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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Workshop for the Young at Art

Empty milk cartons, old newspapers, plastic film and masking tape -- these are the things of which fantasies are made at Mikhail Labazov's children's art workshop. There's a five-legged guinea pig with a yellow belly and red legs, a three-meter-long "Monument to Daddy" and a tentlike costume titled "Against Collisions with Heavy Objects."

An architect by profession, Labazov began working with children in 1986 as part of a deal with the Komsomol, or Young Communist League. By giving art lessons to the neighborhood children, Labazov was able to use the workshop's studio space to work on his technical drawings. The architect eventually got his own studio space and the Komsomol collapsed along with the Soviet Union in 1991. But the art workshop continued and thrived.

"Our activities are based on mutual interest," said Labasov, 34, whose workshop is free of charge. "For me, it is a combination of pure curiosity and a chance to see the live creative process and how children respond to certain requests."

While Labazov only outlines the project theme, his students, ages 3 to 14, devise a blueprint and do the work together, with as little help from adults as possible. One of Labazov's few rigid principles is that the final piece -- be it a costume or a toy house -- must not stray from the original drawing.

"Left and right, one can see how most beautiful ideas turn ugly in the process of their implementation," Labazov said. "Besides, I want the children to realize that anything can be made out of anything, to teach them to stand for their ideas in real life."

About 20 children attend Labazov's studio, spending several evenings a week in a basement workshop off 1-aya Tverskaya-Yamskaya Ulitsa in central Moscow. The studio, which occupies one room and a corridor of what used to be a low-budget apartment, is crammed with old projects left behind when the young artists went on vacation.

There is a "Torture Chamber Lamp" made of toy skeletons and other symbols of suffering and a "Mother Wardrobe" built of a frame grid fit with patchwork pouches and with a female head on the top. There is a colorful five-legged guinea pig.

"That guinea pig had five legs on the drawing," Labazov said, "so I insisted that it should have five legs for real. It looks quite natural. You don't even notice that extra leg."

Several times a year, the group stages public showings of the finished projects. At the last show of the past school year, which was held in late March at the Hermitage nightclub, about 20 children and their parents displayed their "costumes for extreme situations."

A costume "Against Collisions With Heavy Objects" was a huge tentlike cone made of brightly-colored padding material. Another outfit entitled "For Riding on Daddy's Shoulders" consisted of a comfortable seat fit with a plastic roof for rainy weather. A white-linen dress entitled "The Table Crinoline," worn by one of the oldest girls, had a hoopskirt made out of light wood upholstered with the same material and decorated with real fruit.

When the workshop started in the late 1980s, it was part of a Soviet program that required local dwelling-maintenance bureaus to conduct "aesthetic development" projects for their residents, Labazov said. Today, his group mostly consists of his friends' children. Labazov's son Misha, 12, attends his classes, which are free of charge.

"I honestly wish I could take more children," Labazov said. "But when there are more than 10 kids in this room, it turns into complete chaos."

Unable to define his own role in the project, Labazov described himself as "just someone who's got a bit more experience and someone the children can trust."