Oleg Konstantinov creates intricate sterling silver sculptures; the tail of this gecko has 27 separate segments.
The artist displays his wares in his Kensington, Maryland, studio.
A sterling silver cricket.
A lifelike, movable beetle sculpture.
Every leg and toe of this frog can be manipulated.
The underside of the frog sculpture.

Toying with Nature

Russian artist Oleg Konstantinov's exquisitely formed, articulated sculptures carry on a 19th-century Japanese art form

Elegant bugs may seem like an oxymoron. But in the refined world of Oleg Konstantinov, nature’s lowly creatures inspire awe. Meticulously hand-built of sterling silver, each beetle, cricket, frog and butterfly flaps, pivots, bends or flexes just like the real things.

Konstantinov’s engaging creations also revive a nearly forgotten art form—Jizai Okimono. This virtuoso form of small sculpture flourished in Japan in the second half of the 19th century, during a time when people were fascinated with the natural world and mechanical advances were objects of wonder.

Japanese artisans took up “the challenge to create lifelike, flexible, movable critters,” explains Robert Mintz, chief curator and curator of Asian art at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. “It was an effort, especially on the part of metal smiths, to see how far they could push their technique, to show off their incredible mastery of the material.” The museum’s founders, William and Henry Walters, collected some 30 examples of these exotic art forms, which they found more than a century ago at World’s Fairs in Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis and other American cities.

Konstantinov continues that on-the-road tradition as well. From his studio in Kensington, Maryland, he takes his articulated sculptures around the country to a handful of shows each year. He will present his work, along with older Japanese objects, at the Baltimore Summer Antiques Show (August 23 to 26). Last spring at the Smithsonian Craft Show, he was honored with a 2012 Silver Award.

A slim, quiet man with wispy graying hair and a trim goatee, Konstantinov seems an unlikely standard-bearer for the Japanese art. Without formal training, he took up the craft several years after arriving in the Washington area 17 years ago from Minsk in the former Soviet Union.

An interest in carving and small creatures followed him. Back in the USSR, he made a living carving jewelry from animal bone. Making things runs in the family. “My brother and grandfather were very handy,” he reminisces. His grandfather fixed clocks and watches. His older brother, Alexander, now an entomologist at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, set an example, carving wood and collecting and studying insects.

As a teenager, Oleg began to shape wood, ivory and “any material that could be carved,” he says. His love of Japanese art, especially miniature Netsuke sculptures, came about on visits to museums in St. Petersburg, where his grandparents lived.

Konstantinov discovered the precision craft of Jizai while repairing early examples of the art that he continues to restore and sell. “Japanese, in my opinion, are the real masters in metalwork,” he says. “I was fascinated by it.”

In his studio, which recalls a cabinet of curiosities, his projects in bronze, wood, iron and stag antler mingle with books like The Private Life of Spiders, Auguste Rodin and Anatomy for the Artist. Among the mass of parts and pieces crowding his back work table, a few restoration works-in-progress emerge—a Renaissance-period angel sporting new wings, a Japanese fisherman awaiting his flat wood hat, a carved ivory lobster separated from its nearby claws.

Within a small cardboard box, his own sparkling treasures beckon. A visitor finds it impossible to resist reaching in and picking up each perfectly formed prototype—a dozen in all that he has created over the same number of years. A larger-than-life shrimp’s segmented silver shell suggests being bent, its spindly legs jiggling, its five delicate fins fanning out. A gentle push moves its bulging eyes and bouncing antennae at the opposite end. A gecko lizard begs to be lifted. Each of its five tiny toes on four moveable legs must be wiggled, its hinged mouth and swinging tongue inspected, before all 27 separate sections of its slithery tail are counted in amazement.

“These are basically just toys,” modestly states the masterful conjurer, who calls his studio the Objets D’art Workshop. Each of his own creations is laboriously handbuilt of individually cast parts. The shrimp is composed of 60 parts. A spiraling snake, the largest object at 25 inches long, unites more than 130 moveable parts using wires and carefully tooled mechanical joints.

Each piece is cast separately in a process called “lost wax.” Konstantinov starts by carefully carving the part from a wax block. The wax is surrounded by a plaster mold, then inserted in a sealed metal canister, which is heated until the wax melts away. Molten silver, poured into the vacant cavity, takes the form of the original carving. Once cool, the piece is removed, polished and patinated using acids to bring out its dimensional, textured surface. Konstantinov makes no more than 30 multiples for each design.

These realistic creatures, exacting in every detail, are not simply copies of nature. “Rather than being bound by a need to exactly replicate the animals he’s inspired by, his work shows a move toward beauty,” says the curator, Mintz, placing Konstantinov’s work in the sweep of Jizai history. “He starts from what was being done in Japan and builds on it. There’s a point of departure where he makes it his own.”

Writer Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

For more information, visit olegkonstantinovmetalwork.com. Oleg Konstantinov’s  Objets D’art Workshop is located at 4128-A Howard Avenue, Kensington, Maryland; 301-571-5071.