"Nitrogen 2022" by Danylo Movchan.

At the Umbrella, Ukrainian artists respond to war 

By Laurie O’Neill  Correspondent
February 3, 2024
Hanna Melnyczuk with “Buried,” which depicts her mother.

“Please don’t forget what’s happening here,” implored Ukrainian-American artist Hanna Melnyczuk’s cousin, who lives in western Ukraine, as the two spoke by phone last year. 

The plea prompted Melnyczuk to think about what she could do to “remind people not to close their eyes” to the plight of Ukraine since the 2022 Russian invasion.  

“The headlines may have moved on,” she said, “but Ukraine is still dealing with the horrors of war.” 

Melnyczuk, who lives in Groton, decided to create an exhibit by Ukrainian artists who are responding to the war with their work. She reached out to Halyna Andrusenko of Kyiv to compliment her art and to ask if she would co-curate an exhibit that would travel the eastern U.S. 

Andrusenko quickly agreed: “I felt that, in addition to participating in the show, I could now do something more for my country,” she said. “Ukraine’s artists are stepping up on the cultural front, using visual language to convey our lived experience and to show the world Ukraine’s frightening realities.” 

The two worked together for months, contacting artists and arranging for their work to be shipped to the U.S.  

The result was “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” a traveling show that was most recently in Chicago and has made other stops in Massachusetts and elsewhere on the East Coast.  

The show runs at The Umbrella Arts Center through February 17, with a curator tour on February 10 from 12-1 p.m.

“Don’t Close Your Eyes” features a broad range of work from surrealism to expressionism. Included are more than 150 drawings, paintings, mixed media, paper cutouts and lithographs by 22 Ukrainian artists.  

A sketch by artist Evgen Klimenko.

A six-minute video, “Protected,” shows Andrusenko wrapping her parents in cloth — echoing the shrouding of statues in Lviv to protect them from falling bombs. 

Natalie Kurnosova, who creates paper cutouts called vytinanki, has said, “We are trying to live in this abnormal reality” of “massive rocket attacks, hearing explosions, and seeing fires in apartment buildings and wounded people everywhere.” 

Another artist, Danylo Movchan from Lviv, lost his brother in the war.  

Absence is the theme of Ilya Yarovoy’s watercolor, “One. Roulette” which depicts a man whose family has been reduced to ghostly silhouettes. 

“One. Roulette” by Ilya Yarovoy.

Melnyczuk feels “close to the world” her parents left, and her artwork has often reflected Ukrainian themes.  

Her mother and father met in Poland, having fled Ukraine during World War II. They married in a refugee camp where they spent five years, and finally immigrated to the U.S. Melnyczuk and her brother, Askold, grew up in New Jersey in a home they shared with their extended family. 

Making her first trip to Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Melnyczuk stayed for four months as a volunteer English teacher. Four years ago, she returned with her Ukrainian-American husband, Joseph Stecewycz, and their daughter, Lara, who’s now a college senior. 

Melnyczuk earned a B.A. in fine arts and psychology from Beloit College and an M. Ed in counseling psychology from Columbia. After moving to Boston, she received an MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She has taught art at UMass Lowell for 25 years and also teaches at Fitchburg State. Her work has appeared in solo and group shows. 

The week before the war broke out, Melnyczuk had been creating illustrations for a children’s book in her studio.  

“It was happy work,” she said.  

Work by Ilya Yarovoy.

War influencing art 

But as events unfolded in in Ukraine, she said, “I couldn’t do it anymore.” The images in her head had shifted from bright representations of a child’s world to troubling depictions of tanks, missiles, refugees and mass graves. 

The artist began expressing her response to the war in a series of drawings in charcoal and pastels. The process helped her cope with the stress and anxiety she felt, especially in the first few months after the invasion. 

Melnyczuk published a book of her work titled “Don’t Close Your Eyes: The War Drawings” (Arrowsmith Press). Some of her more recent pieces incorporate portraits of people who appear to be trapped within brick walls. “Buried,” which is in the show, depicts her late mother, Olena, as a young woman, symbolizing those who have been lost over time, not only in the war. 

The ultimate goal of the exhibit, said Andrusenko, “is to engage the world’s attention and appeal for help and support.”  

She and Melnyczuk hope the art will not only remind visitors of the loss and trauma Ukrainians are experiencing but serve as a testament to the power of the human spirit. 

“Don’t Close Your Eyes” is free of charge and open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily at The Umbrella, 40 Stow Street. Sale proceeds will be shared by the artists and Ukraine Forward, a nonprofit that provides lifesaving resources to the people of Ukraine. To RSVP for the curator tour, contact Stephanie Marlin-Curiel at stephanie@theumbrellaarts.org.