Tanks and Teddy Bears: Ukrainian Children Paint the War

CHICAGO — On the walls of a modern art museum in Ukrainian Village, a neighborhood and cultural enclave here, hangs a drawing of the fall of Mariupol, one of the bloodiest battles of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Against a bright orange sky, smoke drawn with a felt-tip pen billows from crumbling buildings as Russian planes fly overhead.

The artist? A 9-year-old boy named Roman.

In the same gallery hangs a painting of a blue-green tank by Ilya, 7. Beneath it, an armed Ukrainian soldier that Taras, 10, drew with oil pastels stands guard against a star-filled sky.

The works are part of an exhibition by the children of Ukraine, many of them displaced by the war and invited to paint at hospitals, orphanages and art studios in Lviv, a city in the country’s west that has served as refuge from attacks in the east.

Among the pieces packed into two suitcases and flown to Chicago were finger paintings by toddlers and intricate drawings by teenage art students. They now fill a gallery at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, which was founded in 1971 and has a permanent collection with works by Alexander Archipenko, Jules Olitski and Patrick Caulfield.

The works in the exhibit are a compilation of images created by art students in class and also other children for whom painting has been offered as therapy in social service centers. Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times

Last month, an exhibition on abstraction came down, and works by artists like Roman, Ilya and Taras went up.

“Their sense of artistic expression is what every adult wishes they had,” Christina Wyshnytzky, an assistant curator at the museum, said as she walked through the gallery on a recent afternoon.

The State of the War

  • A Major Ukrainian Attack: In one of their deadliest strikes on Russian forces, Ukrainians used U.S.-made rockets to hit a building housing Russian soldiers in the eastern Donetsk region.
  • Russian Airstrikes: Ten months into the war, Ukraine has turned the tide on the ground, but it can do little to stop Russia’s aerial attacks. For Ukrainians, there are few options but to endure.
  • Global Starvation: A global food crisis, one of the farthest-reaching consequences of the war, is worsening as winter sets in and Moscow presses assaults on Ukraine’s infrastructure.
  • A New Alliance: The United States is scrambling to stop Iran from producing drones, as officials believe the Middle Eastern nation is building a partnership with Russia.

The work began being created in the early days of the war, through art classes held by Nataliia Pavliuk, 45, an artist who teaches painting at Lviv Polytechnic National University, and her daughter, Yustyna Pavliuk, 21, an architecture and design student there.

“We started thinking about what we can do to help Ukraine win,” Nataliia Pavliuk said in Ukrainian, with her daughter as an interpreter. “A lot of people need attention and art therapy, and we know we are good at that.”

Nataliia Pavliuk teaches art class at a support center in Lviv that serves people displaced from eastern Ukraine.Credit…Alina Komarova

The Pavliuks have visited hospitals, orphanages and modular homes set up for displaced families with a supply of paints, pastels and paper. Many children chose to depict images of war — tanks, soldiers, planes — but those who had experienced the most severe trauma tended to focus on lighter images, they said.

At a children’s hospital in Lviv, an 8-year-old girl from eastern Ukraine named Mariia drew an orange-striped cat sitting atop a kitchen table, Yustyna Pavliuk recalled. When Mariia was asked if she had siblings, she said her sister was killed when a bus she was riding in from Kyiv, the capital, came under fire.

In a free class at an art gallery in Lviv, a 10-year-old girl named Veronika painted herself wearing a pink-and-orange dress, standing next to a friend, the Pavliuks said. Behind the figures, Veronika painted a home that she imagined could house all of her friends who had died in the war. She had lost a finger and vision in one eye during Russian shelling, they said. Her family was killed.

“It’s hard not to start crying when you work with them,” Yustyna Pavliuk said, “but they continue living.”

At the art museum in Chicago, the war became central to its work.

A child clinging to a soldier and a teddy bear.Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times
The ghost of a soldier waving the Ukrainian flag.Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times

Situated next to a Ukrainian bank and across the street from an ornate Ukrainian church, the museum opened one of its galleries to anyone who wanted to make art about the war. It also became a kind of resource center for people looking to help the war effort and refugees who had settled in the area, said Adrienne Kochman, the museum’s curator.

The Pavliuks had posted about their work on Facebook, drawing the attention of Marta Farion, a museum board member and a distant relation of the family. She helped them obtain a grant and arrange a trip to the United States, where they are also exhibiting children’s work in Ann Arbor, Mich., and an arts academy in Arkansas.

Many of the works in the Chicago exhibition, titled “Children of War,” are for sale, with the proceeds going toward continuing their work in Ukraine, the Pavliuks said. It will be up until Feb. 12.

Many children chose to depict images of war — tanks, soldiers, planes — but those who had experienced the most severe trauma tended to focus on lighter images.Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times

“To some, it’s just ‘scribbles,’” Nataliia Pavliuk wrote in Ukrainian in a post on Facebook. “To us, these are the most sincere and finest works of art.”

Wyshnytzky, the assistant curator, likes to examine the works as she would in an art history class.

A painting of what appears to be a collection of flowers by a 4-year-old girl from Popasna reminds Wyshnytzky of an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner work hanging at the Museum of Modern Art. She also remarked on the “van Gogh-esque” style of a child’s still life of sunflowers — Ukraine’s national flower and a symbol of solidarity with the country.

“They’re elevated because they’re in a museum setting, and I feel like it’s a disservice to talk about art in any other way,” she said, adding, with a laugh, “You see abstract works like this going at Sotheby’s for millions.”

One child’s painting includes sunflowers, Ukraine’s national flower and a symbol of solidarity with the country.Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times

The exhibition includes works from clients of Nataliia Pavliuk’s art studio in Lviv as well as those who have participated in free lessons at the social services centers.

At the studio, Anna, 10, painted the ghost of a Ukrainian soldier, standing in a field with a blue-and-yellow flag. Glib, 12, the child of a soldier, painted his family withstanding a Russian missile attack.

A 15-year-old art student at the studio, Yaryna Kupybida, said she was drawn to a viral photograph of a pregnant woman who was forced to flee a maternity hospital in Mariupol because of a Russian airstrike. The woman was pictured wrapped in a duvet, with a bloodied face.

Yaryna, who lives in a town outside of Lviv and saw the photo online, painted the woman carrying her newborn baby wrapped in a blanket. “It was hope, for me, that there is a future for this woman,” she said.

A couple of days after the attack, The Associated Press reported that the woman’s baby had been delivered successfully.

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