Through drawings, a Connecticut artist documents war in Ukraine and honors her family's past
For Connecticut artist Pamela Sztybel, the war in Ukraine hits close to home.
Her grandmother was born in Kyiv, but as a young girl during the Russian Revolution, she was forced to escape to Poland. In 1939, the Nazi invasion of Poland sent Sztybel’s grandparents fleeing yet again — this time with Sztybel’s 12-year-old father — to New York.
Speaking on a recent episode of Connecticut Public’s Where Art Thou? Sztybel said the traumas experienced by her ancestors are baked into her family’s DNA, inspiring her to produce daily illustrations documenting the war in Ukraine.
The pictures are kept in a diary and shared on her Instagram page.
Sztybel said the project is raising money for World Central Kitchen, which NPR reports has been feeding Ukrainians on the front lines of the war.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Pamela Sztybel: My grandmother — my father’s mother — was born in Kyiv and escaped during the Russian Russian Revolution into Poland. As a young girl, she was put in a luggage rack of a train to keep her safe from the bullets.
She went to Poland, met my grandfather, had my father, and then the Germans invaded in 1939. She and my father and grandfather were forced to escape again, out of Poland through Romania and France, and to New York.
So she left everything behind twice in her life.
Ray Hardman: Did your grandmother tell stories?
Sztybel: I was 2 when my grandmother died. She was very sad and became an alcoholic and unhappy. She never really adjusted to New York, and America, and the language.
Hardman: Do you feel a connection to Ukraine?
Sztybel: I do. Because I have this feeling that some of these traumas, and some of these historical events, are baked into your DNA. My father was very vocal about telling me stories of their escape, and the war and his parents.
Hardman: At first, Russia was potentially going to invade Ukraine. When they finally did, were you keeping up with the news?
Sztybel: I saw President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy make that first speech, I thought, “OK, I'm gonna have to draw that.” That’s what started this Ukrainian project that was very similar to the pandemic project, the same format.
Hardman: You had already been used to drawing in this type of format with COVID. And did you start right at the beginning of COVID?
Sztybel: I started in February of 2020. So it was way before the lockdown. I first saw the passengers coming off the ship with their masks on and so forth. And I, just on a whim, ran down to an art material store and got a sketchbook and said, “I’m going to do a drawing of the news every day, for a year.”
I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll make it 30 days.” But I stuck to it. And then we had the lockdown and everything was snowballing in a way that had changed all of our lives. It took on a life of its own.
Pandemic drawings had, occasionally, some humor built into it. Ukrainian drawings really don't.
I take headlines from various news sources. And then I create a drawing that illustrates the words that I’m using.
Hardman: There’s so much news that comes out of Ukraine on a daily basis. What are you looking for?
Sztybel: I’m drawn to the human stories about what’s happening to the people of Ukraine, the refugees, the children, the mothers and their babies — things that regular people are forced to do in extreme circumstances.
These projects have forced me to try to draw things I never would have drawn in any other circumstance — I didn’t know how to draw a tank until I started doing this project. And to simplify them down so that they fit into these very small 4-by-5-inch formats.
Hardman: I’m wondering, because the news is so grim coming out of Ukraine, whether this has taken a toll on you?
Sztybel: Some days it’s so disturbing. But because the Ukraine drawings are raising money for a charity, it makes me feel like I’m doing something and that helps.
I also feel like I’m honoring my grandparents and my father’s experience by doing this.
Watch the conversation with Pamela Sztybel below.