Arts Gallery


By Elains Schmidt, Special to the Journal Sentinel
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 13, 2003

Ukrainian artist Nastasia Zhmendak fills canvases with color and texture. Some of her images are clearly representational. Others are highly stylized and evocative. But instead of paint, she uses a needle and miles of thread, floss, yarn and other fiber.

The roots of Zhmendak's work lie in Ukrainian folk embroidery.

She still practices this folk style, but has taken her fiber art far beyond the bounds of regional tradition, synthesizing fiber art and a modern art aesthetic.

Speaking through interpreter Maria Jennings, Zhmendak displayed and explained her work recently in her West Allis home. She will explain and sell her work this afternoon at St. Mary's Ukrainian Orthodox Church Hall on the near south side.

"Everyone in Ukraine does this embroidery," Zhmendak said, gesturing to some of her most traditional pieces. She lifted the sleeve of the glittering, heavily beaded blouse she was wearing, and said, "My mother did this."

Nastasia Zhmendak, who was born in the Ukraine, began stitching at age 6, learning folk embroidery from her mother, as generations of Ukrainian women before her had learned
Photo/Mary Jo Walicki

Tapestry of saturated colors

Zhmendak (pronounced je-men-DAHK) was born in Chernivtsi in the Bukovyna region of Ukraine, a region where women are known for their fabulous weaving and embroidery. She began stitching at age 6, learning the art from her mother, just as generations of Ukrainian women before her had learned.

The traditional pieces, a small part of Zhmendak's work, include ritual or ceremonial linen "towels" resembling table runners, and Easter basket covers used when the baskets are taken to church for a blessing.

The work in many of these pieces features geometric folk designs. On many of them, Zhmendak uses thick acrylic fiber to create complex, textured patterns that turn ordinary towel linen into a thick tapestry of saturated colors.

That same style of embroidery, when executed with fine, shimmering, silk threads and delicate patterns, creates ethereal ornamentation that bears more of a resemblance to wedding finery than simple table covering.

Some of the work is fine cross-stitch and delicate embroidery. On a wedding table linen, swans were done is a light red stitch reminiscent of the red work that was popular in this country in the first half of the 20th century.

Exact replica of "The Hunt"

But as she spoke and pulled out one after another of the beautiful linens and Easter basket covers, one couldn't help but notice a 42-by-52-inch framed piece on the wall above her couch.

Nastasia Zhmendak, a native of the Ukraine, created an exact cross-stitch replica of "The Hunt," a 19th-century tapestry hanging in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg
Photo/Mary Jo Walicki
(Click on images to enlarge them)

When asked about the piece, which looks like an antique tapestry but is actually done in a fine, dense cross-stitch, she retrieved a book containing photos of art works that hang in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The book, its spine broken by use, was open to a page showing a photograph of what appeared to be Zhmendak's magnificent cross-stitch. It actually showed an early 19th-century anonymous tapestry, titled "The Hunt," which she had copied, stitch for stitch.

As she served homemade cheese blintzes and honeyed tea to her guests, Zhmendak said she sat up late into the night - late into many nights actually - using a jeweler's loop to count the stitches as she created the pattern for her replica of the tapestry.

Done in countless, subtle hues of fine cotton fiber, the work is an exact replica, down to fine detail shadings in the clouds, wisps of color in the horses' manes and expressions on the human and animal faces.

When asked if she would ever sell this piece, she said, "When I finished it, it was my husband's 40th birthday," she said. "I gave it to him as a gift."

Shyly, she added, "I would like this to be an heirloom." She needn't worry.

Interwoven, layered works

Much of her work is original and employs various embroidery methods, including a Ukrainian fiber art called nyzynka, in which decorative fibers are interwoven and layered. She has developed her own style of interweaving fibers as well.

From her own sketches, she creates stylized, flowing designs that are as much woven into the canvases as embroidered on them. The woven elements create depth and texture in the same way brush strokes, or palate-knife strokes, create texture in a painted work.

Although she has exhibited her work in her own country, it has not been seen here. Today's exhibition at St. Mary's is a prelude to the show she will have in September at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago.

Won visa lottery

Zhmendak, her husband and their two sons have been in this country for two years.

"We never even dreamed of coming to the U.S.," she said.

But they entered the Diversity Visa Lottery program, through which 50,000 immigrant visas are made available, to see what might happen. Their application was selected, which meant that the couple and any unmarried children under age 21 would be granted visas.

Although Zhmendak was an electrical engineer in Ukraine, and her husband, Vasil, was a crane operator, their salaries were low and their opportunities limited. They saw their sons' opportunities limited as well.

They decided to move, knowing that they would not find work in their chosen fields in the U.S. Selecting Milwaukee was an easy choice. Vasil's brother had moved here six years earlier.

Conditions bad in Ukraine

Now the two work together, cleaning offices after business hours. Their oldest son, Mikola, attends the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; the youngest, Vasil, is in middle school.

Much of Zhmendak's work is original and employs various embroidery methods. She brought her art form with
her when she came to America two years ago. She will display it at St. Mary's Ukrainian Orthodox Church on April 13.
Photo/Mary Jo Walicki

"Economic conditions in Ukraine are bad," Zhmendak said. "An electrical engineer makes 50 to 60 dollars a month." She said they are making more money cleaning offices here than they did in the work they had trained for in Ukraine. She added that most households in her region of Ukraine have an expatriate family member sending money home. "I don't expect to scrub toilets for the rest of my life," she said.

Then, smiling, she explained through Jennings that her husband doesn't like her to have to do such scrubbing on their cleaning jobs. He does that work, leaving the lighter office cleaning for her.

Zhmendak will have 56 pieces for sale at the St. Mary's show. She will not sell pieces she is very attached to, which are often those that took years to complete.

She said most of the original pieces take several months of stitching, but much more time beforehand working out the sketches and colors.

Zhmendak has no fear of selling out of her works before the September show in Chicago. Her husband and son will be traveling to Ukraine for a visit before then and will bring back some of the many works she left behind.

A visit to her exhibition will include some of her homemade Ukrainian culinary items, including stuffed cabbages, prepared without meat for those observing Lent.


Nastasia Zhmendak art exhibit, WHEN, 04/13/03, Noon to 3
WHERE, St. Mary's Ukrainian Orthodox Church
1231 W. Scott St., Milwaukee, WI 53204, 414-672-9285
For personal and academic use only