Photo Credits: Pierre Vauvillier
For Sergey Balovin, money is irrelevant. While other artists might be struggling to come up with the money to support their endeavors, Sergey neither wants it nor needs it. Instead, for the last two years, he has thrived entirely off of a barter system, where he paints portraits in exchange for food or other gifts. Sergey’s story is a story of opportunities and of chasing dreams. It is a story about an artist who, in an effort to simply survive, found a way to connect himself and his art with people all around the world.
Sergey became an artist by chance. It was during kindergarten, in the small city of Voronezh, where he was supposed to be drawing a bird for class. His artistic skills back then were admittedly poor. “I didn’t manage to finish the bird,” Sergey says. “My teacher had to draw it for me.”
When his mother came in and saw the drawing, she was ecstatic. “My son has talent!” she proclaimed, gaping at the beautiful drawing. Sergey looked at his proud mother, and did not have the heart to tell her that it wasn’t he who drew it. His mother, convinced that her son was to become an incredible artist, immediately sent him to take more art lessons in order to hone his “talent.”
Sergey sitting next to his “wall of faces,” which consists of people that he has met and drawn over the past year.
Photo Credits: Pierre Vauvillier
With his mother’s encouragement, Sergey blossomed as an artist. He had other childhood dreams of becoming a sports star or a famed musician, but time and time again he would invariably come back to the visual arts. By seventeen, Sergey had started teaching art to primary students while attending university. After graduation, he became an art professor at the Voronezh Teacher’s Training institute, where he taught a class of Chinese students studying abroad. However, Voronezh was becoming increasingly mundane for Sergey, and he vowed that he would see more of the world.
“Voronezh is beautiful, small, but boring at the same time,” Sergey states. “I always wanted to live in a big city like Moscow. I wanted to travel.”
True to his word, Sergey began traveling around Europe, trying to find himself as an artist and discover what his main artistic style would be. One of the stops was Venice, a city that Sergey had wanted to visit ever since he was a child. However, when he got there, he realized that, despite the wonderful architecture and history, all he wanted to do was share his experiences with others. “I was alone in a hotel and already, on the second day, I felt so lonely, so bored,” comments Sergey. “Venice is amazing, it’s beautiful, it’s perfect, but when you are alone, you can’t share your feelings.”
It was then that Sergey knew what he wanted to do with art, and it wasn’t limited to a specific style. “It’s not the architecture or nature of cities or countries that are interesting to me—it’s people. Every time you get to a new country or new city, you meet new people and they give you a lot of knowledge and new experiences,” says Sergey. “I realized that, for me, the main calling is interactive projects. It’s not about pictures or style, it’s about lifestyle. It’s about how to connect art with your life.”
During this time Sergey also worked as a freelance designer, because the pay as a professor in Russia was “awful.” Money has always been an issue for Sergey, but he wasn’t content to devote his life to a desk-job as a designer, despite the higher pay. It was only natural, then, for Sergey to jump at the opportunity to come to China. A Chinese artist who knew one of Sergey’s students came to Voronezh and, seeing Sergey’s paintings, offered to help him set up an exhibition to showcase and sell his artwork in Ji’nan, Shandong.
Coming to China wasn’t easy for Sergey. The Chinese artist who originally offered to help Sergey had to leave the country four days prior to Sergey’s arrival, leaving him with no place to stay. The artists who eventually did host Sergey told him that, if he wanted to sell his artwork in China, he had to change his style and paint more realistic landscapes. Sergey wasn’t pleased, but he was grateful for the hospitality of the Chinese artists, and he set out to work tirelessly on his first exhibition in China.
Sergey painting a portrait for the In-Kind Exchange project.
Photo Credits: Sheila Chen
The exhibition in Ji’nan was an incredible success. Sergey was able to sell all of his paintings, and for the first time it seemed possible for him to make a living from art alone. After returning to Russia, Sergey promptly resigned as a professor, and began working on another exhibition in China. The second exhibition was even more successful than the first, and even though Sergey had decided to set the prices of his paintings almost twice as high as before, he still managed to sell all of them.
Deciding to stay in China, Sergey came to Shanghai and rented an apartment overlooking the famous skyline. “I stopped working so hard after that,” he says. “I had enough money, I was relaxed, and so I began to go out at night.” In the year of 2009, Sergey was living the high life, and the parties and glamour and beautiful faces seemed to be never-ending.
Within a year Sergey had used up all the money he had. His wallet was, in his words, “completely empty.” He didn’t have enough money for food, or rent, or even clothes. By then, he had lost all the contacts that he had for the first two exhibitions, and he had to organize another exhibition entirely by himself. It turned out to be a terrible failure, and Sergey sold almost nothing. The situation was beginning to seem hopeless, and it was hard to believe that, just months ago, Sergey had everything that he had ever wanted.
The idea that was to become the defining project of his life came shortly after this, when Sergey had hit his low point. One day, Sergey walked out of his apartment to find his Russian neighbor carrying a large, unwieldy easel, which she was intending to move to her new house. Sergey offered to take the easel off her hands, and in exchange he would paint her a couple of portraits.
Soon after, Sergey began posting ads online, which he dubbed the “In-Kind Exchange Project,” where he offered to paint portraits for anyone in exchange for basic necessities. “I let them choose what they prefer to bring, it’s not exactly ‘bring me this stuff that you can buy here,’ but at the same time they bring me anything I need, from food to dress,” Sergey comments.
The project quickly snowballed, and before long Sergey had visitors every day, even after he stopped regularly posting ads. Everything he needed, from phone cards, to shoes, to food, was provided for him. That was in 2010, and since then the only monetary transactions Sergey had to be responsible for was rent, which he paid for by organizing regular Russian lifestyle meetings in his studio with entrance fees. His studio had become an open hub and cultural gathering spot for artists and art-lovers alike.
An exhibition of the pictures of some of the gifts that Sergey received from the In Kind Exchange Project, including shoes, coffee-makers, and more.
Photo Credits: Sergey Balovin
The “In-Kind Exchange Project” is the realization of the interactive-style projects that Sergey had long envisioned would be his main artistic calling. Through the exchange of gifts and portraits, Sergey is able to seamlessly connect his relationship with others with his artistic pursuits. “This project is a possibility for me to understand local culture, because with every gift I have a piece of local culture. With each present they give me traditions, they give me their story,” he says.
In December, Sergey will be taking the project on the road. Convinced that the project could use more publicity, and spurred by that same drive to see the world that he had so many years ago, Sergey published an ad on his website for the global In-Kind Exchange program. In exchange for shelter, food, and a means of transportation to his next destination, Sergey would come to the city and put on exhibitions and portrait-drawing events.
Sergey currently has dozens of confirmed locations strewn all over Europe and into the far reaches of Russia. “The number’s growing every day, as more people send me emails,” he comments. The project that started as a means of survival has turned into a tool that will allow Sergey to see the world as he has always wanted to—a world made up of interpersonal relationships, a place where, no matter where you go, there is someone waiting for you with a friendly smile and an open door. “This is what I want, to see the world in this way.”
You can visit Sergey’s website here or participate in the In-Kind Exchange Project by sending him at email at email@example.com. He will be leaving Shanghai in December to embark on his global trip.
WORDS: ANDREW WEN
PICTURES: PIERRE VAUVILLIER, SHEILA CHEN, SERGEY BALOVIN