The body of work before you tells the story of a family in Ukraine and the means by which they find hope and center upon a joyful outcome. This Ukrainian story is one of a loss that we cannot fathom, and what this family did in response to that loss. I chose to do this story because of the dire need to react. These paintings are a reaction to the amazing miracle God gave to my husband Kostia's family through their time of loss and fleeing from their war-torn country.
On February 24th at 5 a.m., Russia launched a full-scale invasion on the country of Ukraine. Alla and Petro, Kostia's parents, stepped outside their home and saw missiles flying above their heads, touching down blocks from them. They had to make the quick decision to flee to the city of Kremenets on the west side of Ukraine. Alla had to leave her husband, Petro, behind in case he was to get drafted. She described the drive from Irpin, the suburb of the capital where they lived, to the city of Zhytomyer, a city in between Irpin and Kremenets, as one of the scariest drives of her life. While driving on the road, people were passing out in their vehicles all around her and crashing. There were missiles exploding blocks from her car. When she reached the city of Zhytomyer, she was finally able to take a breath and came upon a realization. As Ukrainian tanks full of young men rushed to the city she had fled, The material possessions she had held on to didn't matter. All that mattered was her reunion with her family. When she made it to Kremenets, a plan was set in place that if the opportunity arose, she would need to cross the border and get to Yeva, their daughter attending school in Munich.
The next morning at 5 a.m., a loud explosion woke Petro up. Ukrainian soldiers had just blown up a major bridge to stop Russian soldiers from getting into the city. It was then he realized, he needed to leave the city immediately, or he wouldn't get out at all. Back in Kremenets, Alla realized the border was tightening up with people trying to leave and she needed to get out of the country, or the opportunity would be gone.
In a matter of 24 hours, their daughter Yeva was still in Munich, Alla was at the Poland border, Petro was fleeing Irpin, and Kostia was still in America, all of them scattered across the world.
My husband was crying when he called. At first, I started playing out scenarios in my head. Did he just get in a car crash? Did he injure himself? But I never would have imagined what he would say, "Russia is firing missiles on my home. My mother is escaping, and my father is still in Irpin" His mother called him that day to tell him that if anything happened to them, he would need to take care of Yeva.
A week passed and Kostia and I were watching the news. He stood up out of his chair and told me to pause the screen. He pointed and there walking across the screen was his friend, holding his baby daughter in one arm and a rifle in the other. This crushed Kostia. He struggled with continuing his routine knowing that his family and friends were fighting for their lives. He went down to Georgia to visit a family friend in the following weeks, and expressed this struggle to this friend of their families. In response, she told him a story about a friend of hers attending Seminary in Mequon, Wisconsin, who had a similar inner conflict during the time of 9/11.. He went to the seminary president and the president gave him a different view. "Out there right now in the world, they are fighting for their lives. Yet, here, we are fighting for souls. You are doing the greatest work and fighting the greatest battle." This stuck with Kostia, and thus we turn to this painting.
It is based on the verse from Ecclesiastes: "Meaningless meaningless, everything is meaningless." The word "meaningless" in Hebrew is "Hevel," which translated back to English literally means smoke or vapor, because you cannot grab onto it. This element is incorporated into the painting, because in the same way that you can not grasp onto smoke, the situation was out of his reach. All he could do was pray, trusting that our God would take care of it. He had to place his hope in the Lord.
Their family's life had always revolved around dancing, and Yeva embraced it fully. Yeva is a professional ballet dancer and is currently attending school at the MET in New York! Her dance program in Munich was very rigorous, requiring her to devote her full attention to her studies, stand on a stage with a smiling face, and perform perfectly without mistakes. She quickly lost balance between her commitment to dance and her family's turmoil. She became uncertain that her father would ever see her perform again. This painting describes that struggle and what she did to push through. The bright colors and chaotic strokes around her describe the battle in her head. The painting freezes her in a dance, where she finds the most peace. It represents the power and strength she needed to step out on a stage after crying seconds before.
The decision to leave her husband with the dangers of Ukraine tormented Alla every day in the months after she fled. Within the first week, Alla received a phone call from a friend living in Buchna, the twin city to Irpin. She said to Alla, "Pray for us, they have already begun shooting people in the streets." This was the last time Alla heard from her friend until three months later. She called to tell her they lived in a food compartment underground for three months with her newborn baby. They lived with 15 other people, while Russian soldiers were living in her home.
After crossing the border with her aunt, she reached Yeva after driving three days straight. Throughout her time in Munich, there were weeks that she would not hear from Petro, causing her to question if he was still alive. In order to legally make money for her family, she had to quickly learn German, and she joined an organization that helped pull Ukrainian dancers and their families out of the country, placing them in schools and homes so that they could continue their education.
This painting shows Alla reaching out to an unknown person. How did she get through everything? She helped others and trusted in God. She had to react to her country's pain, so this helped her focus on what she could do, not what she couldn't. The painting has blue on the top and yellow on the bottom representing the Ukrainian flag, a blue sky over a golden wheat field.
When Petro left Kremenets without his wife, he wondered if he would ever see any of them again. Reunion with his wife was a distant hope. He had missed her by only two hours, and now they were countries apart. Reunion with his daughter was a distant hope. She was studying dance in Munich and he wondered if he would ever see her perform again. Reunion with his son was a distant hope, studying in America, it seemed likely their reunion would only be in Heaven.
When it came to the escape out of Irpin, he had to take back roads and fields to avoid Russian tanks shooting down vehicles along the road. Once he had safely reached Kremenets, he filled his time by driving military arsenal and vehicles from the border to the front lines. This was why he couldn't call his family for sometimes weeks at a time. He delivered food and generators all throughout Ukraine since it was winter and people needed shelter and warmth. Throughout all this worry and time spent in bunkers, Petro received a draft to fight. He went in to get a medical checkup, to see if he was physically fit to fight. After receiving his results, and many prayers, they denied him the ability to fight due to past injuries from his career in dance. God granted them a miracle. He was free to leave the country and within that first week he drove to Munich to reunite with Yeva and Alla and they applied for the Ukrainian refugee program in America so they could make it to their son.
This painting shows Petro driving in the cold winter, with the same chaotic strokes that surrounded Yeva. Throughout all the pain he had felt and seen, throughout the loss of friends, and the death of thousands, he drove. He drove to help, he drove to pick up family members whose apartments or houses were destroyed. He drove to provide food and supplies, he drove refugees to the border. Yet, he drove trusting that God would take care of him.
Upon reaching Munich, and being reunited at last, the family was granted permission to head over to America as part of the refugee program, with Martin Luther College as their sponsor. They were determined to reunite in America, all of them, including the dog. It took more paperwork to get Oscar over to America than it did the rest of the family. This painting shows Oscar, amongst a montage of passports and paperwork along with the Ukrainian sunflower poking through.
After the family decided to officially go to America, Alla's aunt chose not to come with them. She couldn't leave her twin sister behind who was still in Ukraine. In the same way that their family wanted to be reunited, Alla's aunt also wanted to be reunited, only her destination was different. This painting shows Alla's aunt and Svitlana who are currently living in the bunkers day by day, yet they have hope that their country will survive and they are happy to be reunited with each other.
Throughout this entire experience, the most powerful thing we could do was pray. Reunion in the essence of hope was brought on by a dark hopeless time, alleviated by reunion. Now the whole family is living safely in America, reunited at last, with the powerful hand of God protecting them. This story is our story, too, as the family of God. The longing for hope is no different than the hope expressed in this story: reunion with our family. The fact that the family of God made this earthly family's reunion possible points us back to why we do what we do, why my husband left behind his country, to bring about a reunion together in heaven.
[This video (one hour) shows Abby presenting her work at her Studio Art Capstone Showcase in the Ylvisaker Fine Arts Center at Bethany Lutheran College, Spring 2023. Her family joins her to speak of their experiences, at about the 27-minute mark.]
[The Christ in Media Institute (CMI) at Bethany Lutheran College instituted a "Fellowship of CMI" to recognize and encourage Bethany students pursuing academic projects in harmony with the goals of the Christ in Media Institute, that is, to employ media to spread the Gospel. Abby was recognized as a Fellow of CMI in the spring of 2023. — The Editor]
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