The village of Kholui lies between Palekh and Mstera some 360 km from Moscow and a few kilometers from where the winding Teza River enters the Klyazma. In spring, when the Teza floods, Kholui becomes a kind of northern Venice, with villagers getting about in small boats. The village name is associated with the river: traditionally, woven fences of branches and bramble, called "kholui," were set in the river as fish traps.
In the 16th century Kholui was the property of the Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra and the Spaso-Yefimevsky Monastery in Suzdal, its residents producing and selling icons, taking them "to fairs in outlying villages to exchange for eggs and onions." Like Palekh and Mstera, Kholui icons are found throughout Russia. These farflung sales were the work of middlemen-traders called ofeni. A major fair held in Kholui drew merchants from Moscow, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Shuya and other industrial cities. Kholui was famous as a trading center.
Beginning in the 17th century, Kholui mostly produced cheap, popular icons. Not infrequently, their makers took liberties with the church canons on icon painting and introduced themes and stories drawn from folk art. These artists were regularly punished, and their goods might be confiscated, but the trade persisted. Some local craftsmen, however, did paint according to the rules, producing commission work for monasteries, great families and lovers of the antique. Kholui artists were employed in the repeated refreshing of frescoes of Moscow Kremlin churches.
A six-year icon-painting school opened in Kholui in 1884 and was reorganized in 1902 as the Kholui Icon School-Workshop. The Academy of Arts took a strong interest in the school, which was headed by N.N. Kharlamov, a onetime student at the Academy in Saint-Petersburg. Ye.A. Zarin, a pupil of Ilya Repin, was on the faculty from 1902 until 1917. Students and graduates did frescoes for churches in Saint-Petersburg, Vienna and Warsaw but also, and mostly, for village churches in Russia. Icons from Kholui were shown at international exhibitions in Munich, Brussels, Paris, Chicago, Copenhagen, Turin and Leipzig as well as at the All-Russia Art and Industrial Exhibition at Nizhny Novgorod.
The revolution abruptly put a stop to the work of Kholui’s icon makers. The school-workshop was closed, and the craftsmen mostly forced to seek their living in the cities. A small group, including Zarin, sought to find a way to apply their professional skills and remain in Kholui. They formed a cooperative, or artel, in 1919, that produced painted tin trays (the basic stock for the trays coming from Zhostovo), various wooden household objects and nesting dolls, or matryoshky, the forms for which came from Sergiyev Posad. A number of Kholui icon makers accepted work to be done at home from the Proletarian Art artel, hauling their oil-paint-decorated linoleum floor coverings once a month to Mstera. An affiliate of the Mstera artel opened in Kholui in 1931.
Meanwhile, the brilliant success of Palekh and Mstera with tempera-painted lacquer items of papier-mache inspired the artists of Kholui to experiment along the same lines. Their first trial-efforts date from 1928. Regular production of lacquer miniatures began in 1934. The artists involved were the former icon painters S.A. Mokin (1891—1945), K.V. Kosterin (1899—1985) and V.D. Puzanov-Molev, who was, incidentally, a 1912 graduate of the Stroganov Art School in Moscow. Their independent artel was later (1960) reorganized as the Kholui Factory of Lacquer Art Miniatures (now the Kholui Industrial-Art Workshops of the Union of Artists of Russia).