Natural Art

12 January 2012, 15:29

A wave of eco-settlements swept across Ukraine about a decade ago. Art villages are a more recent but equally colorful trend. While the environmentally-minded want to live in harmony with the earth without causing it even the least damage, artists want to create their own special environment around themselves. The former practice vegetarianism, abstain from alcohol and engage in physical and spiritual exercises. They make walls of eco-friendly materials and would not hurt a fly. The latter always have an invitation to a concert, a local festival, movie screening or master class ready to hand out. The former are somewhat introverted and seek peace, while the latter are on the lookout for adventures and actively invite others to their exploits.


Obyrok Isle is Ukraine's best-known art settlement. It was a true island before a dam was built on the Seim River: the surrounding terrain flooded in the spring and Obyrok could only be reached by boat. Now spring floods are not an obstacle, but it still has the aura of an island – far-removed from the rest of the world and overwhelmingly isolated. The villages Koroli, Prokhory and Katsiry (named after the legendary generations of local Robin Hood-type forest robbers) were set to join the ranks of abandoned settlements. And they would have if it were not for the participants of the noted hitchhiking theatrical expedition “With a Stool to the Ocean.” On their epic trips to four oceans – each ended with a stool from Ukraine being set up on the seaside – these itinerant artists gave street performances and shot a documentary about their adventures. Members of the group (directors, painters and journalists) bought dilapidated houses in Obyrok at half price, ran new electric wiring to them, remodelled the village club to suit their needs, built a bathhouse and a movie shed and kick-started an active artistic life in the countryside. They began to attract visitors like the Perkalaba band, Sashko Lirnyk, Oleksiy Byk and other artists. They launched festivals, master classes, children's camps, shootings and screenings of movies, international carol singing and more. The artists had to master some country skills, such as firing an oven, chopping firewood and growing vegetables. “It’s pure beauty,” Leonid Kanter, the initiator of the expedition and one of the first Obyrok settlers, says with admiration. “You sit and edit a movie until you feel you’re tired and it’s not working for you anymore. You go outside, chop some firewood, take a walk through the snow and then head back to the computer!”

There are five old-timers in the village at the most. Diana Karpenko-Kanter says that when she, Leonid and their daughter Magda first settled here, they went to their neighbors to get acquainted with them. The neighbors' favorite pastime was soap operas – the village was dead whenever a soap opera was broadcast. People would lock themselves in and would not open their doors for anyone. But the newcomers kept on knocking, inviting themselves in, and made the hosts play cards with them, had tea parties, and asked them about their past. In a word, they tried to eradicate the villagers' infatuation with soap operas in any possible way. Finally, they made friends with the locals and tapped into their knowledge of countryside living. The experienced peasants have helped the rookies with advice and food – milk, potatoes, fat, moonshine and other necessities. In turn, the artists invite the old-timers to their events – old women dancing to Perkalaba’s driving rhythms are a sight worth seeing!

In wintertime, the area receives so much snow that horse-pulled sleighs are the only transport available – even powerful four-by-fours are no use. The road breaks off after it passes through Obyrok. From then on, it is just woods and the steppe teeming with wildlife, making the village a true island whose inhabitants live as they see fit.


Khotiv is a fairly lively village not far from Kyiv and now hosts a powerful educational and artistic establishment called “The Mamayi Family Center.” Here people learn animation, painting (including glass painting) and authentic singing. They also make clay toys and learn a Cossack martial art called Spas. Pottery and straw weaving are planned for the future. Borys and Oksana Denysevych initially tried to open a center like this in Kyiv, but it saw no growth. Now children from Kyiv and other urban locales come here to the countryside, and the number of applicants is steadily increasing.

“This genre requires special sincerity,” says Myroslava Vertiuk, a folklore expert and leader of the authentic singing group. “The children here are open in a special way, while music schools in Kyiv lack interaction and feedback from their students.” Children sing carols, dance spring dances or paint Easter eggs depending on the time of the year. People did not use to stop and think about, or simply failed to understand, the meaning of symbols used in folk art – “that’s just the way they are traditionally, and that’s it.” Now they ask: Why does it have to be precisely this way? They want to comprehend everything.

Apart from the Mamayi Center, the Khotiv school operates an astounding number of interest groups (over 36): Latin American dances, Oriental martial arts, decoupage, etc. The Center is sometimes filled to capacity. “There are things that are more natural. They are in our blood,” Myroslava says. “When a child joins something like this, an incredible number of other things start clicking in terms of his development and maturation. People are instinctively drawn to their own thing.” Teachers note that when small children whose older siblings have already been taking classes for a long time come for the first time, they already know the entire repertoire. This means that children take what they learn to their homes and the training process does not stop when they leave the classroom. “The educational process becomes more natural with time,” Myroslava continues. “Children come with parents and then sing together at home – these are things that do wonders to harmonize family relationships! Parents usually lack time to even talk to their children: they put them in front of a computer or a TV to ‘neutralize’ them. … Our center aims not so much to teach new skills, but to harmonize family relationships. It sounds bombastic, I know, but in most families parents are constantly in a semi-stressed out condition. They typically have no breaks. In Germany, for example, every class in primary school begins with 15 minutes of singing. Psychologists believe this innovation will help greatly reduce aggression after several generations.”

Oksana Denysevych, who teaches painting, used to work in a television company. One of her duties was to announce children's programs. “As I made these announcements, I felt I was committing a crime, because I would not allow my own children to watch anything like this – all of these TV products for children are very aggressive. My internal protest grew with every announcement until one day I quit,” she explains. Her husband recently severed his relationship with the television industry in a similar way. The family settled in Khotiv. “We are all seeking strength. Why are so many city people constantly depressed? Their contacts are broken. Things that used to work no longer supply them with energy. We were fortunate to find our own source of energy. A moment comes when you wonder: What can you give? I can paint with children and I can do it better than anything else,” Borys says as he shares his part of the family story. The center, set up by a group of like-minded people, now has a life of its own. Mamai is a legendary folk image that is sacral for Ukraine. Mamai never dies but always comes to help at the most critical time for the country. “So we thought that now is the time for Mamai to arrive. This is an energy-charged word which is strong in itself. We gave it an extra boost by using it in the plural [in the name of the center] – Mamayi. We believe it’s working for us!”


The settlement of Lehedzyne is artistic in two ways. The area preserves the remains of a gigantic settlement that dates back to the famous Trypillian culture. Now it attracts people to so-called toloky – voluntary projects to reconstruct Trypillian buildings. Up to 200 people work mud mixed with straw and then put it on the walls. When the day’s work is done, they entertain themselves at “Trypillian vechornytsi” and other pastimes. Even though scholars have no single definitive version of what Trypillian dwellings looked like, this does not prevent enthusiasts from recreating them. Professional archeologists, however, are not enthused about toloky, which have already turned into a festive event. They complain of a lack of funds to properly furnish the museum forcing them involve other people in reconstruction. But every dark cloud has a silver lining – either the place itself or the Trypillian works attract people like a magnet. Directors, actors, fairytale tellers and musicians flock to the place – the likes of Sashko Lirnyk, Huliaihorod, Liudy Dobri and others eagerly join the local activities.

Naomi Uman, an American experimental filmmaker and painter, stays and works here every summer. She has produced six documentaries in Ukraine, and her film Nenazvane kino (Unnamed) is about the residents and traditions of Lehedzyne. Naomi does not shy away from dirty work: since she moved into an old local hut, she has kept chickens and a kitchen garden, made friends with her neighbors and participated in toloky. In wintertime, she goes back to the United States where she teaches university students. She also had her personal exhibition of paintings of mysterious birds and colorful countryside landscapes.

Borys Denysenko, a native Khoriv resident and now an animator, also comes here to join the toloky and the shooting of Lehenda pro Chornoho kozaka (The Legend of the Black Cossack), a film directed by Vladyslav Chabaniuk, historian and director of the Trypillian Culture preserve. Sashko Lirnyk is the scriptwriter. “You get the impression you know all these people,” Borys says describing his first encounter with the Lehedzyne artists. “There is such a welcoming atmosphere! In the evening, after we were done with the toloka, we laid the table with a white cloth, and old women wearing Ukrainian national costumes came from the village and started singing… It was like a different dimension.” After a while the film’s producer invited Borys to play Svyryla in Chabaniuk’s film. Members of the Rosychi historical reenactment club played the Tartars, while Naomi played a Tartar prince.


5khatki is an absolutely fantastic phenomenon. More precisely, it is a fantasy phenomenon fit to be inhabited by residents of Tolkien’s Middle-earth or Max Frei’s worlds. The settlement – a complex of five interconnected adobe dwellings – is the fruit of the artistic genius of painter and architect Mykhailo Khymych. Bottles were among the additional materials used in the construction.

It lies almost at the end of Kyiv – the Berkovtsi Cemetery stretches to one side and a forest to the other. The building was constructed for the artist’s friends and became part of the Berkovtsi Brotherhood social project. “At the time 5khatki was built, the windows were made at random rather than according to any plan, and it's been that way ever since,” one of the residents writes in her blog, referring to the atmosphere of artistic chaos that reigns supreme in this fairytale. The residents share a coffee place, a bathhouse and a cozy yard, while they have their dens with all the necessary amenities to themselves. Each room is an object of art. Heat is provided by fireplaces and warmth by people: photographers, painters, travellers, yoga practitioners, mehndi specialists and all kinds of office misfits.

5khatki opens its doors with the arrival of spring, and then hosts master classes, concerts, film showings and festivities galore. The inhabitants celebrate the 100th anniversary of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, love book-crossing and authentic singing, study Transcarpathian cuisine and host exhibits.

Older-generation painters who live in the province tend to complain that Kyiv-based artists have, unlike them, all the conditions to pursue art. However, practice shows that art blossoms whenever there is initiative. And it always has a sizeable following.

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