The biography of Olena Turianska (Lviv)
I was born in Lviv.
My mom comes from a Halych family and the dad is half-Russian.
When my mom, Khrystia Palianytsia, was getting married to my dad, Valiera Birkin, the event was welcomed as snow in harvest by the mom’s circle.
The maternal part of my father’s family comes from here, from Halychyna, next, due to different perturbations they found themselves in Sybir. There, my grandma met my grandpa and after the war they came back here.
As I had been growing, since the very childhood I was torn between two worlds: the world of my mom’s family with Galician history and traditions, another one was the russified family of my father.
The mom’s family was very active and had participated in liberation movements, served prison sentences. For example, Osyp Rosdolskyi, who belonged to my mother’s family, was a well-known ethnographer and collector of various Ukrainian heritage; his son, Roman, was a co-founder of Communist Party of Western Ukraine. Soon, having got disappointed in the Bolshevik version of Communism Roman became a prominent economist, died in Detroit.
The family of my dad was Russian-speaking and pro-Soviet. The dad was an exception.
The Halych environment which appealed to me much more, in fact, didn’t accept me completely due to my partially inappropriate origin.
As the years passed such attitude vanished but as a child I could feel it at times; there were episodes of a little incomprehension and rejection from the side of the local older generation. Back then, it annoyed me but soon I realized how useful for me was this situation – I learned how to stand for myself.
I grew in a bilingual environment, a bit later the third language, Polish, added; next it was German. Besides, distances between different environments gave me the experience of being observant.
My parents were rather progressive people – both of them were engineers, read a lot, dad spoke a few languages. There weren’t any artists in the family, but dad was good at drawing.
I was taught to read early for rather selfish reasons – parents wanted me to leave them alone so that they could sleep a bit longer on Sundays.
I was taken to a kindergarten just before school for the sake of socialization. It wasn’t a positive experience. I remember that father devoted his time to me a lot, told me about plenty of things, showed me something. In our family, various scientific experiments and creative activities had generally been much encouraged.
Once, when my granny brought my drawings – I had produced them in unbelievable amounts since the early age – to her childhood friend, Vira Svientsitska, a daughter of the founder and the first director of the National Museum in Lviv, Ms Svientsitska told that I should attend the painting classes. So, thanks to her good graces I became an artist.
My childhood I spent mostly with my granny on my mom’s side. It looked like a typical Halych childhood, I mean, I stayed at my granny because both my parents worked. We went together with her as it was called back then “for spazieren” (from German “walk”) to the park with sandwiches, stewed fruit and granny’s friends.
For little me, the park was a huge mysterious world with trees, meadows, an orchard house, a pond with swans and secret places known only by us, kids, where we could hide or keep our treasures. At the background of it, there were conversations of my granny and her friends about different things like pre-war life, life at present. We were listening to it with accordance to the rules of Halych fostering – when adults talk “kids and fish don’t have a say”.
From time to time my maternal granny had a rest from me and I was sent to my other granny – dad’s mom.
So, the childhood was simultaneously passing in two absolutely different worlds which no way could intersect. If not for me, they would have never met.
I was the rightful and full-blooded member of both families. Now, I realize that it was a really interesting experience, because I started to recognize these unlike worlds early enough, to see how extremely different they are. Then, these worlds were completed with another reality – school, society and the rest.
The art had considerable influence on me hence each dwelling of Lviv intellectuals was filled with it – some woven things, ceramics, a lot of paintings, graphics. Our family owned the works of Trush and other local famous artists because they communicated with these people before the war. But after the war, many contacts were lost: some were imprisoned, some were deported to Sybir, some of them migrated and that all made long sad stories of people’s lives.
I took our family as separate world filled with completely different, non-Soviet aesthetic: dimmed rooms with extremely beautiful things (survivors of the past life, as we used to say) that were spared after the war – fantastic porcelain, with remains of which our granny used to set the table, tablecloths embroidered with gold and silver, some plants in flowerpots, books, rays of lights that fell through the tall windows, shadows on the floor, and the main thing – a piano, the instrument which was the participant of the numerous experiments of my childhood.
It was the biggest object of my granny’s apartment, the ground for my very interesting explorations of sound. It occupied half of the living-room. My sister and I took a shine to this place, got under the “fortépian”, the name we had for the piano, pulled blankets and bed sheets and this way built our world.
In Lviv, I went to school № 28, it had had a long pre-war history. All the members of our family studied there. It was the school with great traditions, with advanced German learning starting from the first form and compulsory music classes. The school had its own music studio, symphonic orchestra, choir, special ornament of embroidery — it was a must-have part of our uniform, this ornament was embroidered on the collars and cuffs.
But still, unfortunately, I happened to study at this school during the times of the Soviet Union. The difference between the things we were told at school and what I knew from our home discussions was colossal, starting from the history of our country and finishing with household stuff.
It was an elite school where children of local intellectuals and representatives of the establishment studied. We were much poorer than my classmates – the kids of privileged class – that’s why there was something ill in the school atmosphere. At many classes we were seated according to the social status of our parents. Only the older pre-war generation of teachers didn’t take part in such so-called rank division among pupils and they were like a beacon for us which fostered good life orientations.
I could clearly see the level of teaching and education of the older magistral staff and new teachers. The discrepancy between them supplied food for thought.
The ones who were brought up in Halych families, since the very childhood realized that while there are us, our family, there is a close community of Ukrainian environment, still outside our circle there is a different situation with its games and rules, if you want to survive you have to play it right.
From the very beginning we realized that all the Komsomol and pioneer lunacy is not true. The children from my environment mostly had immunity to ‘Sovok’ and a definite idiosyncrasy to all that stuff cherished by the older generation.
Schooling was a hard lot for me because I was bad at pretending and lying. I was a good student but I never had any special friends or contacts at school. There were rules to follow but the rest of life was in a different environment which was detached from school.
Real life started as soon as I entered Ivan Trush Art College. I wanted to enter the Textile department but didn’t score enough for admission and found myself at the Decoration department. Back then it was a real disaster for me. At the first classes of lettering I cried and said that it was not my thing and I would drop it but then I thanked my lucky stars for this way.
At the college it was still the same ‘Sovok’ but the extent of freedom was much higher than it was at school. Although starting from the first year of study we were obliged to decorate plenty of demonstrations and write idiotic screens like socialist obligation, nevertheless, it was very interesting time.
I began to comprehend that the world is much wider and more interesting than the things we learn and the way we are taught. In this respect, a lecturer from Leningrad (Saint-Petersbourg) became for me a kind of driving force, she came to Lviv to give a series of lectures on Flemish painting (back then, a lecture-hall used to be a popular place). She analyzed the art of Bruegel, described the epoch of the artist and it was extremely exciting. Her lectures impressed me so much that I set about Art History, History, study of the household of the past etc. To learn more about it you read a lot but not all the materials were published in Russian not to mention Ukrainian translations.
Consequently, the wish to broaden the limits of knowledge led me to learning the Polish language, engagement in new investigations resulted in interest in Philosophy and a number of other things.
The idiocy of the Soviet system and absurd schizophrenic situation in which you understand that you live not the way you’d prefer and have to live the way you are told – all this prevented me from moving ahead. There was a quite painful period of contemplation of the situation and the search of the ways to cope with it.
I entered the college in 1981 and graduated from it in 1985, I mean it was still ‘Sovok’ at its ‘best’. With persecutions. All of us belonged to the Komsomol organization, elsewise you couldn’t study. Then, for attending a “politically unreliable” concert you could be excluded from Komsomol and get blacklisted that meant the end to everything.
When we were third year students, some quite average Magyar rock group came to Lviv and had a concert at the Philharmonia. A lot of our students were there, the Western music culture was familiar to them thanks to Polish radio, television and press. The students took pipes and party poppers with them and behaved at the concert as usually youth of the world do.
They were arrested, it was proposed to exclude them from Komsomol and college for “inappropriate” from Komsomol’s point of view behavior.
There was a demonstrative meeting devoted to exclusion of the concertgoers. When the voting time came I refused to take part in it since, frankly speaking, I didn’t see any reason for such draconian decisions. Several people refused as well, next everybody decided not to vote. As a result, all of us, “the chosen ones” were held all day long at that meeting, because the document about exclusion should have been supplied to Komsomol just that day. We were called out one by one and were strictly told: either you sign it or you’ll be kicked out like those concertgoers with a blacklist status.
All that stuff had been lasting until the ones who actually were the reason of the whole thing told us: “Folks, we are grateful for the support but come on, sign it”. The situation made me feel powerless and extremely angry – it was something you never forget.
The principal of the college was a Party member but he was a great man – all the ‘troublemakers’ from the concert were readmitted in a year after the exclusion and continued their study.
I entered the institute In 1985 and graduated from it in 1990. It was Lviv Institute of Decorative and Applied Arts and in applied arts you could experiment with forms and do the search, well, not completely freely but at least without considerable negative consequences for you.
The situation with education was interesting. From one side we were getting quite academic in its sense of education. But from the other side, we got the real knowledge from the generation which was one by one retiring because of their age. Those were the people who got the education abroad and had the perception of freedom completely different to the one we could afford. Whereas the following generation of the professors with rare exceptions hardly could compete at the intellectual level with the predecessors. It felt like the doors opened in front of me and momentarily closed behind. But the idea of what the education should be like remained. In that time there was a popular notion in artistic circles that something outstanding developed here since we were fenced off to the world – but I find it ridiculous.
Compared to college, the institute meant to have all the time in the world that allowed you to do what you wish. It was a great opportunity for self-education.
In that time, I subscribed the Proiekt, Polish magazine, my friends also subscribed Magyar and German magazines, to say more, the Stefanyk National Science Library could provide necessary literature as well.
The ones who wanted learned languages, the ones who wanted read a lot. There were self-publish books, a lot of translations, necessary literature could be procured from Poland. In short, it was an interesting period.
I studied at the Interior Design and Decoration faculty. There were a few professors with a good architectural education but we weren’t taught the basics of architecture. There were some more outstanding professors. For example, Liubchenko, the History of Furniture, he was the founder of the Museum of Furniture in Lviv, but the institute itself wasn’t much interesting for me back then.
Unfortunately, when we graduated from this faculty we found out that it didn’t prepare us for real life. It was the 90s, when the distraction had just started and it wasn’t clear at all what to do with our lives, because the profession of the Shop Window Decorator at the department stores and agitation rooms didn’t exist anymore, it was impossible to work with interior in that time, since during the crackup of ‘Sovok’, when everything was falling down, design wasn’t on demand. All the structure of ‘Sovok’ was breaking into pieces, nobody knew what tomorrow would bring, everything was rapidly changing.
I realized that I have nothing to offer at all and got to grips with self-education. Then, I somehow got fond of painted glass icons.
Later, it was actually the interior design which became my main source of income. Analyzing everything that I was taught at the institute I can say that in fact the only useful subjects were Composition and the History of Furniture and Interior. The rest I had to master all by myself.
The only person whom I can really call my teacher is Bohdan Soroka, who officially had never been my professor but it was him who taught me a lot.
In the 70s–80s, in childhood and youth, we were taken to the mountains where we used to spend almost the whole summer. That was a tradition of Lviv families. We went on vacations to a few places in the Carpathian and Precarpathian regions where there were resorts even before the war. The favorite village is Dora, just before Yaremche. Long before the war Hutsuls (the name of the ethnic group living in the western part of Ukraine and Romania) held guest houses, they built them in order to have summer tenants. Hutsul wives usually cooked dinner for the guests so it was so-called all-inclusive.
In Dora stayed a lot of families from Lviv and Frankivsk (meaning Ivano-Frankivsk), those were ‘own company’, people who often had a long story of the pre-war contacts. Daria Tsvek, the author of the well-known “Sweet pastry” culinary books, stayed there as well. Here, in Dora, the writer Iryna Vilde had her own villa; in Dora lived the grandpa of the translator Ostap Slyvinskyi and all his family came here for the whole summer.
After lunch, Daria Tsvek held workshops where our moms were politely sitting with notebooks and writing down the recipes of various pies. Only the promise of a tempting piece of such a pie could make us, the city children, to have a glass of milk in the evening. Right here came Bohdan Soroka with his family, and soon his mom – legendary Katrusia Zarytska – was here as well. By the way, I live on the street named after the Zarytski – Bohdan’s grandpa and mom. Bohdan’s grandpa was a prominent professor of mathematics and the mom was the OUN (“Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists”) activist who spent her whole life in prisons, she was released in 1972.
When Bohdan Soroka arrived in Dora my vacations were over. Everybody went to the river but me – at eight in the morning Bohdan took me to the mountains with a sketch-book. If it wasn’t for Bohdan I would have never become an artist. He taught me to think like an artist, to relish doing absolutely routine practical tasks. One day we just started to draw together and he taught, told, analyzed the things I saw and the way how I could express my impression in drawing. It was the 80s.
In the 90s, I graduated from the institute and froze in vacuum. Unexpectedly, I started making painted glass icons. And at the moment of my fascination with icons, Ukraine was announced to be independent and the expatriate community started massively to come to Lviv.
When the people of our country faced financial difficulties, I earned not bad money, so icons helped me in my life in every way.
I got a lot out of icons in practical sense as well. It’s folk primitive. You can make worthy things in Primitivism only if you are absolutely honest with yourself, since in Primitive Art all the wrongs can be easily seen. All that is very far from academic art. The technique is rather specific – you draw everything like in the mirror reflection – if in fine art the final details like the whites of the eyes you add the last thing, in glass painting you have the reverse order and you actually start with the whites.
It’s a good exercise for the brain when you go through some process in one direction and then keeping the pace you get inside out of it.
Painted glass icons stirred up in me the interest in the aspects of mirror reflections, symmetry, harmony and, simultaneously, all of that was completed with studios of different philosophers I attended. I had a period of enthusiasm in Eastern philosophy, in fact, that’s what I’ve been doing till the present day. And working on the issues of symmetry, aesthetics and harmony led me to the paper cutting technique – the language I work with since then up to now.
This way I started making my works with paper. Georgii Kosovan noticed me, his personality is bound with a whole history of Lviv art, in particular, his Three Dots gallery, later, it was the Galart where he offered me to hold an exhibition and I joined the gallery environment.
At Kosovan’s, it was the first time when I found out about the possibility of professional ideas exchange. By then my circle made musicians, or at the college and institute I saw just people who wanted to get on in life. And at the Kosovan’s gallery, I finally met the ones with whom I could discuss the things I was really into. It was a really precious experience for me.
I met Andrii Sagaidakovskyi who’s been my friend till this day. Hence started the period of interaction and interinfluence with lots of artists and lots of interesting people. I didn’t belong to any art community. I went where I wanted and communicated with the interesting ones. Often, I turned out to be the youngest in a company. So, I liked to sit somewhere in the corner, watch and listen. A huge step forward for me was my first personal exhibition of my paper cut works in the gallery of Kosovan in 1993. Since then, they call me “Vytynanka” (from Ukrainian “papercut”).
Next, I’ve got several friends from the West. Being from the expatriate community they started to come here – the young generation born in the West. Those people were brought up in Ukrainian traditions, they weren’t afraid of the mess which took place here in the 90s. They just had been staying for some time in Lviv to understand what to do with their Ukrainian roots.
So, I met my lifetime friends – Olena Marchenko and Lesia Ryba (Terletska), both of them were born in England.
Lesia is an artist and for Olenka art is the style of life, that is the word, she’s a unique person at all. The girls who lived at that moment in Munich, once encouraged me to go to Germany.
In general, I must say that it was an interesting time for the West as well, I was lucky to meet the survivors of the super free 80s in Europe. It felt in people I got acquainted with. They were usually older than me and told about things and lifestyle which was already impossible for Europe of the 90s. Now, looking back at the mid 90s I also see a lot of things and first of all degrees of freedom which got impossible in the 2000s.
During one of my first visits to Munich I happened to attend a huge exhibition – Bacon, Dubuffet and Giacometti. What I saw literally blew me away.
I realized that I knew nothing at all, everything I was taught at institute was just a waste of time and there was some immeasurable for me FREEDOM, way of thinking, lifestyle – all of that is so different and in summation set up completely diverse to the known to me methods of creation the works. For me it was the most impressive cultural shock ever but it gave me a very powerful driving force, I mean I wanted to become a part of all that process. Next, I went to study as much as I could and where it was possible.
Travelling played a very important role for me. Not tourist trips, but the ones with submerging into local daily life. Since the mid 90s I’d been engaged in arranging, conceptioning and curatorship of international art projects, it was the reason why I didn’t experience any difficulties with visas. Even now it’s rather important for me. At least once per four months I should leave for the big world. Otherwise, I feel out of air here. Even though I can see clearly that I belong to this country.
Once, I was asked what the USSR meant for me and what was my attitude to that epoch. I see it as a colossal tragedy, a huge abyss which parted us from the other world which had been developing according to the ongoing evolution laws. Frankly speaking, at present I can’t see the way to fill these disruptions. Before, I thought – I had such an idealistic dream – that the following generations will be able to compensate for it but the actual situation doesn’t look much comforting.
Now I’m experiencing quite strange period, the period of the total rethinking of everything. It’s like a forceful creative crisis provoked from the outside. In 2014, I made a big project, Presence, at National Museum in Lviv. For me it was a very ontological project. It happened in June. Most of it was created just before the events of Maidan, it was a huge and extensive work.
The subject of my interest has always been abstract notions such as Universe, global interconnections.
When Maidan happened and the next – the war, I dag into the material world. I stopped seeing any sense in fixation of my reflections, in my artistic practice. Making money from design and bringing them to the hospital for the boys felt like much more useful activity. Soon, the need for daily practice brought me to a few projects which were just attempts to gain a new footing. With the passing of time, the feelings of anger, helplessness become your routine state and you understand that you have to learn to live with it and due to the fact that art is one of the physically necessary rituals for me I started to pick myself up. This process seemed to me more important and I started to fixate it. It required another language. I began to draw with charcoal and graphite. Here started the formation of something new for me. Some new added value.
Now, I just live, I’m happy with the fact that I can be happy, try to have a positive effect on the things I can influence, try not to reflect on the things I can’t change. It seems trivial but actually to put them into life is a real art. I do my best and keep on working.