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THE ROANOKE TIMES
Saturday, February 22, 2003
Artist was on lifelong quest for freedom
By ZEKE BARLOW SPECIAL TO THE ROANOKE TIMES
After 87 years, George Solonevich is finally free.
Though three dictators and, most recently, his body, tried to pin him down, the artist and visionary never lost his desire for and conquest of freedom.
Solonevich died Friday night after a long battle with strokes that left his body weak. He leaves behind a lifetime of paintings that illustrate a long and storied life, from his struggle with communists and Nazis to his creation of a Roanoke County mountainside art colony where his wife, Inga, still lives.
Those who knew the man with the strong Russian nose describe him as both cantankerous and gentle, wise and stubborn and always, always himself.
Yura "George" Solonevich was born in what he described as "the worst possible place at the worst possible time - Moscow in 1915." As early as age 5, he felt the first finger of oppression when he was put into prison for three years because of his father's involvement in the counter-Communist White Army. It was there that Solonevich first showed an ingenuity that would be a trademark for the rest of his life.
Before long, Solonevich and his father were again in jail for questioning Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Solonevich spent 18 months in solitary confinement before being shipped off to a labor camp. Later, Solonevich and his father escaped, fleeing across the Russian countryside for 16 days through swamps and creeks to freedom in Finland.
Finland was where he met Inga. He walked up to her at an art school and said, "I'm going to marry you," she wrote in her book, "The Long Road to Solola."
He and his father moved to Berlin in 1938 because it was the only country that would offer them political asylum; Inga joined them shortly thereafter. Solonevich worked as an anti-Communist illustrator until 1945, when his father, he and Inga fled Hitler's regime with the couple's 6-year-old son, Mishka.
Their horse and wagon were just specks in a line of 16 million refugees seeking safety. Solonevich chronicled the ordeal by drawing pictures on the backs of birth and death certificates - the only paper available.
After months of sickness and walking, they arrived in western Germany, where Solonevich's daughter Ulita was born. They later went to Argentina as political refugees. Solonevich learned Spanish - his seventh language - and began illustrating political cartoons for a publication by Evita Peron. Within four years they were chafing under yet another dictator - Juan Peron - so the family made its way to America in 1952. Solonevich's father died in South America while waiting for his immigration papers.
New York City proved inhospitable and devoid of work, so Solonevich and his family considered building a mountain home. They already had a name for it, "Solola," when in 1955 they moved into a run-down , shot-out shack on 127.5 acres in remote Southwest Roanoke County. A few miles off U.S. 221, it was high above the Roanoke Valley, between Masons Knob and Bent Mountain, and accessible only by a hard-to-travel, mile-long dirt road.
There, Solonevich built a three-sided outhouse, so as "not to impair the nice view for the sitter," Inga wrote, and hunkered into constructing their dream. With the intent of creating an art colony, the couple built an enormous 13-room art school and six cabins from salvaged material - and always with an artist's eye.
He funded the construction by illustrating for National Geographic, The Saturday Evening Post and children's books.
The Blue Ridge Art School never completely took off. Instead, the clientele was mainly "little old ladies in tennis shoes" who weren't serious about art, Inga wrote.
The cabins and art school were rented out to various vagabonds over the years.
Solonevich continued painting, creating his own technique called the pickup method. He painted a series of world leaders that included Ronald Reagan. Word got to the then-president, who asked if he could buy it - but Solonevich said he'd give it to him in exchange for a meeting. Their scheduled 15-minute meeting lasted almost two hours as Solonevich told the president his take on communism, said Ulita's husband, Skip Taliaferro.
Solonevich was as passionate about politics as he was art. He penned countless vehement letters to the editor denouncing the media, liberals and abstract art.
Roanoke artist Peter Wreden remembers one time he and Solonevich were arguing over the merits of modern art.
"If I remember correctly, we rolled down the hill, wrestling" by the end of the argument, Wreden said. "But we had been drinking a bit of vodka."
Ann Masters, who knew Solonevich through her work with the Roanoke Fine Arts Center, said he was a tremendous local artist.
"He was one of the most interesting people in the art colony in the valley. He was strong-minded and strong-willed and a tough Russian."
Carrying on a tradition he picked up in Finland, Solonevich was taking his weekly sauna in 1994 when he had a simultaneous heart attack and stroke and fell onto the sauna's hot rocks, severely burning himself. Inga cared for him over the last eight years of his life, but he never completely recovered. His body's weakness was excruciatingly frustrating, Inga said. Doctors recently said that only 20 percent of his mind was functioning, she said.
Solonevich died in a nursing home, where he spent the last month.
THE ROANOKE TIMES
Published on Friday, February 28, 2003
SOLONEVICH, George, 87, of Roanoke County, died Friday, February 21, 2003. George was born in Moscow, Russia, on October 15, 1915. He is survived by his beloved wife of 64 years, Inga Donner Solonevich; his son, Michael Solonevich of Germany; his daughter, Ulita S. Taliaferro and her husband, Earl (Skip) Taliaferro of Roanoke County; his stepmother, Ruth Solonevich of Roanoke; his two granddaughters, Decca T. Knight and Shar Taliaferro, both of Roanoke.
George was an artist living in the Roanoke Valley for the past 48 years. He was educated at the Atheneum Art Academy in Helsinki, Finland and at an Art Academy in Vienna, Austria. After fleeing the reign of three dictators, he immigrated to America in 1953 and moved to Roanoke in 1955. Here he found his beloved mountain, Solola, a place to finally nurture his freedom of expression and artistic spirit. For the world, he leaves the beauty and power of his paintings for generations to come. We thank all the wonderful friends that lovingly cared for him during these last few years. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Back Creek or Cave Spring Fire and Rescue Squads, who on so many occasions have helped our family. A celebration of George's life will be held in the Planetarium at the Science Museum in the Center in the Square on the 4th Floor (City Market area), Sunday, March 2, 2003, from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Oakey's South Chapel and Crematory handling funeral arrangements.
In October 2000, Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, had an exhibition of portraits by Solonevich. Called "Movers and Shakers", the show included pivotal figures of the last century including Adolph Hitler, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, and John F. Kennedy.
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