In Kyiv, this Ukrainian artist is painting antitank

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Varvara Logvyn might look like any other open-air artist working in Kyiv’s historic Independence Square — a cart full of paint at her side, a dirty palette in one hand and a brush in the other — except she doesn’t direct her attention to a canvas, but to a large, steel antitank obstacle known as a hedgehog.

In a video posted to Logvyn’s Instagram last week, the 38-year-old artist can be seen hunching over one of several unwieldy gray barricades, which resemble massive scatter jacks, and adding bursts of color: red berries inspired by a Ukrainian war song, “Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow,” and green leaves.

Logvyn has spent some 80 hours over the past two weeks painting the hedgehog in the highly detailed style known as Petrykivka painting, a form of traditional decorative art originating in the village of Petrykivka in eastern Ukraine. Having studied the form for nine years, Logvyn remains faithful to its folk art techniques: She uses brushes made of cat and squirrel hair, and she says she sometimes has to lie on the ground to properly execute the technique, which requires that brushstrokes go in the same direction. She plans to finish this work by Aug. 24, in time for Ukraine’s Independence Day.

Reached via Zoom in Kyiv, Logvyn says that decorating the all-too-contemporary “canvas” of a hedgehog in an old-fashioned style is “my way to talk with the world about Ukraine, about our war, about our values. We have to defend our culture. Culture is the basis of a nation, and [Petrykivka painting] shows that Ukraine is very bright.”

At the beginning of Russia’s invasion in February, Logvyn took refuge in the West, returning to Kyiv in April, when she was startled to see steel hedgehogs everywhere. Sometimes known as Czech hedgehogs — because they are said to have originated in that country in the 1930s — the obstacles stop advancing tanks by turning under the treads of an advancing tank, lifting the vehicle off the ground and leaving it trapped and vulnerable.

To Logvyn, they serve not as a sign of security but as a constant reminder of danger. “I’ve never seen my city like that. I was terrified,” she says.

So when the annual municipal holiday of Kyiv Day arrived in May, Logvyn decided to try her hand at making the steel obstacles a little more approachable. She painted one with the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine’s flag as what she calls a “gift to my city.” Now, as the nation enters another month of armed conflict, she’s at it again. This time, she’s showing that Ukrainians aren’t just defending their physical cities with military weapons. They’re defending their cultural identity, too, with a spirit that can’t be quashed.

Before the war, Logvyn ran a fireworks business; these days, she’s helping the military with pyrotechnics, but she has spent her life surrounded by art. Logvyn grew up in Shostka in northeastern Ukraine, where her mother was an art teacher and artist. After her parents gave her a wooden board decorated in the Petrykivka style as a present, she became interested in it and studied under a mentor for nearly a decade. Now, she uses it to make gifts for her friends and family. She hopes the painted hedgehogs, her largest project to date, will “improve people’s emotional and psychological feelings, because everyone is exhausted from the war.”

Many artists in Ukraine have reimagined public spaces in response to war. Earlier this week, a group of artists painted sunflowers on the charred exteriors of bombed-out cars that were recovered from Irpin. Across Ukraine, murals have popped up condemning the war: On a wall in Zaporizhzhia, a Ukrainian soldier flips off a Russian warship; in Kyiv, a figure evoking the Virgin Mary — and holding a Javelin missile — looks down on a street.

Logvyn, however, has taken a tool of war itself as her canvas. Watching her paint on the video is uncanny: She takes something harsh and ugly and treats it with a painter’s touch — with a tenderness you might reserve for porcelain.

Hedgehogs, which dotted the coast of France during the Normandy invasion, are most commonly associated with World War II. In a city just outside Moscow, a bright-red monument, made to look like oversize hedgehogs, marks the farthest point that Nazi troops advanced into the city.

Under Logvyn’s brush, her hedgehogs have become symbols of Ukrainian resilience. Just days after the invasion, civilians got to work fabricating the steel devices, including two other Ukrainian artists — Volo Bevza and Victoria Pidust — who made dozens of hedgehogs that were shipped around the country.

Logvyn plans to paint more hedgehogs, with colors representing countries that have helped Ukraine. She calls painting the steel structures soothing. “It’s kind of like meditation for me,” she says. “It’s the only way I can live in these circumstances. Before the war, I did art because I wanted to. Now, it saves me from my thoughts.”