In the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, artist Hanna Melnyczuk retreated to the third-floor studio in her Groton home to process her disbelief, shock, and grief for the country her parents left in 1944.
Melnyczuk said she worked on a series of drawings “daily, almost hypnotically” for approximately three months to cope with mounting stress and anxiety.
“It was a need,” she said firmly.
Dozens of her drawings from that time are available in a new book, “Don’t Close Your Eyes: The War Drawings,” published May 1. Proceeds will benefit Ukraine defense and recovery efforts.
According to Melnyczuk, the title of the 67-page hardcover comes from a conversation with her cousins in western Ukraine, who pleaded for outsiders not to forget them.
“They felt it was going to be a long war and people would eventually close their eyes and move on,” said Melnyczuk, a senior adjunct professor at UMass Lowell who has taught drawing for 26 years. “Feeling helplessness in the face of this horror, I reacted in the only way I knew.”
The 40 drawings are not presented in the order in which they were created, but rather in a chronology that shifts from hope for resistance to the savage realities of war.
For example, the plea to “Close the sky” is answered by a boy sewing the airspace shut against further missile strikes as a girl covers her face amid burning wreckage. “Russian Tanks” portrays a seemingly endless convoy winding down the road as flames engulf a gold-domed cathedral on the horizon.
In “The Village Kids,” three young children stand between a mother clasping an infant to her chest and a tank whose gunner has taken aim at her. In the background, a field of red poppies is made even more vibrant by smoke swirling from a burning home and filling the sky.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has verified 8,895 civilian deaths and 15,117 injured during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as of May 21, 2023. But the UN agency said the real numbers could be higher.
Melnyczuk dedicated “Don’t Close Your Eyes” to “the heroes of Ukraine” and the memory of her parents, Olena (Zahajkewycz) Melnyczuk and Edward Melnyczuk, who both died in 2019. The couple met in Poland after fleeing from Ukraine during World War II. They married in 1949 at a German camp for displaced refugees and immigrated to America the following year.
Growing up in New Jersey, Melnyczuk said she and her brother, Askold, spoke Ukrainian, read Ukrainian books, and observed traditional holidays and customs in the three-family home they shared with their grandparents, aunt and uncle, and cousins.
“Even though my parents assimilated and were active in church, they still felt most connected to their country and wanted to go home. I grew up thinking that Ukraine must be the most amazing, magical place,” said Melnyczuk, who made her first visit following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. She stayed in Kyiv for four months, volunteering as an English teacher and immersing herself in Ukrainian art and culture.
Melnyczuk, who had earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and psychology in 1980 followed by a master’s degree in counseling psychology in 1984, was inspired when she returned to America to pursue a master’s at Massachusetts College of Art.
“I always felt close to the world my parents left,” she said, “and my work reflects this influence.”
Five years ago, Melnyczuk transitioned from drawing, painting, and works on fabric to creating children’s books similar to the Ukrainian stories from her youth that she had joyfully shared with her own daughter. Melnyczuk continued the style of those illustrations in “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” in which preternaturally serene images are juxtaposed against unfathomable violence.
Melnyczuk has a goal of selling 1,000 books to “feel as if I’m able to help [Ukraine] at least financially.” In addition, she and Kyiv artist Halyna Andrusenko jointly curated the traveling exhibit “Don’t Close Your Eyes: Ukrainian Artists Respond to the War,” with 50 percent of sales benefiting the Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation, which supports Ukrainian fighters.
“I want people to appreciate that a lot of regular Ukrainians became soldiers to fight for the future of their kids and grandkids without knowing if they’ll make it back, and how fortunate we are here,” Melnyczuk said. “I’m doing what I can, but when you’re in this and many other situations in life, you feel like it’s never enough.”
The show, featuring 150 works on paper by 26 artists, including Melnyczuk, was displayed last November at New Art Center in Newton and the Bristol Community College campus in Fall River. Plans are underway to bring the exhibit to additional local and regional venues later this year.
Melnyczuk hopes her art, whether viewed in her book or the exhibit, elicits greater awareness — along with financial assistance — for her ancestral homeland.
“My emotions are great sadness for the country my parents came from and that has been through many occupations and oppression from Russia for years. The people finally gained some freedom after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now the people are suffering at the hands or insanity of a madman that wants to bring back Mother Russia,” she said. “It breaks my heart. I think a lot about the soldiers and innocent people that have perished. The incredible insanity and unnecessary suffering. I feel it deeply in my soul and I’m glad my parents aren’t here to witness it.”
For more information about “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” visit arrowsmithpress.com.
Cindy Cantrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.