The biography of Taia Halahan (Kyiv) was recorded in March 2013. The text was created with the support of Yurii Kaplun (Kyiv) and Konstiantyn Klymashenko (Kyiv).
I was born in Kyiv on October 1, 1968. My father was a surgeon, and my mother was an engineer. My great-grandfather on my father’s side served as a chief accountant in the State Bank, so our family lived in a 9A Instytutska Street department house. Now there is a terrace with columns on the ground floor along with our windows.
About my great-grandfather and many other things connected with the family’s history, I learned from the stories of my grandmother Valentyna Mykhailivna Kopylova, whom I called mommy all my life.
The grandmother was from a merchant family. In our family, there were nobles and peasants. She spoke of her father, my great-grandfather, as a very kind and honest person. I remember the story of how one day he found a squirrel that he took to work in the State Bank, hiding in a fur collar of his coat.
I remember stories about how she asked her parents, who were going to a city, to buy her black and red boot polish. It was about red and black caviar, sold in boxes similar to those in which shoe polish was sold at that time, and about how the great-grandmother exchanged family jewellery for bread in Torhsin at the corner of Sadova and Instytutska Streets, where an army surplus store was then, and now there is a grocery store. It was also about how my great-grandfather carried my father in a cart for gold carriage in the National Bank. There were many episodes about how my grandfather lived during the occupation in Kyiv during the Second World War, how he ended up in a prisoner of war camp, how he fled and hid in a peasant family (Mykhailo Isaiovych died before the end of the war).
I remember these and many other stories, and I still return to them.
My grandmother was a special person in my life. She and I were best friends. She always encouraged my creative fantasies since she had a creative vision herself.
Together we looked for and found roots in the parks, told each other what creatures they remind us of, examined the cracks in the walls, similar to profiles and faces, and made New Year’s toys.
Our connection never ended. We corresponded when I lived in Canada. I could not help going to Kyiv, having flown for her birthday to spend with her the last two months of her life.
When she is not with us, I often remember her, re-read her letters, and go back to childhood, going over everything in my memory in the smallest detail, especially her sonorous, sweetly, and loving voice.
The craving for drawing appeared early in my life. My first drawing board was a travel suitcase (it was preserved thanks to my grandmother).
The drawing was my favourite pastime when I was sick. My grandmother used pillows to create a kind of soft texture so that it was comfortable for me to sit in bed, brought a drawing book and coloured pencils, and the magic began.
I cannot say that I have dreamed of becoming an artist since childhood. A visit to my great-uncle’s workshop, Mytrofan Kozmin, whom I also called Tosia in my childhood, made a deep vivid impression on me as a little girl.
A room in a communal apartment at Khreschatyk (this house behind the Post Office building has not survived) with a high ceiling, a table filled with mysterious glass jars and vases with brushes; the smell of oil paints; and especially a substantial wall-to-wall painting of my great-grandfather “Suvurov’s Crossing the Alps,” led me to complete delight and numbness. Uncle Tosia went through four wars, but he was an energetic, kind, cheerful person who often hosted family parties and annual New Year’s carnivals.
I think childhood is a cosmogonic period in a person’s life, where myths are born, and the first signs appear indicating the future path. The place and the people surrounding in childhood largely determine the world’s picture, which everyone is painting throughout their lives.
The city of Gagra has become another important place for me. My great-grandmother, “Aunt Yulechka,” lived there. I spent there every summer with her at the Black Sea coast since the age of two.
The purpose of trips to Gagra was to receive treatment for my monstrous stuttering resulting from falling and fright. In the end, I stopped talking at all. I remember that I made this decision deliberately, and I was silent for six months.
The marine climate was prescribed to me by Professor Slonimska, whom I took either for Faina Ranevska or Liubov Orlova because of her round glasses and a piano in a Room in a Kyiv’s apartment at Sadova Street.
Impressions from the sea and singing exercises helped, and I started usually talking on my fourth birthday. I remember running down the stairs and enthusiastically shouting to my grandmother, who was cooking breakfast, “Mommy, I do not stutter anymore!”
The Gagra period was a period of realizing that happiness in life is possible.
Everything was impressive: “our” large house with stone verandas, balusters and a solarium entwined with grapes on 28 Tsereteli Street; local women dressed in all black; the ruins of a dining room destroyed by the storm and pieces of public catering utensils polished by the surf; hikes to gorges and trips to Lake Ritsa; stories and evening walks along the seafront with guests.
Another vivid memory is the famous Moscow Lilliputian circus troupe, which rented a house next door. Grown-up girls the size of eight-year-old trotted down to the beach in child-size platform sandals — all the rage of ‚70s Western fashion — aroused admiration and childish envy. I also wanted the same makeup, grown-up hairstyle and platforms.
But most of all, storms fascinated: spray, foam and the sound of waves crashing onto the shores, the courage of local guys running along the beach in between the ramparts and in search of golden rings, and the way out of the surf of naked vacationers who did not know the deceit of the water element which took not only expensive jewellery but also swimwear.
My series, written in Canada, “After the Expulsion from Paradise” is based on these childhood memories.
Every time before leaving for Kyiv, my grandfather and I went to the shore and watched the sunset. Each time we said goodbye to eternity which would definitely return.
I left my childhood in Gagra, and I would like to die in Gagra.
In 1976, I went to two schools at once: in the first grade of secondary and in the third grade of music schools. A friend of my family Valentyna Mykhailivna Beretti (granddaughter of architect V.I. Beretti) who taught me music to my father once, advised to send me to a music school the age of five. Then I thought my teacher had the last name Beretti because she always wore intricate hats and berets.
Secondary School No. 77 (now the Klovsky Lyceum) was considered one of Pechersk District’s best, as they said then “with an English bias”. English lessons became my favourite. I remember Tetiana Petrivna, a primary school English teacher, had a tiny dog on a table lamp, moulded by someone from a chewing gum painstakingly. Once, after a break, she went into the classroom and saw me, sitting at the first desk and chewing something.
After this incident, the following notes appeared in my diary: English: subject — 5, behaviour — 1.
In high school, English was taught by my favourite teacher Zhanna Pavlivna, who, in my opinion, was not inferior to Margaret Thatcher in her manners and costumes.
Unlike middle school, in music school, I studied with only 5’s. Nevertheless, I had to forget about the carrier of a pianist due to panic stage fright. The ensuing desire to enter the art studio was unsuccessful. The acrid smell of gouache mixed with the coldness of the studio space and the grey sheen of the linoleum floor in the Kyiv Palace of Pioneers discouraged the desire to go there. Since then, I wouldn’t say I like gouache.
At the age of fourteen, I read Hesse’s novel “The Lonely Wolf”, in which as it seemed to me then, I fount answers to all the questions that interested me at that time. The feeling of the abyss separating me from the world found its confirmation in the world literature. For me, it in need of a new steering figure, it was then important.
The study turned into a dreary routine, accompanied by a general pursuit of good grades and strict discipline, which was broken by someone from time to time. Once, I was expelled from the pioneers from violating the discipline at a general school meeting. My tie was taken off by the Komsomol member Olia Bohomolets (granddaughter of Oleksandr Bohomolets, doctor, collector and singer — editor’s note) who patronized our class according to her “duty”.
Due to my drawing ability, I was assigned to the editorial board. I did not want to decorate endless wall newspapers and draw caricatures of the day’s topic — all this caused the soreness.
A history school group became salvation from this, the main subject of with was the Decemberist movement. Pushkin and the Decembrists reminded of freethinking, and the play on the stage of the school theatre, where children acted out their favourite schenes, was saturated with creative romance.
Final school exams coincided with the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Ironically, we students of the tenth grade who studied nuclear physics at that time were supposed to go to Chernobyl on the excursion. However, due to the tragedy in Chernobyl, which occurred the day before the tour, of course, it was cancelled.
At that time, I had no definite thoughts about entering any university. My passion for school theatre prompted the idea of a theatrical career. That summer of 1986, I went to Moscow to enter GITIS. I stayed with my relatives. I came to the exam but did not enter the building seeing the crowd of applicants cramming Krylov’s fables in the park. In the end, I decided to enter the historical, but it was too late to apply.
At the end of the ‚80s, applying to the universities, the work experience was considered. It was not surprising that Kyiv’s History Museum became my workplace. I started my career as a junior technician in the typographic department. My responsibilities included all types of design work — to write regular advertisements in typeface and to do various things connected with exhibition decoration.
The first serious job was the execution of a billboard for the exhibition of watercolours of Maksymilian Voloshyn. I was told that I was doing well, and it would be nice to continue painting. That was when I first thought about becoming an artist. I painted plaster casts in our design workshop, and I did it pretty well.
My first drawing teacher was Oleksandr Heorhiiovych Poluianov. Being already an older man, he did not teach students, but he taught me. I went through the basics of academic drawings and paintings with him within six months. Poluianov was a brilliant teacher, and I listened to him as bewitched and unquestioningly fulfilled all his tasks. His flat on Voskresenka became the “Shaolin” of my apprenticeship.
Years later, when I became a leading teacher of drawing at the Canadian art college, I created my course based on his teaching system. I called Oleksandr Herhiiovych from Saskatoon to thank him for everything he did to me, and it was our last conversation.
The right to teach in Canada was given by the Master of Fine Arts diploma, which I received in 2000.
I do not have a diploma from the Kyiv Art Institute, where I studied at the Faculty of Art History from 1990 to 1995. I did not claim to study at creative faculties upon the admission, as I understood that six months of artistic practice could not be compared to the years of studying at an art school.
It was not easy to be an art student and to position myself as an aspiring artist. I have heard. “What kind of artist are you? You are an art critic. They are all thumbs.”
However, it did not stop me. Once, I said to my fellow student Kateryna Stukalova, a famous Ukrainian artist now, “Katia, look, I will be an artist, and you will write articles about me.” So later it has happened.
I loved listening to art history lectures, but my thoughts were with those who drew or painted from nature behind the wall. I often stopped in front of a massive white door with the inscription: “Nude. Unauthorized entry is prohibited.”
In Canada, when I was teaching drawing, I often recalled this moment.
In the end, I failed the state exam in art history and refused to write my diploma. It was the fair result of my five-year agony of being “out of place”.
I began to communicate with the members of the Paris Commune closely. Illia Chychkan and Mykola Trokh often invited me to pose for their photographs. I treated photo sessions as a joint creation. Then, I met the duet Savadov-Senchenko, Konstiantyn Akinsha, Yurii Solomko, Oleksandr Hnylytskyi, Oleksandr Klimenko and Valeriia Trubina. We became good friends. We did joint projects.
The “Commune” influenced the formation of Ukrainian art and the individual by the very fact of its existence.
The independence of this environment, its uniqueness manifested itself in everything, starting with the appearance.
“Consumer goods” in the post-Soviet stores. If there was one, looked depressive. “Club” clothes were obtained at the Sinnyi Market (flea market on Vorovskogo Street, now it is Bulvarno-Kudriavska Street — ed.). Every weekend it was customary to go there and fish out the most exciting things.
At that time, Illia Chychkan was the main fashionist at the party. He was one of the first who introduced vintage style from the Sinnyi Market. The cloaks of the Soviet-Chinese firm “Druzhba” and shantung jackets were at the fashion peak then. Also cowboy boots, jeans bought from black marketeer, bandanas, different hats, and other accessories. Things were purchased and transferred to each other.
At one time, I had shaved sides, wore men’s jackets, ties with pinned brooches which caused quiet bewilderment among my professors, because no one at the art history department dressed like that.
It was the period of the birth of a new subculture. Then, we exchanged literature, read Cortazar. Marquez, Borges, Hesse, Castaneda. The phrase “Marquez, Borges and Cortazar — I am responsible for the “bazar” was used in the crowd. If you have not read, there was nothing to talk about with you.
We listened to Western music, Russian rock and Ukrainian underground — “Kollezhskyi Assessor”, “Ivanov-Daun”, and “Tabula Rasa”.
Artists began to travel to the West, brought magazines, books and catalogues from abroad, all this was studied and passed from hand to hand.
At the same time, the association “Space for the Cultural Revolution” — the PKR appeared. It was of the first non-profit structures in the Ukrainian contemporary art. Its task was to initiate cultural processes while commercial galleries, which started to emerge, were trading art. In 1994, the program exhibition “Space for the Cultural Revolution” was held at the Ukrainian House. I participated in this exhibition, but, unfortunately, the work did not survive.
The first art project I took part in as an artist was called “The Free Zone”. It took place at the National Art Museum in Odesa in 1994. The art project’s curator was Oleksandr Roitburd, whom I jokingly called my godfather in art.
In the mid-‚90s, I felt a particular uncertainty in my situation. I wanted to move on, but things somehow froze, even though at that time, I did several personal projects: “Anabiosis” — PA Gallery, “Ultra Dialogue” — Oleksandr Blank Gallery, and also took part in many group art projects among which the “Mouth of Medusa” — the Brama Gallery, “Barbados” (Union of Artists of Ukraine), “Pohliady z Varenniam” (Ukrainian Soros Centre for Contemporary Art in Kyiv).
At that time, I used ultraviolet light in my work. For Ukrainian art, it was know-how. In the ‚90s, there was no particular technical support from the galleries, so everything had to be down on my own. I bought parts, made diagrams, assembled lamps and installed them myself in exhibition spaces.
The idea and the opportunity to look at the other side of the border arose and ended when I moved to study in Canada. A completely different life began there, lasting twelve years.
After obtaining my MFA — Master of Fine Arts diploma, I had the opportunity to teach drawing at the newly opened College of Classical Animation in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Later, other disciplines, such as design basics and colour theory, were added to the drawing.
Later, I taught the same disciplines at the Vancouver Art Institute.
The last two years of my life in Canada were the time of decision making: to stay in the West or return to Ukraine. Circumstances were such that I chose the latter. One of the crucial moments in the decision was the invitation of the creative association “Clinic Doroshenko-Hryshchenko” to supervise the “AUT” project. So I returned to Kyiv.
In front of the Department of Fine Arts, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada, 1997
I am rethinking my life. At birth, a person should receive a double surname — father’s ad mother’s; otherwise, the whole genus is deprived if continuation. I decided to change my name officially. I took my mother’s maiden name Halahan, and Taia name derived from my name Tetiana. Now I sign my works with a double name.
Photos from personal archive provided by Taia Hershuni-Halahan.