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Interview with Ukrainian Visual Artist: Olga Stein

Olga Stein. Ukrainian artist.
Olga Stein in her studio. Courtesy of the artist.

Olga Stein (b. 1997) is a Kyiv, Ukraine-based visual artist from Cherkasy who began her career as a restorer of sacred art monuments. She was a restorer at the Palazzo Bandinelli in Lviv and the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra before dedicating her time as a full-time visual artist. In her work, she explores the themes of feminism, physicality, and vitality.

Stein has a Master's degree from the Kyiv National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture in Restoration Art and a Bachelor's degree from the Lviv National Academy of Arts in Restoration Art. Among the artist's latest projects is a personal exhibition in Paris, La Humaine Condition, group exhibitions in Europe and the USA, and cooperation with the Dorotteum auction house and the Palo Alto Foundation.

Olga Stein, Ukrainian Artist.
Olga Stein, "Emotional Support," (2021). Courtesy of the artist.

Please tell us about your background and what inspired you to become an artist.

My full name is Olga Stein Kalinowska-Kravchuk, but no one can ever pronounce it, so my artist name is Olga Stein, and I am an artist living and working in Ukraine, Kyiv. But the story of my formation began in Lviv, an ancient city with very beautiful architecture and many churches. Lviv is the spiritual center of Ukraine and also home to the famous Academy of Arts.

I first studied to be a restoration artist, then worked in museums with ancient icons. Later, I worked as a restorer on projects to restore the paintings of ancient churches. All of these experiences had a significant influence on my art.

Olga Stein, Ukrainian artist.
Olga Stein, "Sofia is cs" (2022). Courtesy of the artist.

What does a day in your life as an artist living in Ukraine during times of war look like?

After the full-scale invasion, my life changed dramatically. During this year, I went through an incredible amount of trials. At first, I was evacuated without any belongings and had no opportunity to create. Later, when preparing for a staff exhibition in Paris, I had to take my paintings out of Kyiv under air raid alert under fire. It was then that some of my paintings were damaged.

I lived away from home for several months at the beginning of the war, and my artist friend helped me by sharing his studio space so I could prepare for another show. The war forced me to leave Ukraine for a long time, and fortunately, I had the opportunity to spend this time at residencies and continue to tell the world about the war through my art.

The last few months of my life as an artist has been associated with constant anxiety and massive attacks on residential buildings and infrastructure, meaning there is often no water or electricity for several days. But on the other hand, I learned to appreciate my life and the opportunity to work more than ever.

Olga Stein, Ukrainian artist.
Olga Stein, "Body 3" (2022). Image courtesy of the artist.

What inspires you?

Now my great inspiration is the courage of my country and my faith in God. I build my art around the themes of corporeality, biblical myth, feminism, and naturalistic representation, all in strange combinations I see and analyze daily.

Olga Stein, Ukrainian artist.
Olga Stein, "The process of baptism," (2022). Courtesy of the artist.

You worked as a restorer at the Palazzo Bandinelli in Lviv and at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, both important historical museums in Ukraine. How does restoring art compare to being the creator of art?

I had an internship with these wonderful people in institutions, and indeed this part of my life greatly influenced my art. You have no room for error or creativity when you're a restorer. You must have a solid art school background, excellent technical training, an understanding of art history, and constantly mimic the artist whose work you are restoring. I felt an internal conflict when I realized that I had so much to say to the world that made me realize that I needed to leave the restoration business. It was time to become an independent author and find my voice.

Olga Stein, Ukrainian artist.
Olga Stein, "Stillborn," (2022). Courtesy of the artist.

Can you share your process for creating a painting? Do you first have an idea of what you want to paint before the brush touches the canvas, or is it intuitive?

I have moved away from creating individual paintings for quite some time now. Now I create large research projects. So before I start painting, I nurture the idea for a long time and choose the material (because I work with sculpture, painting, and graphics). Usually, before a new project, my studio looks like a laboratory or a detective's office. There are sheets of notes, photos of interviews, and book pages hanging on the walls everywhere. After the research, a long period of searching begins on the canvas or in clay. But the more precisely I formulate my research, the easier it is to work afterward. For example, I am currently working on a large sculptural project using land from the de-occupied territory of Ukraine. Hence, in addition to research, I had to work with the military and volunteers to get the land.

Olga Stein, Ukrainian artist.
Olga Stein, "Vitality/Body 6," (2022). Courtesy of the artist.

What does your work aim to say? What are the major themes you pursue in your artwork?

Although I am a devout Greek Catholic in constant dialogue with God and the church, my feminist views often lead me to explore themes related to the stigmatization and sexualization of the female body and the need to rethink church norms. The Russian invasion of Ukraine compelled me to respond through my art. As a curator and artist, I delved into themes related to the nature of hatred, dehumanization, and the post-colonial syndrome of toxic canonization and toxic heroism. My artwork portrays the metamorphosis of individuals in the context of war propaganda and attitudes toward the female body.

As the Ukrainian military launched its counteroffensive, I shifted my focus to sculpture and explored the value of land compared to human life. My art combines themes of corporeality, biblical myth, feminism, and naturalistic representation. I work with paintings on canvas and fabric, using tempera and oil, as well as clay, metal, and glass sculptures. For me, it is essential to highlight complex societal topics and show the truth of life by touching the viewer with realistic images. Through my art, I aim to encourage viewers to engage in an inner dialogue with God about rethinking traditional norms and values, ethics, and morality.

Olga Stein, "Redundant," (2022). Courtesy of the artist.

Prior to the war, you founded an event in your art studio called The Fair of Contemporary Art. This event brought together a new Ukrainian community of contemporary artists who support, help and invest in each other's work. How do you find the current state of the contemporary art community?

Before the war, I worked as a curator and created an artist-run gallery, thesteinstudio open space. We actively developed the community and organized training for artists, meetings, and, of course, exhibitions and fairs. It was a big project, so a large club of collectors of ultra-contemporary Ukrainian art was formed. But after the full-scale invasion began, I was forced to put this project on hold.

Now I see that the Ukrainian community is more vital than ever in the face of the enemy. It is essential to support Ukrainian culture, so despite the constant threat, new theaters and exhibitions are opening. Recently, the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Art, which had to hide its primary collection because of the war, opened an exhibition of young Ukrainian artists. I was amazed at how many people came to the opening. We are united, and we support each other. It is crucial not to lose hope.

To stay up-to-date with the artist's career, make sure to follow her on Instagram @asteinart


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