Lines create order, stability and even comfort, but not without the risk of narrowing our perceptions of reality. They can make us feel safe by creating borders or threatened when enemy lines draw near. Lines of words in the media can educate or brainwash its audience.
Artist Ola Rondiak has observed first-hand how the line between peace and war is a fragile one. Having lived over 20 years in Kyiv, Ukraine, as well as being first generation American, the artist has seen and heard these lines crossed many times. In her childhood, she heard countless stories of the enemy lines moving and her family escaping the brutality of the Soviet Regime. Living through two revolutions in Ukraine she watched riot police lines, military lines, and even country border lines move. Over the years, she has encountered the results of 70 years of Soviet propaganda and brainwashing. Ola’s background as a psychotherapist has immersed her into human psychology, which gives her an understanding of how the lines of perception directly impact one’s beliefs and identities. The symbolism of lines is evident in the artist’s works; from the stories of her childhood, to the military lines in the ongoing war in Ukraine, to the headlines in mainstream newspapers and magazines, all of which influence our understanding of current and historical events. In her exhibit, “Behind the Lines,” Ola is providing a space for all of us to look behind the lines where we hope to uncover the freedom of the mind. Somewhere behind the lines of propaganda and our individual perceptions lies the truth, the soul behind the lines.
A graduate of Hunter College, Ola grew up in Ohio in a Ukrainian family. She studied art in both Ukraine and Hungary. Her paintings stem from her family’s experiences living in Ukraine, the events of WWII, Stalin’s Iron Curtain, the Orange Revolution, and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. The Orange Revolution in the fall of 2004, signaled the emergence of a new civic movement a political resistance group, a determined citizenry that banded together to forge a red light on the ruling class’ fraudulent election processes. Abrasive weather notwithstanding, Ukrainians staged nationwide nonviolent protests now known as the Orange Revolution. These events shaped Rondiak’s worldview; emotional experiences began to surface in her paintings, family history intertwines with Ukrainian history and tradition. Her iconographic portraiture of Ukrainian women depicts their “determined and indomitable spirit.” Often referred to as “pop art” or “folklore,” her work recalls the icons of the Byzantine period, where Imperial and Ecclesiastical-sponsored proliferation of busts of saints and figures of the Virgin Mary lined basilica walls, retables, iconostases, and altarpieces.
When did you discover your passion for art?
I would say that my evolution into becoming an artist happened rather organically. As a first generation American raised by Ukrainian immigrants, I was programed to find a stable, practical career choice. When I look back, I realize now why it was so difficult for me to decide on a college major and to settle into a career path. I finally chose psychology, as it was the most interesting subject for me, and I worked as a psychotherapist before having children. Even before my children were born, I knew I wanted to stay home to raise them, and when I was pregnant with my son, my creative energy emerged. I turned our dining room into a studio and began to refinish and paint furniture for the kids. After that I got into fashion, creating clothes for myself and for others and then started painting fabrics, creating fabric collages, and also painting on canvas. In 2004, with the onset of the Orange Revolution, my artwork became a way to express the intensity of my feelings regarding Ukraine’s first post-soviet revolution. At that time I knew I wanted to continue my journey as an artist.
How did becoming an artist impact your life?
I think it took many years of creating until I had the realization that I was an “artist.” I actually remember the moment when it hit me, like a bolt of lightning. I felt like I finally discovered who I was or what I was meant to do in this life. I felt a great sense of relief; that I had realized my purpose. Of course, after the relief came the pressure and a lot of self doubt. It was also very challenging for me to balance discovering myself as an artist with raising my children. Each of these was more than a full time job on it’s own.
Does your role as a former psychotherapist play a part in your artistry today?
As a psychotherapist, my job was to help people get to the truth beneath the surface. To explore a deeper understanding of oneself in order to reveal the hidden feelings within. As an artist, I continue to seek the subconscious, the inner feelings of the faces I paint. I believe that there is a very natural connection between art and psychology. For example, is any of my art ever complete without a viewer interpreting what he or she sees? And how do they interpret it? Their brains process the art in their own way, having had their individual experiences in life and bringing their own meaning to what they see. I also see creativity as being essential to both art and psychotherapy in order to find the true meaning within. So, I believe that art and psychology are closely related.
We hear your grandmother was also very creative. How did she influence and inspire you?
Despite having never met her, my grandmother’s story had a profound impact on me. After the onset of WWII, my mother and grandfather were separated from my grandmother. They had to flee from the Stalinist regime, with my mother being 11 years old at the time. They ended up as displaced people in Austria for four years before ending up in America. My grandmother was sent to Mordovia, a strict regime women’s labor camp. While she was there, she secretly (and at great risk), created amazing embroideries. She used random threads, fabrics from clothing and potato sacks, and fish bones for needles. These embroideries eventually made it to America and into our home. I was nine-years-old when my mother received the call that my grandmother had died. My mother’s pain remains with me to this day. My grandmother had three children, a boy and two girls, as did my mother, and as did I.
One of the embroideries my grandmother created was an icon of Mother Mary and baby Jesus. It was unfinished and I saw this as very symbolic as Ukraine was yet unrealized. I recreated this image in a contemporary collage style with the hope that Ukraine would now finally realize it’s true potential. My grandmother put her heart and soul into her embroideries with the hope that they would eventually reach her family. I feel that it is my responsibility to tell her story. The fact that she was sent to a labor camp, was separated from her husband and her youngest child, her other daughter died in her arms at nineteen years old, and she still found the strength to create secretly in the night, gives me inspiration every day.
Do you identify yourself more as an American or Ukrainian?
I was born in America and my parents were born in Ukraine, so growing up I was completely immersed in the language, culture, and traditions of being Ukrainian. Every summer I spent at Ukrainian Plast camps and every Saturday during the school year I went to Ukrainian school. I identified myself with being Ukrainian and to my friends I was different. I spoke about Ukraine whenever I had the opportunity and even got kicked out of the flag team in high school for attending a Ukrainian political demonstration in Washington DC instead of attending the Friday night football game. When I moved to Kyiv after I got married, I experienced the new realities of being Ukrainian in a post Soviet world, which contrasted greatly with the romanticized, story-book Ukraine of my parent’s childhood.
How has America and Ukraine impact your life and creativity?
Ukraine has always been a strong force in my life. It symbolized my roots, my mother’s heart, my grandfather’s dreams, my father’s mysterious past, and my grandmother’s pain. It remains for me one of my greatest inspirations, as it continues to strive for it’s freedom. Having an American passport reminds me how grateful I am for the freedom. My grandfather lived through tragic events during WWII, including losing his wife, his daughter, the home he built in Ukraine, and going to America in his 50’s without knowing the English language, and with the responsibility of a teenage daughter. But every day he was grateful for having his freedom in America.
What does your street art mural in Kyiv represent?
My artwork is heavily influenced and inspired by Ukraine’s post Soviet uprising and focuses on portraits of women, which for me, represent Ukraine. They reflect my admiration for the determined and hard working women in Ukraine and the unending national spirit they represent. And of course, my fascination with Ukrainian women also reflects my personal history. In April of 2016, I was exhibiting my artwork at America House in Kyiv. At the opening I was introduced to Geo Leros who was the project coordinator of the ArtUnitedUs project. I did not hesitate when he invited me to contribute a mural to the Kyiv art street scene. I see the explosion of street art in Kyiv as a reflection of the new Ukraine. It gives the city a contemporary feel and highlights the social shift towards Europe that is currently underway.
Where can we see your work being exhibited?
I live and paint between Kyiv, Ukraine, and New York City. Some of my recent exhibits include the US Embassy in Kyiv, Ukrainian Embassy in Munich, Ambassador’s residence in Berlin, Odessa Opera House in Ukraine, Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, and Ukrainian National Museums in Cleveland, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois. I’m enjoying having exhibits in Ukraine, Europe, and America and I love the way each exhibit develops along with meeting new people and how it coincides with new ideas and inspirations.
My current exhibit, “Behind the Lines,” running from August 15 through October 15, 2017, is at the Delaware Contemporary in Wilmington. This exhibit is special for many reasons. Along with a new group of paintings, I have created mannequins which combine my individual history with Soviet propaganda and the new Ukraine breaking free from the past. Also, being inspired by the old Ukrainian rag doll, the motanka, I made seven sculptures reflecting the symbolism of these ancient dolls tied in with my stories, all while maintaining a contemporary art presence. Finally, I have interviewed 40 Ukrainians about how the war is impacting their lives and put it into a video installation. I will be giving an Art Talk at the Delaware Contemporary on October 4th, 2017.
I also currently have works on display at Zorya Fine Art Gallery in Greenwich, CT. I was recently invited to exhibit at the US Embassy in Rome, Italy next year and planning for “Behind the Lines” exhibit to travel throughout America in 2018.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I feel that my artwork reflects a very relevant and important journey from my history to a new Ukraine which is still fighting for its freedom, as the war in the East has not ended. It’s important for people to know that Russian hybrid forces invaded Ukraine, illegally annexed Crimea, and while Ukraine is defending its country, it is also at the forefront of what could be a much greater war for the rest of the world. As of today, over 10,000 people have been killed and 2 million displaced. My art is often a vehicle for other things, such as connections, and with this exhibit I hope to bring together other voices on Ukraine’s behalf and to provide a peaceful and inspiring forum for discussion of Ukraine’s future and it’s possibilities. Sharing my artwork is my way of helping in this fight for freedom. As for the future, I will continue expressing myself in my art and hope to never stop growing as an artist. I’m always excited to see what will be next!
What words do you live by?
Without honesty in life, there is no honesty in art. I believe that we all have the responsibility to search within ourselves for peace and truth because that’s where we find the clarity to understand our greater purposes in life.
What does it mean to you being InLOVE?
To be alive is to be in love. Understanding what it means to be in love has grown tremendously for me over the years. I now see it as a much more active state of mind than I did in the past. I used to think it was something that happened to you: someone sweeps you off your feet and you fall madly in love. I now see it as an act of gratitude. The more grateful I am, the more in love I am. I’m in love with the ability to have freedom of the mind and to be curious, as this keeps me feeling young. I’m in love with my family and my dear friends and special people I encounter all the time. I’m in love with each one of my children and I am thrilled to watch and help them grow into unique, amazing, inspirational young adults. And, of course, I’m in love with Petro, my husband, who is my soulmate and my partner in this amazing journey of life.
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