In the shadow of Ukrainian horrors, a ray of artistic light

San Francisco collector brings trove of artwork to the public

Remember Alex Miretsky? He’s the Outer Richmond shopkeeper I profiled in March just after the war on Ukraine broke out and tensions were running high in San Francisco’s Little Russia neighborhood.

At the time, Miretsky was struggling to cope with the war, and the turmoil it brought to his own grocery store. He was born in St. Petersburg, but moved to Odessa as a child and grew up in both Russia and Ukraine. So he was raised with a foot in both countries, though his heart is now firmly with Ukraine.

Miretsky, who is disgusted with Vladimir Putin’s aggressions, was struggling to deal with customers who were growing increasingly agitated, sometimes arguing in the aisles of his store. Then he started getting threatening phone calls from people who assumed he was a Russian sympathizer.

The whole thing was a sad state of affairs. And you could see it Miretsky’s face. The invasion and destruction of Ukraine continues to this day, with horrifying tales of civilian casualties and destroyed cities dominating the headlines. There are no positive stories to report, other than the Ukrainian resistance.

Alex Miretsky, a collector of art from Ukraine and Russia, stands next to “The Old Men,” by Russian Orthodox artist Valery Balabanov. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Alex Miretsky, a collector of art from Ukraine and Russia, stands next to “The Old Men,” by Russian Orthodox artist Valery Balabanov. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

But here in San Francisco, I’m heartened to report some good news in the world of Alex Miretsky. When we first met, he talked at length about his art collection, a passion he has pursued since the early 1990s. He’s travelled the world collecting paintings from artists influenced by the immigrant experience. Early on, much of that work centered on Ukrainian and Georgian painters. And those paintings are now surfacing on The City’s art scene.

Monday night, many of Miretsky’s works from Ukraine and the surrounding regions were on display at the Concert of Compassion, a fundraising event held at Congregation Sherith Israel on California Street. The benefit concert, featuring some big names from the San Francisco symphony, donated proceeds to three charities, HIAS, World Central Kitchen and Nova Ukraine.

For Miretsky, it’s a cause that reaches to his roots in the region. And a way to highlight artists he’s followed for decades. Names like David Davidovich Burliuk, an avant garde Ukrainian artist who is known as the father of the nation’s futurism movement. Another of Miretsky’s favorites is Valery Balabanov, a Russian Orthodox painter (1939-2009). His painting vary in style, incorporating classic forms with splashes of modernism to create a surreal mix. Perhaps the centerpiece of his collection is an unnamed piece from Burliuk. Sadly, it suffered water damage in storage. Miretsky has decided not to restore it. Instead, he has named the piece, “Bucha,” in honor of the massacre.

I traveled to Little Russia again recently to visit with Miretsky and get an update on his art collection and his plans for it. In a Balboa Street garage, he has set up a variety of his paintings on easels and stands. It was like a little museum in the Richmond District.

“These are works that I’ve collected when I traveled to Kyiv specifically for the purpose of buying midcentury works. They were still there,” said Miretsky. “When the Soviet Union fell apart, I immediately went there because I like the impressionists. And the Ukrainian impressionists are very close to the French.”

But he discovered much more.

“I wouldn’t say that there is a particular movement,” said Miretsky. “I found a very broad spectrum of different types of works — like cubism, impressionism, realism — they work in all different styles. They are very diverse.”

Miretsky is in the process of setting up a viewing gallery in a South of Market storage space, where he can showcase his collection to prospective galleries. He also hopes to open a museum in San Francisco, creating a home for his artwork, which he estimates to be close to 5,000 pieces.

I asked him what drives him to collect, while also refusing to sell any of his pieces, for charity or otherwise.

“I want everybody to know that it’s very diverse artwork,” said Miretsky. “You can feel freedom in these works. When you see these many different artists, you realize that they have talent and they have a great country to represent. They expressed freedom, even during the Soviet times, even under this crazy period of time.”

All the while he maintains his Europa Plus grocery store, where tensions have died down since March. He says his customers don’t talk about the war anymore. There’s too much sadness.

The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to asaracevic@sfexaminer.com. Sign up for his weekly newsletter here. And follow him on Twitter @alsaracevic.

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