A long-delayed art exhibition has finally opened but with a new focus. A Chicago artist and teacher born in Ukraine makes both traditional and contemporary paintings. She is now using her ability to create to counter forces of destruction.
Marc Vitali: Many images are painted directly onto glass. It’s a customary form of Ukrainian folk painting that celebrates cultural heritage and religious icons.
Others paintings are modern works with spiritual themes.
At the Ukrainian National Museum of Chicago, we met an artist on a mission.
Elena Diadenko, artist: My name is Elena Diadenko.
I’ve been an artist all my life. I started to paint from my childhood, and I never stopped. When I was a little girl, I was always saying I will be an artist. Artist, college, marriage. That’s what I used to say when I was a kid.
Two years ago, I planned this art show but COVID started and we couldn’t have a show. So I planned to have this show right now, and the war started in Ukraine, and as soon as I found out about war, I was thinking, oh my God, how can I help? What can I do? And I decided that every single painting from this show will go to help wounded soldiers in Ukraine.
Vitali: She says proceeds from the sale of her work will benefit two Ukrainian veterans groups and the Red Cross.
The day we spoke with the artist, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin had just bought several of her paintings on glass.
Elena Diadenko is from Poltava in central Ukraine. She was a 20-year-old visiting Chicago when Ukraine gained independence in 1992.
She stayed here and became a US citizen and an art teacher for Chicago Public Schools.
And she made an impact — in 2004, she won a Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching. She also studied with artist Ed Paschke and never stopped painting.
Diadenko: My artwork has many different directions when it comes to themes. I do have maternity themes because I think it’s beautiful to be a mother and to give birth to a child. I have a maternity series. Spirituality is very important.
A lot of paintings of mine have angels and people asking for healing or people praying for peace or people praying for whatever is sacred to them.
And for the victory of our soldiers of course.
I call Ukraine daily. I go on Facebook and I contact my friends via text or phone call and today in the morning I talked to my friend Mykolayiv, it’s south in Ukraine and she said ‘Elena, it’s shelling. We hear bombs exploding outside. ‘And so I talked to her and I said I’m going to pray for you. I told her I have an interview today and she say “Tell Americans that we are in trouble. Let the whole world know about it.”
Ukraine is a very beautiful country. I love it.
And Kyiv is an incredibly beautiful city. We have a lot of fields of beautiful sunflowers
You know what I want to say? I want to say thank you to the United States for adopting me.
I am an American citizen now. I studied here, I went to Columbia College, I have two master’s degrees in education and interdisciplinary arts.
I’m very thankful for this country for everything that you do, for Ukraine and for other people, you know? Because you help a lot of different countries in trouble.
Elena Diadenko teaches fine arts at Schurz High School on the Northwest side. Her exhibition is called “Colors of Life.” It’s at the Ukrainian National Museum of Chicago through the end of March. You can see more of Diadenko’s work on her website. And she has pieces available for sale on Etsy.