From the Ukraine with Love
Here at The Trail of Painted Ponies we like to say that we are showcasing the talents of some of the best artists in the country. We also like to introduce emerging artists who are looking for an opportunity to introduce their talents to an appreciative audience of collectors. Olena Kalayda, a woman who emigrated from the Ukraine several years ago, is one of those young artists whose abilities and initiative so impressed us that we invited her to paint a Pony.
Her story, while not quite a rags-to-riches tale, follows a somewhat similar arc. She was born in the Ukraine while it was still under Soviet rule. Known for its agricultural contributions, the Ukraine also known for its mineral resources and her home town – Novodruzhesk – was a coal mining community.
Students of history associate the Ukraine with artificial famines created by Stalin in the thirties, and Chernobyl, site of the nuclear power plant meltdown. But Olena recalls her country and her
childhood “in bright colors.” The village she grew up in had a quaint beauty, and even though it seemed there were continual food shortages, her family never went hungry, supplementing their diet with garden-grown fruits and vegetables.
When Olena talks about growing up in a communist state she sounds almost apologetic for not complaining about hardships. But the fact of the matter is, there were some good things about the political system she was raised under. There was no such thing as unemployment. And no one was on welfare or received social support.
Her father was her hero. He was also an artist, famous in their community. He taught art in high school. He was a photographer. He painted large murals in the socialist realism art style on the walls of civic buildings. He had “golden hands” and could build anything. All of which made it more of a tragedy when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the young age of 34, when she was just eight.
Education was important to the family – her mother taught Russian language and literature – and Olena was a straight-A student. She suspects she must have also inherited the “artist gene” because she loved to draw and was one of the best in her class. It came as no surprise to anyone that when she graduated from high school with honors she was admitted to a prestigious ceramics institute where her dish sets won awards for design. Her crowning achievement came when a three-foot tall vase, covered with designs and letters that celebrated World Peace, received top honors and was acquired by a museum where it rests today.
There is no tradition of commercial art galleries in the Ukraine, so upon graduation Olena went to work for a local supermarket and then electronics factory, designing posters and banners and assorted advertising material. Then she married and soon became the mother of a daughter and son. She was living in the town where she was born and would be there today had she not pursued a burning ambition to see the United States.
It was in 1991, around the end of the Cold War, that she, her husband and their two children took a dream vacation, visiting Ukranian relatives who had settled in Scottsdale, Arizona. She remembers that trip as a shocking experience. She’d grown up looking at caricatures of Americans as fundamentally divided along economic and racial lines. She expected to drive through
ghettos and streets crowded with black workers on strike, and she saw none of that. She stayed six months, the length of time her visa allowed her to visit, and even though she did not get to travel as much as she wanted because she had children to tend to, she did not want to leave.
When she returned to the Ukraine she could not stop thinking about America, which took on the aspect of paradise in her mind. She prayed for an opportunity to return, and her prayers were answered when she hit “the green card lottery.”
This time she came without her husband, who did not share her enthusiasm for “making it in America.” She brought her kids with her and over the past few years she has held a number of different positions – from store clerk to mini-bar stocker in a hotel – all the while painting on the side: Easter eggs in the traditional Ukranian folk art style; landscapes and still-lifes.
Current Painted Pony Figurines by Olena Kalayda: