poltava: 3 posts

Petrykivka and Gogol : Colors and Scents

The colors and images of Petrykivka, one of the traditional Ukrainian arts, are vivid and joyous. Fire birds take flight among branches laden with fruit and fantasy blossoms. The artists believed that such colorful images protect people from evil spirits, and looking at the complex and happy ornaments of Petrykivka I can’t help thinking that there is something to the idea of art as talisman.

Petrykivka is considered as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, and the village of Petrykivka in the Dnipropetrovsk region still boasts many artists. I wrote about my visit two years ago, and anyone can tour the art studios, take a class or simply admire the paintings. Those of you in New York, however, have a unique chance to experience this art in person as The Ukrainian Institute of America hosts the exhibit Petrykivka: A Ukrainian Folk Phenomenon and Living Tradition from April 8 to April 30. The collection presented is based on discoveries by Natalie Pawlenko and Yuri Mischenko and features 47 paintings by some of the most renowned Petrykivka artists.

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White on White : Vyshyvanka and Poltava Embroidery

My favorite piece of clothing is a white linen shirt. The tailoring is plain–a straight, loose bodice is framed by a rounded collar and full three-quarter sleeves. In Ukrainian it’s called vyshyvanka, which means “an embroidered shirt,” and indeed the ornamentation is what makes this simple garment unique. The embroidery runs near the collar and falls onto the front of the bodice. It covers the sleeves so thickly that in some parts the fabric is hardly seen. The stitches become the bands of stars, snowflakes, lace and guelder rose, kalyna, a plant that in the symbolic language of Ukrainian art speaks of beauty and happiness. On my shirt, kalyna is abstract enough to be either flowers or berries, and it is intertwined with sinuous leaves and wispy stems. In the artist’s rendering of bile po bilomu, an embroidery technique native to Poltava, only one color is used to capture all of the nuances that in nature are given by a diversity of hues. The color is white.

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Bile po bilomu, or “white on white”, is among the oldest and most complicated embroideries, combining up to twenty different techniques and using drawn thread and counted stitch patterns to create an ornament full of light and shimmer. The artist who created my shirt is Nadia Vakulenko, one of the leading embroidery masters in Ukraine and a teacher at the Reshetylivka Arts Lyceum. Reshetylivka is a small town located in the Poltava region of central Ukraine. I first came here looking for any trace of my great-grandmother Olena and to learn about Ukrainian textile arts. The two aims were closely related, because Olena not only was one of the most creative people in our family, leaving behind several cookbooks and countless knits and embroideries, she also worked at Reshetylivka’s Clara Zetkin carpet factory.

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Where Jasmine Forest Blooms

Like bits of colored glass inside a kaleidoscope, the scent constellations shift constantly around you. You can go about your day without much thought to anything but the affairs at hand, when suddenly the right combination of talcum powder, hot asphalt and cut grass whisks you out of your routine and into the scene years ago, when you grazed your knee running too fast after an ice-cream truck and were soothed by an extra portion of chocolate sauce. Some scents mark you indelibly; they form the core of your memories, and time and again they return to haunt, delight or move you.

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Much of my scent vocabulary comes from Poltava, a town in central Ukraine where I spent all summers for the first 15 years of my life. I was born in the capital city of Kyiv, but Poltava, or rather a small hamlet in the town’s suburbs, is our family nest. My mother’s line can trace its roots to this region as far back as the 17th century, and although in its complex and tumultuous history four centuries are hardly ancient, this land exhorts an inexorable pull on me.  I can describe without much effort how many trees are in the orchard and which of the peeling grey shutters has a difficult to use hook, but I also can recall the exact scent inside the water tank, the damp warmth of the tool shed, and the bitter, raspy odor of dandelion flowers on the compost pile.

You, my readers, have breathed in these scents along with me, because this is the place, where Bois de Jasmin, my jasmine forest, got its first tender shoots. When describing the fragrance of carnations, roses or antique wood, I thought not of the fantasy blooms that inspired Caron’s Bellodgia or Guerlain’s Nahéma, but my great-grandmother’s carnation patch, rose garden, and termite marked chests of drawers. It’s about time I took you to very place that inspired Bois de Jasmin, to my great-grandparents’ house in Poltava. My grandmother still lives there, and she loves guests.

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