The Ukraine has figured large in my life history. Great-grandma Jenny left the Ukraine at age 14 to sail to America. What dreams filled her head remain unknown, but she lived to see children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren thrive on American soil. The American dream was realized when young Jenny landing on Ellis Island, destined for a more humane life.
Decades later, through entirely different channels, a Ukrainian art dealer in Washington D.C. took an interest in my paintings and launched a solo exhibit. One of my best paintings was a mother chimpanzee cuddling her infant and sailing through the air - not on a flying carpet but perched on a horizontal crucifix. This image prompted horror from an elderly Ukrainian woman attending the opening. She pulled me aside to deliver a stern lecture, speaking one inch from my face.
"Do you realize there's a monkey on that cross? It's the Virgin Mother who belongs by the cross. Not a monkey."
She continued to hound me throughout the night, hell-bent on explaining the mistaken identity of the sentient being on the cross. She was not an annoyance, to be honest; rattling her pious cage was an amusement of a terrible sort. (Isn't that part of an artist's responsibility at times?)
A few years later, the Ukrainian government sponsored a cross-cultural exchange; American artists were to come to that land and paint with their Ukrainian counterparts. It was only two years after its independence from the former Soviet Union. Fifteen of us painters ended up being housed at an ex-Young Pioneers camp on the Black Sea, painting during the day and drinking home made vodka at night in an industrial kitchen with minimal electric light. (All the power from the dilapidated nuclear facilities was being sent to Europe to raise money for the struggling new nation.)
The basic cuisine smelled like the corridor of my grandparent's apartment in the Bronx; medicine was scarce, as were a variety of oil colors offered by the state to work our magic on canvas. The deal: in exchange for room, board, food, a canvas and paint, we were each to leave a painting behind, to be displayed in a government facility.
A grand irony struck me today. My "payment" to the State was a painting consisting of five faces, with round interlocking halos behind their heads. One of the Ukrainian artists looked at the finished product and had joked, "It looks like the Olympic symbol."
At the time his comment had offended my ego. My work was not meant to be an homage to the Games, but rather to the sacred nature of human beings in concert. Today, with another revolution in the Ukraine occurring as the 2014 Winter Olympics take place in Russia, I can't help but thinking that my painting, which lies in state somewhere in that troubled area of the world, was a bit prophetic.