Mila Gokhman Mila Gokhman


Please see the article on my art and life, "Spirit Lives Wherever It Chooses: The Art of Mila Gokhman," by Roni Feinstein in Woman's Art Journal, Fall/Winter 2022


In 2000, Mila Gokhman left a successful career as an artist and designer in Kyiv to move to Southern California. For the past twenty years, working in relative obscurity, she has continued to make art on a daily basis. She creates meticulously crafted abstract collages of cut and pasted papers that pulsate with life, joy, and movement. Stacked against walls, stockpiled in boxes, and crammed into closets in her tiny apartment are leather reliefs and objects dating back almost half a century as well as paper collages, both old and new. 

Gokhman was born in Kyiv, the capitol of Ukraine, in 1934. She vividly remembers the bombing that began the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on her 7th birthday on June 22, 1941. Three months later (September 29-30), almost 34,000 Jews were massacred in Kyiv's Babi Yar ravine. Gokhman's family survived, having moved eastward to Ural, where they endured harsh conditions. In 1944, they returned to a Kyiv that had been destroyed by war.

Gokhman earned a Bachelor's Degree in civil engineering, but by 1966 had abandoned bridge projects to pursue a career in art. Leather was her initial preferred medium. As a self-taught artist, she pioneered new techniques and directions in leather processing. She created small, intricately worked "leather assemblages," low-relief panel pieces in which leather strips are variously layered, twisted, woven, coiled, and set in radiating patterns. In defiance of the dictates of Soviet Socialist Realism, she drew inspiration from nature, poetry, and music, creating art that is abstract, improvisational, and infused with human spirit and emotion.

In 1972, she began to collaborate with leading designers at the Soviet-run Kyiv Fashion House, turning out leather necklaces, belts, and purses. For her pioneering work in design, she received no payment. Her compensation consisted of leather scraps to use as raw material for her own jewelry and accessories. Her leather wearables are both abstract and floral in design, and many stand alone as independent works of art. 

In 1977, Gokhman expanded her practice further by making collages with colored papers. Paper, more available than leather (a luxury good in the Soviet Union), allowed her to work larger and with more improvisational freedom.

As a self-taught artist independent of the official art academies and as a Jewish woman, Gokhman was an outsider who was hardly guaranteed success. Nevertheless, between 1973 and 2000, she had a half-dozen solo exhibitions in major museums and other venues in St. Petersburg, Tallinn (Estonia), and her native Kyiv. In the 1990s, numerous copiously illustrated articles on her work appeared in the Eastern European press.

Since moving to the United States, Gokhman has had only one significant exhibition (a small, two-person show at the Grand Central Art Gallery in Santa Ana, a satellite space of University of California, Fullerton). Her California collages of the past two decades have consisted of  delicately hand-cut papers, often with the addition of watercolor. She has also produced an extended body of work in beaded jewelry unparalleled in beauty, variety, and invention.

In 2019, Gokhman conceived the scheme for a wished-for exhibition, which she called "Mila's Garden." It would consist of paper collages based on themes of nature and photographs of nude models wearing cascades of beaded jewelry and silken crowns. In 2021, she produced an extended series of cut and pasted paper pieces, "Light & Shadow," which express, as she has said, her "spiritual opposition to the devastation of the pandemic and convey the joys of liberation and hope."

The shadow cast by the Russian invasion of Ukraine is extremely dark and weighs heavily upon Gokhman, many of whose friends remain in or have recently fled from Kyiv. In recent months, she has produced several works in response and offered sales of her work to raise funds for humanitarian aid. The spirit with which she defied the Soviet system 50 years ago burns in her still.  

Thus, in her ninth decade of life, Mila Gokhman's creative energies continue to flow. As she has said, "Huge quantities of my work are waiting to be seen."