PORTAGE PARK — Every day, Elena Diadenko texts and calls her friends and family in Ukraine, making sure they are doing OK as the country reels in turmoil.
Like so many other Ukrainians in Chicago and around the world, she has been feeling desperate and hopeless because of the invasion in her home country, struggling with how to help from afar.
The 52-year-old Portage Park painter and art teacher decided to turn her upcoming solo art exhibit into a charity show that will benefit Ukrainian wounded soldiers fighting the Russians. Called “Colors of Life, her exhibit will feature over 70 works for sale. The proceeds will be donated to the nonprofit organization Revived Soldiers Ukraine.
“The spirit of Ukrainians is really strong,” said Diadenko, who has lived in Chicago for nearly 30 years.
The spirit of her fellow Ukrainians, seeing Chicagoans stepping up to help, the support she’s received from people worldwide who have bought her paintings online and her students and colleagues at Schurz High School planning to attend her show is motivating her to get out of bed.
The exhibit opens 7 p.m. Friday at the Ukrainian National Museum, 2249 W. Superior St., and runs through March 27. Admission is $10. Masks are required.
“I was thinking it would be just a regular exhibition but now since the war started, I decided to give all the profits to wounded soldiers,” she said. “I hope I sell as much as possible — that’s my number one priority. I don’t care about anything else. … This is so important.”
Diadenko works with acrylic and glass paintings that combine abstract shapes with figurative styles. She highlights Ukrainian folk culture using an ancient Ukrainian technique with black outlines and vibrant colors. Her glass paintings showcase traditional weddings, couples, landscapes and angels.
“The glass paintings are done in ancient ways — you paint on the glass in reverse,” she said. “This is how they painted icons as soon as they discovered glass a long time ago. I want to keep the technique to preserve the roots.”
Other work at the exhibit focuses on invisible aspects of the spiritual world and her interpretation of it, ethereal women characters and more realistic paintings based on political and violent real-world events, like a war painting that depicts a wounded soldier and a house on fire. She painted it in 2008 to protest the war in Iraq, though now it’s relevant for her own country’s war.
“Colors of Life” is Diadenko’s first show at the Ukrainian National Museum, though her Chicago success goes back decades. She has participated in 60 art exhibitions including solo, group shows and art fairs in the Chicagoland area and the Midwest.
In 2004, she won the prestigious Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching while at Clemente High School in Humboldt Park. She’s been teaching at Schurz for 12 years and enjoys exposing her students to Ukrainian art and culture in her five classes, she said.
Maria Klimchak, the curator for the museum, said Diadenko’s rich artistic success and the themes explored in her work make the artist a perfect fit for the museum. She was set to have her show in 2020, but the pandemic pushed back the timing to this year.
Klimchak hopes people who attend the show see what real life is like in Ukraine through Diadenko’s paintings, learn about the country and support the artist so that “everything will be back to normal, like seen in her work.”
“We would like to invite many Americans just to show them the beauty of Ukraine and Elena’s art,” Klimchak said. “Support Ukraine so it can be a free country. This is how we would like to express it, through this mission.”
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