Image shows two walls in gallery, each featuring two black prints from artists' "Formation of Time" Series.
Installation view, "Formation of Time," on view at John David Mooney Foundation Credit: Courtesy the artist

On a chilly late November evening, Ukrainian artist Aliona Solomadina landed in Chicago, leaving behind her flourishing design career, beloved friends, and cozy studio in Kyiv. She was not alone, though. Her mother and 92-year-old grandmother had also fled their war-torn homeland to join her at the residency program in Chicago, to which she had been invited. “That’s the kind of family we are; we cannot leave each other,” Solomadina said.

In May 2022, Chicago-based artist John David Mooney initiated a residency program for Ukrainian art and culture professionals who fled the war and invited the community to join the cause. Together with generous donors, the John David Mooney Foundation raised funds to host several Ukrainians for three months, so they can resume working. Solomadina is one of them. 

During her three-month stay, she made a bespoke clock featuring digits that she designed, inspired by the architecture of Chicago. The clock became the central piece of the final show, on view at the foundation until April 2. After the residency, Solomadina’s plans are unclear. Unable to return home, she wants to continue the projects in other American cities and dreams of resuming her design practice and educational initiatives in Ukraine after the war. “We need to assert Ukraine’s position in the world by means of art. The question of what we can offer the world besides trauma remains open. And we need to convince the world that it is possible to work with Ukraine in the future and that Ukrainians have something to offer the world, so they must be protected,” she argues. Solomadina spoke to the Reader about her nomadic life, how war made her appreciate color, and how turmoil changes art. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Aliona Solomadina came to Chicago for a three-month residency.
Courtesy the artist

Lisa Korneichuk: What was your life like before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine?

Aliona Solomadina: The last ten years of my life have been very busy. After many searches, I decided to focus on a career in Ukraine, to work there, with the problems and the kind of aesthetics that we have. To expand the perception and idea of design for the Ukrainian audience. 

In 2016, I started an independent practice and worked with various institutions and curators. I also worked with art, fashion, and IT. I was interested in making modern Ukrainian designs. After the pandemic, in 2021, I was teaching and working with students a lot while also designing books, and I was going to expand my team. You could say that at that moment, life was beginning to improve. [Laughs.]

You mentioned that you had a choice to stay in Ukraine or leave. And you chose to stay and work with our aesthetics and problems. Can you expand on that?

When I started working, around 2008, the field was much more conservative. Designers who worked in advertising and the commercial sector and then transitioned to the cultural sphere were reluctant to experiment and do daring things. I wanted to develop this industry in Ukraine, relying on the ideas and experiments of Ukrainian graphic designers of the 20th century. After the 1990s, a generation of designers in Ukraine lost touch with their teachers and completely separated themselves from the Soviet heritage. I wanted to dispel the existing aesthetic cliches while drawing inspiration from the works of Ukrainian avant-garde graphic designers and studying the experience of world design with its use of modern technologies to continue modernist principles. 

How Ukrainian aesthetics can develop is also limited financially. Unfortunately, our museums do not have budgets to print books of the same level as museums in Switzerland or France. We cannot count on complex production, so our design is more modest. Some experiments with printing techniques are simply not available in Ukraine, and this is also a challenge for designers.

From City of Forms, Kyiv series.
Courtesy the artist

How did you spend the first days of the invasion and beyond when you left Ukraine with your family?

We thought something could happen at the border, but it wouldn’t go any further. We did not expect that on February 24, rockets would be flying and sirens would be wailing over Kyiv. 

My mom and granny stayed in Kharkiv, waiting for the green corridor [an opportunity for civilians to leave and for humanitarian aid to enter]. But the corridor did not open, and they found themselves in very difficult conditions; they waited in a cold bomb shelter without food for three days before they decided to take a risk and go to the station to board a train to Lviv. At the station there was a mad crowd, people were hysterical. My grandmother had problems with blood pressure at that moment, she couldn’t go any further and stopped recognizing my mother. These were difficult, dramatic moments, but they managed to get on the train to Lviv.

After some time in Lviv, we decided to leave the country. It was relatively safe there then, though to this day, they experience constant power outages, and it’s difficult to work and live there. It was extremely difficult for me psychologically to live with constant anxiety due to the sirens. When you hear an air raid alarm, you have to make a decision for yourself every time: to hide or not to hide. In May, I noticed that whenever there was no siren, I waited for it and prepared to run somewhere. This state of anxiety was eating me up from the inside, so when our friends offered to let us move to Italy with them, we decided to go because we were emotionally exhausted. It also affected my work; I just couldn’t see what was on the monitor in front of me.

Even before the war, you were a minimalist in both your art and your lifestyle. Now minimalism is no longer a matter of choice, but a necessity. How much did the war change your relationship with things?

I became fascinated by abstract and naive art. I have never experienced this before, but contemplating the relationships of color forms saves me emotionally. It began with the experience of the war when it seemed that on February 24, the colors disappeared. When we hid, we were in the subway or an apartment with closed windows, closed blinds in the dark, or a corridor with flashlights. After that, there was a thirst for open, pure colors. Without any specific image—just pure abstract, biomorphic shapes.

Working on my project here in Chicago, I feel like I came with my own baggage. I looked at my works with new eyes and felt that they weighed me down. I want fresh air in my practice. The war indeed pushed me to vitality and brightness. I decided for myself that I must protect the joy in life and not let the war destroy it. And this is exactly what I want to demonstrate in my works, which are still a reaction to the war. 

From City of Forms, Dnipro series
Courtesy the artist

Tell me about your project as part of the John David Mooney Foundation residency.

It is called Formation of Time. In it, I look at time graphically, I am interested in focusing on it as a system, a measure. The concept of time changed with the beginning of the war: waiting, uncertainty, planning and thinking in short terms, a new attitude to the future. Being in Chicago, with its graphic architecture and skyscrapers, I want to translate them into graphic symbols. This project continues my search for graphic forms in the city, a new page in my collection of graphic symbols borrowed from different cities. Here, I was interested in the format of an electronic watch where these abstract shapes become functional. I have developed 12 styles of digits tied to each hour of the day.

As part of the residency, you could have done without the final project—you could have used this time for yourself, for individual studies. But you took a different path, deciding to create a project. Is it a way to reclaim a certain agency that the war takes away from you? Is making art a way to take back control of your life?

It’s a great observation about the desire and the need to control your life. The war exposed it. Since I went to a safe place, where a rocket will not fall on me, I can control my work, and having this opportunity, I want to support the movement, show what we are fighting for, who we are, and what is important to us, at different levels. My work here is part of the process; it is also an affirmation of us in the world. My work does not depict the war as such. But the installation, with my sketches and notes during the residency, shows the creative process that I lost. It’s about love for my work corner, my studio, my shelter. In Kyiv, the studio was really my shelter whenever I returned home to my sketches, works, wrappers of exotic chocolates or canned goods, posters—it was my little universe, my professional world that it was so important for me to immerse myself into. Now I continue to create such corners in other places where I live. And by showing this part of the project, I am talking about how the war takes away the work routine, measured life, creative mess, and the opportunity to leave something unfinished on the desk, hoping to finish it sometime later. I can’t put anything off now.

In Formation of Time, the artist sought to translate Chicago’s architecture and skyscrapers into graphic symbols.
Courtesy the artist

What was your first impression of Chicago?

I was struck by the typography and color present in the city, all these road signs that I had only seen in movies before. When you break into this aesthetic (and this is my first visit to the U.S.), at first glance, you understand a strong graphic tradition. How fonts and shapes work with each other. The typography on the buildings and the aesthetic facades impressed me, so I immediately wanted to translate these buildings into the form of digits to make a clock. It must become a metaphor for the time I spent in this city.

In Chicago, I was also impressed by the thoughtfulness of the city planning. On the third day, you are already walking without a Google map, just navigating the blocks. For me, this city grid overlaps nicely with the layout design grid. This is not the only city in the world with such a layout, but the convenience of communications, the practicality of navigation, the bright colors of the signs—green, white, bright orange, yellow—and the way they work with the buildings also struck a chord with me.

Solomadina’s bespoke clock became a metaphor for the time she spent in the city.
Courtesy the artist

How has your approach to art changed?

I can’t take artwork about war right now. Maybe it’s because I’m in this environment from the inside. Apparently, people from other countries perceive it differently. Art like this continues to crush me. Therefore, I decided to focus on how to talk about the war without literally reproducing it.

Every war or revolution creates new approaches that are only being developed now. It is important for me to observe how information design works now, and how various tools such as stories on Instagram convey thoughts and help spread news en masse. Until February 24, I didn’t really delve into the genre of memes, but after the invasion, we morally survived March and April 2022 on memes about Alexander Lukashenka [dictator of Belarus who keeps denying his country’s involvement in Russia’s war against Ukraine]. For example, in Switzerland, a whole graphic style of design emerged from pharmacy design. Who knows, maybe we, too, are now witnessing a new visual language shaping a new design direction in Ukraine. So the approaches of meme design and vernacular messages are now more important to me than the professional approaches of my colleagues. But I also look at what the war itself produces, what it does, and beholding this spectacle, I want to step back and document it. All this destruction, videos of explosions, craters in the fields, anti-tank hedgehogs—it is impressive and frightening; it looks very powerful.

When we were evacuating, our bus was driving in a convoy of the armed forces together with armored vehicles, and looking at them, I felt both fear and pride at the same time. Probably, I stared out the window with my mouth open the whole trip. And all this equipment was branded, all covered in graphics, and I thought that there was a person who did this, an army designer. The children on the bus started applauding, shouting, “Our army!” It was an extraordinary and very powerful experience, including a visual one. And then there is also a documentary chronicle of how people in Ukraine began to paint over the road signs with spray cans to confuse the Russians and cover the monuments in cities with sandbags. All this became stronger than fiction; reality struck me with its power. I see the point only in the documentation of this, in the preservation of the artifacts of the war, in the archive.

“Foundation of Time”
Through 4/2: by appointment only, contact to schedule a visit, John David Mooney Foundation, 114 W. Kinzie,

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