Born on 2 February 1938 in Bucha, a small village near Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, Lyubov Panchenko was a revolutionary folk artist who overcame a lifetime of obstacles in pursuit of her work. Throughout her life, she was far from politics, but politics was imposed on her and despite extreme political opposition, she dared to celebrate her Ukrainian identity through her work. The Soviet government and Soviet culture closed the door to her popularity as her works were too much Ukrainian, bright and original. However, decades of untiring creativity and political activism characterised her life from the beginning to the end. She was one of the patriots of the 1960s who, despite pressure from the Kremlin, developed Ukrainian culture as a silent protest against Soviet censorship and as her works had a pronounced Ukrainian flavour, she was persecuted and her work was officially silenced. She survived World War II, when she was a child, survived KGB repressions during the Soviet era, but tragically died during the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Her parents worked around the clock to maintain the family, but lived in poverty with their two daughters, trying to prepare the kids to face the same struggle in their future lives.
However, they did not like the older girl’s passion for painting, which they thought foolish, useless and harmful, as they found it expensive to supply paper and paints for the girl. They discouraged her childhood passion and often punished her rudely for just picking up a drawing pencil. However, the disobedient child was not deterred and she acted in her own way. After completing her seventh grade, she went to Kyiv and entered the school of applied arts in the department of embroidery. During that time, she painstakingly put herself through art school without her family’s support and had to survive on a paltry scholarship, even did not have enough money for her day to day bread, when the teachers tried to feed her.
Finally, in the late 1950s, she graduated from the Kyiv School of Applied Arts with a degree in embroidery and also mastered drawing, watercolour and linocut techniques. After that, she worked as a tailor and also as a fashion designer, while expanding her horizons of knowledge of art and entered the evening department of the Faculty of Graphics of the Ukrainian Academy of Printing in 1968. During that period, she used to read a lot, illustrated Ukrainian poems and fairy tales, collected samples of folk embroideries, while contact with the Kyiv Club of Creative Youth brought her into the world of dissident intellectuals and filled her life with new meaning.
By that time, the tall and beautiful Lyubov came to be known as an amazing person, while her clothes always had the unique elements of Ukrainian ornamentations. One summer, she was gifted with a little crow, which she raised and tamed and her old friends amusingly remembered her slender body with a long and thick braid around her neck, like a garland, with the crow sitting calmly on her shoulder.
Nevertheless, she joined the Club of Creative Youth to become a member of its literary section, Brama and joined the Design and Engineering Technological Institute as a fashion designer, as well as at the Republican House of Models. Soon her bright talent flourished, as she started to work on various series of watercolour, embroidery patterns and also pieced together cut pieces of brightly-coloured clothing textiles to create delightful decorative compositions. In addition, she typically incorporated overtly nationalistic symbols and other elements of Ukrainian folk art in her work, much to the displeasure of the Soviet authority.
During those days, the Soviet Union’s totalitarian rule over Ukraine discouraged and blocked the creativity of young artists in Kyiv, including Lyubov Panchenko, and censored Ukrainian art in favour of Russian Socialist Realism. Due to her undivided devotion to the colourful Ukrainian folk art and brash anti-Soviet activism, she was forbidden to exhibit her art for decades. However, despite everything, Lyubov courageously carried on her mission and continued to paint Easter eggs decorated with traditional folk designs of Ukraine, embroidered national costumes for choirs and raised money to help political prisoners serving sentences for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. But to make ends meet, she had to publish decorative embroidery patterns in magazines for women and pursued a career in the fashion industry.
Although Lyubov Panchenko received little positive recognition for her work even before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine on 24 August 1991, the Soviet Union maintained a strong suppressive hold on Ukraine as a nation, as well as on Ukrainian art and culture. However, Lyubov finally got the nod to exhibit her Ukrainian folk art collages and showcased her work in prestigious solo exhibitions and permanent museum collections.
She was awarded the Vasyl Stus Prize for talent and courage in 2001 and in 2008, the National Museum of Literature of Ukraine exhibited the anniversary exhibition of Lyubov Panchenko. Her artistic and political momentum was in full force until Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces invaded Ukraine and advanced to her hometown of Bucha. With the progress of the war, she was left all alone in her house in the occupied Bucha, without any contact with the outside world or the help necessary for her in everyday life and even her relatives stopped helping her because they were scared. A carefully arranged Russian rocket hit and destroyed a barn near her house, while the doors and windows of her house were damaged by the impact and she began a hunger strike in protest. It is said that her little dog led people to her house, who took her to the hospital in a pathetic condition. Though her condition started to improve initially and she started to eat a little and speak a little, finally she succumbed to death on 30 April 2022, due to long starvation. She was buried in the old Yablusky cemetery in Bucha, near her husband, who died in the 1990s.