The original title for Aka Pereyma’s show at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art was “The Egg Came First,” and she did learn the traditional Ukrainian art of Easter egg decoration from her mother. There’s only one basket of these eggs, Pysanky, on display, but eggs are frequently represented in this exhibit of 110 paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, and textiles. All of Pereyma’s work grows out of her Ukrainian background even though it looks as much like high modernism as folk art, ranging from delicate abstracted drawings to paintings full of sturdy, forceful forms.

Born in Poland in 1927 to Ukrainian parents, Pereyma had a chaotic youth. Her father, a Ukrainian nationalist, moved the family to Germany when the Russians seemed likely to advance into Poland. They lived in a work camp, where they sometimes came close to starving. But for Ukrainians living in Germany, she says, the aftermath of the war was “like a flower burst out of the earth–there was embroidery, singing, poetry, theater.” As a pharmacy student in Erlangen, following her father’s wishes, she met her husband, who became a surgeon. They married and came to the United States in 1949, and a few years later she began to study art. “God bless America for the freedom to prove yourself,” she says.

Pereyma discovered New York City’s art museums once she settled there in 1951. Among her favorite painters were Henri Rousseau and the abstract expressionists, whose work she connected with Ukrainian decorative traditions. About that time her husband was working long hours as a hospital resident. She says she was filled with “all kinds of desires and fantasies” and began doing charcoal drawings of male and female figures. When her husband saw them he encouraged her to take art classes, which she did first in New York, then in Dayton after they moved to Troy, Ohio, in 1959 (where they live today). Her first class was a course in ceramics at the Brooklyn Museum School. “Being very cautious not to offend God and everybody else, I made clay crucifixes and little pots. But I did notice that people came to look at what I was doing, and I thought, ‘Gee, if they find it interesting, then maybe I should develop it.'” For one year, 1963 to 1964, she studied here, at the School of the Art Institute, but feels she learned more from the Art Institute’s collections, especially the illuminated manuscripts.

In her art, which has often been exhibited in Ukraine since its independence in 1991, Pereyma aims to “glorify” her native culture. Clusters of dots, for example, represent drops of water. “In Ukrainian folklore,” she explains, “the girls are supposed to go in the morning and collect miraculous dew to wash their faces to get good complexion.” In the symbolism of egg decorating, spiderwebs represent life (“Once you fall in, it’s very hard to get out”). A rake symbolizes the ability to gather knowledge or wealth. Decorated eggs were taken to church and blessed to give them “magic powers.” Birds, she learned as a child, are messengers from God, and the ten dynamic metal sculptures of birds here reveal the quotidian lines of the farm implements from which they’re made even as their curves suggest flight.

The earliest works in this exhibit are from the mid-60s. After the Bath (1964) is based on Pereyma’s own figure. “I thought I was becoming pretty gutsy to put such a big woman naked in one of my works. I was embarrassed, but I did it.” Part of it is scorched–damaged in a 1968 fire that destroyed much of her work. Thirty years after hearing Dylan Thomas read his poetry on the radio (“I couldn’t understand what it was all about, but the way he delivered it was so captivating”), she began making drawings that represent poems as pure design. In the five examples here from the series “Homage to Poets” (made between 1993 and 2005), she replaces each letter of a Polish or Ukrainian poem with an asterisk.

Several works were inspired by Ukrainian folk songs, which Pereyma’s mother sang to her as a child. The Night of Summer Solstice, Marene Fell in the Water (2000) shows a nude with her foot poised above a pool of blue but stopped by an egg. On the summer solstice, according to one story, girls take off their clothes and go into the woods at midnight to look for flower juice to mix with their blood–then they can “understand what the birds are saying, what life is all about,” Pereyma says. In one song, a girl gets scared by some boys and falls in the water. The Story of Jacob (2002) is based on a folk song about a married man whose mistress demands he kill his wife. Pereyma shows the murder scene in stylized fashion: juxtaposed with bowls, spoons, and a cup is a woman’s braid, pinned to the table with a big spike.

Aka Pereyma

Where: Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, 2320 W. Chicago

When: Through May 22

Info: 773-227-5522

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