Starobilsk is a town in the Luhansk region not far from the Russian border. According to a legend, Makhno, who stayed in the town for some time, had hidden his looted treasures nearby. Starobilsk is also mentioned in Ilf and Petrov’s novel “The Twelve Chairs”.
Svalyava is a town in Zakarpattia. It is also close to the border, but on the opposite side of the country. It is known for its healing waters. The distance between Svalyava and Starobilsk is 1,482 kilometers. But this distance is quite conditional. An example of this was an exhibition of Ukrainian artists’ works and an auction for the benefit of the AFU. On the first day, they managed to raise about 100,000 hryvnias. That impressive event was the result of months of work of the displaced women from the Luhansk region.
From the town palace of culture to all-Ukrainian art projects
In 2014, Oksana Ochkurova, head of the NGO “Center for Joint Development “Diyeva Hromada”, moved with her husband and three sons (the youngest was not even a year old) from occupied Kadiyivka (Stakhanov) to Starobilsk in the same Luhansk region. In 2022 she had to move far beyond the Luhansk region, but within Ukraine. She cannot imagine her life and the lives of her children outside of her country. So, now the family is living in Svalyava.
Oksana has a degree in arts and art is what she really enjoys. Until 2014, she headed a department at the Gorky Palace of Culture in Kadiyivka. The war and forced displacement urged her to significantly expand the scope of her activities, taking it beyond the usual town palace of culture.
“In 2014, when I had to move, I didn’t work, because my youngest son Mykhailyk was very young,” the woman recalls. “And I didn’t start working in Starobilsk right away either.”
Analyzing her activity, which began in Starobilsk in 2014 and is gaining momentum now, you understand: Oksana and her workmates started by trying to meet their own needs, including cultural ones.
In the new place, they did not find what they needed and what was available and familiar to them in their hometowns before the occupation – certain cultural activities, events, cultural space for adults and children, etc. So, they started to arrange all this on their own.
They began with very simple things: went out to clean the city, which had become their second home, just to collect garbage on the Aydar beaches, in the parks… And other people joined them.
Later they set up a public organization “Center for joint development “Diyeva Hromada”, with Oksana Ochkurova as its head. The organization started its activities by helping displaced people, but very soon they switched off to organizing various cultural events.
“It may sound strange, but we, the visitors, taught local people to love their hometown, Starobilsk,” Oksana recalls. “We often used to hear: “Who can be interested in our province?”, “What can you do here?”
The cultural sphere in Starobilsk at that time was a huge unfilled niche, a huge unplowed field. And Oksana, together with like-minded people, got down to business…
Local people realized pretty soon that Starobilsk had a lot to show the world, it really had a lot to be proud of. One article cannot list everything that was done by the public organization. Almost all the murals that decorated the town’s gray walls in recent years were created due to Diyeva Hromada. They did the mapping of the town with indications and descriptions of its best tourist attractions. They created a hub – a cultural space where anyone could come and do something unexpected and new for Starobilsk. They offered Zumba, watching and discussing films, and all sorts of courses – from cooking and photography to English, and just socializing with other people… At first, all that attracted IDPs who, as well as their children, literally did not know what to do. Later, locals also got more actively involved. And then the IDPs turned into the local population. In almost eight years, the division into “insiders” and “outsiders” gradually disappeared. It was also thanks to the activities of the NGO Diyeva Hromada.
“I remember how much I wanted to love Starobilsk in 2014,” Oksana admits. “I really wanted it to become my home town. And I managed to really love it…”
Meanwhile, the town gradually acquired a reputation of the most important cultural center of the Luhansk region after the regional center and part of the region had been occupied.
“From about 2016, I started hearing from artists about Starobilsk as a kind of cultural center of the Luhansk region,” says Olena Kayinska, an artist from Lviv who twice participated in the “Aura of the Town” Art Residency, organized by the NGO Diyeva Hromada. – I wanted to go to Starobilsk, and I did…”
The project Olena was invited to last year was the “Aura of the Town” Art Residence, a favorite brainchild of Oksana Ochkurova and her associates.
“Of course, I enjoy everything we do,” says Oksana Ochkurova. “But all the same, “Aura of the Town” consumes most of my time and energy, but gives the greatest pleasure and the brightest emotions.”
“Aura of the Town” was held in Starobilsk three times. It was like that. Artists from different parts of Ukraine came to the provincial steppe town on the Aydar with sincere interest. They looked at the town with fresh eyes and worked – each in their own genre on a certain topic. The topics were very different, but always with an emphasis on local specifics, e.g. the tourist attraction of the Luhansk region or the rehabilitation problems of ATO/JFO veterans. The project participants painted their new pictures and gave them to the town as a gift. A lot of paintings are currently stored in a safe place, away from the eyes of the occupiers, who seek to destroy all bright and living things in the occupied Luhansk region, and culture in the first place.
Social event and 100,000 for the AFU in a day
This year, after becoming IDPs for the second time, Oksana and other members of the NGO Diyeva Hromada managed to organize “Aura of the Town” again – in Svalyava, Zakarpattia.
In October, five Ukrainian artists came to Svalyava. Olena Kayinska, who had gone to see Starobilsk with her own eyes and participate in “Aura of the Town,” became the Art Residency curator. Each of the artists conducted art therapy classes and master classes for IDPs, and worked on their own paintings.
“We dreamed of opening a gallery in Starobilsk, because we collected a lot of works by well-known Ukrainian artists thanks to “Aura of the Town” in previous years,” says Oksana Ochkurova. “Although the war has hampered our plans in Starobilsk, our dream has completely unexpectedly come true in Svalyava.”
As for the auction, as Oksana admits, it has never been in her plans or dreams before. But during the war, even art must work for our common Victory. Therefore, they decided to sell the paintings, and purchase a drone with a thermal imager for the Ukrainian defenders, who are liberating the Luhansk region from the occupiers.
In addition to the paintings created by the “Aura of the Town” residents, other Ukrainian artists also offered their works for the final exhibition. All those paintings – more than 60 – became auction lots.
“The auction is an event beyond the Aura of the Town project,” emphasizes the head of the NGO Diyeva Hrodama. “We organized it in partnership with the “Koshelya Family” charitable foundation from Svalyava.”
“It’s hard to believe that only the day before yesterday there were bare walls here,” said Olena Kayinska after the event.
There was tremendous work behind organizizing the event – from creating a catalog and writing a script to lighting and heating the room, from adjusting the height at which a picture hangs, to preparing a menu for a buffet lunch.
Before the actual bidding began, the visitors – and there were several dozen of them – were told about the project, about each artist and each picture… And many wanted to help the AFU and to buy not just a picture, but an emotion, a story…
Despite our anxiety, the auction started more than successfully. The first lot included a series of five paintings “God, save and preserve” by Kharkiv artist Oleksandr Vynnyk, and it was sold for 15,000 hryvnias. Probably, thanks to its successful start, the auction was emotional; there was excitement and competition for some lots. In the end, several paintings by each of the Aura of the Town residents and several exhibition participants were sold.
After December 3, the auction continues in a “silent” format – people continue bidding on lots directly at the exhibition and on the Internet.
… And the paintings will live in private collections, reminding that their new owners contributed to the peaceful sky above our Motherland the way they could.
Thanks to the Koshelya Family charitable foundation the premises were made perfect for holding arts events in a short time. It will continue to be used as a gallery. There is everything that is needed for it, and first of all – aura.