There is a strange house on College Avenue, right near Powderhouse Square. The house at 115 College Ave. has always been a little bit mysterious to the Tufts students who walk by it on their way to Davis Square. The brightly colored building stands out from the adjacent apartment building and other houses nearby. It has aluminum panels with colorful designs featuring roosters, plants, a sun of sorts and the words “Museum of Modern Renaissance” covering the façade. A stylized bull sits on the front door, its eyes windows into a small vestibule. A large face with bulging eyes and a frightening mouth hangs above the entrance. Hundreds of students walk by this house every day, but few know what it is, and even fewer have been inside.
In fact, this entire house, inside and out, is one giant piece of art. Over the past 20 years, Nicholas Shaplyko and Ekaterina Sorokina have transformed the former Masonic Temple into a temple of art they call the Museum of Modern Renaissance.
“I’m an architect in degree, and in my time, in my country [Russia] … architects should do everything,” Shaplyko said. “We [were] trained to do sculpture, drawing, drafting, like pencil, oil, watercolor. … So [an] architect, it’s who [creates the] whole environment, not just laying bricks.”
Shaplyko and Sorokina, a married couple, came to the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union, and ended up settling in Boston.
“I had the exhibition [on] Newbury Street, illustrative gallery. And then, we [were] granted status of extraordinary abilities, and got a green card,” Shaplyko said.
The building that became the museum has passed through many hands. The Tufts family originally owned the land where the museum sits today. In 1909, the Second Unitarian Church purchased empty Lot No. 198 and constructed the current building in the style of an English chapel, with white stucco over a wooden frame.
In 1932, the Caleb Rand Lodge (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) purchased the church for use as a fraternal lodge. In 1963, they sold the building to the Somerville Temple Associates (of the Ancient Free & Accepted Masons). The Freemasons covered up all the church windows and ran their operations there until 2002, when Shaplyko and Sorokina purchased the Masonic Temple.
“When we purchased … it was a lot of offers. Some buyers was offering, saying, ‘we are going to convert to karate school,’” Shaplyko said. “I said, ‘Look, guys, this is a temple and we want to keep it that way. I want to make a temple of art.’ And the Masons like this idea and just accept our offer even [though] it was less money than others … because money doesn’t do everything.”
Upon purchasing the white building, Shaplyko and Sorokina began the dramatic transformation, which they funded completely on their own.
“Who’s going to give me funding? I have no stomach to go through all this bureaucracy,” Shaplyko said. “And begging, and then, I should explain … what art is all about — how? And why they should give me money!”
The art inside this museum is truly unlike any other type of art. It is in an original style Shaplyko terms “mythical realism,” the colors creating a visual harmony that has a totally overwhelming effect.
“Mythical, magical realism is basically, you just made it up, everything,” Shaplyko said. “[The] most abstract [type of] art is music. … Combination of vibrations, features in harmony is beginning to be music, whereas a combination of colors [in] harmony is beginning to be art. … They should play with these vibrations … and when they reach a focal point? Ecstasy.”
The artists created the large face that hangs outside above the door — only, it isn’t made of stone as it appears.
“I carved [the face] with a kitchen knife,” Shaplyko said. “It’s foam. It’s only a tiny veneer of cement.”
Upon entering the museum, there is a small lobby with a frieze of the artists’ interpretation of the solar system. Two painted staircases lead up, while a few steps lead down through a door carved from a single piece of wood from Indonesia.
The crown jewel of the museum is surely its Grand Hall at the top of the staircases. Every inch of the walls and vaulted ceiling in the auditorium is intricately painted with bright colors featuring the artists’ interpretation of creation stories from different cultures. There are 57 murals of about 5,200 square feet in total.
“It’s myths, legends, fairy tales, fables from different cultures, different nations regarding our world creation. Some of them we modified; some of them we just made it up,” Shaplyko said.
The Grand Hall is ideally suited to host musical events.
“[The hall] was designed for good acoustics, because it’s a church. Plus, we did the murals — it was stretched canvas on the frames, which, like [a] membrane, resonates the sound like [a] sound board,” Shaplyko said.
The artists frequently invite high caliber musicians to perform in their museum.
“We have a lot of friends, like musicians, opera singers — very high end and some from Metropolitan [Opera].” Shaplyko said. “Mostly classical music, but we also have jazz here [and] we have folk songs.”
These performances are an integral part of the home.
“It’s a museum, not a warehouse. It’s the house of Muses,” Shaplyko said. “There should be music, poetry, visual art.”
Shaplyko and Sorokina have since built an addition to the original building called the Paradise Retreat. This extension features a central flower column with petals and glass lights, the artists’ interpretation of “The Last Supper” and some of the most detailed abstract patterns in the entire building. The extension is like a greenhouse, full of potted plants and an aquarium.
“If you know the layout of temples, they should have a semicircle part, the altar … all the holiest holy is there,” said Shaplyko. “This part was missing and we decided to build it and make it our art studio.”
Underneath the Grand Hall is a kitchen and dining room, dubbed the Festivity Hall, featuring stylized cities. Overlapping oriental rugs cover every inch of the floor, creating an overwhelming maximalist effect of color and pattern. Hand crafted wooden chairs with faces carved into the backrest surround a low coffee table in front of a fireplace.
Tucked in the corner near the kitchen is a small bathroom called Blue Fantasy. The entire bathroom, including the toilet, is painted in blue and white abstract designs inspired by blue china tea pots. There is a mirror in the shape of a teapot and underneath, two painted cats worked into the pattern. The faucet and lights come out of orange and red teapots — the inspiration for the entire bathroom design.
“I went to TJ Maxx. I saw these pots,” Shaplyko said. “I said, ‘Well, I love them. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them but I’m just going to kind of walk in and see.’”
Though closed to the public, the museum’s bedroom is a rhapsody of gold, orange and teal aptly named Sunrise Parlour. In the center of the ceiling is a giant gold and blue sun with oversized green eyes. Smaller suns adorn the rest of the room.
Last of all, underneath the Paradise Retreat is a small library. There are a variety of different suns with faces, but these suns are more yellow than golden. Custom orange bookshelves contain books in English and Russian. A stuffed tiger sits on a golden chaise, and the couple’s very real pet cat sometimes curls up next to it.
A defining feature of Shaplyko and Sorokina’s artwork is the almost complete absence of white. The artists begin with a black background, and then layer bright colors on top.
“We start on the black background … black color absorbing the energy, white color reflecting the energy,” Shaplyko said.
The entire home is dotted with metal and wooden sculptures that complement the murals and custom furniture.
“We are working together on each piece, because it’s our children,” Shaplyko said. “In order to produce [a] child, you need the efforts from male and female to have something useful.”
The artists don’t plan out the art in detail before beginning the final piece.
“I never do any preliminary sketches or drawings,” Shaplyko said. “It’s like a cook. You never use the recipe — he’s got a general idea, but then he’s just improvising every scene. Every time is different.”
Though the museum is a work of art, it is also Shaplyko and Sorokina’s primary residence. Because of this, the museum is only open to the public on occasion.
“Some [Saturdays] and [Sundays] during normal days, we … [open] by appointments only, group tours, like 10–15 people at a time, because we cannot just keep doors open,” Shaplyko said. “We live here. … You don’t want somebody just walking into your bedroom where you have no pants on you.”
Though the museum is an unusual building, Shaplyko says it is a wonderful place to call home.
“People are kind of asking me, ‘Are you crazy, guys? Do you not get irritated here?’” Shaplyko said. “I said no, because we … feel comfortable. And our friends feel comfortable here as well.”
Shaplyko and Sorokina recently built another house in Gloucester, Mass.
“[Here in Somerville], it’s not exactly what we were looking for,” Shaplyko said. “The way that God moves sculpture was there [in Gloucester].”
Sorokina’s niece recently moved to the United States from Russia, and is helping the artists dramatically expand their social media presence in past weeks. She runs their Instagram account @museumofmod.renaissance where the public can stay updated on the goings-on of the museum. Additionally, opportunities to visit the building are posted on the museum’s public Facebook page.
Shaplyko welcomes Tufts students to the museum.
“You should stop by, take a look and try to solve the puzzle. … Artwork is a door to another dimension,” Shaplyko said. “Here, this art gives you the opportunity to stop, to think, to open the door … to trigger your own feelings.”