George Voronovsky and The Nature of Beauty

One spring Uri’s father, an erudite, cultivated man and an esteemed attorney, offered his son a few rubles and challenged the boy to travel about Russia, not to return home until summer’s end. This fable-like adventure typifies Jurko “Uri” Alexander Voronovsky’s childhood remembrances when, half a century later, he would reconstruct his youth as guided by such experiences.

George (nee Jurko) “Uri” Alexander Voronovsky lived the last decade of his life on a pension in one room in the Colony Hotel. His was the top-floor room visible in the chic print ads and television commercials shot along trendy Ocean Drive. However, when he died South Beach was blighted, and the mile and a half of hotels that faced the ocean were whitewashed and in various stages of disrepair. George had been a solitary figure there, alone among a sea of Jewish retirees. No one saw the paintings that were tacked to the walls his room, which he had created with cheap watercolors on pizza boxes and other discarded pieces of cardboard. His visual recollections of his charmed youth in the Ukraine, along with a myriad of decorations he fashioned out of cast-off materials, filled his space.

The room’s two windows faced the rising sun. George had asked the hotel manager to have the air conditioner removed because it chilled the air and stiffened his rheumatic bones. Screens were gone too so that light could flood into the room, which became an extension of the landscape outside of his windows. The sound of the surf was ever-present, as was the pungency of the sea that permeated the air. George felt that he was one with the grassy park below, as its coconut palms reached upwards, toward him. From his windows he saw people and gazed out to the sea.

Living in the midst of his creations, George was a short yet solid old man with white hair and goatee. The strong lines of his smooth-skinned face framed penetrating but sympathetic blue eyes. George embodied the prime aspects of an Outsider artist; he was disenfranchised, self-taught, and passionate while being fueled by his longings. He was not a modern-day fauve but, rather, a memory painter. As the sea air scented and the radiant light brightened his room, classical music flowed from George’s radio, its dial frozen to the classical music station, soothing yet engaging him as he imagined the place he had left behind many decades ago.

Thumb tacked to any and all surfaces throughout his tiny room were dozens of colorful paintings of a world that existed somewhere between matters of fact and memory. Suspended from the ceiling were stars that he had cut from soda cans and flowers he had fashioned from candy wrappers. Styrofoam scraps rescued from beach flotsam quickened as crafted doves, egrets, blowfish, and mermaids gleaming and twirling in the breeze. Paintings, sculptures and decorations were scattered about. On and on it went, a visual cacophony covering the kitchenette, refrigerator, dresser, chair, and bed. That is all that could fit into the tiny room and it is all that constituted George’s material world.

Taken over by his creations the room’s décor was engulfed and camouflaged by mushrooms sprouting, seagulls flying, snakes coiling, animals frolicking (including a cow jumping over the moon), flowers blooming, and stars shining everywhere. No two creations were alike. Completed carvings and paintings, and those at stages of completion, merged into a veritable museum of George’s artworks, although George did not have the kind of ego that would have its sights on being recognized by gallery exhibitions. Instead, his paintings bloomed like a garden. The raw material found in alleys and on the beach underwent a transformation into a staggering diversity of geese, deer, horses, foxes, and landscapes. Through his painting and sculpting, George recalled and expressed his cherished youth in his homeland, the Russian countryside.

Although one would have had a hard time knowing it from the world he privately imagined and constructed, George’s life had been filled with tragedy. It is likely that his silent suffering was the source of his creativity, and it was intensified by his purity of heart and soul. The bucolic imagery that he had painted concealed his anguish; the highly aesthetic world that he lived in denied that hard reality.

George reflected on his now idealized past because that was preferable to the one in which he actually lived through during most of his adult years. He wanted to be in command of his mind’s wanderings and live amongst “the beauty of nature.” Plain white walls bothered him because they allowed his thoughts to meander to painful places.

In the non-descript hotel George was pleasant but reserved; he did not socialize with the other elderly residents. Although he was cordial, he did not make time for small talk or for kvetching. Over the years he became as anonymous as his name – George – that was issued to him at Ellis Island in 1951. His hotel room was where he found solace and freedom for his trapped soul.

George often walked to the water’s edge and could be found either sitting in the shallows so that the salt water would lap along and massage his once-injured legs or making himself comfortable on his handmade lightweight, folding chair. Consistent with his frugal and resourceful self, he constructed the chair purposefully – it was durable, easy to carry, and ever ready for his frequent rests.

As he sat at the beach, George often wrote journal entries and letters in Russian. He used carbon paper to make copies of what he wrote to preserve his written works. In his homeland all writing had been subject to invasion and censorship. He remained fearful of losing what he had put down on paper. George felt writing was his forte and perhaps he may have found passage to a peaceful mind in free thought.

His aesthetic flights of fancy brought him to a world of enchantment where idyllic imagery was devoid of harsh worldly concerns. He claimed not to have much going for himself in the way of technical skills but he was aware of classical proportions, but he was uninterested in such manufactured pictures. Once he painted a picture of a deer in the snow with mountains in the background to demonstrate that he could. Mainly he valued his imagination because he could delve deeply within himself to call forth his exemplary harmonious world. He did so without artistic theory, unnecessary ornamentation, or social commentary.

Born in Kiev, the Ukraine, on August 31, 1903, George died seventy-eight years later, in Miami Beach, on July 12, 1982. As a youth he enjoyed a comfortable home while being immersed in the arts and letters. He played violin and other musical instruments, and trained as a cartographer. He married and had two children. His rich life was inextricably altered and twisted when, during World War II, he was interned in a Nazi concentration camp. He recalled having been appointed a work-group leader in charge of assembling machine guns and having sabotaged them to misfire.

George’s war sufferings caused him life-long emotional pain that he would silently harbor, it festered in the depths of his being. This personal conflict led to his living inward, to his creating incessantly, and to his thinking about things that would lead to a better society. He redesigned the spoon, questioned why highways curved often, and thought about paired elevators operating in synchronization to save energy. He lived without spoiling the environment and without wasting anything; this was important to him. Besides clean and efficient living, big questions plagued him, especially those about the constant state of war throughout the world. This was unfathomable to him.

Whether the psychic burden of wartime was the sole cause of his self-inflicted isolation or whether other factors contributed to it is uncertain. After the war he remained separated from his family and stayed in Germany until immigrating to the United States. George shared nothing about what transpired during that seven-year period prior to his coming to America. He settled in Philadelphia and took menial jobs. Earning his livelihood from such lowly positions not only provided income but it also allowed him to keep a low profile. Anything more challenging would have called attention to his many and varied abilities. Soon he found steady employment with the railroad, where he remained until retiring to Miami Beach, which he considered to be Paradise.

Throughout his retirement, he maintained sparse living quarters, but surrounded himself with the arts. When he left his created paradise it was to run chores or walk to Lincoln Road, where he would watch old Russian films, over and over. He found further nourishment in conversation and travel. In earlier years George took trains and buses to tour the country – he loved watching the landscapes go by. 

His youthful experiences gave rhyme, reason and stimulation to what he valued, and what he would paint. Sitting on the beach facing away from sunbathers and towards the ocean, patiently carving a chunk of Styrofoam, George seemed a lonely old man. The sea and the sky melted together. The arc of the horizon offered him passage to wonderful thoughts; the panoramic view across the street, grassy park with its palm tress reaching high, the beach’s sand and surf and the infinity beyond was always mysterious and compelling – both day and night, from the shore or from his window. Such is a portrait of this old man.

In spite of hardship and alienation from his wife and two children he said, “Inside I am still a child.” His innocently painted scenes reflected his humanity as well as his past. With an active mind and deep convictions, George was a dreamer, but he seemed not to have realized any dream while he was alive. Perhaps that was exactly his plan; he would have been unable, even unwilling. He would have felt unworthy to acknowledge any kudos. His past was levied by his exalted appreciation of culture and nature though.

The body of work he left, imbued with moral underpinnings and his worldview, codifies all that is good with humanity, and this is what meant the most to George. He would not pontificate; he wouldn’t tell us that there is hope. He showed this to us instead. For a man without material wealth, which didn’t interest him anyway, he easily built a fortune in the form of original artwork, and left it behind without concern. It had served his purpose. He left a trove of paintings and a legacy that, in the end, might suggest that indeed his aspirations were realized, vicariously at least, for others. His message was stated, but still unheard.

George did not sign his creative works. Perhaps this was because the conceit of authorship was not part of his equation or he was loathe to draw attention for other reasons. We do not know, with certainty, why. Simple humility, perhaps.However, some of his later paintings on canvas are inscribed with contextual information –“When I and my brothers was young, we have collected eggs to have the beauty of nature,” “The house where I was baptized.” Still he seemingly did not have the ego necessary to consider himself an artist. Had he done so, his art might have become a product, repetitious and stale.

Selling his paintings never occurred to him. That wasn’t their function and it certainly wasn’t his motivation; his impetus to paint was anything but public or commercial. Even if he had tried to market his artwork, he likely would have shunned, or even feared, the ensuing recognition. He was too humble and private for that. He would have found acclaim embarrassing.

George Voronovsky’s paintings and other creations were born of need, both reflective and expressive. We can safely assume that he simply worked to satisfy his longings and to assuage the pain of his deeply wounded spirit. The paintings conceal this wondrously. One would never know this from looking at them or meeting the artist. One would simply think that it was a beautiful world.