How a piece of Soviet era flooring has connected Torbay to the war in Ukraine

“Do you know what this is?”

I am being presented with a role of rubbery looking material, by English Riviera printmaker Ian Cox. Ian is one of our resident artists at Artizan Collective Gallery, we’re in his studio, and I know that what he is holding out to me is “lino”, his preferred printmaking medium.

Printer’s “lino” is not dissimilar to the linoleum you might have at home on your kitchen floor, but it’s engineered to be carved rather than hardwearing. It is used to create relief prints, a process by which surface material is cut away to leave behind a block which can be inked and applied to paper to create a print.

But there’s one thing about this particular piece of lino that’s throwing me off.

“Why’s it red?” I ask. Printmaker’s lino is normally grey, or white, the neutral colour that helps the printmaker to draw onto the surface prior to cutting it with a gouge. If you’re struggling to picture this, think back to when you did potato stamping in school – the process is similar!

“This, is genuine Soviet era lino!” Ian tells me excitedly. He’s received it as part of an art swap with fellow printmaker Olesya Dzhuraeva who he knows through an online printmakers group and she’s sent him a stunning print and some of the unique materials she uses to create her work.

Unlike printmaker’s lino, Olesya’s Soviet Era lino was originally flooring. She’s recovered it in large roles, and now uses it, imperfections and all, to create incredible works of art. Because of this, unusual distortions, the sort of thing you might expect to see in an old analogue photograph, appear in her work, but rather than being made by light leaks or marks from the negative they’re instead created by the scuffs and marks from years of footsteps that have passed by.

As a result, even though the scenes she captures are contemporary, it feels as though you’re looking at a work that could be decades old. And in a way they are; the first marks made on this lino occurred many years ago and now Olesya in her own talented way is finishing the work started by those feet, seamlessly integrating her cuts into the piece before printing the final work from her studio in Kyiv, Ukraine…

A studio that at the end of February Olesya left behind, fleeing the city with her husband and three children.

I had that conversation about the lino with Ian back in December last year and as we marvelled at the unique artefact we held and the perhaps even more unique artwork that had been created with it, the idea of Soviet Era lino felt like a piece of distant history.

In January, he suggested we could hang the piece Olesya had sent him in our upcoming English Riviera Print Exhibition. We both agreed it would make an incredible addition, not just from an artistic standpoint (Olesya is a truly exceptional printmaker) but also for the unparalleled story behind the work.

We could not have foreseen the story Olesya’s work would ultimately be telling by the time we reached the exhibition.

Looking at the work now, the ambiguous space it occupies, one foot in the Soviet Era and the other in the contemporary context of war-torn Ukraine, has an almost overwhelming effect. The contemporary Kyiv street depicted that I first viewed back in December, had once brought to mind the strength of a built up urban city, the sharp lines of Olesya’s unique lino technique, reenforcing the harsh, immovable brutalist architecture. Now, the image seems almost ghostly, a historic imprint of a space in limbo, a street that may soon find the motionless cars frozen in the scene replaced with Russian tanks. But perhaps the most unnerving aspect of the image is the graffiti face that stares out from the print – a face contorted into a scream that gives the print its title and seems to foretell the events that are unfolding today.

Right now, Olesya and the whole of Ukraine are faced with unimaginable uncertainty and horrors. For Olesya one part of this unknown is whether she will ever see her studio or its contents again; her artworks, her printing press, her rolls of red Soviet Era lino.

For us, we find ourselves with an unexpected connection to this conflict. Our potential the help seems limited and already numerous others around Torbay have taken far more significant actions than we ever could to show their support and solidarity with Ukraine. But we have an opportunity here to do something no matter how small.

For two years now we’ve been working with the global Artist Support Pledge initiative to help creatives during the pandemic. If you don’t know it, look it up either using #ArtistSupportPledge or visiting their website and you’ll find that this incredible initiative that looked to help creatives through COVID, is once again now trying to do some good, having been reimagined as the Ukraine Support Pledge. We’ll be continuing to support the initiative, so from now, all our proceeds that would have previously gone to this scheme will now find there way to causes in Ukraine.

In addition, Ian has offered what is now perhaps the last edition of Olesya’s work “The Scream” for auction with bids being taken throughout our English Riviera Print Exhibition at our Fleet Walk venue, and online at Proceeds will find their way to Olesya and Ukraine based on her needs at the end of the auction.