When Ivan and Sophia Rabodzeenko touched down at O’Hare December 5, here to visit their son and his American family for a monthlong holiday, it was the first time the two Saint Petersburg artists had left the former Soviet Union. Ivan was looking forward to seeing the Art Institute and the Field Museum; Sophia just wanted to stand on the shore of Lake Michigan.

But their son Andrei and his wife, Jenny, had a surprise in store. Andrei, a painter who moved to Chicago in 1992, had been putting together an exhibit with his friend Carrie Yury, a former Chicagoan who now lives in San Francisco. When they learned his parents were coming to visit, he and Yury decided to turn the show into a family affair. They’d been casting around for some sort of thread that would tie their project together, and suddenly they had one: the four artists’ shared Ukrainian background.

“We kind of had this joke with Carrie,” says Andrei. “Because her ancestors are Ukrainian, we were always laughing about big faces–big Ukrainian faces. So it was this theme among us…my father was born in Ukraine, and my mom–her parents are Ukrainian but she never lived in Ukraine. We’re all kind of not really full-time Ukrainians.”

“It seemed like a nice twist,” adds Jenny, “on the current focus on everybody being into their roots and their nationality and their ethnic identity.” Opening January 5 at the Butcher Shop, “Background: An Exhibit of Four Somehow Ukrainian Artists” features Andrei’s freehand works of ink and gouache and Yury’s large-format Polaroid portraits alongside Ivan’s oil paintings and Sophia’s needlework.

Ivan Rabodzeenko was born in Chichirkozovka in 1924 and had completed one year at the Tashkent School of Art in Uzbekistan when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. He joined the war effort, working first in a munitions factory and then serving in the Soviet army as a tank commander. Wounded and discharged in 1945, he returned to painting, turning from landscapes to patriotic and military themes–“pieces that would be memories of my friends who I fought with on the front.” He worked as an artist and set designer until 1975, when he became a military journalist, traveling to army bases, border posts, and aircraft carriers to document–in oil paint–soldiers, sailors, and scenes from military life. Returning to Tashkent, he created television features using his paintings to illustrate the stories he told. “They would show my paintings on TV,” he says, “and their parents would see the soldiers and they would be proud of them.”

Taught needlework by her mother when she was five years old, Sophia Rabodzeenko has “no idea” how many pieces she’s created. A Tashkent School of Art graduate and master seamstress, her delicate pieces of embroidery, applique, and beadwork draw on Chinese and Japanese watercolors for inspiration, as well as traditional Russian landscapes, Russian Orthodox iconography, and folk art.

The Rabodzeenkos lived in Tashkent until the Soviet Union broke up and “the situation in Uzbekistan got a little bit rough for Russians and Ukrainians.” In 1993 they moved to Saint Petersburg, where their two sons were living (and where Andrei, then an architecture and design student, met Jenny, who was there doing doctoral research). In the last ten years or so Ivan has returned to landscapes and still lifes–“Nature doesn’t have a beginning and end,” he says, “and I want to picture it as it is”–but he did mount a show of portraits of veterans at the Journalists Union in Saint Petersburg in 1998. Seven of his still lifes, along with eight drawings, linoleum prints, and etchings, are in the collection of the Tashkent Museum of Fine Arts. This past summer he completed two commissions for the Central State Historical Museum and Archive of Russia: a portrait of Peter the Great and a scene depicting a view of the museum.

Ivan’s work has been shown in the U.S. once before–in a joint show called “Father and Son” at a gallery in Toledo, Ohio–and Andrei was represented by Wicker Park’s Lorenzo Rodriguez gallery until it closed in 1994. This month’s show is a world premiere for Sophia, who works primarily on commission when she’s not giving her pieces away to friends and family.

Since Sophia and Ivan didn’t know about the exhibit before they arrived–“we thought they’d be superstitious,” says Andrei–their pieces in the show are those Andrei and Jenny have accumulated over the years. One, however, could be considered a collaboration between mother and son: a silver applique-and-embroidery depiction of two spindly figures floating in midair, taken from an old drawing of Andrei’s that his mother found and adopted. The words “Mama & Andrei, 1998” are stitched down the left edge of the square.

“It’s hard to believe that we can have this kind of family show,” says Ivan. “We’re just so happy to be here.” He plans to come back for his 80th birthday.

The show runs through February 2 at the Butcher Shop, 1319 W. Lake, third floor. There’s a free opening reception with the artists Saturday from 6 to 10 PM; other viewings are by appointment. Call 312-666-4566 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Audrey Cho.