Ukrainian artist helps veterans forget troubles & bad thoughts in art therapy rehab

Artist Lev Skop (centre) and veteran Oleksandr Kuzminov (right) 

Ukraine, War in Donbas

Article by: Halyna Tereshchuk
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
Well-known artist and volunteer Lev Skop has recently launched weekly drawing and painting classes for demobilized soldiers in a rehabilitation center in Lviv. War veterans underline that art therapy helps them to forget war scenes and memories, and also encourages them to spend time together and communicate with others.

Some twenty soldiers are sitting at a table, assiduously drawing and painting angels with the help of volunteers. Most of them have never worked on paper or canvas. The task is to draw an angel. Artur Spirin is one of the few veterans that remember how to hold a pencil correctly because he loved to draw and paint before the Maidan and the war in the Donbas. He spent most of 2015 in the 56th Brigade, fighting in the Donbas. Artur has drawn an avenging fighting angel that looks just like him.

“I don’t really like what I’ve drawn today, but I enjoy the whole creative process. It’s cool to be here because when we’re all alone, we start thinking about bad or silly things, many negative memories rise to the surface… Everything that we went through will never be totally forgotten. But, if we’re alone too much, we start thinking and just go crazy!

But, when we get together here, we can joke around and we manage to push all these silly thoughts away. When we were fighting in the Donbas, we thought of ourselves as angel of peace. But, something or someone more powerful sits above these angels. Mothers protect their children, we protect the mothers, and angels protect us… that’s the way it is,” says Artur Spirin.

Lev Skop has organized more than thirty workshops in Ukraine, particularly in the Donbas, with Ukrainian soldiers and residents of liberated Ukrainian territories. Participants can draw or paint angels, and only angels, but in any way that they imagine them. The artist has recently launched weekly art therapy classes in the ATO Rehabilitation Centre (today it’s the Department of Psychological Trauma of Lviv Psychiatric Hospital). Leo Skop wants to help demobilized servicemen, and give them the opportunity to meet and talk with others.

Lev Skop. Photo: RFE/RL ~

Lev Skop. Photo: RFE/RL

“I like to paint, and I know how much it helps me personally. There’s so much stress in the world, so poetry and music can help us forget our troubles and get rid of bad thoughts. I don’t want this to be an ordinary art class; we want people to count the days until Fridays and come to the centre willingly and freely. I know and believe that art unites people. This therapy is called – “You’re not alone!” The only rule here is to invest yourself in your work and paint meaningfully. I suggest some technical points, but I don’t impose my style. Today, we’re drawing angels on paper, later – on canvas, and in the end, we’ll organize an exhibition,” says Lev Skop.

The Department of Psychological Trauma, which war veterans and volunteers have renovated and furnished, is still referred to as the Rehabilitation Centre. About fifty demobilized servicemen visit the center every day. Most of them suffer from chronic back and joint pain, and severe sleep disorders. Many can’t cope with fear and their memories. Here, they are assigned rehabilitation treatment, namely massage sessions, physical exercises, special corrective manipulation. Psychologist Oksana Zilnyk says that they are currently addressing psychological problems of demobilized servicemen who served in 2014-2015.

“Every person here has a problem… some have drinking problems, others are very aggressive. The problems start at home; these guys aren’t well adapted to ordinary life, so we must try to help them. They all have problems within the family circle because parents and wives don’t understand what’s happened to them. There are a lot of divorces now… The men are totally different when they return home from war, but their relatives don’t accept them as they are. We lack social workers to help them adapt to daily life. We also provide psychological help. This centre should focus on the family, and everyone should feel comfortable here. Guys that aren’t hospitalized also come here for help.” says Oksana Zilnyk.

Oleksandr Kuzminov from Chervonohrad was mobilized in 2015. He served near Stanytsia Luhanska with the 128th Brigade for a year and two months. He suffered several contusions in combat. He couldn’t return to his old woodworking job because the loud noise made him jumpy and angry. Oleksandr often visits the rehab center just to meet up with other soldiers. Today, he attends art therapy classes.

“Here, you can talk about whatever you want, things that you can’t mention at home because they just won’t understand. I’m starting to remember things again. And, I’ve started having nightmares about the war… One day, I was walking down the street in Lviv and I smelled smoke.. and suddenly, I was back on the front lines, surrounded by smoke… or cooking food over an open fire. Such banal things bring back many memories,” points out Oleksandr.

Volunteer Mariya Petryshyn believes art therapy will help war veterans to push their problems to the side because they feel support and understanding in the group, and this will help them in day-to-day living.

“Every angel looks like the person who’s drawn him, perhaps in character too.”

Next summer, Lev Skop and other artists hope to travel to the front lines near Stanytsia Luhanska and paint angels on town buildings so that they may bring local residents joy and hope.

Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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