“Put Spring on Hold”: An Interview with Marynka Dovhanych
See more of Marynka Dovhanych’s artwork in Vol. 40.2 here.
Marynka Dovhanych is an artist and filmmaker from Kaniv, Ukraine. She currently lives in a small city called Vyshhorod, bordering Kyiv from the north. At the time of this interview, she is twenty-eight.
Though she works in diverse mediums and even has an educational background in architecture, her main artistic medium is animation. For this issue of Southeast Review, our editors wanted to bring focus to eight of Marynka’s pieces completed as a practice of defiance, expression, and an attempt to cope during the first sixty days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that began in late February 2022. Of her own recent work and artistic vision Marynka says:
Before 2022, I explored such themes as the body and athletic pursuit, Ukrainian domestic and mystic traditions, and the wonders and challenges of the human condition, expressed in a humorously adventurous manner.
Now my art is focused on honest and emotional documentation of the individual and societal changes we are undergoing in the ugly face of an unjust genocidal war, and also on reevaluating Ukrainian culture and history in general. At a time when Russia is trying to destroy our culture and statehood, everything else has lost its importance.
In the course of this interview, I ask Marynka to share her experiences of the invasion and to explain how this violence has impacted her life and her work.
Haley Laningham: If I may, let me preface this by explaining the dramatic conditions under which I first took greater focus on your work. To enrich my work at Southeast Review, I follow a great number of artists on Instagram. I try to follow along with what artists are up to, but I don’t always happen to memorize where everyone I follow exists in the world. In early 2021 your Instagram portfolio comprised fun GIFs of people on bikes, a tiger, and figures of women—my relationship to your account was, back then, one of simple enjoyment. However, in February 2022, I noticed a shift of tone in a new piece but didn’t think much of it. Sometime later I noticed this again and only then decided to dig in to the captions. It then hit me that this artist I had followed offhand was in fact Ukrainian, living in a city in the way of Russian fire, and actually documenting the invasion in daily art. Of course, in the United States, we were hearing a lot about it, but I felt that suddenly, through something so often unserious as Instagram, I was watching someone live the peril. It was a flooring experience for these dots to connect—and then immediately to feel great fear for you and a voracious interest in your story—for a voice coming from the ground in Ukraine.
In order to frame how we talk about your art and your experiences, I feel we ought to begin with the most obvious questions. How has your life changed between the beginning of the invasion and now?
Marynka Dovhanych: The initial change was instant. I felt a massive threat, not only to my own life but to the lives of generations of Ukrainians, to the existence of my country: a very real threat that was getting worse by the minute. It’s interesting that it changed most people in Ukraine in the same way; we all felt very similar things in the beginning and that helped us unite and take care of each other.
I felt this massive mental shift. My previous life didn’t matter to me anymore. Still, I didn’t want to forget who I was before, so sometime during the first weeks I made notes on who I used to be in times of peace. The notes say I was happy and focused. I was growing as an artist and as a person, getting happier and more confident by the day. I had arrangements for a large solo exhibition, a dream project for an amazing client, and a planned vacation with my partner for our tenth anniversary; I was training for a marathon and excited to return to racing form after an injury, and overall I was in a very good place mentally. Then one morning all of that was gone.
There’s no denying that the current situation is horrific for everyone in Ukraine, including those who live in relatively safe cities or even abroad. It changed everyone’s lives without exception. But by now I’ve accepted this reality and I am able to feel happy and even plan more than a day ahead. I made a substantial effort to avoid falling into depression.
Times of high stress reveal the best and the worst qualities in people. It’s much easier to cut people out of your life and make quick decisions. There’s no time to waste.
I think I died on the 24th of February, and every following day is extra. I don’t plan far ahead. It’s not a bad way to live, it takes a lot of unnecessary pressure off me.
HL: Shutting down emotionally and creatively seems like it may have been a reasonable reaction to the invasion, or at least, I wonder if I myself would have shut down—survived, helped survive, but not have felt able to express, refute. Am I right in saying that more or less, you made art every day in the first sixty days of the invasion? How did you manage to make art about this as it occurred, and where did the need to do it come from?
MD: I used to be a very structured person; I would plan everything in advance. Then, suddenly, all of my plans for the rest of my life were canceled, and that’s a crushing feeling. In order to keep some structure in my life in times of total uncertainty, I decided to make art every day. It gave me a sense of purpose.
In the beginning, my emotions were so intense, and the mental changes so fast and so drastic, that I felt the need to keep track. I was going crazy, and I wanted to document the process. A lot of these emotions were new to me, and channeling them through art helped me deal with them in a healthy way.
I already had an international following on Instagram, and I felt obliged to share my experiences and spread the news to battle disinformation. I want the world to know about everything the Russians are doing to us. Russia is strong at the information war. They deny all their crimes and often their propaganda is very subtle, so it’s easy for people to fall victim.
I kept up the daily animations for sixty days. It was exhausting; now I post once a week.
HL: Many of your pieces feature faces. Burning Rage, Intense Worry, Siege of Mariupol, and the very stark pieces On "Stay Safe" and Dog Food each represent so many aspects of what happens to humans—their bodies and psychologies, the ends of their lives—in war. On "Stay Safe" and Intense Worry occurred earlier in the series and communicate sheer terror. Loss of life. It was around their time in the series that you had first evacuated your city at the behest of your father. Please feel free to reflect on those crucial first two weeks and their losses (or not), and then, my question as to the art: I’m sure much of your choices are unplanned. Why do you reach so often to the human face and form in your work?
MD: One of the most impressive effects this war had on me is that it vastly broadened the spectrum of emotions I am capable of feeling. It forced me through some very extreme emotions (both good and bad), and I wanted to share these new emotional experiences with my viewers. If I never felt anything similar in my twenty-eight years of peaceful life, then the majority of my audience probably hasn’t, either. We read emotions from each other’s faces. That’s why I felt that the most effective way of translating my internal experiences into art would be through the depiction of faces.
HL: During the period of our communication, your father was wounded. What happened? Did this event bring the insult even closer to home?
MD: My father is a writer; he never served in the military prior to this. He volunteered on the first day of the full-scale war in order to protect his country and family from invaders. At the beginning he was in the Territorial Defense of Kyiv, which is an amateur military organization, and later he joined some advanced training program and eventually moved to the eastern front as part of the armed forces of Ukraine, where he was wounded in combat. Both his legs were injured, and now he is learning how to walk all over again. I have high hopes of him recovering fully. Before the war we were planning to run a marathon together. I hope we will get to do that in a few years.
Pretty much everyone in Ukraine has a relative or a friend who volunteered to join the army this year. The instinct to defend your home turns on automatically. It’s something primal. Many of my friends and relatives are currently in the army, and they all put their careers on hold because of Russia. Architects, artists, lawyers, sales managers, engineers, businessmen, and so on. Many others wanted to join but were rejected due to lack of experience or health issues. Those who can’t fight with weapons fight in nonmilitary ways.
Of course I constantly worried about my dad, and I worry about everyone else who is at the frontline, but I understand and deeply respect their decision to join the army in this situation. Without those who are willing to risk their lives to protect Ukraine, I likely wouldn’t be alive by now, with no exaggeration.
HL: Your piece Put Spring on Hold illustrates two hands pushing plant buds back into the grass. The caption
Psychologists say that Day 22 is when you get used to war. Today is Day 22, and indeed, today I felt different. The news is dreadful, but I have sort of learned to function in this reality.
An air-strike alarm caught me outside. I hid in a dent in the ground and noticed tiny leaves sprouting from the winter grayness. I wanted to force them back into the ground and put spring on hold until victory.
The hands wish to prevent the change of season to spring as the war rages on, as if to keep natural time and beauty from revisiting a country in deep duress. This piece was at least partially inspired by your own need to hide close to the earth as an air-strike alarm caught you outside—and compelled you to sit between forces of human power and genocide and the dirt itself. And yet, this is also the day you note that psychologists say a person gets used to war. Could this statistic be true? What does this described psychological experience feel like? Did your relationship with artistically expressing this pain change that day?
MD: Before Day 22, every morning I had to remind myself that there is war in my country. It wasn’t just a nightmare; it’s happening for real! Every morning, this realization hit hard. But on Day 22 I woke up already knowing. Day 22 was when it sank in.
Looking back, I probably got used to it after about six months. Now there is a sense of normality in my life, but not because the war has gotten less dangerous; it hasn’t. It’s an ongoing, life-threatening, traumatic situation, but one’s mind adjusts to it and makes it feel normal.
HL: In the course of the invasion, you have had to swiftly uproot yourself multiple times. How has this need for mobility changed the medium and tools you use to create your work?
MD: When I decided that I would make some art every day, I considered which medium would be sustainable over time if, for example, I got stuck in some basement, or had to run without my belongings, or such. My phone was an obvious choice, because it’s always with me, and my primary goal was to share this art online. It was a good idea because I could do it in the shelter, in the car, and anywhere I found myself in the madness of those initial weeks. I only needed a charged phone and my index finger. I use a simple animation app called Folioscope. Luckily, my city didn’t have power outages at the beginning.
When I moved to my temporary home in the west of Ukraine, I kept using my phone to animate, because I didn’t have a workspace, but, as time went on, I got access to a desk and bought some art supplies. Since then, I use colored ink on paper and computer graphics. Sometimes I still animate on my phone, even though it’s quite tedious, as the screen is small and the toolset is very limited.
HL: Another theme around which your work centers is the environmental violence perpetrated on the land and waterways of Ukraine, as well as the Russian occupation of Chornobyl. Comparing the international news coverage of the invasion with your Instagram reportage, environmental violence seems to be underreported in the news. Why do you think this might be?
MD: I agree that Russia’s environmental crimes are underreported. Of course it’s understandable that human deaths get more coverage in the media. But it’s important to understand that Russia has many ways of terrorizing us besides killing civilians every day. Their methods include deliberately setting nature reserves on fire, firing at nuclear power plants, blowing up chemical facilities, and leaking dangerous substances into our seas and rivers. Enormous amounts of animals die because of the actions of the Russian army.
Besides that, any missile or artillery shell explosion pollutes the air and makes the soil unsafe to use. Those explosions are happening every day; countless shells pollute our soil already. This war already has had environmental consequences for the entire planet.
It pains me that when we, as a global society, were focused on preserving the environment, Putin launched this horrendous war and threw us all off the cliff. I only hope that it has accelerated the process of switching to green sources of energy, and over time that will make up for some of the damage.
HL: All of your color choices are vivid, clear, and simple, which allows your reader to pay attention to shape and detail. When I saw your piece Dog Food, I was intrigued by your apparent commitment to colors such as pinks and greens to depict real discoloring of a dead body. Why do you prefer to use simple lineation and vivid hues for your work? When the subject matter jolted itself to war from the themes of your prewar account, bold and clear color remained. How does it feel to color some of the most gruesome themes possible with colors which might seem cheerful?
MD: To me, color is one of the most important tools of expression. I pay a lot of attention to my color choices. The emotions I try to convey in my pieces are very strong. Even if they are extremely negative, they are way too bold to be expressed in dark and dim colors. Some days are completely gray, though, and that’s when I use grays.
In some pieces I exaggerate colors to purposefully make the subject seem more cartoonish, so it’s less horrifying for my viewers to perceive. At the beginning I felt reluctant about even posting drawings of dead people, but I am dedicated to being completely honest with my audience. The normalization of death is an unavoidable aspect of war.
HL: Your pieces are some of the first GIFs we’re publishing. How has being able to create motion in your pieces enabled you to better represent your subject matter? What does motion add? I think the motion in Dog Food works as temporal framing around the body, for example, whereas the motion in Air Raid Siren creates the effect of eternity, almost.
MD: Movement has several functions in my work. First of all, it’s easier for me to express my thoughts through animation rather than through still images. Also, the work process is therapeutic; I redraw the same thing multiple times to create motion, which works like a productive meditation that I use to process difficult emotions. And, finally, I am planning to combine this material to make an animated film in the future.
In my style of animation, I always redraw everything multiple times so that even still objects are shaky. What I noticed while working on this series is that dead bodies need to keep completely still, otherwise it looks wrong, as if they are in the process of dying.
HL: What is different about the work you’re doing now in response to the invasion and the work you did in the first sixty days?
MD: Now I have access to more tools, so I do more complex hand-drawn graphics. On the other hand, I have less energy. I feel emotionally burnt out and apathetic, so I can’t create as often. I need more time to reflect and recover. Initially there was a great sense of urgency: everything was constantly changing, I needed to deliver my art for the world to see and know what was happening with us in Ukraine. I couldn’t skip a day. Now I feel that the world already knows about the great terror and injustice; there’s no daily change of situation, so I can use more time to renew my creative energy between each new piece.
HL: You say in your artist statement that one of your goals is to “reevaluat[e] Ukrainian culture and history in general.” Can you talk a little bit about what you are reevaluating?
MD: Ukraine is a country with a suppressed and stolen culture. The Russian way of colonization includes violent suppression of language, replacing it with Russian, and the erasure of national folklore by blending it with their own, leaving only a simplified caricature of a culture for the colonized nations to keep. Through heavy propaganda, Russia made it embarrassing for us to be interested in our own language, customs, art, and literature. This is a problem for all the non-Russian peoples that have ever been colonized by the Russian Empire in any of its forms. Ukrainians did a great job of preserving our art and language despite hundreds of years of repressions, but much of it was lost.
Today, as a Ukrainian artist, it is my responsibility to study Ukrainian art and culture in depth, to find ways to reevaluate and resurrect it, and to educate fellow Ukrainians and the rest of the world about it. Ukraine has a rich and fascinating culture that the world either doesn’t know about or perceives as Russian.
I began my research by studying and experiencing the customs of the regions where my parents come from and creating art based on what I found, which is one of the many reasons why I am staying in Ukraine despite the dangers.
HL: By the time of this interview’s publication, it is likely the landscape of the conflict will change again. Is there anything at all you’d like to express about the ongoing conflict at the end of our interview?
MD: It’s very important that people don’t fall for Russia’s informational manipulations. Please remember that Russia violently attacked us in our home. The Russian army is committing genocide here in real time. Ukraine’s only option is to fight till the end. Russia can end this war and go home any time, whereas we have nowhere else to go, so we fight.
This is a fight for human rights, justice, and global safety. I am extremely grateful to everyone who supports us in any way; we really do need and appreciate any kind of support. Sending my amplified love and gratitude your way! May there be freedom, justice, and a peaceful future for all of us.
Please consider donating to Hospitallers, a volunteer organization selected by Marynka, of Ukrainian paramedics providing treatment for those on the frontlines.
HALEY LANINGHAM is a PhD student in poetry at Florida State University and holds an MFA from the University of Oregon. She acts as the Art Editor for Southeast Review.