Arts, culture & judaica | Russian migr sculptor committed to premise life is so beautiful

“I’m always pregnant with ideas,” says sculptor Misha Frid of San Francisco. “Some have just started, some are in process, some are in the foundry.” 

The 75-year-old Russian-born artist opens sketchbook after sketchbook filled with flowing lines that curve into musical notes, elegant neoclassical faces, books, trees, Stars of David, and swan-maiden ballerinas arching their wings to the sky.

Misha Frid sculpts a clay model of a swan-maiden ballerina. photos/courtesy wayne schotten

“Life is so complicated,” he says, “and we have more and more problems and more and more technology, and people work to pay bills; but life is so beautiful. My idea is to show people the beauty of life, not the ugliness.”

Working with local filmmaker Wayne Schotten, Frid aims to show the process behind the creation of beauty in “Swan Lake in Bronze,” a documentary on his life and work. With a trailer currently on YouTube, the 2013 film focuses on the creative process behind Frid’s commissioned piece celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory of Music in 2012.

The 108-minute film will be shown March 29 at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay in Walnut Creek.

Frid was drawn to art as a child, and music has flowed through his art ever since when he was enchanted by a performance of “Swan Lake.” He was enrolled at age 6 to study violin in the music program at a Moscow school for artistically gifted children. But he soon had other ideas.

The school’s music classrooms were on the second floor, above the art workshops. “I respected my father’s desire to make me a musician, but I was always jealous of the boys and girls who came to the first floor,” he says. “When I was about 12 years old, I told my father, ‘I’m going to the first floor.’ ”

“Swan Lake”

Life in the Soviet Union was difficult for artists and for Jews, with anti-Semitism coming from both ordinary citizens and the government. Frid remembers that “when there was a problem in the country, they put in a little bit of salt to make people angry with the Jews.”

He was delayed in attending art college in Moscow by nearly 18 months because of quotas limiting the admission of Jews to universities, even though a member of the sculpture department loved Frid’s entrance submission and advocated for him. Frid also studied filmmaking, worked on a children’s TV show and freelanced as a member of an arts organization, where people kept telling him, “Misha, your art is not acceptable to our philosophy.”

His submission of a sculpture of children provoked a committee member to ask: “How do we know these children are Russian and not American?”

“If I told him he was stupid,” Frid says, “I was out.” So he offered to put Communist Young Pioneers-style scarves on the figures. “But people knew it was stupid.”

By the early 1970s, when he was married and had two young sons, Frid decided to leave. He had grown up celebrating Shabbat — in whispers — on Friday nights, with parents who didn’t dare speak Yiddish in audible tones. His Lithuanian, cheder-schooled father was a lover of music and the arts who spoke Hebrew, Russian, Polish and German. “I saw how his life, his religion, his culture was depressed,” Frid says. “He was always afraid to be himself. When I became an artist, this depressed my freedom.”

People who were planning to emigrate did not tell even close friends. One of Frid’s friends suddenly disappeared and only afterward did Frid learn that the man had left the country. Frid thought, “The door is open!”

If his visa application had been turned down, Frid says he would never have been able to work as an artist again. “I would have ended up as a waiter.” During the long waiting period before he was allowed to leave, friends turned away and government agents were always underfoot. “They came to the apartment, checked every book, looking for some prohibited information … I was already a criminal without a crime.”

A 1 a.m. phone call finally came, telling Frid that he and his family had two weeks to leave the country. The government also required Frid to turn over all his artwork as state property. But Frid refused to acquiesce. “I created this art and I will destroy this art,” he relates. “I took a hammer and smashed all my plasterwork, or gave pieces to relatives.”

He came to North America “with empty hands.” He, his wife, Galina, and their two children each were allowed to depart with the equivalent of $80 in rubles. With Galina’s constant support and encouragement to follow his dreams, however, Frid restarted his career in Canada before relocating to San Francisco eight years ago.

Recent work reflects Frid’s growing involvement with the Jewish community. He created a crystal acrylic award for Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue in Toronto to honor congregants who fought for human rights. The design incorporates a staircase resting on the palm of God and ascending to a Star of David.

He also designed an award for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, presented as the Freedom of Expression Award to Kirk Douglas in 2011.

Frid’s dream is to create more public art for the Bay Area Jewish community, and his notebooks contain ideas for a metal plaque depicting the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and a three-section seating area shaped like a Magen David that he once hoped would find a home in the Oshman Family JCC’s Palo Alto courtyard. He dreams of creating a large sculptural piece honoring Russian Jewish immigrants and expressing their thanks to the nation that took them in.

He has opened exhibitions in Toronto, New York, Paris, London and other major cities, and has worked in a variety of media, including marble and wood. But his preferred medium is bronze. He says simply, “Bronze is forever.”

“Swan Lake in Bronze” screens at 1 p.m. March 29, JFCS of the East Bay’s Contra Costa office, 1855 Olympic Blvd., Suite 200, Walnut Creek. (925) 927-2000