He Could Have Been Tsar

Fair warning: Don’t talk “coulda-shouldas” with folk artist Andrew Romanoff. He is sure to win. “Were it not for the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917,” the soft-spoken Inverness resident says, “depending on a number of conditions, I could have been the tsar of Russia.”

He’s serious. “When the Bolsheviks threatened the reign of Tsar Nicholas the second,” Romanoff recounts, “England’s King George the fifth, the tsar’s first cousin, sent the HMS Marlborough to Saint Petersburg and rescued my grandmother, Duchess Xenia, the tsar’s sister.” The duchess’s family was then whisked back to London where, in 1923, Andrew was born. He was raised in spacious Frogmore Cottage, on the grounds of Windsor Castle.

“My grandmother always believed the Romanoffs would return to once again rule Russia, as they had since 1613,” says the trim jeans-wearing 84-year-old, who still has a regal presence—tall; thick mustache; bushy brows; always an ascot—but not a trace of
regret in his intriguingly accented voice. (It’s best described as part English, part Scandinavian.)

Looked back on, his life can be termed adventurous, but hardly princely. After enlisting in the British navy and serving in the North Atlantic, Romanoff worked as a farmer outside London, then sailed to America in 1956. A Greyhound bus brought him to the Bay Area; here, he worked as a shipyard timekeeper and a carpenter before coming to West Marin to make and sell jewelry along with “smoking paraphernalia” (hookahs and hash pipes).

In 1970, Andrew Romanoff moved to Inverness, where he and his wife, the accomplished artist and art teacher Inez Storer, now live in a shingled house built in 1909. At first, “the boy who would be tsar”—the name of his recent memoir-style art book—remained focused on jewelry and photography as his primary artistic pursuits. Then in 1990, in a Canadian toy store, Romanoff discovered the medium that is now bringing him a degree of fame, if not wealth.

“Shrinky Dink!” he exclaims with a laugh in his voice. “The instant I saw it, I knew it was what I wanted.”

Romanoff now buys the oven-shrinkable craft plastic direct from the factory, 500 sheets at a time, and turns it into autobiographical folk art tableaux. “Using well-sharpened colored pencils, I sketch on a small sheet of Shrinky Dink,” he explains. “Then I’ll pop it in a toaster oven so it shrinks by about a third and the colors are intensified to where I want them to be.” He hand-letters another sheet with the narrative-style name of the work and repeats the process, then mounts image and title on a painted piece of plywood that’s typically about six by seven inches big.

Titles of these works include Andrew Bumps into Young Princess Elizabeth, from his Windsor Castle childhood, to  to MHMS Shefield Sinks Enemy Ship on Russian Convoy to Murmask, from his naval days during World War II. Occasionally he paints on a bigger piece of plywood, as in Royal Dog Fight, a somewhat irreverent 22-by-22-inch depiction of Queen Elizabeth and her corgi after the pup was mauled by Princess Anne’s dog Dotty. It’s decidedly whimsical stuff: many pieces contain spelling errors never corrected, e.g., Shefield not Sheffield and corgy not corgi.

In early 2007, Romanoff had his second one-person exhibit at San Francisco’s respected Gallery 16. His work, along with The Boy Who Would Be Tsar, is also available at Gallery Route One in Point Reyes Station. A rush of late-in-life publicity includes a front-page story in the Marin IJ, an April segment on NBC’s Today Show, an Associated Press story that went nationwide, and a one-hour radio interview with Marin’s Michael Krasny on KQED. “Suddenly, for some reason, they all came running at me,” the bemused woulda-been aristocrat notes.