Asia Pacific

This Ukrainian Artist Makes Surprisingly Powerful Art Starting With Eyes

Artist Tatyana Horoshko and her family left oppressive Soviet Ukraine to start new lives in the United States. She paints using an unconventional method: starting with the subject’s eyes. She now uses her soulful portraits to support veterans and their kin.

Via Tatyana Horoshko.

July 02, 2024 04:17 EDT

In 1971, 11-year-old Tatyana Horoshko achieved her heart’s desire when she was accepted to the National Academy of Arts of Ukraine. On her first day of class, however, she made a devastating discovery: The Academy’s portraits instructor seemed to hate her work.

Nervous and demoralized, she asked, “What am I doing wrong?”

“You’re ignoring everything I’m teaching!” the instructor snapped, clearly exasperated. “Did you divide the face you’re drawing into equal thirds for eyes, nose and mouth? No? And where are the horizontal and vertical lines you need to build symmetry?”

Now Taty felt even worse. “I don’t feel the portrait if I do it your way,” she complained. “I need to start with the person’s eyes. I need to feel I’m with the person, looking into their soul.”

The instructor turned out to be a kinder man than Taty initially thought. “OK, make a drawing of me, and do it your way,” he said. “If I like what you do, I won’t ask you to change.”

To everyone’s surprise, including his own, he loved the results. Taty earned her expressive style, and even now, she still starts her portraits by painting her subject’s eyes. She has come a long way since those days in her native Ukraine. She’s learned a great deal in the United States and honed her artistic skills over decades of work.

But traveling to the US was not an easy decision. It took aggravations great and small to make her family depart for the Western world.

Leaving Soviet censorship and antisemitism

Taty’s parents had both done well under the Soviet regime that prevailed in Ukraine in the 1960s and ‘70s. Taty’s mother was no mere doctor in the Russian Army — she was an esteemed surgeon. Her father, an engineer, was in high demand for his ability to solve the government’s complicated engineering problems.

But life was far from perfect for the young artist and her family. A small but real annoyance for Taty was censorship. The Soviets censored all Impressionist art. She wasn’t allowed to view it on the grounds that it was anti-socialist.

Antisemitism was a bigger factor in their decision to emigrate. The treatment of Jews in Soviet Ukraine was terribly prejudiced. Taty was born to a Ukrainian mother and Jewish father; to avoid the fierce racism, her parents gave her her mother’s surname, Horoshko, at birth instead of her father’s German-Jewish surname, Bronzaft.

As the family kept their Jewish heritage concealed, attending synagogue was out of the question. A particularly noxious result of Soviet antisemitism is that Taty’s parents feared she might inadvertently reveal their Jewish roots. For security, they raised her to believe she was Egyptian.

Taty recalls one painful moment from her school days. A teacher approached her best friend, a pure-blooded Ukrainian, and told her to disassociate with Taty. “Her family can be a potential traitor to the Soviets,” the teacher reasoned. Additionally, other school children would regularly search for Jewish surnames in the class journal and mark them as targets to bully.

Starting a new life in the US

The decision to leave Ukraine was a difficult one. Taty’s parents knew that if they became émigrés — people who emigrate, often for political reasons — they’d lose their homeland and all their possessions. They would be forced to start over with no more than $300 cash. But ultimately, they knew they had to move. Taty and her family became political refugees when she was 15, and sought a fresh start in the US.

When they reached US shores, young Taty was astonished by the kindness they encountered. They spent their first year in the state of Michigan, where both parents quickly found jobs. When they arrived in the city of Flint, Jewish refugee supporters rented an apartment for them. They provided the family with not just furniture, but sheets, towels and decorative paintings. Taty had never experienced such generosity from strangers.

The following year, they moved to New York, where they still live. Taty was quickly accepted at the Parsons School of Design. This bolstered her love of painting and got her more experience than she had in her Ukrainian academy.

Taty’s powerful art supports veterans

Now in her 60s, Taty has made a personal discovery. “In the last few years, my art has a new purpose,” she says. “Always before, I thought that being a philanthropist meant you had to be super wealthy. But now I’ve learned that my voice through art can be louder than just money.”  

Taty co-founded Portrait of Freedom, Inc. This organization supports veterans, first responders and their families through art. She often donates as much as half of the proceeds from her sales.

With war raging in Ukraine, her old home is part of her life once more. Moved by the sacrifice of Ethan Hunger Hertweck, a US soldier who gave his life fighting for Ukraine’s freedom from Russia, Taty created a new portrait. “I painted his portrait because I wanted to show that he wasn’t just a statistic, that this is a real person who gave his life for what he believed in,” she stated.

Taty painted the portrait as a gift to Hertweck’s family. She worked rapidly, completing it in one 24-hour period. “I stood at my easel, looking at photographs of Ethan. I stared at his eyes and then I used my iPad to take close-up photos of his eyes,” she commented. “These zoomed-in photos on my iPad are far bigger than in the original photo. I look at the enlarged photos and I see a window to his soul.”

Taty’s art has an incredible effect on its beholders. “I sent a picture of the portrait to [Ethan’s] mother, and as we were texting back and forth, we realized we were both crying,” she said.

Her portraits are so much more than paint on canvas. She captures the essence of her subjects, starting with their eyes and metaphorically connecting with their souls. Her art is a powerful voice for freedom and humanity.
[Lee Thompson-Kolar edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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