Tata Kolesnik, creates timeless paintings

Tata Kolesnik, a contemporary artist from Kharkiv, creates timeless paintings inspired by Italian Renaissance

Tata Kolesnik, Threads of stories, golden leaf, oil on canvas, 47x59in, 2023

I first encountered Tata Kolesnik’s artworks in New York City’s Soho district, at the Ukrainian contemporary art space titled Rukh Art Hub, where I have been working since autumn 2023. Tata, a painter from Kharkiv, like many other Ukrainians, had to flee from her home after Russia brutally invaded Ukraine in 2022. Now a refugee in Germany, she raises her two children alone and continues to create art with even more determination and courage than before the full-scale war.

What particularly captivated me in November was Kolesnik’s work “Threads of Stories”—an exquisite painting featuring six beautiful women reminiscent of Bottichelli’s classical heroines. Each tenderly holds onto long golden threads that embrace and interconnect them all, symbolizing the connection between Ukrainian women scattered across the globe due to Russian aggression. I spent hours staring at this masterpiece, absolutely magnetized by it, examining each little detail with my eyes. Amidst the clear references to the Italian Renaissance, the painting included delicate Ukrainian motifs, subtly hinting at its contemporary origins.

A couple of days after the exhibition’s grand opening, “Threads of Stories” was purchased by a New Yorker who was casually passing by and decided to peek into the new art show. He was left utterly enchanted by this specific painting. He examined it for quite a while, unable to turn his eyes away, and left the gallery only to return with a check in his hand.

“Threads of Stories” is undeniably an incredibly beautiful painting, but what amazed me the most was how this artist managed to convey such an intimate story about herself and her people in a way that resonates with foreigners across the ocean, evoking deep empathy and love. As a Ukrainian, I felt profoundly honored and proud to witness this. Eager to learn more about the artist, I started searching for some kind of article or interview about her, but to my immense surprise, there was nothing about her in the media. It seemed so unfair to me, I couldn’t believe it.

Luckily, a couple weeks later, I received an opportunity to talk to Tata Kolesnik personally and ask her everything I was curious about. This spontaneous conversation unfolded as a total improvisation—lively and candid, fueled by my genuine admiration of her work. Tata, a remarkably powerful and self-assured yet also very tender and sensitive woman, turned out to be incredibly interesting and just lovely to talk to. I hope that our conversation managed to unveil more of the enchanting history and a remarkable personality behind Tata Kolesnik’s art. For many, this interview will be their first encounter with her, and I trust that her allure will amaze and captivate you just as she did with me.

Left: Tata Kolesnik. Right: Connection, oil on canvas, 35,5×47in, 2022

Sofia Vynarska: Hello, Tata! It’s a pleasure meeting you.

Tata Kolesnik: Hello! I’m very pleased to meet you, too.

Are you currently working on something?

Yes, I am currently working on my new project called “Her Garden.” For me, it is a multidimensional and extremely fascinating exploration of the internal, the external, and the interaction between them. It’s about how one blends into the other and how it all manifests. The garden, in this context, symbolizes the inner world of a woman. This metaphor holds deep intimacy to me due to my big love for flowers and gardens.

So, if I understand correctly, the focus of your work is specifically on the female experience?

I think it can be attributed to the universal human experience. However, as a woman, the female psychology and feelings are much closer to me. What truly interests me is her garden. People of the opposite sex can appear from time to time, but they are only temporary guests here.

Tata-Kolesnik Warrior 35x31in; Victory 35,5×27,5in; Ukraine 35,5×27,5in, 2022, oil on canvas

Exploring your paintings, I noticed that your female characters look similar and all resemble you. Are they intentional self-portraits?

You know, I even had arguments with my mother about this [laughs]. She constantly scolds me, saying, “No way are you painting yourself again! Will you ever stop?”
But, in reality, it’s not true. I don’t have a goal to depict myself. I do use my body as a reference, though—only because it’s much easier to put myself in a position I need than look for a model who suits my character’s type. Frankly speaking, I do have a type that I like to paint, and all of my characters personify it. My heroine is an embodiment of this abstract, eternal, archetypal beauty that never “expires” or succumbs to ever-changing beauty trends. In my opinion, true beauty is not about a specific set of physical traits. It is an internal state that radiates from within, and never the opposite way.

Your remarkable mastery in painting is undeniable. How did you initially start painting? Did you receive any artistic education?

I’ve been drawing pictures for as long as I can remember, probably since about 3 or 4 years old. I used to draw all the time when I was a kid. It was a way of sharing my thoughts and communicating about things that I couldn’t express verbally. So, I just painted, and painted, and painted… Then came that scorching and terribly boring summer before my last year of high school. I was spending it at home, in our tenth-floor apartment in Kharkiv that I shared with my parents and grandma. I had nothing to do other than paint, so I painted a lot of stuff during that summer, making my first compositional attempts. I have never learned painting before, and when my parents saw my works, they decided that it all needed to be directed somewhere.

Just like that, when I was sixteen, I was brought to an amazing artist, and an even more amazing teacher, Eugen Bykov, who had his studio in Kharkiv. He was a reserved person, always maintaining a certain distance. At first, he gave me basic exercises, like hatching, working with paint, drawing from life, or making sketches. I had no skill at the time, and wooden hands that couldn’t properly handle an instrument. In addition to that, I felt a terrible rivalry towards his other students, who were already studying at universities. It was insanely hard, and I thought about leaving, but my curiosity was bigger than everything, so I stayed. Eventually, I received so much love and support. Bykov invested a lot in me and deeply influenced me as both an artist and a person. He advised me not to go to university for art studies but rather to receive a general education, while he will teach me the craft himself. I took his advice and thus became a pure product of his teachings.

Bykov was a very patient and unhurried man—he loved to do everything in a sensible, organized way, considering all techniques and executing them properly. His teaching approach was similar to the painters of the Italian Renaissance: in our studio named “Bottega number one,” Bykov, the master, worked alongside his students, with us swarming around him. Our studies were primarily based on copying the old masters. When the students’ works were discussed, Bykov never compared us to one another—neither did he compare us to contemporary or Ukrainian artists. He had a ton of those art albums, and from there, he pulled out our references: if someone tended towards decorativeness—he pulled Klimt, for non-conventional compositional solutions—Degas, for realism—Velazquez, and so on.

Imagine how high your bar rises when you constantly work with Raphael, Giorgione, or Titian before your eyes. This training became fundamental for me and my classmates. We all became extremely demanding of ourselves, never completely satisfied with our outcomes. This passionate aspiration for perfection urges us to constantly seek new methods, new senses, and new instruments of expression. We don’t adhere to the approach of “I found this good move, so I will replicate it on and on”—no. This creative spirit is insatiable; it craves a constant search and experiment.

Photos from Diamond-Jam-grounp-exhibitioin in Soho New York

What were your first studio works like? Has much changed since the beginning of your career as an artist?

My works have participated in exhibitions since 1999. Back then, there was a lot of exploration of still life and portraits. I feel like not much has changed since that time. I was very interested in narrating stories then and am still interested in that now. However, now I have a lot more tools in my arsenal to express what I want, rather than what just comes out.

How has the war in Ukraine influenced your art?

The onset of the full-scale war was a tremendous surprise for me. I couldn’t believe it was possible before it really started. I couldn’t imagine that our wonderful, peaceful city would be ruined with bombs and all those tragedies that are still happening there. When the atrocities committed by Russians in Bucha were revealed, I wanted to turn my face to the wall and just freeze. At that point, a lot of Ukrainian artists started to create images of characters with tied hands, torn clothes, in ropes, and things like that. As a Ukrainian woman, I was outraged witnessing this. Fueled by this rage, I painted “Protectress”—a fierce, brave woman in a bulletproof vest. It was crucial for me to express the unbreakable spirit of Ukrainian land and our women. She is not defeated, and she will fight until she wins. I felt all that fury and internal desire to fight no matter what. And in my art, I will only depict power and resilience.

It’s very important for me to convert all of my worries, pains, and fears into creation. With my art, I want to create a new, positive outlook on our reality. This is the way my works “Victory” and “Primavera” were created. “Victory” was created in November 2022, and my goal was to get this feeling of victory out of the air as if it already happened, and convert it into a visual image. I painted “Primavera” at the end of the winter of 2023. It was a dark, somber time, with a constant flow of disheartening news from Ukraine. Yet, amid the cold and the shadows of war, a subtle promise of warmth was already lingering in the air. Spring and the reawakening of nature always bring hope, and I wanted to capture this rekindling hope in this painting. Soon, the days will become brighter, flowers will sprout, and we will all emerge from the darkness—this is what “Primavera” is about: a rebirth, a renaissance.

The war turned me back to my roots. Before the war (editor’s note: before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022), I didn’t identify as a Ukrainian artist in an ideological sense. Although I am Ukrainian by nationality, my art has always been pan-European. My primary interest centered around universal human history, hence, I drew aesthetic inspiration from Biblical stories, ancient myths, and other archetypal themes. I had not incorporated Ukrainian visual codes into my paintings. However, in the wake of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I sensed a powerful surge of my Ukrainian self-identification. My attention turned to objects created by my ancestors. The heritage of my grandparents has always existed within me, and now it just rose up to the surface. Since then, I’ve been blending Ukrainian motifs with the Renaissance aesthetics. I really like how this combination manifested itself in my work “Threads of Stories”—it reminds me of Ukrainian Baroque.

Witnessing all the elements of my identity mix together in my artworks deeply fascinates me. I perceive myself as a vast melting pot, embracing roles as an artist, a Ukrainian, a woman, and a devoted follower of the Early Renaissance. Lately, I’ve also started noticing the influence of the Northern Renaissance on my art. This symbiosis turns out exactly how I experience it. My art is an expression of my global worldview, and it’s important to understand that, in a global context, Ukrainian is an integral part of European. I am truly passionate about highlighting the beauty of Ukrainian visual identity through my art.

In your creative process, what takes precedence—a story or a visual image?

The story always appears first, and it must be deeply intimate for me. It must carry a lot of emotional potential and energy to drive my creative process. In a painting, this original story becomes deeply ingrained. I’m not inclined to lay my naked soul on the table and explicitly tell about my personal experiences. What holds greater importance for me is creating a work of art that resonates with people and evokes their own stories. Hence, I often choose classical, archetypal scenes and images in my art. For me, a successful artwork is one that speaks in some way to every person who sees it.

The visual image forms organically. I prioritize authenticity in my art over mere aesthetic appeal. I want my story to be as real as possible, so I always ask myself questions: How do my characters relate to each other? What was going on between them before they took their positions in my painting? What might they do afterward? Who are they? Where do they come from? What could their future look like? Each painting is just a single shot pulled from the deepest layers of a vast, complex history.

Each work of mine can be interpreted in many ways, and I think it’s beautiful when a viewer has a different vision of my work than I put in it. Moreover, sometimes my narrative and viewer’s interpretation of it can be totally unrelated. My original idea is not a dogma for me. When people not just look at my paintings, but also use their intuition and imagination, that’s the biggest happiness for me as an artist. This communication between me and the viewer through my paintings is pure magic, and this is the part of my work that amazes and inspires me the most.

Tata, thank you so much for your time and this wonderful conversation. I am deeply honored and delighted to have had an opportunity to reveal more of your marvelous personality. I wish you the best of luck in your future projects.

Thank you. It was a pleasure sharing my story.

Tata’s upcoming plans involve participating in group exhibitions within the Rukh Art Hub project in New York. Her new project, “Her Garden,” is set to debut in autumn 2024 at her solo exhibition in Paris. If any of the readers happen to be in these cities at these time periods, I highly suggest visiting Tata’s exhibitions and experiencing her incredible art in person.

Interview and text by Sofia Vynarska

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