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Mykolay Kochubey, a designer of postage stamps
Mykolay Kochubey, who is a member of the National Union of Artists of Ukraine, teacher of the Ukrainian Academy of Art and Architecture, and laureate of many prizes, was interviewed for Welcome to Ukraine magazine by Mariya VLAD.
Mykolay Kochubey, a painter from Kyiv, born in 1956, made his first substantial claim to artistic fame in 2002 when the postage stamp that he had designed was recognized to be the best stamp of Ukraine of that year and he was awarded the International Heorhiy Narbut Philately Prize. In 2005, Mr Kochubey was among the three prize winners of the prestigious WIPA International Contest, in which artists from 160 countries took part.
Mr Kochubey, your art definitely reflects, in an artistically transformed way, of course, influences of Ukrainian folk songs. You must have been exposed to the Ukrainian traditional culture — when and where was that?
When I was still a little kid, I was taken by my parents to my grandfather Mefodiy who lived in the village of Napadivka in the Land of Vinnychyna, to spend a summer there. I was exposed, as you put it, to a lot of Ukrainian traditional folk songs. The women, returning from work in the fields, sang them so beautifully, I could not help letting them into my heart. Many years later, I took my little daughter Lada who was about eighteen months then, to the same village, and I saw that she liked the things that I had once admired. There must have been something — the beauty of nature and of folk culture — that entered her heart and soul too. She has a talent for drawing and she may become an artist. I believe that’s how traditional culture is passed from one generation to another.
Were there any other impressions that confirmed you in your love for the traditional culture?
Of course there were! I’ll tell you of only one experience — though there were many other such experiences — which made a profound impression on me. When I was an undergraduate student of the Kyiv Art Institute and was supposed to have already begun working on my graduation project, a friend of mine, Oleksandr Horobets (not the namesake of your publisher and editor in chief, but the very same person but who was not, at that time, involved yet with magazine publishing), invited me to join him and his friends for a canoe trip down the river Vorskla which flows right through the heart of Ukraine. I said that I would not be able to go because I was in the middle of preparations for my graduation work and that I even was not sure which subject I should choose for it. Mr Horobets swept aside my objections and said that this trip would only help me think things over. And indeed it did. It was in spring when nature was already awakening after the hibernal slumber. And it was surprisingly warm. We were canoeing down the river and once I heard the distant sounds of a song coming from a small village that sat on the bank. It was an old Ukrainian folk song, and it sort of overwhelmed me and made me see visions of the Cossacks getting ready to march out against an enemy, of the Holy Trinity blessing them, and of the angels greeting the Cossacks, and playing musical instruments and singing for them. Right there and then I knew what kind of a diploma project I wanted to carry out — it was to be based on a Ukrainian traditional folk song, in which like in an Easter egg the whole Universe is concentrated. I think it was a case of my genetic memory giving me advice. It was back in 1989 or 1990, before Ukraine had gained its independence, and since then I’ve been using in my art themes based on the folklore, and I drew my inspiration from modern performers of folk songs such as the Choir Homin Leopolda Yashchenka, Nina Matviyenko, Valentyna Kovalska and Mariya Mykolaychuk. I see in a traditional folk song the epitomized expression of national spirit. Back in the late Nineteen eighties and Nineteen nineties I did not know the Ukrainian history well enough — the Soviets suppressed many facts and distorted others — and it was the folk songs that gave me material for my art. And the native land too. On visits to my grandfather’s, I would take a handful of rich dry earth into my hand and watch it pour down from my fist. When wet, this earth was like soft black butter…
How old were you when you began your studies at the Art Institute?
Much older than the average student. I was twenty-eight and I even thought that maybe it was a bit too late to study at college. Besides, what I wanted to do in art was something of the kind that earlier in the soviet times was frowned upon, or even prosecuted. Or I could have easily found myself in a psychiatric asylum, but the situation changed and I got through.
Were there people who supported you in your search for your art?
Yes, luckily there were. One of those people was the head of a free graphics art studio, Professor Andriy Chebykin. He used to tell me, “Sing what you draw,” and I did sing while working. Mr Chebykin also directed my interest to Taras Shevchenko, his poetry and his art. I think it was back in 1986. At that time, when treating subjects even based on Shevchenko’s poetry and art — and Shevchenko was accepted by the soviets as the pivotal figure in Ukrainian culture — I had to be careful not to juxtapose yellow and blue in my works of art, the two colours of Ukrainian statehood which had been banned by the soviets.
I don’t quite see how Shevchenko’s themes could be used without these two colours.
I managed somehow. Say, I painted a blue sky but the field of wheat I’d paint not in yellow but in gold. And for some strange reason it was accepted by the censors.
Is there any place in Kyiv which is of a special significance for you?
Yes there is. It is the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery. My family used to live in the vicinity of it and I grew up with the golden domes never out of my sight. And now my studio is situated in the territory of this monastery. I find it to be the holiest place in Ukraine… Incidentally, I borrowed a lot from icon painting in general and from the icon “portraits” in particular.
Do the talents for singing or painting run in your family?
Probably. I know that my father always liked to sing and he sang well. My maternal grandmother Marfa used to chant prayers all the time… Once, when I was visiting with my grandfather in the village where he lived, I found an old icon — the old veranda of grandpa’s house was being taken apart for a new one to be built, and it was in that rubble I discovered an oblong piece of wood which turned out to be an old icon. I saved it and still have it. I’ve restored it too… My mother had a dream in which she saw an old icon of the Virgin who stepped out of the icon after my mother’s fervent prayer… In 1992 I travelled to Greece and found myself in the vicinity of Mount Athos — but never visited any of the monasteries situated there. There was something in me that told me I should not do it… During the wedding ceremony in the church the priest used the icons that I had painted. When the priest asked afterwards where these icons came from, and he was told they had been painted by the bridegroom, I saw that he was impressed.
You are the creator of stamps one of which received a prestigious international prize. How long have you been designing postage stamps?
For quite some time. My interest in this work developed after I had worked on a commission that dealt with depicting a Ukrainian national dress. When I came over to designing postage stamps and executing drawings for them, I painted my relatives and friends wearing Ukrainian traditional clothes, not necessarily of the kind that were worn on Sundays or holidays. For the stamp Svyato Spasa (Feast of the Savior) I painted my great-grandfather, barefoot, wearing loose white pants in the peasant tradition of old time. I ascertained what my great-grandfather looked like from my uncle who remembered him.
What about the stamp Svyato Pokrovy (Feast of the Virgin’s Protective Veil)? Are there any relatives or friends of yours in it?
Yes. My wife Larysa, our daughter Lada and my own likeness are in that stamp. In the stamp Svyato Mykolaya (Feast of St Nicholas) you can find me as a child and my mother and father bending over that child. I was born on December 12, right before the Day of St Mykolay, and I was named after the saint. Do you understand now why I put myself into that stamp?
I do…What about the stamp that received an international WIPA prize in 2005?
It was called Rizdvo (Christmas). The international jury was made up of representatives of the postal services, stamp artists and journalists and I was happy that my Rizdvo was awarded a prize. Back in 2002, the series of my six stamps Narodny Odyah (National Dress) was awarded an international Hryhory Narbut prize. The series had three pairs of stamps. The first two stamps showed celebrations of the Feast of Pokrova and Spas. The next two showed the traditional dress of the Land of Cherkashchyna, and the last two showed celebrations of the Feast of Easter in the Land of Ternopilshchyna.
Was it the first series of stamps that you did?
No, not the first. The first one was created in 2001 and for that one I also got a Narbut prize. All in all, I depicted in the stamps the traditional dresses from almost all the Oblasts of Ukraine.
You painted subjects inspired by Ukrainian folk songs, your designed postage stamps. Is there anything else that you would like to mention?
I also made designs for commemorative coins and medals. I’ve made several series of commemorative coins and medals dedicated to such prominent figures of Ukrainian culture as Mykola Lysenko, the composer; Volodymyr Vernadsky, the scientist; Leonid Hlibov, the fabler; Kateryna Bilokur, the folk artist; Yury Kondratyuk, the scientist in the field of space exploration; Mykhailo Ostrohradsky, the scientist-mathematician.
When did you start designing coins?
In 2002. The first coin I designed was from the series Obryadovi svyata (Church Feasts) — Christmas, Easter, the Holy Trinity and Pokrova. I’m planning to continue this series and make designs for coins and medals commemorating all the major Orthodox feasts. I’ve also done sketches for a series of prominent political figures of Ukraine, among whom there will be the national hero of Ukraine Stepan Bandera. In fact, I was commissioned to do that series back at the time when the current President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko was the governor of the National Bank of Ukraine. Later the project was suspended but I hope it will be carried out.
Photos are from
Mykolay KOCHUBEY’s archive
This stamp designed by Mykolay Kochubey,
Birth of Jesus Christ.
Unharness the Horses,
Easter. Traditional dresses
Trinity. Traditional dresses
Christmas Eve. Traditional dresses
The Day of the Saviour. Traditional dresses
The Feast of Pokrova (Intercession). Traditional
Mardi Gras. Traditional dresses
A sketch for the stamp “The Day of St Mykolay”
A bloc of stamps which was awarded a prize
Stepan Bandera. Reverse.
Feast of Pokrova. Reverse.
The Fair at Sorochyntsi.
A sketch for the stamp “The Mowers at Work”
A sketch for the stamp “Wedding Songs”