ukrainian tales: 12 posts

Crafts as Cure

In Ukraine, there is an old tradition of embroidering a rushnyk, a hand towel, during dark periods of one’s life. It matters less what’s embroidered than the process of doing so. Once the rushnyk is done, it’s tied to a tree branch and allowed to decay. This way, people say, one’s worries and dark thoughts become scattered.

I don’t know if my great-grandmother Asya followed this tradition consciously–at any rate, she was far too practical to hang perfectly good fabric in the garden, but she wove her own cloth and embroidered. Even the most ubiquitous items in the house like newspaper holders and bread bags were embellished. Her most beautiful embroideries, however, weren’t meant to be seen. They were her undergarments.

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How a French Perfume Company Influenced Ukrainian Embroideries

One of the most quintessentially Ukrainian embroideries is called rushnyk (pl, rushnyky), richly decorated hand towels that accompany a person from birth to death. In two videos that I recorded, I would like to show you rushnyky embroidered by my great-great grandmother. I discovered them by accident when I was cleaning out our shed and spotted a large chest hidden under old rugs. The drawers were jammed, but I persevered and opened them only to discover decaying paper and mouse droppings. I rummaged in it–no, I’m not even one bit squeamish–and I found the embroideries. I cleaned and restored them and it’s a pleasure to share them with you.

My great-great grandmother Pasha wove the cloth on a hand-loom, and she then decorated it. These embroideries are at least 70 years old, and yet they are remarkably resilient.

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Easter Eggs Colored With Onion Skins

I see the Easter color palette as yellow, violet, green, and sienna. Yellow is from the saffron tinted paska, a vanilla scented brioche we traditionally make for Easter Sunday. Violet is from the candied flowers we use to decorate it. Green is from the dill and cucumber salad that must accompany the roast pork. Sienna, on the other hand, is from the color of Easter eggs. It’s a rich hue, between the reds of Sienna frescoes and the brown of sandalwood. This color is completely natural and making it is very easy. All you need is a few handfuls of onion skins.

My grandmother starts collecting onion skins a few months before Easter, but she colors dozens of eggs. Most of us need no more than a few onions, although the more skins you have, the darker the color will be. It also follows that the darker the onion skins, the more intense the shade of sienna.

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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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The Passion of Johann Georg Pinsel

It’s not often that a sculptor causes me to crisscross Europe in search of his traces. But Johann Georg Pinsel did just that. I took rickety marshrutka buses to distant Ukrainian villages to see his work at local churches. I visited many a palace where fragments of his sculptures were displayed–a wing of an angel, a headless saint, a saint motioning one to come closer and listen to the revelation. Finally, I made it to Lviv, a western Ukrainian city, and later to Vienna, the center that once exerted considerable political power over Lviv. These journeys spanned almost a year, intertwined as they were around other trips and exploration, but somehow, Pinsel, a mysterious 18th century master, was the leitmotif.

Very little is known about Pinsel. His name was only established with certainty in the 1990s. Where was he born? With whom he did study? The area where he chose to work was the Lviv region, at the time a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and after the first Partition of Poland in 1772, a part of the Habsburg Empire. After Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, these territories once again exchanged hands and ended up in the Soviet Union. This bloody and brutal history had consequences for the master who has been dead for almost two centuries–he was forgotten.

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