Ukrainian American painter Lesia Sochor finds it hard to watch news of the war in Ukraine on television. The Maine artist’s parents fled the region in 1944. Ukraine had been occupied by Nazi Germany and was returning to Soviet control.
“I’m reliving all my parents’ stories. Just the other day, I saw a young woman crying and crying. She was leaving, and she said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever see my parents again.’ And she had her baby. That’s exactly what happened to my mother,” said Sochor, 69, who was born in Philadelphia but whose parents immigrated to the United States with her older sister. Sochor’s parents never saw their parents again.
The Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton is responding to the crisis by remounting Sochor’s exhibition “Pysanka: Symbol of Renewal,” which opened Thursday. The show had been installed previously in 2020 and 2021 and was still in storage at the museum when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Ukrainian Easter eggs (one is a “pysanka,” many are “pysanky”) are the subject of Sochor’s paintings. The intricately designed eggs symbolize prosperity, good health, abundance, and fertility. When Sochor was a child growing up in Philadelphia, her mother taught her how to dye the eggs.
“All of the writings on the eggs were directly associated with all the symbology and the allegorical magic that the egg contained,” Sochor said. “The egg is a trilogy. It’s the shell, right? And then the yolks represent the sun, and the whites represent the moon. So you have this whole universe in this seemingly inanimate object. But, of course, it’s just full of potential new life.”
“To the ancients, it was really a holy object,” she added.
The Museum of Russian Icons is eager to help preserve and celebrate Ukrainian culture.
“People ask if we’re affiliated with or funded by the Russian government or the Russian Orthodox Church,” said director of interpretation Amy Consalvi. “We’re not. We’re a private nonprofit.”
“We want to embrace all aspects of Slavic culture, and all Orthodox cultures, not just Russian,” added Consalvi. The museum was swift to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, posting on its website a statement condemning “the military aggression on the sovereign country of Ukraine.”
“We stand with the courageous citizens of Ukraine and Russia who oppose this senseless act of war,” it reads.
Then, the museum resurrected “Pysanka.”
In addition to paintings of pysanky, the exhibition features works Sochor has made in response to turmoil in Ukraine — a trio of images of heads with babushkas painted in an icon style, on wood with gold leaf and acrylic, with Cyrillic lettering. She made two during the Maidan uprising in 2014, when pro-democracy protests led to the ouster of the Kremlin-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych. The third, “Freedom,” with a white babushka, is a response to the current war.
“‘Mir,’ written in the brown babushka, means peace,” said Sochor. “The blue one is obviously just tears. But the actual title of that is ‘Homeland’ because I was grieving for my homeland then, just as I am now. The last one, the white one, I just finished, and that’s ‘Volia,’ which means freedom.”
The artist still decorates Easter eggs every spring. This year, amid a mounting humanitarian crisis — more than 3 million Ukrainians have fled the country since the war started — the ritual Sochor’s mother taught her seems even more important, she said.
“There’s an ancient legend that says that there’s a monster chained to a cliff, and if people get lazy and stop decorating eggs, the chains will loosen,” she said. “If people stop making eggs all together, the chains will break and the monster will destroy the world.”
“We have to make more and more and more eggs this year,” she said. “More than ever.”
PYSANKA: Symbol of Renewal
At Museum of Russian Icons, 203 Union St., Clinton, through July 31.
Here are some artworks on view in Massachusetts made by Ukrainian-born artists.
“Mother of God Pokrova,” artist unknown, Ukraine, oil on wood. 1800s. Museum of Russian Icons
This representation of the Virgin Mary is Pokrova, a Ukrainian word meaning “Protection of the Mother of God.” “She’s considered a protectress of the country,” said Amy Consalvi, the museum’s director of interpretation.
She holds a veil called a rushnyk, a sacred Ukrainian textile placed over icons, crosses, or graves. The brightly colored image depicts Mary’s apparition to Saint Andrew, in which she removed her veil and held it over a congregation as a talisman of protection.
The museum has draped a rushnyk decorated with the tree of life over the icon’s display case. “When a rushnyk is hung in the home,” Consalvi said, “it functions as an amulet to protect the family.”
“Silhouette Geometrique,” Alexander Archipenko. Bronze, 1913, cast late 1950s. Museum of Fine Arts
Archipenko was born in Kyiv in 1887, and studied at art school there as a teenager before moving to Moscow and then Paris, ultimately settling in New York in 1923. His Cubist sculptures were among those the Nazis confiscated and labeled “degenerate.” His works were known for their unexpected colors, such as the blue and green patina of “Silhouette Geometrique,” an abstract yet figural piece.
The colors, said Marietta Cambareri, the MFA’s curator of decorative arts and sculpture, may echo the brilliance of Byzantine icons dating to the Middle Ages.
“We think of Russian icons, but there was a major school of icons in Kyiv,” said Cambareri. “It was a long tradition, and strongly felt.”
“Total Totality II,” Louise Nevelson, wood, 1959–68, Harvard Art Museums
Nevelson was born near Kyiv in 1899 and immigrated with her family to Rockland, Maine, in 1905 as the Russian Revolution was underway. The Nevelsons were Jewish, and pogroms were killing Jews in cities such as Odessa and Kyiv.
“In Rockland, the Jewish population was quite small,” said Mary Schneider Enriquez, curator of modern and contemporary art at Harvard Art Museums. “Her mother apparently became quite depressed. They wore traditional, formal Ukrainian clothing and stood out. Her parents held onto their roots.”
Nevelson made “Total Totality II,” a large wall piece composed of stacked wooden boxes painted black, at the height of her success. Wood was a favorite material. Her father had been in the lumber business in Rockland.