The first culture shock the Russian-born artist Eugene Yelchin experienced in the United States was a classified page in the Boston Globe. Dozens of ads called for painters. Yelchin was thrilled. What an amazing country, he thought. He was a painter — he’d just had a solo museum show in Russia. Newly arrived to America, Yelchin sadly didn’t understand that house painters were needed, not fine artists.
In St. Petersburg Yelchin graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Theater Arts. For the stage, he designed sets and costumes for dramas, comedies and ballets. He co-founded a children’s theatre in Siberia and he was selected as the Russian representative to the Stage Design Biennial in Prague. However his application to immigrate to the United States was not taken kindly by the Soviet cultural authorities. Somebody else was sent to Prague and every theatrical poster bearing his design credit was reprinted without his name on it. Yelchin became a person non-grata.
After arriving to Boston (and learning that only a certain kind of painter was in demand) Yelchin took his portfolio to a variety of art directors, including one who worked for the Boston Globe, who mistook Yelchin’s stage designs for editorial illustrations. Yelchin, understanding little, nodded enthusiastically and soon was illustrating for the Boston Globe. When one of his first pictures was reprinted in Graphis Annual of Illustration, Yelchin became a full-time illustrator.
Since then Yelchin’s art has appeared in magazines and newspapers and advertising campaigns. He even designed the original polar bears for Coca Cola. When he earned his second master’s degree from the film school of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, he directed TV commercials and designed characters for animated films. As a fine art painter, Yelchin went on to exhibit in museums and galleries in the US and abroad. His paintings are in several important collections of Russian and American contemporary art.
In 2006 at the SCBWI conference in New York, Yelchin received the Tomie DePaola illustration award. His whimsical, expressive and realistic art attracted editors and art directors, and he has since illustrated children’s books for HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Henry Holt, Harcourt, Clarion Books and the Roaring Brook Press.
In 2012, Breaking Stalin’s Nose, a middle grade novel that he had written and illustrated received a Newbery Honor award. Horn Book magazine called Breaking Stalin’s Nose one of the Best Books of 2011. In the same year, Won Ton, a picture book he illustrated was named ALA Notable Book. In 2010, the picture book Rooster Prince of Breslov that he illustrated received the National Jewish Book Award. His other books received starred reviews, and were on Children’s Choice and the Independent Booksellers lists.
Today, Yelchin speaks pretty perfect English and the only house he ever paints is his own in Topanga, California. He lives there with his wife, Mary Kuryla, an accomplished writer, their two children, Isaac and Ezra.