Ann Arbor Gallery Features Art Therapy by Refugee Ukrainian Children

Dealing with the traumatic effects of surviving a warzone is hard enough for adults, but how do you even begin to treat the children who have survived the first year of the biggest war on European soil since 1945? Ukrainian artist’s Nataliia Pavliuk’s answer was to provide art therapy for Ukrainian youth, the results of which can be seen at the CultureVerse Gallery’s Healing Through Art show until April 3 in Ann Arbor.  

Walk into the gallery at 309 South Main St. in Ann Arbor and you’ll find a wide open rectangular space, with art clustered in groups of half a dozen or so pieces along the walls. A pair of televisions show clips of Ukrainian youngsters drawing. 

“It’s extremely poignant,” CultureVerse Co-Founder and Director of Design and Implementation Matt Grossmann said. “Many of these children lost their siblings, pets, schools. They’ve literally watched these things [be] destroyed right in front of their eyes by the Russian invasion. They’re not going to benefit from talk therapy – a four year old child isn’t really going to talk about these things – but you put crayons in their hand and they begin to express themselves. You look at these drawings, and it strikes right to your heart.”

Photo by Drew Saunders.

The art is what you would expect to find out of an elementary school class; all very colorful. A lot of it is cute and full of expression. 

But some of it is darker than others. One piece is of a girl with blue hair standing under red rain clouds, with the rain streaking down like blood.

“They cry BC don’t have Instagram,” the message is written in English over where the girl’s face should be. “We cry BC people, babys, kids die! #StopWarInUKRAINE.”

The blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag shows up everywhere in the drawings. Some of the children whose art you can see are as young as seven, according to the New York Times

This is actually the second time that this show has been at CultureVerse. The art on display has been touring around the country recently, starting at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago. The current show was brought to Ann Arbor through the local chapter of the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America, which has been a voice for the Ukrainian diaspora for decades. 

“A lot of these kids are shell shocked. They’ve had parents that have died, siblings … some of these kids are literally homeless,” Barbara Carson, who represents Ann Arbor’s Branch 50 of the UNWLA, said. “That these kids have been able to do these paintings at all, to me, is miraculous. She [Pavluik] said their moods would pick up when they got there. They enjoyed doing this.”

Photo by Drew Saunders.

The origins of the current war stem back to the collapse of communism in 1991, which separated the 15 components of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine and Russia, into independent countries. While ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin has consolidated power into an ever more authoritarian regime, Ukrainians ousted a similarly corrupt autocratic president through mass protest in the face of a police state crackdown in 2014. Once that president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia, Putin organized an invasion of parts of Ukraine, seizing the Crimean Peninsula in the south, and sponsored revolts and puppet regimes in Russian-speaking areas in the southeast. 

The war continued as a low-intensity conflict between the then militarily feeble Ukraine and Putin’s regime, who feared the loss of the warm water ports in Crimea, which Moscow had access to under Yanukovych’s government. Russia does not have a port that is ice free in the winter, unlike the ones in Crimea.

It has been widely speculated by western governments and military think tanks that Putin presumed that the United States, and the West in general, was too weak and divided to respond to the full scale invasion that he launched a year ago, after the 2020 election, the 2022 midterms, and President Biden’s much-criticized withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. He also seems to have been mislead about the state of the Russian military, which has struggled with discipline issues, manpower and supply mismanagement and general leadership incompetence compensated for with brutality. 

Putin initially expected to win within days or weeks. What has happened instead has been a series of widespread human rights abuses; three million or so Ukrainian civilians (mostly women, children and the elderly) have fled Ukraine to the West; a sudden exodus of perhaps one million of some of the best educated Russian citizens to avoid forced enlistment; the erasure of entire communities through missile strikes on civilian infrastructure and often indiscriminate Russian artillery shelling and remarkable amounts of western supply shipments

There have been at least 21,965 civilian casualties, according to the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights at the United Nations. Military casualties are much higher. 

Apart from children’s art, you can also see “The Same Shoes.” This is a sculpture made up of children’s shoes under a Ukrainian flag, symbolizing the Ukrainian children who have been killed by the invasion.

Thousands of children are still in Ukraine and thousands have been taken into Europe and elsewhere in the West. But they are still carrying the memories of where they came from and the trauma of why they had to leave. 

Much of the fighting in Ukraine has been urban fighting in cities like Kharkiv and Dnipro. The port of Mariupol became famous for its long siege of the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, which was “twice as big as Washington’s National Mall” before it was destroyed, according to the Washington Post; this makes it one of the biggest in the world. It became the site of a long, bloody siege, which at least one Ukrainian child remembered for the art gallery. 

The child drew a green field with blue clouds above a blue flower with yellow around it. Three flags stand in the field – Ukraine’s, Poland’s, and America’s.

“i Love Azostral,” the child wrote in the middle. 


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