Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal ArtsNomina
7 minutes for reading

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: outstanding Ukrainian artist Kateryna Bilokur from Poltava region

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: outstanding Ukrainian artist Kateryna Bilokur from Poltava region
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WUNDERKIND CREATORS

 

Parents who do not want their children to be happy are, to say the least, a rarity. In any case, while raising and educating their children, they try to give their lives the direction that they consider correct and useful, so that their kids could grow up successful and happy.

There are examples of the work of parents with their children, which provoked maximum discussion and clearly yielded good results. Many have probably heard about the Nikitin spouses, who developed their seven children using their own special methods. The results of their work are, as a minimum, interesting.

The children themselves easily coped with the raised requirements and mastered the educational games, invented by their parents, with pleasure. All of them studied in classes where they were the youngest, but they did an excellent job, and five of them graduated from the institute with honors.

Not everyone likes the Nikitins’ techniques. Good, normal, and intelligent people grew out of their children, but none of them showed any superpowers. Moreover, they did not bring up any of their own children using parental technologies – all their kids studied with their peers.

 

THREE CHESS PLAYERS

 

There is a more striking and clearly more successful example – the Hungarian Laszlo Polgar. At first, he got an idea to make his three daughters brilliant mathematicians, but changed his mind: it was 1972, the Spassky-Fischer match was in the spotlight, and he decided to bring them up as chess players.

He made the risky decision not to send the girls to school, but to educate them at home, devoting one day a week only to chess. The Ministry of Education threatened him with jail – the country had a law on universal secondary education, so why would they handle the violator with the kid gloves?

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: outstanding Ukrainian artist Kateryna Bilokur from Poltava region
Laszlo Polgar with his daughters. Source: wonderzine

His tenacity was so strong that he managed to get a permission to teach his daughters by himself. People knowing what bureaucracy is understand what a miracle it was… By the way, he was not going to deprive his daughters of all the knowledge of the world, except for chess – they knew no less than ordinary graduates.

His daughters’ results remain phenomenal. Zsuzsa Polgar is a world champion and a grandmaster among men; Judit has the highest rating among women; and Zsofia is an international master. They play in men’s tournaments only.

 

WHEN EVERYTHING IS THE OPPOSITE

 

But these are all positive examples – this attitude, at least, did not harm the children. Could it be the other way around? So that parents do everything to prevent their child’s undoubted abilities from developing? It’s hard even to believe it…

What can happen to such a child? It is clear that this is far from being good. The fact that the kid’s life will be difficult and unhappy is not even necessary to discuss – it is clear that this will happen by itself. But are there any chances that the suppressed abilities will somehow manifest themselves? I got certain doubts about that…

But it turns out that a strong and real talent will break through any barriers, even those that are placed by the formally closest people in the world – the child’s own parents. It is hardly believable, but nevertheless it is so! To confirm that, here’s the story of one life.

 

FOLLOW THE CROWD!

 

Kateryna Bilokur was born in the village of Bohdanivka, Poltava Governorate, about a month before the beginning of the new twentieth century, in the family of a quite well-off peasant – fortunate both with a piece of land and cattle. It was enough to think that children should live better than their fathers.

Her father was clearly not an ordinary individual: it suffice to say that until 1944 he managed to remain a self-employed farmer, which in the days of total collectivization was not easy and required some special abilities. He was a strict parent and made decisions for the children by himself.

That’s how he decided that his sons, Grisha and Pavlik, would go to school, and his daughter did not need this: it only meant some extra expenses for clothes and shoes, and she could labor in the field without it. Moreover, very early she learned to read the ABC book by herself, which he still did not forbid her to use.

 

DO AS YOU ARE BIDDEN!

 

Kateryna was very envious of the brothers – in particular, of the fact that they had copy-books. She drew one such copy-book over and hung the paintings in their peasant house to please the family. Father tore them off and burned them in the stove, and then began to whip her with a birch for drawing so that she would not be captured with this damnedest thing.

Later she recalled how she stole a piece of white linen from her mother and painted what she could – both on one side and the other. And they yelled at her and asked in horror: “What the hell are you doing? What if others see it, who will marry a brain-sick like you?”

Her neighbor and relative Nikita Tonkonog started something like a drama club in the village. She gladly helped him, painted the scenery, and later even played herself. But she tried so that her parents knew as little as possible about this: nothing was in the cards for her for such hobbies except for swearing and beating.

 

I WILL BE PAINTING – NO MATTER WHAT!

 

I have no information on how the revolution and the events associated with it affected her life. Plowing, sowing, harvesting, and bustling about the farm – no revolution will cancel these activities for a peasant. Unless it scolds him for being lazy and tells him to work harder. But she did not quit painting.

She first painted on pieces of canvas – with homemade paints out of onions, elderberries, and viburnum. Then she mastered oil paints. She made the brushes by herself – from cat hair, choosing hairs of the same length, cherry twigs, and tin from cans.

Switching to canvas, she did not prime it at first, and because of this, several of her early paintings got darkened. Then she mastered the priming technique by herself. The background of her paintings was clean and monochrome – most of all she loved blue. In fact, she painted the canvas completely and made her drawings on the paint.

 

HER FLOWERS

 

The main subjects of her paintings are flowers. Sometimes spring and autumn ones are together – such pictures were drawn for six months. She almost always drew from nature, right in the field – sometimes for a very long time. For example, it took her three weeks to draw six dahlias in the picture The Collective Farm Field.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: outstanding Ukrainian artist Kateryna Bilokur from Poltava region
Kateryna Bilokur. The Collective Farm Field. 1949

Making a separate stretcher for each canvas was expensive and troublesome. Therefore, for her, the stretcher was something like an embroidery hoop, to which she fastened the canvas with twine. Then she removed the ready canvas and used the stretcher for a new picture.

She painted live flowers and never picked them. She said: “A plucked flower is like a lost destiny”. To draw lilies of the valley well, she could go to the neighboring Pyriatinsky forest, located at the distance of 30 kilometers from her house. Of course, so that the parents did not know that…

By the way, it turned out that her talent was also useful for the house: she hand-tailored some stuff for her fellow villagers, made embroideries, and was, in modern terms, an amateur rural stylist. In her museum-estate you can see towels and shirts with the monogram “KB” embroidered by her.

 

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NO PLACE TO LEARN AT

 

Around 1922, she was told that a technical school of artistic ceramics had been opened in Myrhorod. She came there, hoping to enter it, but no one was going to take her – she did not go to school for a day. So they asked: “Where is your certificate of completion of the seven-year plan?” – and refused to admit her. She had to go home on foot.

Spouses-teachers named Kalyta again organized a drama club in her village, and she was even able to get permission from her parents to participate in the performances – of course, only on the condition that all the housekeeping work assigned to her was done. Somehow she managed to cope with everything…

In 1928, she again went to enter the Kyiv Theater College. Naturally, to no avail: they should have made clear to her in Myrhorod that without a certificate of completion of the seven-year school she would not be taken to study anywhere – on any account whatever. At least she would not have been upset once again…

Her fellow villagers did not respect her. They considered her as “exceedingly smart, out of this world, a strange woman who lives with her mother and has neither a husband nor children”. By the way, indeed, we do not know anything about her personal life – as if it did not exist at all. It is quite possible that it is so.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: outstanding Ukrainian artist Kateryna Bilokur from Poltava region
Kateryna Bilokur. Bohdanivka apples. 1958-59

In 1934, her own mother brought her to the point that she rushed to drown herself in the Chumhak River in front of her eyes. People managed to save her, but she chilled her feet and had been walking with a cane ever since. Even her father could not resist and allowed her to draw – of course, with curses and abuse, but still…

 

THE BREAKTHROUGH

 

In 1940, her uncertainty ended: she heard the song Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow on the radio, sung by Oksana Petrusenko. She liked the song so much that she sent the singer a letter with her picture of a viburnum. The singer, apparently, was amazed.

After consulting with friends (in particular, the famous poet Pavlo Tychyna), she turned to the Poltava Center of Folk Art, and its worker Vladimir Khitko went to Bohdanivka to find the artist and see her works. Apparently, he was just as impressed.

In 1940, her personal exhibition opened at the Poltava House of Folk Art, which at that time consisted of only 11 paintings. The exhibition was a huge success, and the artist was awarded a trip to Moscow, where she visited the Pushkin Museum and the Tretyakov Gallery.

Soon the war began, but, thank God, during the occupation nothing special happened to her – good things rarely happened there. She stayed alive – and that’s something anyway. Of course, she did not stop drawing. She never stopped drawing.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: outstanding Ukrainian artist Kateryna Bilokur from Poltava region
Portrait of the artist’s nieces. 1937-1939. Source: thesketchline

 

GLORY IS A BRIGHT PATCH…

 

In 1944, Bohdanivka was visited by the director of the State Museum of the Ukrainian Folk Decorative Arts Vasily Nagai, who acquired a number of paintings from Bilokur. It is thanks to him that this Museum now accommodates the best collection of her works.

Then there was glory. In 1949 she became a member of the Union of Artists of Ukraine. In 1951 she was awarded the Order of the Badge of Honor and the title of Honored Art Worker of the Ukrainian SSR. In 1956 Bilokur received the title of People’s Artist of the Ukrainian SSR.

Now her paintings are very often exhibited at the picture shows – and not only in the Soviet Union. Three of her paintings – Tsar Kolos, Birch, and The Collective Farm Field – were included in the exposition of Soviet art at the International Exhibition in Paris, held in 1954.

Here her paintings were noticed by Pablo Picasso himself, who spoke about her as follows:

If we had an artist of this level of skill, we would make the whole world talk about her!

The paintings were clearly liked not only by him: on the way back they were stolen, and where they are now is unknown.

 

NO FULL UNDERSTANDING

 

Bilokur has become a star. She had been a star before, but they did not know about it. And now she corresponded with respected people of art and got apprentices. Many of these letters have survived and are very interesting. In them she writes about her problems, troubles, and hopes.

American researcher Jennifer Cahn writes: “It was distressing for her that she was called a folk artist or a primitivist (a naive painter). She wanted to be an Artist with a capital letter”. But she failed to completely get rid of the condescending attitude towards her.

It was becoming more and more difficult for her to live in the village – she would like to get an apartment in Kyiv. She had such a chance: she was offered to paint a portrait of Stalin, which would solve all her problems. But she refused to do it – she lived in a Ukrainian village in the Holodomor time. The mandarins were angry, but somehow everything went off all right.

 

THE SAD END

 

She also tried to write stories, and even showed her autobiographical play to an editor she knew. The latter said: “The play is weak, the composition is helpless, there is no dramatic action, and there is still a lot of work to be done”. Bilokur grabbed the manuscript and ran out of the room. The manuscript has disappeared.

In 1948 her father died. Brother Grigory moved to her and her sick mother with his wife and five children. Such alliances often provoke family scandals – as it happened this time. And nervous tension provokes illnesses. Including the most terrible ones…

In 1961, she got disturbed by the stomach pain. Bohdanivka pharmacy did not have the necessary drugs, but I am afraid that it was not the drugs that were involved – they are not there even now. Her 94-year-old mother dies on June 2, and a week later Kateryna undergoes emergency surgery. She had a stomach cancer – and died the same day.

 

MEMORY AND RESPECT

 

Ukraine remembers its wonderful artist well. Her house now accommodates the Museum-Estate of Kateryna Bilokur. A monument to her was erected in Yagotyn. There are streets and lanes named after her in Kyiv, Irpin, Brovary, and Kramatorsk. A commemorative two-hryvnya coin was also issued in her honor.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: outstanding Ukrainian artist Kateryna Bilokur from Poltava region
Monument in Yagotyn. Source: wikipedia

Composer Lesia Dychko created the ballet Kateryna Bilokur, or Inspiration in her honor, staged at the National Philharmonic of Ukraine. And in 2009, the play Two Indigo Flowers about Kateryna Bilokur and Frida Kahlo was staged at the Franko Theater.

The cinema also gave her a lot of attention. A TV show, two documentaries, and a two-part feature film Wild with Rayisa Nedashkivska in the title role were shot about her. The list is clearly inconclusive – a lot more will be written and filmed about her.

You see that even the most terrible attitude of parents to the talent of their children does not reach its goal. Talent can do a lot, and it is difficult to hinder it. And most importantly, why? All the same, either nothing will come out of it, or it is going to be something much worse than nothing. And these are your children!

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