Nina Sayenko holds her father, the noted artist Olexander Sayenko, in fond remembrance.
She shares her recollections of the artist with Welcome to Ukraine readers.

Father was a person very dear to me. I do not have clear memories of my mother who died when I was very young and father was the parent who raised me. He provided both material and spiritual support, encouraged me to pursue artistic inclinations. And I believe I, his only child, was for him a sort of intermediary between him and the world. The thing is my father was rather hard of hearing. I helped him communicate with people, and when I grew up, I was a confidante, an assistant and a sort of an adviser.
I don’t believe one can become a true artist if one is born without a special artistic talent. My father’s penchant for art manifested itself in his early childhood when he carved beautiful designs on pieces of wood. His young friends, shepherds like him, admired his art and were amazed by his dexterity with which he covered regular walking sticks with carved ornaments. His talents attracted the attention of grown-ups and he was taken from his native village of Borzna in the land of Chernihivshchyna to St Petersburg, a very long way from Ukraine.
There he was placed at a boarding school for deaf-and-dumb children with artistic talents. Handicapped children were brought to that school from all over the Russian Empire.

O. Sayenko (a photograph). 1928

They were kept in the school for a week while the teachers took a closer look at them, checking whether they really had any artistic talents. Those who had were left to continue their studies, and the rest were dispatched back home. The young Olexander Sayenko was allowed to stay.

Those early years of studies were not easy for him, living so far away from home, but he found them very interesting too. He began to learn the basics of art. He was planning to enrol as a student at the famous St Petersburg Academy of Art. But the turbulent times of wars and revolutions prevented him from completing his studies in St Petersburg. My father returned to Ukraine, where he went to an arts school in the town of Myrhorod and later to the Arts Academy in Kyiv. There, a great influence upon him was exercised by professor Vasyl Krychevsky, one of the creators of the new Ukrainian art. Krychevsky was a man of a powerful intellect and many interests. He collected samples of Ukrainian folk art, which he knew very well. His collection included some 500 pieces of pottery, weaving, tapestry, embroidery and paintings. Professor Krychevsky gladly shared his encyclopaedic knowledge of many things with his students. Olexander Sayenko was searching for a new national style in art and this search endeared him to the professor who regarded Sayenko as one of his favourite students.

My father always fondly remembered his years at the Academy, with its inspiring atmosphere of artistic enthusiasm, its exchange of artistic ideas. The Academy had contributed greatly to the formation of my father as an artist and as a person.

The early twenties were the times of great shortages too. There was not enough drawing paper at the Academy to provide it for all the students. “When there was no drawing paper,” my father recollected, “ we used whatever we could lay our hands on: old newspapers, blank pages in books, anything. We were burning with a desire to draw, to create. We, students, knew each other well since we had our drawing and painting classes all of us together. Love of art was above everything. We had no money to buy clothes with, and I once made my own pants and a shirt from a big piece of canvas. I painted ornaments on the shirt and dark stripes on the pants with oil paints and these garments lasted me for quite some time. The dormitory did not have running water, in winter it was not heated. So, we went down to the Dnipro River to fetch water and to a forest in the vicinity of Kyiv to collect firewood for the stoves. But many of the students could not stand such hardships for long and dropped out of school.”

But Olexander Sayenko persisted, tried hard to master artistic skills, studied the history of Ukrainian art, discussed his views on art, his ideas with other students and they shared theirs with him. The students of the workshops of Mikhail Boychuk and Vasyl Krychevsky often worked together. Both teachers had a lot in common in their approach to art, both insisted on studying folk art profoundly .

Once in a while students were invited to help with decorating public places on festive occasions. Olexander Sayenko also volunteered to decorate army barracks on the occasions of big holidays and was happy to be treated to a soldiers’ meal as payment for his work.

O. Sayenko. Ukraine in Olden Times.
1921 (a sketch). Executed in 1992. 130 5 310 cm.

There is a place not far from Kyiv called Mezhyhirya. It was frequented by art students who painted beautiful scenery in plein-air manner. The Mezhyhirya convent attracted a special attention of art students by its sombre architecture set in a resplendent landscape. Olexander made friends with some of the nuns and fell in love with one of them who was in the prime of her young beauty. He even painted her portrait in watercolours (Mezhyhirya Nun; A Nun in White; 1922) to keep them as a memento of that romantic albeit unrequited love.

Olexander’s teacher Vasyl Krychevsky on several occasions left Kyiv to go to Odesa, where he was engaged in making a film called Taras Shevchenko, and when he was away from the Academy he entrusted the task of conducting classes to the undergraduate Olexander. Father supervised other students’ work, which consisted in making designs for furniture decoration, tapestry, and earthenware, helped them with his advice.

“Once the president of the Academy I. Vrona paid a visit to my class,” my father recollected, “he walked into the workshop, sat quietly in a corner and watched me working as a teacher for quite some time. Then he asked the students whether they understood my instructions and explanations and they were unanimous in saying “yes.” The president seemed to have been quite satisfied with what he had seen and thanked me for conducting a good class. It was shortly before I graduated. For my graduation work Decorations for a Village Community Centre I was awarded an excellent grade.”

Professor Vasyl Krychevsky wrote the following in his letter of reference given to the graduate Olexander Sayenko: “1) extremely diligent; 2) keeps abreast of all art achievements, particularly those that are related to his own work; 3) knows how to handle the materials he works with so as to bring their qualities to best advantage; 4) is capable of projecting his personality onto the art and imagery he creates and is capable of unlimited further development along the lines and traditions of truly national Ukrainian art.”

Professor Krychevsky kept in touch with his former student and in 1928, he invited Sayenko to take part in designing decorations for the History Department of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Sayenko went down to work, created many sketches. Two of them (Cossack Mamai and A Thrall, based on Shevchenko’s works) were used for decorating walls of the Department with monumental panels

I watched father work

When I was a little girl, I often watched father work. We did not have electricity in our house, and when it was getting dark, father would light a primitive lampion that produced flickering, unsteady light. The room was submerged in a mysterious semidarkness, with shadows jumping on the walls. He created art objects, made of straw, I was at his side, passing him straws, listening to his stories.

As I was growing up, I began to appreciate Ukrainian folk art more and more, fine samples of which could be found in my father’s collection. I learnt to see the roots of such art, to understand its eternal values. Father explained to me when this or that object was created, what stood behind it. We read books, looked at pictures in art albums, engaged in drawing pictures ourselves. Father would encourage me to draw things taken from imagination, from fantasies. To create my own world of images was an challenging task, but very rewarding. I lived in an atmosphere of high spirituality, creative aspirations, intellectual search.

As years passed, I helped my father more and more with his work. I was learning the skills of an artist who works in different media. My father used straw as a medium of artistic creation and I learnt to use it too. Straw absorbs the sun’s energy and then gives it back to people. I think that besides its purely textural qualities, straw attracts artists as a medium used in creating art objects because it gives a feeling of warmth and life.

.Gradually art became a sole object of my life. My father and I started working together. We decorated interiors of schools, kindergartens, community centres. I began executing panels made of straw to my own designs. My father was always at my side to help with advice. When in 1985 he died, I realized I could not live without creative work, without straw as a medium of my creations. Also, I consider my work as a continuation of the work of my father used to do along the lines of monumental art, a tribute to his memory.

An episode from Sayenko’s life

There was so much that happened in our life, it’s difficult to recollect all. But one episode in my father’s life stands out in my memory and is worth being mentioned at the conclusion of my story.

In the seventies, my father decided he wanted to realize some of the artistic ideas that dated as far back as the twenties and thirties and were not realized then. He was eager to have rugs, tapestry, earthenware and ceramics, inlaid furniture made to his designs. I helped him with this difficult task that he set himself to fulfil.

In summer of 1977, we went to the town of Reshetylivka, which is situated in the land of Poltavshchyna. We took with us a lot of designs, templates and patterns. It was a slow journey as we travelled by train. My father recollected that back in 1918 he went along the same route on his way to the town of Myrhorod to enrol at an art school. Those were hard times, but the desire to study was greater than anything.

Charming landscapes of Poltavshchyna never failed to fascinate my father. Some of the things that I saw from the window of the carriage were so familiar as if I were seeing them on my father’s tapestry and panels: geese grazing in the meadows, children bathing in a pond, willows bending low above over the water, friendliness and openness in people’s faces.

We were warmly welcomed at the weaving mill, which was our destination. My father, a grey haired man of wide renown, was treated with much respect. The factory’s manager, P. Tovstukha, gave the task of making rugs and tapestry to my father’s designs to the best and most experienced weavers: Mariya Mykhailo, Antonina Bebko, Nina Antonenko, Halyna Bondarets.

For about a month we worked together with the weavers, choosing the right threads, colours, dies. During lunch breaks, we talked with the weavers about so many things. They were talented women, very kind, responsive, modest and friendly. They taught me a lot of things: working on a loom in such a way so as to achieve the best results; to make the right and reverse sides of a rug look the same; to select threads to achieve the best colour harmony, plus a lot more.

O. Sayenko. Semen Paliy, Hero of the Battle of Poltava. 1966-67. Wood, straw.
200 5 100 cm.


O. Sayenko. Portrait of Motrona Sayenko.
1922. Oil on canvas. 145 5 120 cm.


O. Sayenko. A Weaver.
1926. Watercolour, paper. 37 5 42 cm.


O. Sayenko. A Girl with Geese.
1922. Watercolour, paper. 20 5 30 cm.


O. Sayenko. A Shepherd.
1923. Watercolour, paper. 25 5 40 cm.

N. Sayenko. Tree of Paradise.
1997. Wool, hand woven. 90 5 100 cm.

N. Sayenko. Wonder World.
1994. Wood, straw. 100 5 60 cm.

N. Sayenko. Serpanok (light, semitransparent fabric). 1994. Wool, hand woven. 230 5 150 cm.

N. Sayenko. Golden Gate.
1994. Wood, straw. 70 5 50 cm.

In Reshetylivka, we met Nadiya Babenko, a talented artist, specializing in making rugs and tapestry. She developed her art along the lines of traditional Poltava tapestry.

Many of her works are to be found in museums and are often displayed at exhibitions. We visited her every day during our stay in Reshetylivka, enjoyed her conversation, listened to her advice.
We kept coming to Reshetylivka for several years and there my father and I made designs for quite a few rugs and pieces of tapestry. There was a very special inspiring atmosphere in Reshetylivka, conducive to creativity. We saw work done by other artists and it served as an additional impetus to create our own works.
Olexander Sayenko knew very well the importance of continuity of tradition in the arts. Love of art, of nature should be passed from generation to generation, appreciation of beauty can be taught.

A museum of Olexander Sayenko was opened in the town of Borzna, his native place. It attracts lots of people, both young and old, who invariably get an emotional uplift from coming in touch with Sayenko’s joy-giving art. Hopefully, it will inspire new generations to create along similar lines, combining tradition and innovation.

By Nina Sayenko
Merited Worker of Art of Ukraine

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