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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Children Put Artwork Under Clown's Hammer

MTPatch Adams bouncing a small boy at the start of the clown's 18th visit to Russia.
In between phone calls, the constant ringing of the doorbell, children streaming in and out and even the yipping of a dog, Maria Yeliseyeva found time to help about 30 children put the finishing touches on their paintings of clowns and churches on Friday in time to be auctioned or displayed at an exhibition Tuesday.

The chaos continued the next night, when Yeliseyeva, dressed in sequined pants and a tie-dyed shirt, went to have dinner with her friend Patch Adams and 35 other clowns before they began Adams' 18th annual tour of Russian orphanages, hospitals and nursing homes.

Adams, an American doctor of recent Hollywood fame, will perform his usual role as auctioneer at the annual children's art sale organized by Yeliseyeva's organization, Maria's Children.

"She integrates all of her work with us," Adams said.

Their 11-year friendship and partnership has made a significant difference in the lives of some Russian orphans.

Maria's Children teaches painting, drawing, ceramics, sewing, clowning, cooking and music to children from seven orphanages in Yeliseyeva's basement studio -- about 240 children each week. Yeliseyeva also takes orphans on a boat ride down the Volga each summer, organizes exhibitions of the children's art, volunteers at an orphanage for babies and runs a transitional program for children too old to live in the orphanage. She has also taken some children into her home.

Yeliseyeva said the proceeds from Tuesday's auction of the children's art would go toward her programs, which are funded through grants, donations and sales of the children's artwork on cards, calendars and prints.

Adams has supported Maria's Children through the years by donations and by sending her volunteers.

Nick Hackney and Julie Pedersen both found out about Maria's Children through Adams and left their jobs in England and North Dakota, respectively, to work for Yeliseyeva.

"I thought, why don't I make each second of my day count instead of staring at a computer screen," Hackney said. After he read one of Adams' books, Hackney wrote to Adams asking how he could help, and Adams suggested he come on Yeliseyeva's summer boat trip, which he did. Six months later, he was back to stay.

Pedersen met Yeliseyeva when she started coming to Russia with Adams on his annual clown trips seven years ago.

"Maria invited me to work with them. I came here for four months and never left," she said.

Adams and Yeliseyeva have similar philosophies. A doctor and a professional clown, Adams founded the Gesundheit Institute in 1971 to promote health care based on personal interaction and laughter.

Yeliseyeva said her classes are not therapy sessions. "We talk about miracles and life and what they think, and art," she said. "It's better than 'what's bothering you.' I'm an artist. I think there's a better way to get in contact with people."

Adams and Yeliseyeva met in 1991 after Yeliseyeva heard about Adams and invited him to her first studio. "We met each other and loved each other," Adams said.

In 1993 Yeliseyeva and her friends began visiting a local orphanage to give the children painting lessons. Five months later the classes moved to her studio, and she began taking some of the children home with her, sometimes permanently.

The orphans' murals -- all clowns and butterflies and onion-domed churches -- belie the hardships some of them have had to endure. Yeliseyeva says many of the orphans were wrongly diagnosed debil, or mentally handicapped -- a label that will follow them the rest of their lives.

Alyosha, in his late teens, is one of those children. Yeliseyeva said that two years ago, Alyosha's mother sold him to a man who tied him up and abused him for four months, and when he was rescued, Alyosha wouldn't talk or eat.

"Now he talks, but he doesn't like to eat with the others," Yeliseyeva said. "The first time we saw him smile was on the boat."

On Friday Alyosha briefly stopped by Yeliseyeva's studio, riotously painted and covered with the children's framed paintings, to bring her boxes of candy. "You're leaving already?" Yeliseyeva said. "Promise me you'll come to the exhibition." She said Alyosha had been sponsored for a year at jewelry school, and she hoped that someone at the auction would donate money for him to continue his studies there.

But at Saturday's dinner everyone in both Adams' and Yeliseyeva's groups thought only of the fun they would have clowning with the children.

"This is the best day of my life," Adams said. "I'm in my country, with my people.

"I think love is still the answer."

Maria's Children's Fourth Charity Art Auction will be Tuesday, Nov. 5, at Club Duma. 2 Nikitsky Pereulok. 5:30 p.m. The Art Exhibition will be Tuesday, Nov. 5 at Tsentralny Dom Artistov. 10/14 Krimsky Val, hall 21. 4 p.m. For more information visit www.mariaschildren.org.