Olena Kayinska’s Dream-Like Paintings are Inspired by Fairy Tales and Folklore [Interview]
“I don't know where he gets those images; he must have an angel in his head,” said Picasso of his friend, the artist Marc Chagall. Suffused with flying horses and levitating lovers, Chagall’s dream-like illustrations depart from reality, favoring magic and memory over reliable narration. Famously, the Russian artist never finished reading the fables he loved to paint.
Like Chagall, Olena Kayinska uses the visual language of Eastern European folklore to create her whimsical illustrations. Lyrical and loaded with color, the Ukrainian artist’s work is deceptively simple, delightfully frank in its understanding of the world. On this particular aspect of her work Kayinska remarks, “I want to return the observers to the pure, sincere, and spontaneous experience of the outer world, which we all had in our childhood. Children observe the world as it is, directly, without thinking.”
Drenched with an open-hearted lust for life, Kayinska’s fairy tales are nevertheless tinged with the certainty of sorrow. “I started painting after several years of spiritual searches,” she tells NOT REAL ART, describing how philosophies from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christian Orthodoxy have seeped into her work. “Monasteries and priests, gurus and teachers of spiritual practices, mountain magicians and witches, Buddhist monks and Hindu sacrificers with bloody ritual swords—I went literally around the world to find someone to tell me why we are here, and why this here is like it is.”
Simple on the surface, but vibrating with complex spiritual concepts deep down, Kayinska’s work draws deeply on principles of mindfulness, meditation, and acceptance. The undercurrent of sorrow that moves through her work feels natural, even welcome—an accepted truth that eventually breaks away to let in the light.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Olena Kayinska discusses her fascination with Marc Chagall, the importance of mental and physical health, and how searching the world for truth led her home again.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Olena Kayinska: I discovered that not only a lot of visual experience takes part in the inspiration and creation process, but also extensive reading. I mean an artist should not only perceive visual images, like attending exhibitions, museums, art portals, but also read fiction.
Fiction develops flexibility of the mind, provides heavy inoculation with ideas and concepts, undoubtedly enhances lively imagination. An artist may encounter some ideas for creative practice in fiction books, and also leverage the process, as I call it, of postponed inspiration. This specific type of inspiration takes place when an idea comes out not while reading a book, or directly after it, but sprouts out due to some subconscious processes, invoked by the book contents.
I can advise science fiction, as it is a really invaluable repository of ideas. I am an adoring fan of Clifford D. Simak, Isaak Azimov, Frank Herbert, Harry Harrison, Dan Simmons, to name a few. Furthermore, magical realism can play an influential role in developing the mind’s fertilization. I would advise reading everything one can find by Milorad Pavić, Bruno Schulz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, and others.
As for the art, my longtime favorites are Sarah Thornton: 33 Artists in 2 Acts; Will Gompertz: What Are You Looking At?; Grayson Perry: Playing to the Gallery; Johannes Itten: Color Theory and Design and Form; Michael Bird: 100 Ideas That Changed Art. And my very particular love is Taschen’s art books. Not long ago I bought two about tarot visuals, and alchemy and mysticism.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
OK: I have enjoyed a long period in my life when I traveled all over Asia. I lived for a long time in India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, and Asian religion, culture, and mysticism made a mark on my philosophy of life and cultural paradigm.
I was deeply impressed by the fundamental notions of karma (principle of cause and effect), anicca (the doctrine of impermanence), dharma (eternal nature of reality), samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth). These notions, together with the concept of God, afterlife, love as the driving force of the universe, and human inborn kindness, are the building blocks of my belief system.
As a direct result, my artworks are conceptually inspired by different religions (Hindu, Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism), as well as by the principles of psychotherapy (post-trauma recovery and emotional healing).
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
OK: I would definitely invite Marc Chagall. I would ask him about his childhood in Vitebsk and the Jewish community, as all his creative practice seems to be inspired by this city and its peculiar and homey atmosphere.
I would ask him about his dreams and how he was inspired by them. I would ask him about the Kabbalah and how we can identify its principles in his artworks. I would ask him about his mother, who perceived art as very impractical, and his father, who was a hard worker. I would also ask him if he would like to live today and where would he find his inspiration in the modern world. I would ask him to tell me more about his beloved wife Bella, the love of his life, and his childish sensibility and tenderness, allowing him to perceive life so deeply and tenderly. I would ask him what is the most vivid impression we ever received, about his biggest dream, his deepest sorrow, his most gracious joy. I would be happy to hear about his illogical and fantastic inner world, full of flying people, ghosts, folklore, a rare blend of deep sadness and light joy, rituals, mysterious animals, and surreal motives.
What are you trying to express with your art?
OK: I’ll start a little bit poetic. There is a river inside of me. It has always been there. Its waters are silent, ancient, thoughtful. Its waves go slowly, they whisper to one another, tenderly covering each other. The silent river carries an enormous mass of water. Countless masses of water, which silently move in space and time and calmly flow where it needs to be.
The river of tranquility. The river of inner peace. How does it feel to be you? How does it feel to live in this body and think in the way you think from the very beginning of your existence? Stand still and observe the beingness from birth to death. Stand and watch, how the river waters flow, how the clouds are crossing the sky, how the leaves are falling from trees, how people come and go. Laugh and cry. Take joy and sorrow. And howl with pain sometimes. Be yourself.
One day I’ll take a boat, get it in the water, and follow this big, calm inner river. Follow this river to where its calm waters flow. I’ll sit in the boat facing the direction of movement. I’ll observe the horizon. I’ll silently follow the stream. But not today. Today I’m here.
To live, a person must be exceptionally cautious and well-armed. She needs to promptly fight off the attacks, run fast to get on time, and struggle desperately to take over a piece of land under the sun. There is no place for self-pity and weakness—one should be strong enough to survive.
The other side of a person is being carefully camouflaged and hidden in the everyday battle. This side has remained from deep childhood, but it didn’t turn into a rudiment. This side has come deeper, into another dimension, into the space of the unconscious, behind the line.
You can see it, breathe it, but very carefully, not to frighten it away. It can be perceived beyond reality. It’s undoubtedly beautiful. It’s vulnerability.
Vulnerability begins where there is no need to fight. To uncover your inner vulnerability, you should have the possibility to do this. You should not be afraid to do it. You need to be sure nobody would assault you at this moment.
To love and demonstrate tenderness, you should unveil your vulnerability. If you want the other person to reveal to you their vulnerability, you should touch them carefully and gently.
Vulnerability is revealed when we sleep. We are vulnerable and natural when we sleep. When we sleep, we unconsciously caress and hug each other.
Our feelings became subtle, fragile, and resonant as if made from thin glass. And these feelings do not often resonate with the city environment and the vast amount of information coming from everywhere. These feelings are rather dissonant with the increasing speed of life, emerging challenges, work overload, and stress. City residents resemble children lost in the woods. They are distracted from their inner nature and put into an aggressive environment. Surviving does not mean living.
My point of research is the finding of the possibility to reach inner peace, not in the mountain monasteries but just where you are. In the city. As well, I want to discover how to use your very subtle and inner feelings to tell lies from the truth. I want to use my visual language to evoke the feeling of the kind of meditation in the heart of an observer.
In my paintings, I use simplified forms of the objects, bodies, buildings, and terrains to highlight the philosophical sense I put there, and the story, which lies behind every painting. As Ukrainian philosopher Grygoriy Skovoroda said: “In order to become simple, you have to become very complicated first.” So I hide complexity in simplicity.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
OK: Would be great if I learned the basics of mental health maintenance. Regrettably, nobody tells you at school that people should have enough sleep. Sleep over schooling, socializing, reading, physical exercises, and everything else. We should sleep enough, and our sleep should be of good quality. Nobody instructed us at school on the importance of sleep hygiene and a sleep schedule.
I sincerely wish I learned how to eat properly. What food is good for my health and what is dangerous and why, how to prepare quick and healthy snacks, a food consuming culture, and how to cultivate healthy food habits and get used to organic food.
Also, I wish I learned how to properly exercise my body and how to prevent everyday traumas. Why it is important to keep a body fit from one’s youth, how to properly prepare a training plan, how to run, how to do spine-friendly yoga, how to swim in different styles.
I wish I learned how to meditate and the paramount importance of regular everyday meditation. Teachers should tell us the simple technique of breathing and body scan meditations, along with loving-kindness and metta meditations to regulate our minds, reduce anxiety, and relieve stress.
Moreover, I wish I learned the basics of psychology to know how to behave myself in conflicts and quarrels, to know how to build relationships and trust, how to achieve win-win communication, and how to self-help during bad times. I would love to learn some methods of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy I utilize today as a child to help myself deal with the difficulties of everyday challenges.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
OK: The best advice was to do 10 squats every time you think bad about yourself, and the worst was to try as much as you can to become the best version of yourself.
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
OK: Sad to relate, the money problem seems to remain the most substantial barrier. I left an IT marketer career to become a full-time artist, and it was a jump from a regular salary into the abyss of the unknown. Sometimes the paintings are sold, and I have money on my account, and sometimes I feel the shortage.
The art market is very undeveloped in Ukraine, and people don’t have a culture of investing in art. Rather than buying modern art pieces, they tend to purchase low-quality kitsch, decorative items, and posters. The culture of collecting art is just developing in Ukraine, so it’s quite hard to make a living as an artist, but not impossible. I leverage my marketing skills to promote my art.
In addition, another barrier is uncertainty about the future and low self-esteem as an artist.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
OK: With the development of my art career, I discover more and more ample opportunities I can take advantage of, as well as more and more channels for my art practice promotion. My working schedule seems to be tighter and tighter: website maintenance, social media posting, open calls, applications, content writing, photo editing – it leaves less and less time to produce the paintings. It brings more and more stress and less and less time for me.
To adequately maintain a work/life balance, I created my routine, which helps me keep the edge. It contains several rules:
The first rule is a slow morning. My morning routine traditionally includes a slow cup of coffee, some time with my beloved cat, then fitness exercises, HIIT exercises, yoga practice, and meditation. So, it takes me 3 hours every day to prepare myself for going to my studio after waking up.
Then I have six to seven hours in my studio, including meetings, computer work, and painting.
The evening I take solely for myself. I force myself to stop working however much I want to continue. Also, I don’t turn on my laptop at home and don't answer emails. It inevitably leaves a distinct feeling that I can work more, I can achieve more, but my routine helps me relieve stress, have better sleep, and feel better.
Apart from that, I take one day a week device-free. I don’t turn on my laptop, I turn the silent mode on my smartphone, and I don’t go to my studio. I simply stay at home, get on a sofa to read a book or go for a walk. Also, I try not to work on holidays and don’t take a laptop on my travels.
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
OK: Generosity seems to have several layers. The first and the most obvious layer is charity. I voluntarily participate in many charitable activities, donate my paintings for charitable auctions, and collaborate with charity foundations, which collect money to help those in need. In addition, I donate some percent of the sold paintings for charity.
The second layer is intimately connected with straightforward honesty and genuineness. The artist is truly generous when they are open to the public, when they reveal their inner feelings and complicated states in their art, and when they are unafraid to speak about the topics no one else wants to speak about. These generous artists unselfishly give themselves to the public, share what is underneath, evoke intense feelings, and launch dialogues. These are the people of extreme openness and extraordinary courage.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
OK: I felt successful as an artist when, during one of my exhibitions, I saw a man standing in front of my paintings with his eyes full of tears. When I asked him why he was crying, he answered that he just clearly understood everything I put in that painting.
I felt successful when a person who purchased my painting reached me personally and asked if they could come to me, just to hug me.
I feel successful when I read a book with the feedback from the people who visited my personal exhibitions, and these times I can cry myself. So much love and vulnerability and openness are in these words the strangers share with me about my art.
I feel successful doing my everyday work in the studio, producing paintings slowly, piece by piece, at my own pace, and doing what I can do.
What role does the artist have in society?
OK: Formerly artists played a role to decorate and to make homes more beautiful, but today this role has changed dramatically. At present, artists are revealers, leaders, provokers, discussion starters, as well as outsiders, sometimes freaks, somebody out of the ordinary.
Artists play a role in evoking dialogues, bringing attention to delicate and up-to-date topics by providing their reflections, sharing their emotions, conveying their thoughts into tangible objects.
Artists can serve as therapists to society. Art is a wound turned into light, and by sharing their wounds, artists give people an understanding that they are not alone in their own disaster, that we share the same sadness and grief, and the deep feelings we have are not unique. Artists are more and more open to themselves. I found out that making art is about listening to yourself, hearing a part of yourself, and transforming it into something external. Something for others to see. Something that now exists apart from you.
Today artists are documenting the hidden human history, unearthing the truth, revealing their vulnerability to others, producing pieces that strongly resonate, and provoking social changes.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
OK: Being a student, I tried earning some pocket money and worked as a promoter in a supermarket. I gave presents to people when they purchased two packages of some sort of cheese. I had to constantly smile, be nice and polite and good-looking and attract people to the cheese shelf. This job was psychologically exhausting because I needed to reach every person who looks at cheeses and persuade them to buy that special cheese; I was advertising for a small promo gift. Some people were shouting to me, “Go away!” Some were extremely rude, and I had to smile not to spoil the cheese’s reputation.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
OK: In my current project, I research trauma. Trauma is an influence, exceeding the compensatory powers of a body. As a result of this influence, something gets broken, gets torn, disappears, or changes its form. Trauma is freezing. It immobilizes, paralyzes, fragments the world. After the trauma remains only the wreckage of a person’s familiar world.
Trauma separates a person from their body, takes away the feeling of safety, the possibility to feel and set boundaries, or communicate with the society on the rights of its valid part. Trauma remains with a person forever. Even when the trauma is healed, a scar remains after it, which is perceptible, hurts, speaks. After the trauma, a person remains incomplete, isolated from the environment, transparent. And a person shuts down all emotions in an attempt to somehow put themselves together.
The trauma, which is timely cured and mourned over, can be healed faster. It’s terrifying to mourn over the trauma—this means to reveal your vulnerability. This other side of a person is being carefully camouflaged and hidden in the everyday battle. This side has remained from deep childhood, but it didn’t turn into a rudiment. This side has come deeper, into another dimension, into the space of the unconscious, behind the line.
Trauma is closely linked with shame. Survivors feel that they are responsible for the terrible things that happened to them. They feel unworthy of care and attention. They feel like a disgusting mess. To overcome your shame, you need to pay a heavy price—to tell your secret. Every secret wants to be told. Dead bodies do not want to rest in their graves until their stories are told.
Pre-narrative about the trauma is the first step to healing. One needs to rethink the trauma to feel the present and pave the way into the future. Trauma carries a conflict in itself. A person wants to protest against the trauma and put it on a back burner, and, at the same time, to speak about it and release it. To speak about the unspoken. To do this, one needs to feel safe. Trust to mourn over. The only healthy way to deal with trauma is to reach out and hold each other. Then, calmed and strengthened, we can walk out into the world. But first, we need to be able to grasp a catastrophic event and shape it into a coherent story, one that makes sense out of chaos, and regain control over our world.
People do not choose to get traumatized. Trauma enters a person’s life by itself, leaving only one choice: to live over, to overcome, to mourn over, and to narrate about. There are several types of trauma. Traumas of the body, traumas of the psyche, traumas of a family, and traumas of society. Children dwell on the past of their parents to fully understand what they’ve been through. Children don’t let themselves be happy until they take over the pain of their parents.
Trauma will never be fully cured. Recovery will never be complete. Losses and scars will remain forever. The spiral of panic and insecurity will come back over and over again. Trauma’s echoes are too loud. People who outlived and cured their trauma resemble the plates, glued with gold.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
OK: I found out that mental health is very subtle and fragile. The line between being mentally healthy and starting to experience some deviations, like panic attacks, insomnia, or compulsive behavior, is incredibly thin. Sometimes after some sort of trauma, the mental health problems don’t appear directly after it but are rather postponed in time. It seems to me, we, who want to maintain our psyche healthily, are blade running. I developed some rules which help me stay mentally healthy, in a good mood most of the time, and active.
The first rule is to carefully follow the established routine. A well-organized routine helps release anxiety about what to do next, how to prioritize the tasks, and what is the most important. It also helps gently release the sense of urgency and simultaneous tasks. Every day has a schedule, so I don’t think about what to do next, I just follow the schedule I developed for my convenience. Naturally, there are inevitable fluctuations, but the general schedule helps put everything together. I write down all my tasks to take them out of my head. I use the Todoist app, which helps organize the tasks in groups, prioritize them with the position in the list and color, delete the completed tasks, insert links, set reminders and notifications. I find this app the most convenient of many I’ve tried.
The second rule is an everyday sport, even if it may be only 15 minutes of light fitness. Every day I pursue either swimming, fitness exercises, bicycling, snowboarding, gym, or yoga. At first instance, it seems to steal precious time from completing my tasks, but as a result, it provides more energy and stamina.
The third rule is to meditate every day for at least 15 minutes in the morning. For this I use Sam Harris’ Waking Up app with guided meditations, which aims at breathing observation, concentration on body feelings and sounds, and control of the emotions.
The fourth rule is regular cognitive-behavioral therapy. Throughout a year I take one or two psychotherapy courses to maintain my healthy habits, organize my life, reconsider and review my relationships, and validate my feelings.
The fifth rule is no alcohol. No alcohol at all, as alcohol is a very strong depressant and can cause severe damage to mental health, not taking into account other health risks.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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