‘Ukrainian Roots: Art From the Diaspora’ at the Montclair library
As the war in Ukraine reaches its fourth month, the Montclair Public Library is highlighting Ukrainian culture and artists through its month-long exhibit “Ukrainian Roots: Art From the Diaspora.”
"The inspiration behind becoming a photographer was because in Ukrainian culture, the arts are revered," Natalie Napoleon, one of the featured artists in the show, said. "So, I was always raised to appreciate the beauty around us."
“Ukrainian Roots” was unveiled on June 1 and will be on view at the library until June 30. The show features the work of American artists with Ukrainian roots, Natalie Napoleon (natalienapoleon.com), Tanya Debarry (tdebarry.com) and Melanka Coppola (madebymelanka.com), and a Ukrainian citizen now living in New Jersey, Ivan Bratko (uaartsy.com/pages/popular-shops/bratko-art).
Bratko, who recently came to the United States from Ukraine, creates ceramic pieces with a primary focus on capturing the human figure. He has a particular interest in traditional Ukrainian black-ware ceramic techniques in order to produce burnished sculptured forms that are then integrated with thrown vessels. His work has been exhibited in New York City, Canada and across Europe.
Debarry primarily uses acrylic paints and acrylic markers to create geometric and colorful pieces. She studied art and design at various educational institutions, obtaining a degree in art history and American studies from Rutgers University.
Her first art teacher was her mother, who taught her about color and perspective and whose work in graphic linocuts has influenced Debarry's work.
For Napoleon, photography is her medium of choice; she has been a photographer for over 20 years. Growing up immersed in Ukrainian artistic culture, she found photography as her means to capture "the reality of the beauty and the fleeting moments."
A compilation of three of her photographic collections, including prints from a series of photographs she took while in Haiti, are on display. The Haiti series was taken in 2014 and focuses on a Haitian village that she visited with a group of Americans helping build a transitional learning center.
While Napoleon focuses on capturing through photography, Melanka Coppola's art is more variable, from collages to digital art and paintings. Her history with art stems from her double major in visual art and marketing while an undergrad, but having gone down the business route after college, she only recently dusted off her art supplies during the pandemic.
Coppola's style changes with her inspiration, and her art in the exhibit showcases the various themes and techniques she uses.
“I have a lot of pieces in the show because it tells a story about the creative process, which isn’t always linear,” Coppola said. Although it isn’t obvious how each piece is informed by my Ukrainian heritage, being of Ukrainian descent is a huge part of who I am, my life experiences and what I created. The groupings reflect my journey.”
Like Napoleon, Coppola has three collections, or what she calls "groupings," of her art, including her well-known tryzub design that she has sold through her online shop, with 100% of the proceeds going to Ukrainian organizations. The tryzub — the Ukrainian trident — is a symbol of freedom for many from the country, appearing on its coat of arms. Coppola’s design incorporates the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
One of Coppola's friends in Switzerland recently sent her photos of her tryzub design on the water bottles of Ukrainian refugees.
"That just meant so much to me," Coppola said. "Something so seemingly insignificant like my silly little design ended up being a big morale boost for people who were being displaced because of war."
The direct inspiration for the show is curator Diane Stewart's experience while visiting Bologna, Italy, for work during the start of the Ukrainian war. While in Bologna, Stewart saw some Ukrainian citizens, primarily women, who had left the country and received aid and transitional support in Italy.
With this experience of witnessing the refugees of war and having grown up in New York City with a Ukrainian family in the apartment above hers, Stewart — who earlier had been offered an opportunity to curate a show by the Montclair Public Library — decided to dedicate her curation to the month-long Ukraine exhibit. She’d previously partnered with the library to curate shows while she was on the library’s foundation board.
She reached out to a variety of Ukrainian organizations to scout out artists who would be interested in showcasing their work. One of those artists, Bratko happened to be friends with one of Stewart’s neighbors and agreed to be a part of the show through that connection.
"Their art is well-crafted, and so is their sense of who they are as Ukrainians and Ukraine Americans and with how their art is influenced by their Ukrainian background," Stewart said.
A portion of the profits from sales from the show will be donated to Ukraine's war efforts. Despite the show’s leaving the library on June 30, it will continue virtually through the artists’ websites and social media.
"Art is extremely important [to Ukrainians]," Napoleon said. "They're playing instruments and dancing in the streets, so they're creating art around the war itself. It's an integral part of the culture."