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An Artist's Exploration of the Crisis in Ukraine Begins by Remembering the Past

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Propaganda can kill, and one famous example is the story of The New York Times reporter Walter Duranty who, in 1931, regurgitated Communist propaganda into a series of 13 articles about Joseph Stalin's rule over the Soviet Union and, in doing so, winning the 1932 Pulitzer Prize. While a misinformed America slept, Stalin forced individual farmers to work on collective farms and fulfill impossible government quotas. Unable to consume their own grain, a 1932-33 famine in Ukraine resulted in the starvation and death of almost seven million persons.

This is a very personal story for artist Lydia Bodnar-Balahutrak, whose parents escaped the famine, and who understands the dangers of complacency. Her paintings, drawings and collages, which incorporate objects and materials brought back from her ancestral home interspersed with newspaper clippings and photographs, are a graphic cry for help. On display now at Hunter Gather Project, her work draws attention to the current crisis in Ukraine, with Russia not honoring the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, breaking its promise to respect the existing borders of Ukraine.

During a visit to Chernobyl, the site of 1986's catastrophic nuclear accident, Bodnar-Balahutrak became fascinated with the idea that, over time, nature will reclaim the evidence of horrific acts, and people will begin to forget. Will the Grass Grow Over It? is a beautifully layered collage, with the base consisting of photographs of hungry and cold people, sometimes lying dead in the street, and news clippings about the collectivization that led to the Holodomor tragedy (the hunger-extermination). Upon this layer she has painted blades of grass, some dead but newer growth as well, interspersed with the words of Soviet Russian writer and journalist Vasily Grossman. "And what has become of all that awful torment and torture? Can it really be that no one will ever answer for everything that has happened? That all will be forgotten...? That the grass will grow over it?"

From a distance, If You Had Only Known appears to be a beautifully woven tapestry of crimson and gold foil. The artist incorporates small scraps of fabric, received on her trip to Ukraine, and arranges them along the border like woven stories of sorrow. In the center she uses raised and recessed letters, reminiscent of metal type pieces from early typesetting, and adds texture and depth with metal leaf, acrylic, oil and wax. The piece is based on a poem by Ivan Franko, "If you had only known, the might and weight of words.... You'd surely not confront despair and pain with silence."

Bear (T)hugs is a creative and witty three-dimensional vignette of a felted bear (Russia) embracing nesting dolls of Putin, Stalin, Lenin, Rasputin and, in its belly, vermin. Each doll contains hidden messages in the form of painted figures on the reverse side of each meticulously painted piece.

The exhibit includes other important pieces, cleverly incorporating Soviet coins, rubles, maps and animals. The artist has written a companion guide to help viewers understand the meaning behind each work. Be sure to take the time to read the underlying messages in What Balls!, which gets to the heart of the fact that Ukraine should stop waiting for leaders to emerge in the West and that the country can only depend on itself.

An artist talk is scheduled for Saturday, February 28, 2 pm to 3 pm, with Lydia Bodnar-Balahutrak in conversation with art writer Donna Tenant. Reservations are requested.

Nature Studies continues through March 7, at Hunter Gather Project, 5320 Gulfton, Suite 15, open Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., 713-664-3302, huntergatherproject.com.

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