Renowned Ukrainian-Canadian sculptor Oleh Lesiuk makes his mark in the prominent Allée des Poètes (Poets Alley)

Read the article by Ayah Victoria McKhail below



Renowned Ukrainian-Canadian sculptor Oleh Lesiuk makes his mark in the prominent Allée des Poètes (Poets Alley)


By: Ayah Victoria McKhail


          On May 31st, 2014,Ukraine’s beloved poet, Taras Shevchenko was exalted in a ceremony to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth. The monument was created by the L’viv-born sculptor Oleh Lesiuk and it features a bronze bust, which rests atop a granite pedestal. The monument is a fitting tribute to the poet’s legacy as a celebrated cultural icon whose literary heritage is regarded as forming the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature and to a large extent, the modern Ukrainian language.

          Situated on Rue d’Auteuil, in close proximity to Québec’s National Assembly and the city’s famed citadel, the monument is the latest addition to a site that attracts both locals and tourists who stop to reflect on the legacy of the influential figures who are featured along the bustling promenade and how they’ve left an indelible mark on humanity. Noteworthy as well is how they serve to represent the diverse cultural communities that have shaped Québec into the dynamic Canadian province that it is. They include: Émile Nelligan (Québécois), Alexander Pushkin (Russian), Dante Alighieri (Italian), Nguyễn Trãi (Vietnamese) and Father Komitas (Armenian).

          For Mr. Lesiuk, it was imperative to depict Shevchenko as a young intellectual. “I wanted to capture his resilient spirit at a time when he was studying and full of ideas; he had been expressing his deepest thoughts, desires and the importance of fighting forUkraine’s freedom and independence.”

          And that’s just what throngs of people who had flocked from near and far saw at the ceremony to unveil Mr. Lesiuk’s latest creation, where the feeling was undeniably triumphant for him. “I feel privileged to have been chosen to do this sculpture; it’s truly a big honour to have done this inQuébecCity. Shevchenko has taken his rightful place among other leading figures.” Mr. Lesiuk adds that the monument belongs to the people – particularly to the City ofQuébec, the people ofUkraineand to people of Ukrainian descent in the diaspora.

          The Shevchenko monument was made possible under the direction of the Commission de la capitale nationale du Québec (CCNQ), a body of the Government of Québec. The Commission played a principle role by financing, planning and supervising the realization of the monument. In this respect, the close relationship established between the Commission and the Comité ukrainien du monument Chevtchenko à Québec (CMCQ) explains the success of the project throughout its numerous activities over the last three years. Nevertheless, the third partner, the City ofQuébec, was the key player for the realization of the monument and the May 31st unveiling event.

          As Mr. Réal Gauthier, who’s a member of the CMCQ elucidates, the monument showcases Mr. Lesiuk’s talent as a sculptor. “He seized and fixed in bronze a major turning point in the inner life of the poet; he exemplified the precise time when Shevchenko evolved into the great Ukrainian hero he’s known as today.”

          However, Mr. Lesiuk mentions that the project’s success shouldn’t be attributed to him alone, explaining that several other people played critical roles. “Ms. Roma Kupchynska, who’s the President of the CMCQ and all of the committee members – Mr. Réal Gauthier; Ms. Oksana Gerych; Mr. Orest Humenny and Mr. Volodymyr Zhovtulya played key roles in moving the project forward.”

          As Ms. Kupchynska explains, it’s truly a significant achievement. For example, on November 20, 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed 2014 a “year of Shevchenko” and invited the world to recognize this important milestone. “Today, around the world, with all of humanity, Taras Shevchenko has been making his mark. We, the Ukrainian people can be proud that the memory of our great poet is being honoured on an international level this year and for the first time, on such a grand scale.”

          Ms. Lyudmyla Pogoryelova, Director of the Taras Shevchenko Museum in Toronto concurs, describing how the celebratory atmosphere that has characterized events to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Shevchenko’s birth has led to a resurgence of interest in Shevchenko’s short life of 47 years as a poet and artist. For example, on March 9th, 2014, the museum hosted an event to not only do just that, but to publicize Kobzar, a trilingual compilation of Shevchenko’s poetry that the museum had published. Poetry readings were done in Ukrainian, English, French and even Japanese.

          Furthermore, Shevchenko’s most popular poem, Zapovit (Testament), which was written on December 25, 1845, in Pereyaslav, (currently, Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, which is south of Kyiv) has been translated into over 150 languages. In it, he makes a rallying call to action to fight for freedom, justice and equality. Moreover, he expresses his desire to be buried in his beloved homeland ofUkraine.

          In Ms. Pogoryelova’s opinion, Shevchenko’s poetry resonates with people from around the world because of its inherently humane message. “He wrote for and advocated on behalf of hard-working people and those who were oppressed, such as peasants, workers and women. Believing in a brighter, happier future for humanity, he planted his words like seeds in people’s consciousness, hoping they would take root and bear the fruits of wisdom and change. He called out for persistence so that justice would flourish. In addition, he harshly criticized Tsarist rule, which divides people on the basis of their socio-economic class. Moreover, his poetry had a deep nationalistic sense; he called for the independence of his country.”

          Such topics have become increasingly relevant given the current upheaval inUkraineas its citizens seek to make their voices heard and effect change in a country where the path to independence from theSoviet Unionin 1991 has been pockmarked by a variety of political, social and economic ills such as widespread political corruption, poverty and unemployment.

          And while the current crisis has brought issues around identity to the fore; exposed loyalties and heightened geo-political tensions, one thing many Ukrainians can agree on is the prominent place that Shevchenko holds in their hearts and minds despite their differences of opinions. Indeed, Shevchenko’s poetry has served to instill a sense of national pride in the Ukrainian people, which has been transmitted to generations of Ukrainians seeking to distinguish themselves and their language from dominant influences in the region, particularly concerningRussiaand the Russian language.

          With all this in mind, Mr. Lesiuk explains that the recent unveiling of the Shevchenko monument was especially momentous given the political turmoil that has rockedUkrainebeginning in November 2013. “People were dying in Maidan [Kyiv’sIndependence Square] with Shevchenko’s poetry on their lips.” Mr. Gauthier also shares a contemporary example to illustrate the enduring nature of Shevchenko’s poetry. “At last, the newUkraineborn a few months ago in an inflamed Maidan obliges Ukrainians to reinterpret their past as a means to inspire the birth and realization of new responses for the future. Reading Shevchenko could greatly help to do so.”                                                    As Ukrainians around the world come to terms with the political upheaval that has gripped their homeland, it has galvanized those of Ukrainian descent inCanada, many of whom have expressed their solidarity with those inUkraineby partaking in demonstrations and organizing fundraising initiatives to support the victims of violence there. Indeed, this nation is home to more than 1.2 million Ukrainian-Canadians, the world’s third-largest Ukrainian population followingUkraineandRussia. The community has been built over four waves of immigration dating back to approximately 1891. Initially, settlement began on the prairies, yet more recently, it has flourished inOntarioand Québec.

          As a result, the community has been particularly influential in the cultural and political realms of Canadian society. Mr. Lesiuk’s monument is a salient example of a Ukrainian’s most recent contribution toCanada’s cultural life.

          As well, on the political front, the federal government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper was especially critical of the beleaguered former government of Viktor Yanukovych as the political crisis began to unfold. Undoubtedly,Ottawahas a long-standing relationship withUkraine, dating back to 1991, whenCanadabecame the first western nation to recognize its independence under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Moreover, on June 7th, 2014, Prime Minister Harper was the first world leader to hold bilateral talks with Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv, who formally took the oath of office as President of Ukraine.                                                                                          

          Yet politics aside, an air of contentment hangs over Mr. Lesiuk’sTorontostudio a few short days after the unveiling of his monument. Smiling wistfully, there’s a warmth emanating from his bright blue eyes as he reminisces about the past. Forty-five years ago, when Oleh was 10 years old in 1969, he recalls standing awestruck in the midst of artists and singers who had gathered in a public square in thevillageofVolytsya Hnizdychivskain L’viv oblast. His father, the late Lubomyr Lesiuk, who was born there and was also a renowned sculptor, had just unveiled a monument, which he had created as a tribute to Shevchenko. Today, it still stands.

          Recently, on the other side of the world and in a province known for its distinct culture, nationalistic sentiment and a history of struggle for French language rights and sovereignty, Mr. Lesiuk did something similar – clearly following in his father’s footsteps. And just as he stood in utter fascination as he marvelled at his father’s monument so long ago, many more are sure to do the same with his today and for future generations to come.


Oleh Lesiuk

          An accomplished sculptor, Oleh Lesiuk’s career has been illustrious. Among many successes, he has exhibited his works in group shows around the world in addition to having his creations grace both public and private collections. Notable as well is the gilding restoration he did on the Canadian Parliament library in Ottawa in 2005; a Monument Builders of North America public award he received in 2006 for a monument he created in Rochester, New York in order to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ukrainian settlement there and a logo, which he designed in 2011 to commemorate 120 years of Ukrainian settlement in Canada. Moreover, his professional affiliations are extensive: He’s the President of the Ukrainian Association of Visual Artists of Canada and a member of the National Arts Council at the Ukrainian Canadian Congress; the National Union of Artists of Ukraine and the Sculptors Society of Canada.