toronto artist ukraine

A Toronto artist is in Ukraine painting over bullet holes with flowers

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has drawn in foreign volunteers from all over the world, including many pitching in from right here in Toronto.

One person from the city has been making a difference in Ukraine in her own way, transforming the scars of a brutal war into symbols of hope and recovery.

Ivanka Siolkowsky, a former elementary school teacher-turned professional organizer, has gained notoriety on social media in recent weeks for her inspirational art painted over bullet holes in the wartorn town of Bucha.

It's a place that recently came to global attention with the grisly discovery of a massacre perpetrated by Russian forces, but Siolkowsky is trying to paint the town in a new light without whitewashing the crimes committed there.

Siolkowsky is Canadian-born, but she tells blogTO that her Ukrainian roots are a large part of who she is. And conflict is a bitter but important element in her family history.

"Three of my grandparents were taken from their villages to Germany during the Second World War. After that, they came to Canada and began their Iives there, where the Ukrainian diaspora is very large. This is how the language and traditions continued."

So when Russian troops rolled across the Ukrainian border in the largest European ground invasion since the very war that displaced her grandparents, Siolkowsky says, "it wasn't a question that I would help out in any way that I can."

"This was/is the mindset of every Ukrainian around the globe. We are all doing our part - I am simply in a position where I was able to hop on a plane, so I did."

Her family was concerned for her safety, but they knew there wasn't much they could say to stop her. Her mother passed away a few years earlier, and her father, while likely very worried, told her that "you have to do what you have to do. I support you."

Actually getting into an active warzone was surprisingly easy for Siolkowsky, who flew to Poland and spent the early days of the war assisting in the massive and, at times, chaotic evacuation.

"There were many children crossing alone who needed assistance, so I helped with that to ensure they arrived to safety. So any time I had to cross over, I had no problems with customs because they knew me and knew the work that I was doing. They knew I wasn't a threat."

There is a bit of a time gap between Siolkowsky's arrival in Ukraine and the start of her project of painting over bullet holes, but considering the horrors of war, it's a side of the story she needs time to process for herself before sharing with the world.

When asked about her experiences in the country and scenes that have impacted her, she says that "they're still too fresh to speak about. I'm still here in Ukraine and still living through it. Maybe one day I'll be able to talk about it, but not yet."

As for her painting project, Siolkowsky says it all began when she met a man named Sasha who had lost not just his son in the war but also his house, which was bombed and burned to the ground.

"He told me he wanted to leave because there was no joy left in this city anymore. All he sees are bullet holes in his fence reminding him of his loss. So I wanted to erase those bullet holes for him, so he could be reminded of the joy that once was."

"He told me his favourite flower was daffodils, so I painted daffodils. My goal was to make him smile, and I succeeded. Never did I think it would turn into this."

Painting has become a bright spot in her story, but Siolkowsky didn't set out with much in the way of art supplies or really much else for that matter.

"I didn't bring much with me. I brought items for soldiers that I delivered upon arrival, but for myself, I brought very few clothes and only items that were necessary for safety." She says her most valuable supply has been her bulletproof vest, which she wears most days.

The locals have been through more than most of us could ever imagine, but Siolkowsky says that even in the face of such extreme hardships and bloodshed, "Ukrainians are the most hospitable people I've ever known."

While Siolkowsky admits her Ukrainian heritage may have contributed to her warm reception, she says they've been extremely grateful for all the help, and "are the type of people who will give you the shirt off their back without question."

"I've certainly felt the love, and felt like I'm home the entire time I've been here," says Siolkowsky, who, through her art, is, in turn, helping the locals feel like they're once again at home.

Lead photo by

Ivanka Siolkowsky

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