VILLANOVA, PA – So remarkable are the variant styles, image content and art forms of painter, muralist, illustrator, iconographer, and etcher Niko Chocheli that a newcomer to one of his solo exhibits might think he or she happened upon a group show.
In April, the internationally honored Doylestown, Pa., artist, teacher and storyteller by way of the Republic of Georgia, brings to the Villanova University Art Gallery his fantastical paintings and drawings based on mythology, fairy tales, religion and history; works in the form and style of European Old Masters, academic drawings, original illustrations from his published books, and sacred icons.
The free public exhibit, “No Day Without a Line: The Art of Niko Chocheli”, opens Tuesday, April 22, with an opening reception to meet the artist on Friday, April 25, from 5 to 7 pm, in the Art Gallery located in the Connelly Center on the Villanova campus. Refreshments will be served. Convenient, on-campus parking is available. The exhibit continues to June 7.
Educated as a classical artist in his native Georgia (where at the age of 7 he won his first of many art competitions), and deeply devoted to his Eastern Orthodox faith, Chocheli hopes his Villanova exhibit “will leave a legacy, something of value for all who come. I hope each person will find something to take from my work, a meaning, the sense of an inner depth.”
“Niko Chocheli's art captures the eye with its vivid color and the soul with its depth of meaning,” writes a reviewer, noting the artist's mastery of zinc etching, pen and ink, pencil and chalk to tempera, acrylic, watercolor, and oils.
From his early childhood, Chocheli's artist/educator parents and grandparents imbued in him a strong sense of Georgia's national identity, cultural distinctiveness, and history. Strategically located along the storied Silk Trade Route where Asia and Europe meet in the Caucasus Mountains, the world's oldest Christian nation (dating to the 4th century AD) has long been a target of conquest. Invaded and occupied many times, the people of the now independent nation have stoutly clung to their great culture, and repeatedly resisted assimilation.
In addition to his classical art education, Chocheli also gained from his parents a world view and a strong desire to learn of other peoples and cultures. His mother Leila's great love of Japanese art shows in Chocheli's blending of Eastern and Western painting styles. Worldwide, his work has appeared in more than 35 group exhibitions, and in the United States he has been accorded over 40 solo exhibits. The list of awards, prizes and honors accorded him is long.
Of himself, he says, “Two things guide me as a person and artist. The first is my Christian Orthodox faith; the second is beauty. They are who I am, my faith being first and foremost.” Speaking most directly to his faith in his art are his icons and religious murals found in churches, schools and universities, monasteries, other institutions across the Delaware Valley and in his native land. A whimsical playfulness shows in his mystical and folk tale paintings of animals, sea creatures and other life forms occupying fantastic landscapes, and in his acclaimed illustrations for children's faith books.
Chocheli dedicates his Villanova exhibit to the late Mrs. Dolores 'Lore' Kephart, memorialized by the Villanova University community for her humanitarianism. She staunchly guided and supported him through “the very arduous and beautiful journey” of becoming a permanent resident of the United States based on his “extraordinary ability in the arts”, a coveted status given usually to Nobel prize winners and noted artists.
Of Mrs. Kephart, he says: “Lore was my guardian angel. She arranged for me to meet the people I needed to meet. She worked tirelessly for the year the process took, and saw it to the end. My gratitude is eternal.” In 1998, Chocheli was notified that he had been granted permanent residency based on a unique Alien of Extraordinary Abilities Visa issued by the U.S. Government. Of that recognition, he says: “For Georgians, the United States was a beacon of freedom, looked up to and respected. I had read Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, O Henry (“I love his marvelous story endings.”) and other great American writers. When I arrived in Doylestown, it was as though I had been here before. I was leaving home to come home.”
Noted Japanese fiber artist Kumiko Murashima, who also helped Chocheli gain U.S. residency, believes his “superb technical skills surpass those of any other fine artists of our time.”
Br. Daniel Burke (FSC), founder of the LaSalle University Art Museum, which Chocheli served as artist-in-residence in “the happiest job of my life,” went further. Writing in support of a National Endowment of the Arts grant for Chocheli, he presented the artist as possessing “the talent, vision and inner drive to become one of our century's true masters.” Chocheli demurs from commenting on such conjecture. “I do not make reference to myself in any way,” he says.
That his work is often compared to that of DaVinci, Michelangelo, and Rubens, he credits the “superb academic training” of his father as “a driving force in making me study the Great Masters.”
In 1998, continuing in his family's educator footsteps, he founded the Chocheli School of Fine Arts in Doylestown for aspiring artists to obtain classical educations in fine art based upon the teachings of the Great Masters, instruction in drawing and painting in several media, and a solid grounding in art history.
Under the fine arts portfolio program his school now offers, Chocheli has individually helped all seeking students gain admission to leading art schools and to obtain lucrative scholarships.
“Sharing knowledge is a joy,” says Chocheli. “Teaching art is a very sensitive affair. You must teach very gently, as unjust criticism can destroy self-confidence. You must give students something they can carry with them to fulfill what they've always wanted to be.”
With his wife Kristen usually at his side, the artist's long, filled day begins early down at the school, which also houses his studio, and typically ends well into the evening. In addition to teaching, mentoring, counseling and encouraging his students, he paints, prepares for exhibitions, oversees installations of his work, lectures widely on subjects ranging from the sacred arts to the creative life, gives museum tours, and attends to his devotions and reading, much of which informs his work.
In 2009, in recognition of his impact on the cultural and artistic life of Bucks County, Chocheli was given the 'Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts' by the Central Bucks County Chamber of Commerce. In all that he has accomplished, he acknowledges the help of his wife, who he met during his U.S. residency campaign: “Her tireless support, love and dedication give me strength and inspiration in my daily work as an artist and a teacher.”
He ardently keeps alive his connection with his birth country. Years after becoming a United States resident, Georgia's Academy of the Sciences Arts and Humanities made him an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts. He journeys frequently to Georgia. “I miss my homeland dearly, but because, in a way, I have never left it, I have no sense of loss. What I do have is a sense of responsibility to represent America in Georgia and to bring the rich culture of Georgia to my new home,” he says.
The Villanova University Art Gallery is open weekdays from 9 am into most evenings. For extended and weekend hours, and other information, telephone the Art Gallery at (610) 519-4612. Selected works for the Niko Chocheli exhibit may be previewed on the gallery’s website at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Villanova University: Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's five colleges – the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the College of Nursing and the Villanova University School of Law. As students grow intellectually, Villanova prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them.