MARYNA BILAK: CARE
Maryna Bilak: CARE
5901 Palisade Avenue Riverdale, New York 10471 718.581.1596 | RiverSpringLiving.org/art
Maryna Bilak: CARE Text by Emily O’Leary, Associate Curator Maryna Bilak’s CARE project is an ongoing body of work inspired by the experience of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease—a progressive brain disease that disrupts thought, memory and language. The project centers around the artist’s family and her late mother-in-law, Dorothy, who was diagnosed in 2014 and passed away in 2019. The intimate works comprising CARE explore the different roles that the act of caregiving requires from each person involved, from professional in-home nursing support to the direct care provided by Bilak and her husband, Maurice. Bilak examines the changed states of being and of mind of caregivers and patient in paintings, frescoes, sculptures, drawings and assemblages. The project reflects on how tension develops as definitions of the self overlap and can become at odds with one another, the experience of physical and psychological fragmentation, and the material remnants the disease leaves behind. For Bilak, the act of art-making was also an act of survival. What follows is a conversation with the artist about the project, her evolving practice and how her experiences as a caregiver informed the work. Emily O'Leary: How has creation of the work evolved/changed from when you began during Dorothy's lifetime and after her death? Maryna Bilak: The CARE show has two main categories of art work. One: art work made in order to survive, escape and stay mentally healthy myself; Two: art work as a reflection and reevaluation. The very early work dates back in 2014 when I met my future motherin-law Dorothy and the year she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. That 3
Overleaf: Channeling, 2022, fresco, 22 x 17 in. 4
work was made with a distance, without embracing the reality. Because of constant change I did not comprehend life with somebody who was diagnosed with such a disease. Eventually I suffered a nervous breakdown, developed anxiety and was under heavy medication. The healing started one day in the studio. I looked around and realized that all my recent work was about the everyday experience of caregiving—I didn’t escape. There was a lot of actual physical labor, like cooking for Dorothy, washing and ironing her clothes, haircutting, nail clipping, dressing and undressing, bathroom activities, driving to doctors’ offices and shopping. And the toughest labor was emotional. That day in the studio, I made a conscious decision to invite the reality into my work space and stop using it as a happy place. Denial was over. I embraced the situation mentally. The next change in my work happened after I got pregnant. And it was not the pregnancy itself, but the fact that my daughter Irina had Dorothy’s smile and Dorothy’s cry. She came to my life as a little version of my mother-in-law. It cost me to be willing to zoom into my relationship with Dorothy and for the first time use her as a model. A series of intimate fresco and clay portraits were born. My daughter Irina became a link Dorothy and I missed. EO: Your family has very diverse origins: your husband, Maurice, and Dorothy, are both originally from Jamaica, and you emigrated from Ukraine. Could you speak a bit about how these cultural differences informed the work? MB: There is a huge physical distance between Jamaica and Ukraine. But to our surprise, my husband Maurice and I found basic things in common: childhood growing up with food and animals in our backyard and respect 5
Opposite: Girl II, 2016, charcoal on paper, 36 x 19 in. 6
for elders. Maurice is more of an order and tradition type. I carry a loud rebellious nature, questioning everything. And when the very question of organizing an art show about Alzheimer’s disease and his mother as the subject of it came up, Maurice was apprehensive. I needed his emotional permission to display the art work publicly. Together we spent a lot of time looking at old black-and-white photos made in Jamaica. I think he really wanted me to be invested in who his mother was before she got sick. (I never knew her healthy). We spent hours talking about my mom and how she took care of her mother-in-law for six years while raising three children up in the Carpathian Mountains, West Ukraine. We spoke about resentment, our pain and the desire to hold onto something that would unite us. And art work played a crucial role in it. We balance each other, and the way CARE is presented very much speaks about that balance. EO: The only place you personally appear in the body of work is Dance (pp. 10–11) and the four C-section scar paintings. Was this intentional? MB: This question did scare me. I realized it is absolutely legitimate and it is based on a very close observation that I never paid attention to it. On one hand, I am grateful for this question; on the other, I am deeply terrified by what the answer may be. I don’t have it at the moment. But I can speak about those two works where I do appear. Dance captures a special moment on my wedding day. During this dance, for the very first and only time, I saw Dorothy‘s eyes being bright and I could see her clear mind through minimal gestures. She was there, fully present. I never experienced it after. I think that was the moment I met a true Dorothy. The four C-section scar paintings are the way my daughter (a tiny copy of Dorothy) came out of my body. I was relieved that she chose that door to be born. After many hours of labor pain, by necessity in order to save the baby, I was knocked out by anesthesia and then woke up when everything was over. Irina did not cause excruciating pain while getting out and she 8
had a better chance to survive by C-section. But as a prize, it came with a scar on my belly. I find it meaningful and visually attractive. I let Dorothy spend “belly time” during the pregnancy. She saw my flesh making funny motions because of the baby moving. And after our little girl was born, Maurice let two generations lay in bed together regularly. It was important to him. For me, meaning has come with time. EO: What was the first work you completed from CARE? MB: For the longest time, I was making art without realizing it is about CARE. But I do remember one day standing in my working space looking around and realizing that my life of caregiving was in my studio on the walls looking at me. I felt followed, as if being chased, and then relieved. The first work was very abstract and tactile. I don’t remember exactly which one, I just know it was from the poured plaster sculpture series. I used Dorothy’s clothing which she refused to wear: Pieces of fabric cut, reassembled and sewn together that ended up in various sack shapes. By pouring plaster in them, surprising three-dimensional objects were born (p. 17). EO: When you started the monologues, how did you identify the specific voices? Did you write the monologues yourself? MB: I did write all the monologues myself. And they do not contain any direct quotations from me, Maurice or Dorothy. All the wording is my invention. It was yet another way to survive as a caregiver and maintain my mental health. There were only three of us: my husband, my mother-in-law and me. But we played different roles for each other and for ourselves. Those roles interacted, interjected, escalated and confronted each other. In order to manage the situation I tried to put myself in those many hypostasizes. 9
Overleaf: Dance, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 65 x 94 in. 12
Everyone wanted to be understood, everyone felt easily judged, and everyone had a sense of unreasonable guilt. By writing things down, I realized the abundance of feelings and their amplitude. Unconditional love stretched all the way to anger and frustration. EO: What was the process like of having Dorothy model for you? MB: From a planning perspective, the process was unpredictable and interruptive. But once Dorothy was sitting in the wheelchair in front of me, she felt something special was happening and entered a realm where she was the focus of attention and it made her feel relaxed, to the degree she would fall asleep. I found Dorothy to be perfect for sculpture. She had very expressive facial features… I know it sounds ridiculous, but I had to learn to love Dorothy, the woman, who was a complete stranger to me. The more I painted her portrait and sculpted her body, the more I felt connected to her. And having Dorothy’s granddaughter lying in a bassinet next to me helped the process. EO: What was the thought process behind the plaster molds of Caring Hands (pp. 20–21)? MB: Conceptually, I wanted to create a massive impact using the volume of participants/people/caregivers needed to take care of one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The first hands were cast back in 2015. Years later, people still come to my studio. (Just recently we reconnected with a couple of caregivers.) This is my first collaboration project. The studio door was open to caregivers, doctors, nurses, physical therapists, social workers, and simply friends and neighbors who provided emotional support. We needed many hands to help us take care of Dorothy. 13
Opposite: Snake Charming, 2014, plaster, cloth, 13 x 10 x 7 in. 16
The visual effect does not remind us of hands right away since it uses the negative space of each caregiver’s hand. The result is a captured space not seen but felt with hardened plaster in each person’s hand. To me this is the most literal and the most metaphorical work of CARE. Dorothy has not been with us for more than three years now, but the friendships we made with people still remain, thanks to Caring Hands. EO: You’ve mentioned that many times, it’s older, established couples who eventually need to care for an older adult who suffers from Alzheimer’s or dementia. What was it like to address this situation at such a young age? MB: It was the toughest thing I ever had to do in my life. And I am extremely cautious giving suggestions to people who are at the beginning of providing care for their family member with Alzheimer’s. My husband and I became caregivers during our dating period. Most married couples go through this after twenty to thirty years of marriage. Having Dorothy’s disease progress while living with us really put some strain on our relationship. It is very hard for a young woman to walk into a relationship and not just try to build it, but at the same time try to deal with the fact that the person she loves is also caring for somebody else. For Maurice, it wasn’t easy either. We had many arguments. And after each fight I would call my mom or my dad. Telephone conversations with my parents played a of key role in keeping my sanity. I was repeating my mom’s destiny; the only difference was that I did it much earlier without three children. After hearing some of my mom’s stories, I would feel hesitant and embarrassed to complain. And even when I was pregnant with a big belly, resting in a shower was the only quiet place. Dorothy could scream for days non-stop. It seemed luxurious compared to the way my mom had to manage. The experience with Dorothy brought me closer to my parents. And now the most important thing is that my husband and I have no regrets. The age of our child indicates that we are a young 19
Overleaf: Caring Hands, 2015–present, plaster, paint, shadow box frames, dimensions variable 22
couple, but we both feel like a team who saw it all. EO: There’s a lot of stigma surrounding this disease. You’ve mentioned one aspect of CARE as being a endeavor to support awareness as well as part of your artistic practice. What would you like visitors to take away from visiting the exhibition? MB: Care is needed by an Alzheimer’s patient. Care is absolutely crucial for a care-provider. Each work in this show is my remedy as a caregiver. Every brushstroke is nourishment that benefited Dorothy and continues healing me. Art making was the only thing I never gave up during five years of life with Dorothy. I wish everyone has something they love doing. It is a survival matter. Treasure it. Statistics on Alzheimer’s disease are not comforting. As humankind learns how to live longer but lacks improvement of quality of life, the number of afflicted people will continue to grow. Education is the key. With education, most of the fear, awkwardness and embarrassment will go away. Do care, do practice self-care and embrace every source of help possible.
Opposite: Eye Go, 2018, fresco, 17 1/2 x 24 in. 24
Opposite: Dorothy’s Lips, 2017, fresco, 12 x 12 in. 26
Opposite: Face with Gold, 2018, fresco, 22 x 16 in. 28
Opposite: Bed II, 2018, wood, plaster, fabric, hangers, wire, nails, 77 x 27 x 8 in. 30
Opposite: Sunshine in a Heavy Room, 2018, fresco, string, metal, 51 x 26 x 2 1/2 in. 32
Opposite: Dorothy's Table, 2018, sewing table, cast plaster, porcelain clock, hair, fingernail clippings, notebook, 30 x 26 x 17 in. 34
Checklist of the Exhibition All works courtesy the artist Wondering, 2018 Fresco, 14 x 17 1/2 in.
Hold, 2018 Fresco, 12 x 15 in.
Eye Love, 2017 Fresco, 8 x 11 in.
Channeling, 2022 Fresco, 22 x 17 in.
Dorothy's Lips, 2017 Fresco, 12 x 12 in.
Versions, 2022 Fresco, 24 x 18 in.
Three, 2018 Fresco, 21 x 16 in.
Pink Jacket, 2018 Fresco, 18 x 14 in.
Stormy (Lady in a White Hat), 2018 Fresco,18 x 14 in.
Caring Hands, 2015–present Plaster, paint, wooden shadow box frames, dimensions variable
Her Hands, 2018 Fresco, 18 x 12 in. Locking, 2018 Fresco 16 x 13 in. Eye Go, 2018 Fresco, 17 1/2 x 24 in. Loud Silence, 2018 Fresco, 22 x 15 in. Face with Gold, 2018 Fresco, 22 x 16 in. Her Feet, 2018 Fresco, 12 1/2 x 16 in. 36
Sunshine in a Heavy Room, 2018 Fresco, string, metal, 51 x 26 x 2 1/2 in. Bed, 2017 Wood, plaster, fabric, hangers, 64 x 45 in. Bed II, 2018 Wood, plaster, fabric, hangers, wire, nails, 77 x 27 in. Untitled, 2014 Plaster, cloth, 17 x 6 x 4 in. Snake Charming, 2014 Plaster, cloth, 13 x 10 x 7 in.
Hug, 2014 Plaster, cloth, 10 x 8 x 6 in.
Oath I, 2019 Acrylic on cardboard, 7 x 5 in.
Monologues, 2014–present Fresco, 11 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. each
Oath II, 2019 Acrylic on cardboard, 7 x 5 in.
Dance, 2018 Acrylic on canvas, 65 x 94 in.
Her Feet, modeled 2018, cast 2022 Bronze, 6 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 10 1/2 in.
Dorothy's Table, 2018 Sewing table, cast plaster, porcelain clock, hair, fingernail clippings, notebook, 30 x 26 x 17 in.
She, modeled 2018, cast 2022 Bronze, 13 x 7 x 8 in.
Girl II, 2016 Charcoal on paper, 36 x 19 in.
Queen of the Day, modeled 2018, cast 2022 Bronze, 19 x 9 x 12 in.
Oh, Woman, 2016 Charcoal on paper, 30 x 21 in. Cut I, 2019 Acrylic on cardboard, 5 x 7 in. Cut II, 2019 Acrylic on cardboard, 5 x 7 in. Cut III, 2019 Acrylic on cardboard, 5 x 7 in. Cut IV, 2019 Acrylic on cardboard, 7 x 5 in. 37
About the Artist Born in Rakhiv, Ukraine, in 1984, Maryna Bilak is an artist based in Hudson, New York. She received MFA degrees from Transcarpathian National University, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, in fine and applied art, and from the New York Studio School, New York, New Photo by Susan Sabino. York, in painting. Her work has been exhibited internationally and is in the permanent collections of Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut, Museum of Transcarpathian Hungarian Institute of Ferenc Rákóczi II, Berehovo, Ukraine, Historical Museum “Palanok,” Mukachevo, Ukraine, Museum and Exhibition Center, Serpukhov, Russia, and Collection of Institute of Balassi Balint, Budapest, Hungary. She has had one-person exhibitions at Hudson Hall at the Historic Hudson Opera House, Hudson, New York, John Davis Gallery, Hudson, New York, and Long Island City Arts Open Festival, New York, New York. Bilak lives and works in Hudson with her husband and their daughter. This catalogue has been produced on the occasion of the exhibition Maryna Bilak: CARE on view October 23, 2022–February 19, 2023 in the Derfner Judaica Museum. About the Hebrew Home at Riverdale As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Living is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 32-acre campus, including Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provides educational and cultural programming for residents of the Hebrew Home, their families and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and visitors from elsewhere. RiverSpring Living is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 18,000 older adults in greater New York through its resources and community service programs. This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
Cover: Stormy (Lady in a White Hat), 2018, fresco, 18 x 14 in. Back cover: Her Hands, 2018, fresco, 18 x 12 in. All images © 2022 Maryna Bilak.