Daughter and colleagues share reflections on the artist
The egg came first
by Christina Pereyma O'Neal
My mother, Aka Pereyma, was born September 30, 1927. Like other Ukrainians of her generation, the road to a good life was unpredictable. Her early life was rich in Ukrainian traditions and atmosphere. Her parents were school teachers in a rural area. They experienced seasonal rhythms, holidays and celebrations. In her first decade she enjoyed a stable family life.
The decorating of the pysanka, a Ukrainian decorated Easter egg, was an essential annual tradition that was practiced in her home. She vividly remembers the warmth and importance of those moments. She learned the techniques, as soon as she was able to grasp the kystka, the decorating tool. Decorating the egg's pearly surface taught her the fundamentals of design: the division of space, the primacy of the line, the use and control of color and the importance of filling an empty space. Those who have attempted it know how extremely difficult it is to control the line on a small three-dimensional object. Even for the expert, the art form must be practiced diligently to perfect the symmetry and elegance of a masterfully decorated pysanka. This work possesses a strong spiritual value; a legacy that has been passed from generation to generation and maintains a continuity of belief that stretches back to prehistoric, pagan times. Aka carries this and other Ukrainian traditions within her; they saturate her sense of self and continuously influence her dreams and creative impulses.
Her life changed dramatically at the onset of the second world war. Over the next 20 years Aka endured an unsettled nomadic existence passing through Ukraine, Poland, Germany, finally landing in America. She endured the same hardships of other displaced Ukrainians: no home and no possibility of return. Running, fear, survival, family, hunger and death were her constant companions. These operatic themes defined her adolescence and young adulthood. Hope for a good future was always present, but was often obscured by the momentous and overwhelming realities of war and emigrant uncertainty.
Her arrival in New York was accompanied with the usual degree of fear; no common language, living on pennies, hard work, solitude and three young children to raise in the inner city. While her husband, Constantine, completed his specialty training in surgery, she endured long hours alone. She lived the sharp double-edged sword of the immigrant experience, where freedom and hope are tempered with the heartbreaking loss of her Ukrainian home. The family struggled with questions of how and where to build a life for themselves. Aka became a resourceful turtle, carrying her home with her wherever she went. Those difficult early years in America formed the beginning of her artistic endeavors. She repainted the interior of our Brooklyn apartment to look like a Ukrainian schoolroom. She visited metropolitan museums and galleries, her first exposure to modern and contemporary art. In quiet moments at home, she began to draw. At the same time she held tightly to what she valued, a Ukrainian island in an American stream.
In 1960 we settled in our home in Troy, Ohio. Ukrainian traditions were always present in our lives. On holidays like Christmas, Easter and the summer solstice, we sang emotional folk songs with unending verses about love and life and even black chickens. In the early years in Troy we gathered Ukrainians together for spectacular celebrations of just being Ukrainian. We listened to the distinctive complex harmonies of their many voices. In the summers, we became a Ukrainian village for all the city-dwelling cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. At home we were taught that the pysanka was an essential part of our ancestral identity, often discussed over plates of borsch and varenyky.
The legend that places decorating the pysanka at the center of mankind's survival was retold many times in our household: The story of the monster in the mountains bound by chains, each link in the chain magically growing stronger with every egg we decorate. We understood the mystery of its fertility, the male and female sexuality implicit in its fragile oval form. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be; the egg was Aka's cornerstone. In the Pereyma household, there was never any doubt: "The egg came first."
In the 1960s Aka went to art school. She was confident and bold. The pysanka's iconography, its vibrancy and meaningful lines were part of her personal lexicon. Abstraction of recognizable and not quite graspable reality is inherent in the decorated egg. Aka saw that the leap to modem forms and sensibilities was easily made. Forms derived from nature, like on the pysanka, were more interesting to her. The essential forms are constant, but are infinite in their variations.
She worked and continues to work in many media. Confronting a blank canvas, a lump of clay, a pile of scrap iron, or that clean surface of the egg never intimidates her. She steadfastly works on themes that concern seasons, nature, home, love, life, death and sex. Aka makes literal references to Ukrainian folk songs and atavistic symbols. She deconstructs her Ukrainianess.
Her never-ending series of birds, sculptural and graphic, could have been plucked from the face of a pysanka. They have the linear quality of the simple silhouettes that appear on decorated eggs. The welded birds are part of a folk/primitive tradition that uses found objects to create art that has a physical and spiritual meaning. Viewers recognize individual elements that comprise each bird - a hoe, a knife, or a sickle - and metaphorically connect these elements to their own experiences.
In the series of poetry drawings she connects the enigma of the written form directly to prehistoric scratchings that are found in Ukrainian archeological sites. Clearly these star lines are a form of communication, incomprehensible in their specific meanings, but the clear intent to express is unmistakably there. Her ceramic plates decorated using incised and wax resist techniques are in this body of work that uses ancient symbolic forms and archetypes as decoration.
The pysanka in all its myriad designs and regional styles was always a form of communication. In a fluent link to her past, Aka passes them through the prism of her own experience. She understands the ancient language and meanings found there and translates them to modern idioms. She will never exhaust the Ukrainian sources of her inspiration and she continues to mine rich meanings there. At her seven work-stations spread throughout the house and barn, she constantly generates new work from seeming turmoil. Her excitement spreads with each new idea and with each new solution. Pysanka, the written egg, inspires Aka to write in her personal ancient script, to tell her own stories and to preserve our stories that need retelling.
Christina Pereyma O'Neal is a well-exhibited artist who lives and works in Troy, Ohio.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 3, 2005, No. 14, Vol. LXXIII
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