Maria Manuilenko was carrying lots of cash — and 10 suitcases filled with expensive artwork — when she got stranded at the Ukraine-Poland border.
She had spent weeks collecting paintings made by Ukrainian artists, and had plans to bring them back to the United States, where they would be sold to support the artists and people fighting on the frontlines.
But a customs enforcement officer was skeptical of Manuilenko, and would not allow her across the border, before he sent her back to Lviv to have her paperwork reviewed. When she arrived at 2 a.m., past curfew, the area was vacant. Luckily, a man driving by saw Manuilenko standing alone at a train station and offered to take her to another checkpoint where a different customs officer let her through.
“It was just some random guy that she had never seen before,” said Maria Oleynikova, Manuilenko’s friend of 25 years. “There were two options: Option 1, she would get through the border with the paintings and be fine. Option 2, she might not come back … This brave woman got in this van with the paintings and made it through the border.”
Manuilenko landed in the United States on June 4, with the art, ready to display the work at an exhibit Saturday from 4 to 9 p.m. at the Four Seasons Hotel in Denver.
All of the works were rescued by the Ukrainian artists who created them and other volunteers who retrieved them from cities where heavy shelling has continued since the war began more than 100 days ago. Many of those volunteers, including Manuilenko, put themselves in harm’s way to keep the artwork from being destroyed.
Showing the work, the exhibit organizers say, will help refocus attention on Russia’s war on Ukraine at a time when many people are becoming desensitized to the death and destruction occurring there. Money raised by the exhibit will help to keep attention on the war, increase empathy for those affected and raise funds for people still stuck on the frontlines, they said.
“The level of indifference is growing,” said Taras Overchuk, a Ukrainian man living in Highlands Ranch who is the president of Ukraine Aid Fund. The new nonprofit is working to find continuous streams of funding and other support for those stuck in Ukraine.
“One of the problems is people are getting used to war,” he said. “For us, it’s a little bit scary. I think the enemy of Ukraine is trying to use time, specifically, so that help and support will be decreased over time.”
Most of the art was created by people from Kharkiv. The second largest city in the country has borne the brunt of intense shelling since the war began.
Though some of the art work has been sold online, many pieces will be available to purchase at the gala Saturday. The artists will receive a share of the proceeds, and the remaining money will be sent back to Ukraine to help pay for items needed by local people such as medical equipment, drones, protective goggles, tactical gloves, clothing and other costly supplies.
Tickets cost $65 for admission and the art range in price, from $400 to just over $5,000.
“We need as many U.S. people locally here, not just the Ukrainian community, to come and experience this,” said Oleynikova, a co-organizer of the event. “At the event, it’s not just going to be the art. I’m having a film presentation. There’s going to be drinks and hors d’oeuvres. It’s going to be a really awesome fun event for people to come to – but also for an awesome cause.”
Kharkiv State Academy of Design and Arts is one of the oldest art institutions in Ukraine and one of the top design schools in the country. Most of the artists whose works will be featured at the exhibition, have graduated from that institution, are well-known across Europe and have galleries in Los Angeles, New York and Amsterdam, for example. Many of the artists are now refugees, spread out across Europe and neighboring countries, Manuilenko said.
Many artists were forced to flee from their homes during the war, and left most of their art work behind, but some of the paintings have been saved, and are often cut off from the subframes and exported out of Ukraine by twisted rolls. Cherry Creek Framing in Denver has offered to professionally stretch all of the paintings for free, so that they can be neatly framed, at the exhibit on Saturday. About 40 paintings will be featured, alongside statues and masks.
Some of the artists whose work is in the show have saved money and are now living in other parts of Europe. Some are so distraught they’re not able to paint at all, while others are creating art but have refused to sell their work because it documents a historical event: everyday life during the war.
Artist Kostyantyn Lyzogub, has joined the Ukrainian armed forces. He splits his time between creating artwork for a few days, followed by a few more days fighting in the war. He created a painting that is currently featured on marketing flyers for the event. That painting will be sold at a silent auction at the event.
Painter Polina Kuznetsova could not sleep the first night of the war, and began walking around familiar streets in Kharkiv, taking photographs on empty streets. “Somehow, I was internally saying goodbye to my city,” she said in a short film that will be screened during the event.
Many artists don’t have visas, and aren’t able to attend the event in person. However, they may appear at Saturday’s event virtually to greet attendees via Zoom.
The effort to help people under threat in Ukraine, will not stop after the art exhibit, Overchuk said. Ukraine Aid Fund and other informal groups of Ukrainians in Colorado will continue sending money and items that are requested by people in the war zone.
“We are connected with a lot of volunteers on the ground. We are sending suitcases with stuff that people need. And the more we’re doing it, the more people hear about it, and the more requests we’re getting,” said Oleynikova, who lives in Colorado, but is originally from Kharkiv.
Ukraine Aid Fund has not been receiving the same level of donations and funding support as it did when the war began and Overchuk attributes that to “diminishing interest” as the war drags on. His organization and other volunteers have had to turn down some requests because they simply don’t have the money, or the bandwidth, to address every request. The organization is now working to increase its current number of volunteers (about 14) and grow its list of donors and subscribers, Overchuk said.
Manuilenko left her home in Kharkiv on the first day of the war, stopping in two other parts of Ukraine before reaching her final destination in Poland one month later. Back in Kharkiv, her neighbor’s home was recently bombed and so he’s now living in her apartment.
As an art curator, Manuilenko has organized art exhibitions all over the world. Rescuing paintings and bringing them to the U.S. was a difficult and unfamiliar task since all airports in Ukraine remain closed. When asked to help develop the most-recent fundraising idea, it was Manuilenko who suggested showcasing art with a focus on pieces from Kharkiv, her hometown.
Manuilenko, now a refugee, said she wants to help other Ukrainians in any way possible, because she understands what it means to flee her home.
“Every day I read the news and I can’t live normal because I know that my people are in Ukraine. It’s a very difficult situation,” she said, as she began to cry during an interview earlier this week. Manuilenko has tried to keep her mind off the war by staying focused on planning for Saturday’s event.
She’s hoping to return to Ukraine with her 10 suitcases filled with medical supplies, such as blood stopping medical gauze, tourniquets and defibrillators. She and event organizers are asking medical organizations and other members of the public to donate medical items ahead of her return on June 20.
Those interested in donating can contact organizers through the Ukraine Aid Fund website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.