Vasily Konovalenko (koh-noh-vuh-len-koh) was born in 1929 in Petrivka, Ukraine (just north of the Black Sea). After earning a degree in art and architecture, he became a stage designer for the Donetsk Opera and Ballet Theatre. He worked on productions of Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and other classic operas and ballets. In 1957, while working at the Mariinka Theatre in St. Petersburg, Konovalenko produced sets for the ballet Stone Flower, in which the protagonist is a stonecutter. Konovalenko's gem carvings for the ballet earned rave reviews, and he became smitten with the art form.
Konovalenko continued to make gem sculptures throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Around 1974, American wholesale diamond dealer Jack Ortman saw the sculptures on display and offered Konovalenko a house in the United States, machinery, and minerals with which to work. In pursuit of freedom, Konovalenko and his family quickly emigrated. In the early 1980s, Museum trustee Alvin Cohen purchased 20 of the Konovalenko sculptures and made them available to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where they have been on display ever since. It is the only collection of the remarkable Konovalenko sculptures on public display outside of Moscow.
All photos by Rick Wicker.