'We want to lift spirits, but we know what shelters are for'

After fleeing Ukraine war, wife-husband artist duo paint bomb shelters near Lebanon

Six miles from the Lebanese border, new immigrants Lidia and Igor Katliarski bring life to concrete havens by covering them with murals, giving locals a momentary respite from war

Reporter at The Times of Israel

  • Lidia Katliarski, right, with her husband and collaborator, Igor Katliarski, in front of one of their painted bomb shelters in Nahariya, spring 2024. (Lidia Katliarski)
    Lidia Katliarski, right, with her husband and collaborator, Igor Katliarski, in front of one of their painted bomb shelters in Nahariya, spring 2024. (Lidia Katliarski)
  • A bomb shelter in Nahariya painted by Lidia and Igor Katliarski (Lidia Katliarski)
    A bomb shelter in Nahariya painted by Lidia and Igor Katliarski (Lidia Katliarski)
  • A bomb shelter in Nahariya painted by Lidia and Igor Katliarski (Lidia Katliarski)
    A bomb shelter in Nahariya painted by Lidia and Igor Katliarski (Lidia Katliarski)
  • A bomb shelter in Nahariya painted by Lidia and Igor Katliarski (Lidia Katliarski)
    A bomb shelter in Nahariya painted by Lidia and Igor Katliarski (Lidia Katliarski)

NAHARIYA — On a recent early morning, as children went to school, people walked their dogs, and a sanitation worker swept the sidewalk, artists Lidia and Igor Katliarski were already hard at work painting a bomb shelter in the Ein Sara neighborhood of the northern city of Nahariya.

Igor arrived with some of their paints and equipment on his bicycle — which he good-humoredly referred to as his donkey — from their apartment in the north of the city.

That morning, Lidia wore a sun-protective shirt, explaining that her pale skin doesn’t do well in the Israeli sun. She has long, light hair and an earnest expression. Igor, her husband of 33 years, is burly with a red beard touched with grey and a gentle sense of humor.

The two artists moved from Minsk, Belarus, to the northern city of Nahariya two years ago just as Russia invaded Ukraine. Now, they have dedicated themselves to painting murals on 17 bomb shelters that have been placed throughout the city since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

Just six miles away from the border with Lebanon, Nahariya has been under the threat of Hezbollah rocket fire since October 8, as Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis. The terror group says it is doing so to support Gaza amid the war there.

So far, skirmishes have resulted in 10 civilian deaths on the Israeli side as well as the deaths of 15 IDF soldiers and reservists. Slightly north of Nahariya, there have been numerous attacks in communities where residents have been evacuated.

Back in Minsk, the Katliarskis had developed successful careers in their field. Lidia taught at the Minsk University of Culture and Art, and collaborated with design studio Primo Gatto. Igor worked as an interior designer.

Lidia and Igor Katliarski, artists who paint bomb shelters, in Nahariya, spring 2024. (Diana Bletter)

But in 2020, when there began what Lidia called “mass oppressions” in Belarus, the couple began thinking about moving to Israel. Then, as Russia began its assault on Ukraine and the situation in Belarus became more volatile, the couple left with their younger son, who’s now 18. Another son, Ilya, an architect who also does 3-D printing projects, lives in Tel Aviv.

After the war broke out on October 7 when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists massacred 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped 251 to the Gaza Strip, the couple looked for something to do to help. They ended up volunteering to paint the bomb shelter in their city’s botanical garden because it looked so stark and colorless. The Nahariya Municipality then hired them to paint a fresco on the garden’s front wall.

“At first we painted the shelters in our free time, just to help,” Lidia said. When the Nahariya Municipality put out a tender for painting some of the 40 temporary bomb shelters in the city, the couple won the bid. Their murals depict sea turtles and seashells, butterflies, peacocks, ladybugs, and even fire hydrants, which intrigue Igor.

“In Minsk, the fire hydrants are all underground,” he said. “In Israel, they’re everywhere.”

‘Optimistic, but not too happy’

It is problematic to paint murals on bomb shelters, Lidia said.

The Nahariya Botanical Garden with paintings by Lidia and Igor Katliarski. (Lidia Katliarski)

“You want it to be optimistic but not too happy. You want to lift people’s spirits but at the same time, you know what these bomb shelters are for, and that this is a war. It’s war, but life still goes on,” she said.

Lidia added that the couple don’t receive “a lot of money for the amount of time it takes,” but they’ve received more enthusiastic responses about their artwork than ever before. She recounted a story of a woman who was distressed at the sight of a bomb shelter plunked down underneath her window. After the couple painted it, she told them she instantly felt better because the colors “aren’t something from war but from life.”

The Katliarskis believe that their desire to help is a way to give thanks for the support they’ve received in Israel since they arrived.

“In Minsk, you’d never think to go to the City Hall and ask for something,” Igor said. “Here, we get more help than we ever imagined.”

A bomb shelter in Nahariya painted by Lidia and Igor Katliarski. (Lidia Katliarski)

Igor said that when he worked as an interior designer in Minsk, he always made visualizations of the projects to give to his customers. Soon, they started ordering more paintings. After a while, he began to “draw more pictures than do projects.”

For each bomb shelter, the artists sketch several possibilities and the Nahariya Municipality approves one. The artists use outdoor acrylic paint, but there are always surprises. When the couple arrived at the Ein Sara bomb shelter one morning, they discovered that the sprinklers, set up to water the grass, had doused one side of the shelter, erasing all of Igor’s penciled lines.

After they finish painting each afternoon, Lidia and Igor lock up their folding step-ladder. “At least I don’t have to take that on my donkey,” Igor said, and then took all their paints.

One night, they left their paints behind inside the bomb shelter, and in the morning, they discovered that some neighborhood kids had used the paints to make stripes of all colors on the grass of a nearby soccer field. On some afternoons when the couple is working on the shelter, Igor said, children playing nearby come to help them paint.

Children join in to help Lidia and Igor Katliarski paint a bomb shelter in Nahariya. (Lidia Katliarski)

Bite-sized tastes of Israel

The couple have collaborated on many art projects over the past 25 years. When they arrived in Israel, Igor said they were surprised by the tropical fruits and how different they were from fruits in Belarus. They decided to depict the same fruit — bananas and figs, for example — in different media. Igor works with colored pencils and Lidia with oil paints, making a joint series of works called “Tastes of Israel.”

Saatchi Art currently represents Igor’s paintings. The couple’s work has been featured in numerous group exhibits as well as one in Nahariya with another Russian artist, Alexander Makarov, in an exhibit focused on “the story of three artists finding their way in Israel.” The Katliarskis also had their exhibit in the city gallery, with the support of City Hall.

A Katliarski bomb shelter in Nahariya. (Lidia Katliarski)

The pair hope to start an art center in Nahariya where they can hold exhibits of different artists and give classes.

The Katliarskis are dedicated to creating art to make people’s visual reality a bit sweeter.

“I would like very much for the shelters to never be used for their intended purpose,” Lidia said.

Inside the bomb shelter, it looks the way all shelters do: eerie, dark, and ominous. But outside, there’s a blooming tropical scene with vivid colors. Passersby can pretend — just for a moment — that they’re the latest in moveable urban art.

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