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Straw used to create art
Yuliya VERKHOVYNSKA explores the world of straw — angels, charms, birds and other figurines and decorations all made of straw — created by Rayisa Pavlenko.
Since early times of its known history, Ukraine, thanks to its chernozem soils (chernozem — “black soil” — the soil with a deep rich humus horizon), has been a land of grain growing, wheat in particular. The color of wheat fields is golden yellow, and the color of the sky above them is blue, and the combination of these colors is believed to have given Ukraine its national flag.
With the wheat threshed and grain separated, the straw which is left was and is used for various household purposes — to be fed to the livestock, to be used as a building material for making roofs or for other purposes. And straw can also be used as material for art. That’s what Rayisa Pavlenko does.
Rayisa Pavlenko was born in Kyiv and grew up in this city but it does not mean she had no connections with rural life and its cultural traditions. Her grandmother Khyma lived in the village of Hrechanivka in the Land of Kyivshchyna, and her other grandmother lived in the village of Berezan’ in the Land of Kyivshchyna. Rayisa spent her childhood summers with either of her grandmothers. Both of them knew herbs with medicinal properties well and they taught their granddaughter how and where to look for them. From village children she learnt how to make dolls using plants and flowers. Rayisa had a talent for drawing and she could spend hours on end drawing pictures. She thought she wanted to be an artist.
But she was educated as a kindergarten teacher and she worked at a kindergarten for some time. She employed her artistic talents not only in teaching art to children but in decorating lockers and children’s furniture with floral patterns and making dolls and dresses for these dolls. It was during that time that she began making decorative things and figurines using straw.
Her artistic strivings made her leave her work at the kindergarten and seek a job that would allow her to better employ her artistic talent. She landed a job at the Souvenir Factory in Kyiv where she made inlays with wood and straw. But she soon discovered that she missed being with children — she missed their lovely spontaneity and cheerfulness — and she went to work at a children’s art center where she headed a straw inlaid-work hobby group. Her students began to win prizes and their work was shown at prestigious exhibitions. Photographs of some of the works were published in one of the issues of UNESCO Bulletin.
Rayisa Pavlenko began to involve children from orphanages in art work — she taught them artistic use of wood and straw. Meeting Romana Kobalchynska, a curator of the Open-Air Museum of Folk Architecture and Everyday Life in Pirohiv near Kyiv, marked an important stage in Rayisa Pavlenko’s life. Ms Kobalchynska passed her enthusiasm for and knowledge of Ukrainian culture and traditions on to Rayisa, whose straw art reflected her new interests. She developed new techniques and introduced new themes to her straw creations.
She particularly enjoys making things which are used in traditional holidays such as Christmas. In making wreaths to be placed over or under traditional dishes and decorations for Christmas candles, for example, she uses straw and fragrant dry herbs.
One of her strengths is making “didukhy” — traditional figurines made of straw — in which she combines their traditional features picked in various parts of Ukraine with her own imagination. Says Rayisa Pavlenko, “The word “didukh” combines two words — “did”, that is “grandfather, ancestor” and “dukh”, that is “spirit.” In the times of old, people used to believe that the spirits of their ancestors protected them from the evil spirits and helped them in running their households. Small figurines of didukhy, which represented old men with long mustache and bushy brows, were used as “oberehy,” that is charms. They were presented to those you cared for on religious holidays such as the Feast of the Holy Trinity. In spring, these oberehy were put into the ground during the sowing season to help with a good harvest.”
Ms Pavlenko uses straw of wheat, rye, oats and barley with or without ears. She also uses fragrant herbs for making wreaths and pads to be placed under hot dishes, which cause the herbs exude their fragrances. She collects herbs only on certain days of the year. Ms Pavlenko makes Christmas tree decorations, also using straw and herbs. Straw and herb spiders, for example, that she makes to be hung on the Christmas tree, are a symbol of industrious work. The artist makes clay hedgehogs, which also symbolizes assiduity, and then sticks straws into the wet clay to imitate prickles.
Ms Pavlenko’s angels are particularly charming. Light and elegant, with their golden straw wings spread in flight, they can be hung anywhere in the house and they can serve as charms against evil spirits, or simply as wonderful decorations which give joy to the heart.
Ms Pavlenko heads a straw and herb art hobby group, Hromovytsya, which was founded by Romana Kobalchynska. The members of this group make charms and figurines, which represent birds and other animals, using various dry herbs and straw. Traditional decorative elements grace every major religious feast in Ukraine, and Ms Pavlenko and her disciples create them as well. They make figurines of animals using clay, straw and dry herbs, and combine them with such traditional things as pysanky, painted Easter eggs. In fact, she makes her own kind of pysanky from herbs and decorates them with artificial flowers.
On Easter, people take baskets of food to church to have them blessed by priests. Such baskets are often decorated with garlands. Ms Pavlenko’s garlands are very festive and decorative; they have tiny straw bells attached to them.
This year Ms Pavlenko showed some of her works at exhibitions in Goor, the Netherlands, and in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the exhibitions were both popular and critical success. The National Union of Masters of Folk Art provides support and encouragement, and Ms Pavlenko takes part in workshops organized by the Union.
Ms Pavlenko is convinced that her works based on tradition, enhanced by her imagination and created with all her heart put into these creations, are imbued with positive energies, which protect us from evil and cultural inference, and give us joy and positive emotions.
Photos are from Rayisa Pavlenko’s archives
At the celebrations of Christmas
Magic Egg. 2003.
At an exhibition in Edinburgh, Scotland;
Fish as a Christian symbol. 2002.
Archangel Michael. 2005.
The Charivna solomynka (Magic Straw)
Zhar-ptytsya (Firebird), a symbol
The straw horse that was exhibited
Didukh as a symbolic reminder