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Vasyl Netsko: Uniting Ukrainian folk art and contemporary imagination

Throughout the years of art history, many artists have turned to folk art in an attempt to grasp the true essence of being, rejecting established academic norms and standards. Titans of art such as Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse sought to perceive the world with a pure, uncluttered vision, free of various beliefs, and to convey their observations on canvas.

Folk art continues to inspire modern artists as well. Vasyl Netsko, a Ukrainian artist and sculptor, captures the grace, depth, and vividness of Ukrainian culture in his artwork. Simultaneously, Vasyl embraces his educational background, masterfully blending the skills he acquired at the Higher Professional School of Technology and Design in wood sculpture with an open and free style of self-expression.

The creations of Vasyl Netsko not only possess aesthetic appeal, but also convey profound philosophical significance. Through his art, he encourages viewers to appreciate love, beauty, and the simple joys in life. This message is particularly relevant in the current context, as war ravages Ukraine and many innocent lives are lost. Vasyl Netsko's art prompts reflection on truly important matters and challenges us to reevaluate our established perspectives and values.

I encourage you to explore the art of this exceptional and multifaceted artist. Vasyl Netsko has won numerous awards in both the realms of art and sports. As a multiple-time champion in all-Ukrainian and European bodybuilding competitions, a participant in international exhibitions and art contests, a philosopher and aesthete, he has a unique approach to art. Whatever he engages with, Vasyl transforms it into a work of art.

Vasyl Netsko
Vasyl Netsko

Yuliana Arles: Dear Vasyl, upon examining your artwork, the first thing I noticed was the distinct qualities that stand out, such as the use of well-defined contours to create flat figures, accentuated by vibrant highlights, all portrayed in a raw and expressive visual style. These features are reminiscent of the neoprimitivism artistic movement that emerged in the early 20th century and drew inspiration from folk and ancient artistic traditions.

Your paintings also display motifs and influences from Ukrainian folk art. Could you share how your Ukrainian heritage has impacted your artistic style, and what particular elements of Ukrainian culture do you incorporate in your art?

Vasyl Netsko: Thank you very much for the kind words about my artwork. It's good to know that my painting is characteristic of a certain style or period of time. Although my education is in sculpting, I started painting when I was in my 30s. On one hand, being self-taught is beneficial because I can create everything intuitively, expressively, and emotionally. I am not limited by any academic regulations or rules in terms of color, style, or theme, which allows me to be free and open to whatever comes at the moment. I let my imagination and fantasies unfold and simply be myself, as that is the best way to be.

As for the Ukrainian motifs, it's true; I feel the need to share our beautiful, rich, and colorful Ukrainian culture through painting. I am drawn to folk themes, inspired by Shevchenko's works and the folk songs I heard from my childhood. I depict and paint scenes from the lives of ordinary people, showcasing their attire, the crafts they practiced, and their daily activities. I aim to convey everything in my paintings, in order to remember my roots, history, and culture.

When I observe children painting, I approach my own work in the same manner—carefree, honest, and open. I simply enjoy what I do. This has led to the development of my unique style. This is my authenticity.

Yuliana Arles: That's fascinating! Let me ask you then about your sculptures, are they very different in style from your paintings? Is there anything you feel limited by due to the standards imposed by your art education?

Vasyl Netsko: I'd say the opposite. Woodcarving and learning this craft has greatly influenced my painting style. After all, you may notice that the shapes, figures, and faces in my paintings look somewhat "wooden" and rectangular.

When I work on sculpture, I generally rely on my technical knowledge and visual perspective. As an aesthete, the most important aspect for me is the visual appearance of my artwork, whether it is a sculpture, a painting, or any other everyday object.

I strive for beauty, as it is an integral part of my essence. The process usually begins with discovering an intriguing piece of wood in the forest or on the beach. I carefully study its resemblance to something and then, using various chiseling techniques, carve the desired image. The process is fascinating because the end result is always unknown.

Yuliana Arles: It is worth mentioning that your artwork is recognized not only for its aesthetic value, but also for the intellectual complexity and multifaceted nature of it. How do you strike a balance between conveying profound concepts and creating visually stunning pieces? What kind of message or impression do you hope to convey through your art?

Vasyl Netsko: Before I begin crafting a new image, I find myself influenced by various emotions and impressions. The process is entirely intuitive; I pour paint onto the canvas, sometimes using one color and other times several. I don't give it much thought as I arrange different objects on the canvas. This process is incredibly captivating for me, allowing me to disconnect and simply go with the flow. I channel these emotions through my heart, experiencing a moment of nirvana, ecstasy, and love.

This is what I strive to convey in my artwork - love for life, the Earth, people, and the beauty that surrounds us. At times, I may not know what I am going to paint. I simply observe the poured paint and begin working methodically. Painting has become a form of meditation for me, a way to share love with others. Perhaps this is why viewers appreciate my artwork. I am grateful to have the ability to make someone feel a bit better through my art.

Yuliana Arles: Yes, indeed, each of your artworks radiates love and a certain spirit. Now I would like to delve into the theme of your painting series titled "Vivid Dreams of Gdańsk”, which transports the viewer to a past era by depicting street scenes of an old Polish city, Gdansk.

Could you share with us the reason behind your selection of this specific subject and the intended message or emotions that you wished to convey to your audience through this series of artworks?

Vasyl Netsko: The lockdown of 2020 proved to be a blessing in disguise for me. This entire period of social isolation turned out to be incredibly fruitful for my creativity. I crafted a surreal collection of paintings depicting life in Gdańsk during the 1920s and 1930s. The entire series, titled "Colorful Dreams about Gdańsk," is dedicated to the city and its essence. I am deeply enamored with this city on the Motława River, drawing inspiration from its rich history, architecture, and culture. I often imagine what I would be doing in Gdańsk if I lived during that era.

In my paintings, I frequently depict children and elderly people, and this is no coincidence. I believe that the beginning and end of life are profoundly philosophical periods. As the happiest individuals, unburdened by fear or worry, can appreciate the little things, whether the sun is shining or it is raining, and find joy in everything. For instance, in the painting “Melody of the Soul”, an old man sits on the roof of a building with a young people, teaching them not just to play music, but to share the tunes that resonate within their heart, which remains youthful and hopeful. I have portrayed this concept by having flowers flow out, symbolizing the melody of the soul that sings and dances.

Almost every painting carries a philosophical meaning, a hidden life secret, or a message. Those with open hearts will see what I intended to convey, above all, love.

Yuliana Arles: Looking closely at your artwork, I noticed several striking resemblances and links to well-known masterpieces, such as Gustav Klimt's The Kiss, the dynamism depicted in Henri Matisse's The Dance, and the sensuality of lovers portrayed by Marc Chagall. Remarkably, you have transformed these familiar subjects into your distinct artistic vision. Would you mind sharing the story behind the creation of these pieces? Additionally, what inspired you to reinterpret the familiar themes of the great masters?

Vasyl Netsko - Calus
Vasyl Netsko - Calus

Vasyl Netsko: I spent 10 years searching for my unique style of painting and experimenting with different techniques, which eventually paid off. I also strive to inspire young, aspiring artists who are passionate about painting, showing them how important it is to pursue their dreams and never give up.

As for the new series "In the Footsteps of the Great Masters" that I am currently working on, it came about spontaneously and unexpectedly. A woman contacted me and asked me to paint my own interpretation of Klimt's painting "The Kiss" instead of making a direct copy. When the painting was finished, I liked it so much that I decided to create another work inspired by a famous piece of art history. This led me to challenge myself to create an entire series based on the artworks of great masters.

My goal is for viewers to remember the original pieces and appreciate them from a new perspective, using a sense of novelty and humor. For example, I depicted Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David as a young boy who likes to play war games while sitting on a wooden horse. In "Mona Lisa's Masquerade", I depicted her hiding her face and mysterious smile behind a Venetian mask shaped like Mona Lisa. This prompts viewers to wonder: if the mask represents the Mona Lisa, then who is hiding behind it? The answer remains a mystery.

Yuliana Arles: Let's return to the topic of your Ukrainian heritage. With the current global attention on the war in Ukraine, I also want to ask how this situation has affected your art and your creative process. Has it influenced your work in any way, and if so, how? Moreover, what do you think is the role of art during times of political turbulence, especially during periods of war and other forms of upheaval?

Vasyl Netsko: History has shown that art often undergoes significant changes during times of crisis, epidemics, and wars. Such events alter each of us to varying degrees, causing us to reassess our erroneous beliefs, attitudes, and habits. We learn to appreciate the simple things in life, such as the company of others, a new day, food, and the enjoyment of freedom.

The current situation in Ukraine and around the world is no exception. As a sensitive person, I was deeply affected when the war began in my homeland, witnessing the barbaric loss of so many innocent lives. Under the influence of this emotional pain, I created a powerful image with a strong message, “Madonna of Peace”. My intention was for this Ukrainian Madonna to travel the world, bringing peace to all.

Another such image is "Sighted," which represents our land, culture, history, tradition, and heritage. I depicted these concepts through the form of innocent, defenseless children caught in the crosshairs, under attack by a merciless enemy intent on erasing everything dear to us Ukrainians from the world map.

Inspired by this painting, I participated in the "Solidarity with Ukraine" campaign and created an anti-war mural in Gdańsk, Jasień PKP. The official opening took place on Ukraine's Independence Day in 2022, with the initiative and invitation coming from the Consul of Ukraine, Oleksandr Plodysty.

Yuliana Arles: Regarding the painting “Madonna of Peace,” it seems your goal was accomplished, as this piece was recently accepted for display at the "F*** Russian WARSHIP" charity art exhibition in New York, USA. Could you please provide more information about this event?

Vasyl Netsko: The independent FreeArt community from Ukraine announced in the media that they will be organizing an exhibition Charity Show for support and help Ukraine in New York. I registered and later got confirmation that the work "Madonna of Peace" will fly around the world.

On October 21, 2022, the NYC ART Movement opened the doors to the exhibition “F*** Russian WARSHIP”. Exhibition curated by David De Hannay. The Union of Artists NY supports Ukrainian artists, painters from Ukraine in their fight for freedom and democracy. Later, this exhibition went to Texas and other cities in the USA.

Yuliana Arles: Besides participating in this charity art show in New York, you also recently participated in an international exhibition in Venice. Could you share your experiences and describe your reflections on presenting your artwork on the global stage? What impressed you the most?

Vasyl Netsko: I traveled to Venice to present two of my paintings, which perfectly suited the Venetian atmosphere. I participated in the contemporary art event organized by ITSLIQUID Group at the Bombay Palace. It was an immense honor for me to be part of such a cultural gathering, which featured an international exhibition of paintings, sculptures, music, and performances.

I met artists from all over the world, which allowed me to broaden my knowledge and perspective on art. I highly encourage young painters to submit their artwork to various competitions and galleries. I want to emphasize the importance of not being afraid to take steps toward your dreams and to keep working, practicing, and gaining experiences that will ultimately lead to success.

Yuliana Arles: I can't resist asking about your excellence in another field aside your art? Your talent extends beyond transferring creativity and beauty onto canvases, as you have also achieved remarkable success in bodybuilding, being a multiple winner of all-Ukrainian and European championships. I'm also curious about the role of discipline and determination in both bodybuilding and the arts. How do you combine your artistic career with your accomplishments in sports, and do the two activities affect each other? If so, how exactly?

Vasyl Netsko: Hmm, it's quite a long story. It all began when I was 15 and saw the movie "Conan the Barbarian” featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I told myself I wanted to be like him. I discovered that my idol was not just an actor, but also a titleholder of "Mr. Olympia." I aspired to emulate him in every way. That's when I started lifting weights.

Years of hard work and dedication began to show results after five years of training, dieting, discipline, and forgoing the pleasures that my friends enjoyed. I became a competitive bodybuilder, standing out from the crowd. I believed in myself and was elated that I persevered and achieved my goal, whether it was during the morning or late at night.

I continue to exercise, share my personal training experiences with others, maintain my fitness, and occasionally perform on stage, albeit more for enjoyment since I already have medals and titles under my belt. Reflecting on this journey, I believe this approach to my endeavors forms the foundation of my life.

At first glance, it might seem impossible to combine bodybuilding with painting, but for me, they are complementary. Interestingly, they share common ground in the pursuit of physical culture and artistic expression for the sake of perfection and beauty. I believe that everything I do with love is art!

Yuliana Arles: As we are almost to the end of our interview, I would also like to ask. If you had the opportunity to go back in time, armed with the knowledge and experience you have gained throughout your career, what advice would you give to your younger self at the beginning of your art journey?

Vasyl Netsko: I wouldn't change anything; I would leave it as it is, as it has affirmed my identity and shaped me. Everything happens for a reason; every situation and person we encounter in life teaches us something, providing lessons that help us understand ourselves more deeply and find genuine happiness and self-acceptance. I am truly grateful for life's dynamism and embrace the unknown, as it has never let me down, and I believe that the best is yet to come!

Thank you so much for asking such intriguing questions during this interview, and I wish you great success in your endeavors. You are making a great impact for both artists and art enthusiasts.


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