Art Above Politics, Love Above War

Several years ago, I met Helen, a newcomer from Russia, at Bev Morton’s Wayne Arthur gallery here in Winnipeg. (Bev sadly passed away in Nov/21).  Helen’s art was as captivating as her warm personality. As a newcomer to Canada, she was eager to be accepted in our culture using her art as a universal language. During one of her doll workshops, I got to know her better while creating my little ‘kulak’ doll. 

Unfortunately, Canada is home to many a starving artist.  Becoming financially independent as an artist is a huge challenge for locals as well as new residents. My Russian friend struggled to make the proper connections but money was always tight. Disappointed, she finally returned back to Russia, her Canadian husband, Ed, in tow.  

Helen and Ed created a home for themselves—and for Helen's art—outside of Togliatty (known for its Lada cars) in the Samara Oblast. 

My Katya doll

Before Helen left Canada, she and I had collaborated on a picture book. Time was short and the project shelved until late 2021. Finally, in January, 2022 we focused time online working on the details. Helen was determined to make this happen and I admired her tenacity. Then in February 24, 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine and our book project was again stalled.

Kudos to Helen for believing in the power of family, of friendship and of art, for finishing up this story project. I wrote the English text, Helen supplied the Russian translation and created the art, the layout and the final production. She launched the book at her gallery in Samara earlier this fall. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to visit Togliatty on the Volga River and together we can spread the message that just because people are different, doesn’t mean we can’t still love and support each other.

Someday this war will end and we can return to feathering our nests instead of destroying them. And someday, I will have this book about storks and cuckoos produced for distribution in Canada. 

Remembering Ed Young and his Seven Blind Mice

The author of possibly my favourite children’s picture book has died. Ed Tse-chun Young both wrote and illustrated Caldecott-award-winner, Seven Blind Mice (1992). The inspiration for the book came from an Indian fable known as “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”  

CC Alvintrusty

Young received an earlier Caldecott medal in 1990, for his picture book, Lon Po Po. (A re-telling of the Chinese Red Riding Hood).  Born in 1931, he was raised in China, a culture which influenced most of his picture books. Young is quoted as saying:

“A Chinese painting is often accompanied by words … they are complementary. There are things that words do that pictures never can, and likewise, there are images that words can never describe." 

He moved to the USA when he was 19 and studied art, receiving many awards for his picture books ...

 ... stories that focus on Chinese and Indigenous folktales and I loved sharing them with my children when they were young. Over the years, it's the wisdom of Seven Blind Mice and its stark images that has stayed with me. 

The collage artwork in Seven Blind Mice, is featured on solid black.  Kirkus Reviews said, “Exquisitely crafted: a simple, gracefully honed text, an appealing story, real but unobtrusive values and levels of meaning, and outstanding illustrations and design--all add up to a perfect book.” (1992)

Compare this to a Kirkus review of an early Ed Young book, Up a Tree, where the reviewer writes, “A negligible idea occupying a very few pages--to be no sooner seen than forgotten.”  (1983) Ouch! Good thing Mr. Young didn’t let such a negative review stop him. 

Ed Young’s mice have been my role models. Sharing other points of view lets us grow wiser. I’m grateful for his art, his vision and his stories. 

Hoarding Issues

I heard a fascinating podcast which featured Nan Turner’s new book, Clothing Goes to War, discussing the shortage of fabric during the Second World War. Reducing, reusing & recycling was the norm. Fabric was expensive and clothes were usually sewn at home.  Not only was cloth in short supply, but so was rubber and metal which affected elastics, zippers and the always necessary, women’s girdle. We all know about the nylon shortage and the leg make-up, and eyebrow pencil back seams. 

During my childhood, Mom threw nothing out. Everything had a use. Snippets of elastic could hold up worn out knee highs, zippers were torn out of old sweaters and used in new sweaters. The new sweaters, of course, were made from the unraveled old sweater. I still have a clothespin bag made of a corduroy vest my mom wore back in 1950, with an ancient zipper torn out from a skirt.  (It’s no coincidence that the sub-title of Nan Turner’s new books is, “Creativity inspired by Scarcity in World War II.”)  

As that war generation dies, we’re now cleaning up their leftovers. Sometimes their closets, like their stories, are jammed full of stuff we want to ignore or throw out. Some of it truly is tired old junk. 

A friend of mine is currently dealing with her 98 year-old-mother’s hoarding. It can become a disease … a thriftiness that results in isolation and paranoia. But back when she lived in Schlesien or Silesia (now western Poland), during the war … during the formative years of her life … hoarding meant survival.  

Advertisers, in magazines like Life, always mentioned thrift and supporting the war effort. But they also offered hope for the future, when there would be new clothes. 

Come and See

Saw the re-mastered movie, Come and See, last week at Cinematheque a small, boutique-style theatre that showcases independent and international films here in our Exchange Distract.  It came out originally in 1985. 

Come and See is set in the forests of Belarus, in 1943, and focuses on the partisan movement. Some might consider the film a horror show, but it was in fact a war movie. It depicted animal cruelty, rape and violent death on the eastern front during the Second World War. According to the closing moments of the film, 628 Belarus villages were burned to the ground by the Nazis. Similar burnings happened in Ukraine. It’s no wonder a Ukrainian woman once spit in my face when I talked with survivors of such atrocities. I heard of how women and children were separated from the men, herded into barns and set ablaze. 

I searched the internet for some stats on Ukrainian losses and found this: “... the world never heard about the Ukrainian village of Kortelisy which the Germans burned to the ground on September 23, 1942 and killed all its 2,892 population of men, women and children. There were about 459 villages in Ukraine completely destroyed with all or part of their population by the German Army with 97 in Volhynia Province, 32 in Zhitomir province, 21 in Chernihiv province, 17 in Kiev province and elsewhere. There were at least 27 Ukrainian villages in which every man, woman and child was killed and the village completely destroyed by the Germans. (Ukrainska RSR u Velykyi Vitchyznianiy Viyni, vol.3, p. 150).

public domain, Stanislaviv, October, 1941
My father was sent to the eastern front in October, 1944. He never talked much about it — focusing his war memories on his earlier time in the Luftwaffe, until he crashed. I think his new position in the Military Police was to discipline the failing moral of the Wehrmacht. I know that he drove a motorcycle with a sidecar … like a Nazi in the movie. I felt quite uncomfortable watching those scenes, along with the others where the Nazis drink, loot, shoot, rape and sing. The father I grew up with liked to go fishing and hunting. He liked to build things and read books. He built model Junker airplanes with my brother.  So excuse my obsession with that old war.  It forms part of my identity.

my dad, 1944

Last week our parliament honoured a 98-year-old Ukrainian-Canadian, Yaroslav Hunka, who had supported the Nazis in Ukraine. Canada cringes with the political fallout and Poland demands his extradition. It would be fascinating to hear Hunka’s story. Why are we so eager to seek revenge on something that can never be revenged? Hunka would have been 20 years old at the end of the war. He would have grown up under Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, experienced the Holodomor. He might have seen the Nazis as liberators from the Soviets. He might have had to choose between two evils. Until we hear his story, we might hold off on judging him. 

The film, Come and See, depicted the horrors of Nazi atrocities with gut-wrenching visuals. If 18-year-old Hunka played a role in those events he does not deserve honour. But neither does he deserve my judgement. I can only be curious. What's his story? 

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