A petrykivka artist’s most important tools are her hands and her cat. To paint the intricate, colorful motifs of this traditional form of Ukrainian folk art, it’s essential to combine bold strokes with delicate ones. The tip of one’s finger might be used to create a cluster of round berries, a mass of dahlia petals or a tangle of oak leaves. But for the fine tendrils and feathers adorning roosters and cuckoo birds, classical symbols with complex meaning, a painter turns to a brush made of cat hair. “The cat first has to agree to give you some fur,” says Natalia Rybak, the artist at the Petrykivka Center for Folk Art, as she shows me the local art collection. “Not all do.”
Petrykivsky painting or “petrykivka” is one of many forms of ancient Ukrainian decorative arts. Its name is derived from the place of its origin, the village of Petrykivka in Dnipropetrovsk region, and it is closely tied to the Cossack tradition. Cossacks were members of the democratic communities that since the 15th century started forming into a loose federation in southern-central Ukraine. Independent from the neighboring states, the Cossack federation offered social freedoms and protection, thus drawing an ever increasing number of people from other regions to its villages. South-east of Kyiv, Petrykivka was established in the 17th century as the wintering ground for the Cossack divisions that spent the rest of the year in the areas around the lower Dnieper River. Even after the Cossackdom was destroyed by the Russian tsars in the 18th century, many former strongholds, such as Petrykivka, retained enough autonomy to develop their traditional crafts.
Although today traces of the Cossack romance are hard to find around Dnipropetrovsk, a major industrial center in Soviet times, Petrykivka has a flair that once characterized many towns in this part of Ukraine. The colorful paintings gracing houses, fences, and sign posts give it a flamboyant, baroque character, enhanced by the cherry and apple orchards dotting the landscape. As the local masters are quick to point out, the lush nature is what inspires much of the art, and the splashes of red, yellow and green paint fit organically with the tall hollyhocks, wild roses and swaying rowan trees.
During summers spent in Poltava, I have become used to the vivid petrykivka patterns (the village is about 80 miles south of our town). My great-grandmother had dishes, vases and samovars painted in clusters of red guelder rose berries and orange flowers, and I even tried the technique myself. But this is the first time I visited Petrykivka and explored the art in its original setting.
Looking around, I can’t help smiling—the colors, shapes and lines have an uplifting effect. “Once decorating houses with bright paintings was common to all of central Ukraine, but only in Petrykivka has the tradition survived to this day,” says Rybak. “It wasn’t an art form taught in schools, but rather something that was expected of everyone. People who mastered the art best were respected by the community. It was believed that the paintings reflected the inner world of their creators.”
Petrykivka painting is included in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and there are several features that make it distinctive. One is the flat, unfolded design. The animals and birds are painted in profile, while the flowers are painted in the style called “a little onion,” reminiscent of a bulb cut neatly in half. No branch or stem crosses the other. Every element of the design is exposed to light.
A classical composition is of a blooming branch or bouquet of flowers populated by birds. “The flowers represent the tree of life, while birds are a symbol of harmony, happiness, light,” explains another artist at the center, Mykola Deka. I have already seen enough paintings to notice common motifs, and I’m fascinated by the birds with peacock-like tails. They turn out to be zozulia, cuckoo birds. While in many traditions, the cuckoo bird is seen negatively for its parasitic behavior– it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds–Ukrainian folklore finds it intriguing. The cuckoo bird is a harbinger of spring, a symbol of time and its mysteries, and a reminder of all that’s bittersweet in life. In petrykivka paintings, cuckoo birds, often shown in pairs, are resplendent in yellow or green plumage dotted with red or blue; there is no hint of sadness.
The drawings are done in a variety of mediums—tempera, gouache, oil, acrylic paints. Tempera is closer to the traditional plant based colors, and the addition of egg yolk gives a rich luster to the finished work. However, it’s fast-drying and unforgiving of minute mistakes. Since petrykivka artists paint without stencils or prior sketches, the design has to be worked out in one’s mind and the hand completely steady. A tiny smudge, and the whole thing is ruined. For this reason, the artist draws the large elements of the ornament first and embellishes them with details later. Here is when the cat brushes become useful.
“Don’t worry, a cat suffers no harm!” says Rybak. “You only need a tiny bit of hair.” Judging by the groomed, well-fed specimens I spotted around the village, Petrykivka cats are treated like queens. After all, they’re artists’ companions and muses. Extra fine brushes apply paint in wispy strokes, adding a lacy, airy dimension to the compositions.
The Petrykivka Center for Folk Art was established in 1991 and today it counts 40 masters in its guild. The center invites visitors to see the art collection, observe painters at work in their studios and even take a class. Visitors can buy a painting or a variety of decorated household items–spoons, jewelry boxes, cups and toys are popular. Petrykivka is an old art form, but it continues to evolve and develop as each artist adds his or her own touch, infusing the classical motifs with new meanings.
While petrykivka has recognition and trademark, the situation for practitioners in the village is dire. There are no funds or no support from the government, and as a result, no opportunities for young artists. Such has been the case for the past decade, and the current war and economic crisis are compounding the problems. It’s a craft in danger of dying out.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Museum of New York is hosting an exhibit titled Petrykivka: The Soul of Ukraine. Running until August 9, it features 29 paintings by 17 artists, and if you’re in the city in the next two weeks, I recommend visiting. Whatever the situation today in Petrykivka–and in Ukraine more generally—the vibrancy of the paintings cannot but fill you with happiness and hope.
The Ukrainian Museum of New York
222 East 6th St., NYC, just around the corner from The Cooper Union
Note: Hours are 11:30-5 pm, Wed-Sun, closed Mon and Tues
The Petrykivka Center for Folk Art
Lenin Street 65
Petrykivka, Dnipropetrovsk region, 51800
http://petrykivka.jimdo.com/ (the site is in Ukrainian, but you can see some beautiful examples of petrykivka on this page)
Photography by Bois de Jasmin (title photo is from The Ukrainian Museum of New York exhibit)