Georgian Artist Niko Chocheli has dedicated his life to learning, teaching, and conveying beauty onto canvas, paper, and more.
As a fine artist, illustrator, and iconographer, Chocheli’s work has been exhibited widely: with over 40 national solo shows and over 40 international group exhibitions, including in Europe, India, and Australia.
Chocheli has been awarded the title of honorary professor from the Tbilisi State Academy of Fine Arts and an honorary doctorate. In 2009, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, for his contributions to local art and culture.
Here, he explains how beauty has led him throughout his life: from growing up in Soviet-occupied Georgia to continuing his father’s teaching tradition by starting his own fine art school.
The Epoch Times: What was it like growing up as an artist in Georgia?
Niko Chocheli: We had 3,000 years of statehood; that’s a long time. And it left behind thousands of monuments. There are ancient castles and fortresses, majestic cathedrals, and monasteries. Of course, in Soviet times, anything about churches, religion, and spirituality was persecuted and strictly prohibited.
But you can see the monuments everywhere. Imagine if you are a young person and you’re growing up, and you’re surrounded with this history everywhere. Every stone is an inspiration. I sometimes joke that when you’re in Georgia, you cannot take a bad picture; everything in the background is picturesque.
Growing up there and being surrounded with all that inspiration was a very powerful stimulus for me to carry on learning about art.
Both my parents, Leila and Robert Chocheli, were traditionally trained artists, so they knew how important it was for me to understand and to appreciate the tradition. My father dedicated most of his life to teaching. He started the Chocheli School of Fine Art in the 1950s in Tbilisi, Georgia. So it was very natural for me, almost like an annex for his school, to carry on his legacy and tradition here in this country. That’s how it all came about—how it started here in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
My father’s teaching methodology was that instead of indoctrinating me in academia from a very young age, which a lot of artists do with their children, he always believed that I should grow and develop on my own. He would simply surround me with beauty and art. He would not force me to learn or memorize something. Rather, it had to come from my own discovery of those things.
There is this funny story about the great Italian composer Gioachino Rossini. One of his students had a friend who supposedly had a strange penchant for collecting torture instruments. The student was telling Rossini about it and then suddenly Rossini asked, “Does he have a piano in his collection?” And of course the student said, “No, I don’t think so.” Then Rossini said, “Well, that shows that he was never taught how to play music as a child.”
You don’t want to associate those things with being forced to do them when you were little. My father understood that. When I grew up and started asking him questions, that’s when he stepped in and started to give me what I needed. When I was young, I was inspired and was taught by example, and by visiting places, and when the time came, I enrolled at my father’s school, where he would give me individual training, which has never really stopped. Even today, when I paint something, it has to—at least a little bit—go through my father’s very sharp and experienced eye because I value his opinion.
The Epoch Times: How easy was it for you to access great art in Soviet-occupied Georgia?
Mr. Chocheli: Under Soviet occupation, you could travel all throughout the Soviet bloc but you couldn’t travel anywhere in the West. You couldn’t leave the country to travel to England, France, Italy, or any of those places.
Only when I started to realize that there is the Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery in London, the Prado Museum in Madrid, all those places, then I realized, well, I can’t really go and see them. Yet, I was hopeful.
I’m not minimizing what was going on in Georgia. As a matter of fact, Georgia was one of the countries most hit, so to speak, in the Soviet era. Churches were especially persecuted; thousands of people were killed or tortured for their faith, for their beliefs, for the truth. On the surface everything looked fine, but behind the scenes the country was occupied.
That’s why I always tell my friends here: “You should be so appreciative of what you have in America. When you wake up, and you go to the church of your choice, and you know that no one is going to arrest you, and your parents are not going to lose their jobs, and you’re not going to be deemed crazy if you believe in God, that is a blessing.”
I tell my students, who have these grand museums in their neighborhoods with so much incredible art: “It’s next door. You should go and camp there. I had to fly to another country in order to see a painting I wanted to see.”
The Epoch Times: Please tell us about your art practice.
Mr. Chocheli: My philosophy is to pursue beauty. My Eastern Orthodox Christian faith leads me to understand that God is the ultimate Creator. By creating something beautiful, you connect to the divine.
You know it’s like lighting a candle, and it has been said by much wiser people than me, that when you light a candle, you light up the room, and the candle burns down but the light doesn’t diminish; it continues to burn and illuminate everything. One has to be that way. And it’s not just about painting. It’s how you live, what you believe, what you do, and what you consider is important.
With my work, I try to retain a true tradition. I want people to be aware that we are part of a tradition. It should not be lost. It should not be forgotten. It’s beautiful, it’s true, and it’s important, so I try to retain that link. My studio may be small, but I try to carry a torch.
Teaching is never just a job for me. It has become my mission, because I understand the importance of it.
The Epoch Times: What’s involved in learning the fine art styles and techniques of the great masters?
Mr. Chocheli: That’s a very big question. The heart is the number-one instrument—not the brain, but the heart—to develop feelings. You have to let beauty strike you. If you are not moved and stricken by it, then how can you make someone else experience it?
As an artist, your work is not only about yourself. You have to go beyond yourself and help engage the viewer in the dialogue. It has to also speak to someone, or art loses its timelessness and it just becomes your own personal piece.
If you want to give it to others, you have to make them feel with your eyes and make them experience it with you. So learning to see is the beginning. We study the great masters to help us to see.
There is a wonderful quote by the great French master Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. I really love his writing. He said: “Address yourselves to the masters. Therefore, speak to them. They will answer you, for they are still living. It is they who will instruct you; I myself am no more than their quiz-master.”
Nowadays, a lot of art schools try to teach students art straightaway. You can’t really teach art that way. Art is so deep and so personal; an artist is something you become, so you can’t infringe on the very delicate things in the heart of a person.
Art schools teach the very tangible skills; they teach a craft and knowledge. Then the person himself, or herself, will build upon those skills.
What is involved in learning fine art is, of course, hard work: working on yourself first, then drawing, painting, sketching, studying, copying, observing, learning to see, and a lot of reading.
I always read books.
The Epoch Times: Do you mean classic literature?
Mr. Chocheli: Absolutely. They can inspire you from a young age; they want you to create because the words you are conversing with are written by the most intelligent, talented, and gifted people. They tell you things that you try to imagine.
As you study art and see those stories being re-enacted in the great canvases, if you don’t know those stories, you miss so much because then you’ll look at it and say: “Who are they?” and “What do they represent?” When you know the story, then you understand how an artist has dealt with it.
So you need to read. You need to know mythology. I love fairy tales; I read those. Those things inspire the imagination and produce much fruit.
An artist’s formative years cannot just be about learning how to draw. If you don’t have substance inside, then you just become a technician and that’s all.
We have to look at our history. I lecture on art history because I want my students to be aware of this. Literature, poetry, music, and architecture are all sisters—the great masters called them the Muses—but they are children of one parent, and that parent is beauty. This is my understanding of what art is, and I think it is not just my own. It’s based on my extensive studies and readings from masters: Beauty is what art is all about, not just depicting a truth or a fact.
Hard work and learning can teach you how to be a good master, to draw things, but it doesn’t make you a great master. It doesn’t make you an artist, as you’re just reproducing, like photography, and capturing things as they are. Artists change things as they want them to be and make something else.
The masters said that to attain the highest standard and expression in portraiture, the painting has to be better than the original. Now think about that.
When you look at portraits by Rembrandt, for example, you realize that it’s not just a depiction of a person. It’s kind of a masterpiece. It’s not just a concrete person: You see depth, and you see an inner world. It transforms the sitter, whoever a person was (real or imagined), and makes them better. And it makes you better by standing in front of this great work. It ennobles you. This is what great fine art is all about.
I have this favorite quote: “Nulla dies sine linea” (“Not a day without a line”) attributed by Pliny the Elder to the great ancient Greek artist Apelles. I am often tempted to pin those words over my studio doors because it is true, “Not a day without a line.” Maybe “Not a day without beauty” would be my paraphrase.
I also teach my students to draw without a pencil or brush: to draw with their eyes. Because, really, if you think about it, you don’t stop being an artist once you leave your studio. You are an artist no matter where you are. When you cannot draw with your hands, you still look at things as an artist and imagine: How would it be if I would paint this? What colors would I use to do this kind of style, or line?
There is a lot involved in learning styles, techniques, and the philosophy of art. The art schools and art colleges are not carrying on that tradition. It’s like reinventing a bicycle right now, while the great masters were already driving Porsches or Mercedes.
There is a tradition. The masters have been given this knowledge, and they carried it on and passed it on to the younger generations since the Renaissance. Now suddenly, anything goes. That’s why it is valuable to return to the past to learn the good lessons. To learn what is true and what is important and then, of course, re-enact it in the world that we live in.
What they created doesn’t age, and it doesn’t lose its relevance. Because even in the 21st century, I can look at a painting which was done 600 years ago, and I can relate and connect to it.
Art that is not that way is based on fashion or some fad or some kind of sensation. It fades away like fashion. Now it’s hot, but tomorrow it might not be anything interesting. It can be compared to a newspaper and a book: You read the newspaper; it’s important and it’s relevant now, but tomorrow, it’s yesterday’s news. But with a good book, you don’t throw that away. You put it on the shelf, and you return to it again and again. Classical, true art is timeless.
When you realize that, then you understand there’s a choice: to create something which is timeless and eternal or something which is instant, quick, and is going to fade away.
To find out more about Niko Chocheli’s art and the Chocheli School of Fine Art, visit NikoChocheli.com
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.