One-time Ukrainian orphan discovers a Russian master and an artist within at The Winston School in Del Mar

By Karin Olsen

The chances 4-year-old Nikolai Spiegelberg would be adopted in 1999 from a bleak Ukrainian orphanage were remote at best, but fate had bigger plans for him. A San Diego area single mother chose him from hundreds of homeless children to be her first child; setting into motion something that could be on par with a young orphan from the former Soviet Union winning the life lottery — a blissful Southern California childhood and an artist linking him back to his homeland.

Since that fateful day in Ukraine, The Winston School senior’s life has taken many serendipitous turns, transforming his childhood and teen years and setting a trajectory for an art-filled life. Aside from his mom and dad (who entered his life after he was adopted) and his brother, an orphan from Belarus, Spiegelberg credits the Winston School, teacher Dan Peragine, and an unexpected connection to Russian and celebrated painter Constantine Cherkas (video produced by Spiegelberg) with inspiring him and instilling a deep love of art. This passion, which has grown over his four years at Winston, is culminating in a series of Cherkas-inspired work that the school will feature at its annual Festival of the Arts on campus May 17, from 2:30 – 5:30 p.m.

Over the years, Peragine, a 24-year veteran teacher at the school for students with learning differences and a primary force behind the annual festival, has had a tremendous influence on Spiegelberg’s life, helping him establish roots in the school while building a bridge back to his young student’s homeland. It was while teaching Spiegelberg about Russian history from the Bolshevik Revolution through Stalin and World War II, that Peragine also introduced his young student to artists from this time period, including his own mentor Cherkas.

Peragine, who has exclusive access to Cherkas’ archives and wrote an article on Cherkas for the December issue of “Fine Art Magazine,” said once he introduced Spiegelberg to the famed artist’s work and color theory, Cherkas became the young man’s anchor. “Nikolai became immersed in studying Cherkas, referring to him as the master and inspiring many paintings created at school and home.”

Of these synergies, Spiegelberg said, “Is it coincidental or is it in the blood of Russians that I came across this artist. It’s kind of a miracle that he (Cherkas) is also from Russia.

“When I first met Peragine he introduced me to Constantine’s work and I literally could not speak,” Spiegelberg said. “His art is something I truly find to be one of a kind. I wasn’t even an artist at the time, but it put me in the artist set of mind.

With Cherkas as their common inspiration, Spiegelberg said Peragine has continued to encourage him to improve his art. “I’m doing colorist, cubist stuff and I’ve been working on my color spectrum. It’s a lot of tints and tones of colors – vibrant and colorful. I gravitated toward the pallet.

“He had great ideas in form and abstraction – his different colors together how he contrasts. I can’t even put it into words. I didn’t think it was possible. That’s why I looked up to him so much. Peragine was going to have me meet him in the hospital but sadly he passed away two weeks later.”

Spiegelberg has become such a prolific painter that his supplies and artwork are now squeezing traditional furniture out of his room at home. “I have a table with oil and brushes and I sleep on a random futon mattress on the ground in the middle of the room surrounded by about 50 canvasses leaning up against the wall.”

He said he has had to modify his initial approach to art as he discovered each painting was taking too long and everything had to be done perfectly. “It was very frustrating. I’d step back and realize I’d only done two inches! Now I’m just trying to find what I like to paint on and complete a few pieces for the end of the year.”

His current focus is a 6 x 6 piece on burlap canvas he is doing in memory of Cherkas, but it’s not the first in honor of the master. “I have a piece I made for him – it’s by far the best piece I’ve done. I was kind of amazed because I discovered his way of painting by actually painting – I have a strong inspiration.”

Embarking on his final semester at Winston, Spiegelberg is looking back at the last four years with a sense of nostalgia and awe about how much he’s experienced, how much he’s going to take away, and how much he’s going to miss when he graduates. “It’s amazing how quick this year is going by and I’m thinking about where I’m going to be even in a year from now – it’s slapped me in the face. I’ve been putting it off – but it’s now coming to an end.”

The closing months of Spiegelberg’s time at Winston prompted the school’s headmaster Mike Peterson to take stock in his student’s progress and predict what the future may hold. “Watching Nikolai develop his own aesthetic sense by ‘trying on’ so many styles and artistic media has been one of the great pleasures of my time at Winston. I even find his exploration of musical performance to have some parallels to what he is doing visually. We all know we will hear and see more of Nikolai after he is out in the world.”

For more information on The Winston School, visit or call 858-259-8155.