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'I haven't picked up an instrument since the war started'

Drained but defiant, Lviv’s creatives struggle to make art in war

Musicians, photographers, and comedians at Lviv’s Zavod artists’ colony put down the tools of their trade and transform their studios into relief operations

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

  • Roman Slutin, founder of Zavod, stands in his studio, which nows serves a temporary home for Ukrainian refugees, March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Roman Slutin, founder of Zavod, stands in his studio, which nows serves a temporary home for Ukrainian refugees, March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Improv performer Victoria Butelenko, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Improv performer Victoria Butelenko, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Max Ptashnyk in his practice space at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Max Ptashnyk in his practice space at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Pavlo Gots (left) plays in his practice space at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Pavlo Gots (left) plays in his practice space at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Vadim Panchenko in front of one of his paintings at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Vadim Panchenko in front of one of his paintings at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Mira Bachkur holds a painting at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Mira Bachkur holds a painting at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Victoria, a Ukrainian photographer, holds her work at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Victoria, a Ukrainian photographer, holds her work at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

LVIV, Ukraine — Sitting on a stool in his practice space in this Western Ukrainian city on Tuesday, Max Ptashnyk picked up an acoustic Yamaha guitar and began strumming.

Sporting a knit beanie, a hoodie, and a closely-cropped beard, the 25-year-old Ukrainian musician looked like he should have been on a ski slope in the Rocky Mountains, and for good reason. He spent two years living in northern Idaho, and speaks excellent English.

“I haven’t picked up an instrument since the war started,” said Ptashnyk, speaking to The Times of Israel from a converted warehouse building that now hosts dozens of artists.

The particular instrument he was holding had been given to him by his dad for his 18th birthday.

“Every one of my instruments has its own story,” Ptashnyk said.

Hours later, his father called. He might be getting called up in the coming days to work in a tank factory in eastern Ukraine, near the front lines, he told him.

Hours away from most of the fighting, Lviv has nonetheless been transformed by the war. The city has been making preparations for a possible Russian onslaught, while also attempting to deal with a massive influx of refugees, many making their way to the Polish border.

Like many other places in the city, the building Ptashnyk shares with other creators has been transformed into a refuge for fleeing Ukrainians, providing shelter and caring for hundreds of people every day.

Ptashnyk hasn’t been able to spend time on his craft since Russian forces invaded Ukraine two weeks ago. He is not unique in this regard; other artists in the complex also describe an inability to create when their friends are heading to the front to fight and their families are fleeing in the other direction.

But Ptashnyk has contributed to the war effort with some video editing work. He sampled and posted to YouTube a video of one of Ukraine’s most popular musicians, Andrey Khlyvnyuk, singing the Ukrainian patriotic folk song “Chervona Kalyna” after he joined the territorial defense.

“You’ve gotta fight with what you have to fight with,” he said. “I think this is the only way you can use music at the moment.”

Ptashnyk walked over to his piano, sat down, and played a song he wrote shortly before war broke out:

He sang in Ukrainian: “Those are just games/Games that are played by people/Conscience will not let us forget/Games that were played by us.” 

Every generation sees war

Ptashnyk’s studio sits in an old factory that was shut down in 1991.

In 2014, Roman Slutin, a photographer from Kyiv, arrived in the city and saw a sign that the brick buildings were up for rent. He brought together several members of the creative community, and they started the artist colony known as Zavod — which, rather prosaically, means “factory” in Ukrainian.

Ukrainian creators Pavlo and Victoria Gots, in their studio at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

It has become a hip home to graphic designers, photographers, painters, and bands. In happier times, parties are held all night in the courtyard or in basement halls.

“It’s exploded in popularity,” said Ptashnyk.

But now the music studios are silent and brushes sit unused in paint-splattered sinks. Since the first day of the war, Zavod has become a temporary home for refugees, with the young artists running the massive, improvised logistical operation.

The idea came to the community when a musician named Vlad reached out to friends at Zavod as he was leaving Kyiv to play a show in Lviv.

“When the war started, he was on the train, and he was on the road to Lviv, but the event got canceled, so he didn’t know where he could stay,” said Slutin. “So we decided to do the shelter on the first day.”

“On the third day, we understood that people are coming more and more. And we made more and more new places. The first night was like 20 beds, now we have 150 people every day in this building alone,” he said.

In 12 days, the Zavod complex has hosted over 2,000 refugees, including some 200 on Tuesday.

Many of the studios now host families sleeping on mattresses. The artists also provide clothing and three meals a day, prepared in a kombucha company’s kitchen also located in the warehouse.  They have received so many supplies from ordinary Leopolitans that they now send shipments to Kharkiv, Odesa, and other cities on the front lines.

Some of the refugees have begun volunteering themselves as well.

Slutin never imagined he’d be responsible for thousands of refugees, but now he thinks back to conversations he had with Ukrainian military veterans as a schoolchild.

“They said that there was no generation that hasn’t seen war,” he remembered. “When we were young, we didn’t understand how it could be, it’s the 21st century and we don’t have open wars in Europe. When it started, we knew that he was right. All of the memories from our grandmas, grandpas, who knew the Second World War, they can represent for us what is happening.”

“I couldn’t say that we are 100 percent ready for this, but it is what it is, so we need to do this,” he said.

Artem, an 18-year-old massage therapy student in his first year in university, is sleeping on the floor of a studio belonging to a young married couple, musician Pavlo Gots and his wife Victoria, a photographer.

18-year-old Ukrainian refugee Artem in his sleeping quarters at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

He left his home in the central Poltava Oblast two days after the fighting broke out, and spent three days in a car trying to reach Lviv, normally a 10-hour drive. His biological father is in the army, and his mother and stepfather refuse to leave their home. Artem is staying at Zavod until he manages to cross into Poland, with hopes of eventually reaching the United States. But, as of now, Ukraine is not allowing men from ages 18-60 leave.

As we spoke, Gots, who plays in the popular ethnic rock band Joryj Kłoc, pulled out his guitar. Like Ptashnyk, he hasn’t touched the instrument since the start of the war on February 24.

He sang a Ukrainian folk song about the evening star, the night star, and the morning star, each representing a living Ukrainian generation.

Though the creators at Zavod, with their dyed hair and their rebellious outfits, might be mistaken for pacifists, they are anything but.

Empty chemical barrels in the courtyard at Zavod, on March 8, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Next to one of the warehouse buildings, roughly cut steel spikes sat in stacked crates. Empty barrels of flammable chemicals were lined up against a wall, their contents likely now in Molotov cocktails, as Zavod’s artists prepare to defend their homeland.

“I had an urge to go fight, honestly,” explained Ptashnyk. “Everyone did.”

Never been so united

Painter Mira Bachkur had recently decided to stay in Kyiv after moving there for an art project. Then the fighting began.

“I left right away when the chaos started,” she said. “I heard the bombings but didn’t see them.”

Her journey was chaotic, with the train to Lviv constantly being rerouted as bridges were knocked out by Russian bombs.

A cat walks through an empty studio space at Zavod, on March 8, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

She is now back living with family in Lviv. “First we were shocked and trying to recover from what was happening. And at home, we have a constant flow of people from Kharkiv.”

Many of the people that have come through her family home are complete strangers, said Bachkur.

“The thought process is different now. If someone asks if you have a place [for them] to stay, you say you do,” she said. “We’ve never been so united.”

Vadim Panchenko, also a painter, speaks regularly with his mother in Kiryat Hayim, Israel.

She has been trying to convince him to join her.  “Of course, mom is being a mom,” he said with a smile.

Mira Bachkur holds a painting at Zavod, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Neither painter has intentionally changed their art since the war began, perhaps because the themes they explore are already so relevant to the current struggle. “Most of my art is about uncertainty and futurism,” explained Panchenko. “But the surroundings are making changes, the way we feel is changing.”

Bachkur has been exploring her own roots by depicting Ukrainian history in her art. Her recent work has focused on the nature of cruelty.

“I’ve been trying to decipher what the generations before us have experienced, and connecting it to our generation, what we are experiencing now,” she said.

She is determined to continue creating art in wartime.

“First of all, you can sell your art and donate,” she said. “Second of all, it’s a statement. That’s how you can speak up to the entire world community.”

Glitter and fear

Wearing purple lipstick and glitter under her eyes, improv artist Victoria Butelenko was trying to keep smiling, even if she didn’t feel like it inside.

“You see the glitter on my face, and I try to keep myself fine, but I can’t say that I’m fine,” she said. “I feel tired, I feel fear, I’m upset about everything, but my appearance tries to help people.”

Butelenko, who runs an improv comedy school at Zavod, has not performed or taught since the invasion began. “I don’t have resources inside me for comedy,” she lamented.

But like others, she is doing what she can to help refugees.

“On the third day of war, we organized our theater space for the relief of displaced people from all over Ukraine,” she explained.

Her students are volunteering with the refugees as well.

Improv performer Victoria Butelenko, on March 8, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

To cope with the stress of war, Butelenko has been trying to sleep more and eat healthier. Two days ago, she allowed herself to watch a movie and listen to music unrelated to the war. It was the first time she had done so in two weeks.

In these calamitous times for Ukraine, she cannot even conceive of getting back to comedy in the future.  “I think of the day when we will have improv shows again, and I can’t imagine how I can perform,” she said.

“I don’t know,” she said sadly. “I don’t have the time to think about that. I try to take care of myself just to have the power to help people, and I have no time to think about the future because I am worried today.”

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