Ukrainian- American Artist Ola Rondiak gives us a peek inside her studio!
Article by Caroline Haller
Ola Rondiak is a Ukrainian- American artist based out of Kyiv and New York. Rondiak was born in 1966 in Cleveland, Ohio to immigrant parents. Rondiak’s parents and grandparents’ histories of displacement and Ukrainian heritage influence her art.
Rondiak started out studying Psychology earning a BA in Psychology & Education from Hunter College in 1989 and an M. Ed in Clinical Psychology from Cleveland State University in 1994. After which, she worked as a psychotherapist. Therefore, her history and work as a psychotherapist influences her artwork. Rondiak works through themes of identity, freedom, femininity and healing when creating her art. In 1995, Rondiak moved to Ukraine and has lived and worked between the two countries since. Since then, other events in Ukrainian history have influenced her work, such as the Revolution of Dignity.
Over the past year, Rondiak has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions across the United States and Internationally. Additionally, Rondiak’s work is in several permanent collections including: The Revolution of Dignity Museum in Kyiv, Ukraine; The Ukrainian Embassy in Bern Switzerland; Shevchenko Museum & National Museum of Decorative Arts in Kaniv, Ukraine; Ukrainian Embassy in Paris; and the Hudson River Museum in New York.
From August 11-14, 2022, Rondiak exhibited her work at Art Market Hamptons in New York. In Alessandro Berni Gallery’s booth, she displayed the following works: No Choice But Freedom, Generations, I’m Still Waiting, I’m Still Here, and My Land. In these works, her own history intertwines with the history and traditions of Ukrainian. These charcoal drawings and collages, a deeply raw and personal output, acknowledge the pain of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, while commenting on the tenacity of women to fight for freedom!
Figure 1. Ola Rondiak, No Choice But Freedom, 2022, Collage
I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Rondiak some questions and get a peek inside her studio. I’ll share her answers and her video with you! Hope you enjoy!
I think you have spoken quite a bit about your family’s history and background in Ukraine How did this influence your work? How does your grandmother’s story influence your work? What other events in Ukrainian history have been uniquely part of the story of your art?
Russia's invasion of Ukraine during World War Two left my maternal grandmother Paraskevia Michniak alone to care for my sick aunt in western Ukraine. My grandfather, having already been arrested once, had to flee from the Stalinist regime. He traveled west with my mother, away from the Russian army, waiting to return home after the war. After a year of moving west on foot, they were unable to return and ended up displaced persons in Austria. After living in the displaced persons camp for four years, her family ended up in America. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, my aunt died at nineteen and Russian forces arrested and charged my grandmother with collusion against the state sentencing her to 25 years of hard labor at the Women's Strict Regime Prison in Mordovia, Russia. In 1953, Stalin died, and in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev granted amnesty to political prisoners, such as my grandmother. Unable to join her family due to the Iron Curtain, she eventually began a correspondence, albeit censored, with her husband and daughter, my mother. As a first generation American born to immigrant parents, I explore how historical knowledge of my roots and culture help to navigate my future. Through the layering of fabrics, papers, mosaics, paints, ropes, and plaster, I have been exploring the various facets of female identity, freedom, conformity, trans-generational pain, and healing. For me, the female image looms large in my work, and the female portrait underpins the terrain for truth and dignity on my canvases and installations. I try to embrace my femininity with all its mystery, strength and dignity and offer an almost meditative feeling through my work so that we remember how we are all connected through our dreams and desires. One of the main motifs in my work is the "vinok", a headdress which was worn by women as part of the national costume.
What materials do you use in your works?
When I moved to Ukraine in the 1990’s, after Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union, I immediately began working with fabric. I started designing and sewing my own clothes and even started a small business doing this for others. Shortly after I began creating fabric collages, which turned into acrylic collages on canvas. When the war began in 2014 in Ukraine, I began working with plaster of Paris to symbolically help heal the pain, as this is the material used to treat broken bones. Since the full-scale invasion of Russia in Ukraine this year, I began working with charcoal, as this felt like a raw and organic way for me to process the pain of this war.
Is there one person or style that has been most influential to your artistic style?
I really can’t name one particular person or style that has been most influential to my personal style. For me, it’s been an organic journey navigating between motherhood, my previous career as a psychotherapist, and into discovering myself as an artist.
Can you discuss the works you exhibited at the Hampton’s Fine Art Fair in August?
The drawings and collages which were exhibited at the Hampton’s Fine Art Fair in August were created shortly after the war escalated in Ukraine this year. I have been living in Ukraine for over 25 years and was in America on February 24, unable to return to Kyiv. I decided to create these drawings with a new medium, charcoal, as it felt like an organic and raw way to express and process the pain. These drawings continue to reflect the determined spirit of women and the unyielding fight for freedom. Ukraine continues to be an anchor for freedom and democracy for all of us, which is why I continue to share Ukraine's culture with the world.
Your work has been described as a marriage of historical references and post-modernist contemporary techniques; would you say this is accurate? Why?
Yes, I feel that is an accurate description that has been stated by several curators and museum and gallery directors. While living in Ukraine for the past 25 years, I have watched a post-soviet country develop into a democratic, independent society and witnessed two revolutions first-hand. I believe that the trans-generational pain in my family history as well as Ukraine’s struggle to freedom gave a strong impetus in the development of my artwork. My art reflects my family history, my personal journey of tracing my ancestor’s footsteps, and how this impacts my identity today as an individual in the context of my responsibility as a member of society.
How has your work as a psychotherapist been engaged within the creation of your work?
I think that raising children and all the events that I witnessed in Ukraine over the years has shaped my world view. Emotional experiences surface in my artworks as my personal history intertwines with Ukrainian history and tradition. I created my contemporary "Motanka" sculptures, inspired by ancient Ukrainian rag dolls, each serving as a talisman for good health, fortune, and healing. My Neo-Pop sculptures, inspired by my children's clothing, are covered with plaster of Paris, old signs and homework papers, and testify to better times, a notion of passing time, and morphing histories. As stated by Kathrine Page (Delaware Contemporary Museum), Rondiak “harvests a bold new, deeply personal prototype emblematic of feminine tenacity stitched in truth through the thread of her own story. Rondiak’s creativity cuts the cloth of a new absolute beauty with a redemptive quality that clearly understands the important healing role of art and the psyche for future generations.”
I hope that my personal story illustrates the importance of the role of art in preserving culture and creating a source of sustenance, inspiration, and healing for future generations.
What does a day in your life look like when you are making and when you are not making art? Can you talk a bit about your process of creating art?
Interesting question, as these realities are often blurred together, whether I am in the studio or not. In other words, I am always thinking about my work, which I try to carry with me into the studio, or it just happens subconsciously. In terms of a work routine, I travel a great deal between the two countries and try to manage my time most effectively. For example, when I have access to my studio spaces, I try to maximize that creative time and when I am visiting family or helping one of my children with their lives, I can then work on the practical elements of my work. I have come to understand that there is a special purpose to all the different aspects of my movements. My routine is basically dictated by all the pieces of my life, including family, travel, and deadlines for exhibits. In terms of personal routine, although frequently disrupted, I try to maintain an intermittent fasting schedule. I prioritize my thinking and planning tasks, along with some form of exercise into my morning routine, prior to my first meal. This gives me a sense of control and allows me to plan my big rocks for the day before all the little tasks take over!
Let’s end on a fun note! If you could have a meal with one person from anytime throughout history or the present, who would it be and why?
My grandmother that I have never met. I am inspired by the beauty of Ukraine, by the determination of the Ukrainian people, my family history, and especially my grandmother whom I have never met. The fact that she lost everything, including her family and her home and was forced to do physical work in a female labor camp all day and still had the strength and determination to secretly embroider in the night, is my source of inspiration and sustenance. While in the Gulag, and at great personal risk, my grandmother began embroidering religious icons at night by the light of the northern latitudes. She used cloth and threads from her clothes and fish bones for needles. It was these icons that kept her spirit alive during the hard years in the Gulag. Upon release, she smuggled the embroidered icons, which were strictly forbidden by Soviet authorities, out of the prison by sewing them into her clothes. An American tourist successfully smuggled the embroideries to her family in the West. She continued to be a source of strength and inspiration for the rest of her life. Although I cannot physically meet her, I do believe we are connected on many levels, and I am very grateful for that.