that Spirin traditionally fasts for some time before approaching a Biblical work. "The Bible is spiritual literature," he said. "In my point of view, the Bible is not an average literature, so it demands a different approach."

One of Spirin’s upcoming projects — after he promotes his interpretation of "A Night Before Christmas," which was recently released by Marshall Cavendish Corporation — is a large illustration of a specific Biblical Psalm that will be broken up into different pieces for publication in a book.

"It’s very, very important for the children to be exposed to the Bible story at an early age," he said.

Popova said the full image will be available for viewing in Spirin’s gallery in Princeton, NJ, where the artist and his wife live.

Spirin said the Bible has inspired him throughout all of his work — both secular and religious. He’s fond of one passage that states: "Without me, you can create nothing."

"It’s an absolute truth," he said.

SPIRIN SIGNED his National Book Festival posters at Elizabeth Stone’s gallery, occasionally putting his autograph on a print or book his fans have purchased during the event. They lavish praise on him, talking about the collection of Spirin books they’ve amassed and how much his art means to their family. He smiles through a thick white beard, and responds with as much English as he can manage as he loops his signature on the bottom of a brilliant watercolor print.

Does he prefer working with oils or watercolors?

"It doesn’t matter," he said. "Any media is difficult to work with. Oil allows you to repaint for the rest of your life. Watercolor doesn’t allow that."

The media may not matter, but the inspiration does. Spirin is motivated by classic, timeless tales; like the stories from the Bible.

But a few years ago, he was asked to apply his talent to another now-classic tale of a supernatural son.

Spirin said he was sent a letter from a movie studio asking him to illustrate a poster for an upcoming Harry Potter film — without question the most popular series in children’s literature today.

What was his reply?

"Nyet!" said Spirin, emphatically, adding that the Potter series failed to inspire him.

Stone said Spirin is an artist who never fails to inspire, even if his art is misunderstood by the children’s literature's mass audience.

"What has been amazing to me is that many of his books have been remaindered at book stores because sometimes they don’t sell," she said. "Suddenly, when the books have been remaindered and then they’re gone and not reprinted, then people want them. And then you think they can find them anywhere?"