Sentiment grows to declare the house of naive painter Polina Rayko a national cultural monument of Ukraine. From Vhoru, a Kherson-based news outlet.

If granny Polina had known that high officials and famous painters would troop through her house to look at her wall paintings, she’d have thought it a dream. It wasn’t for fame when the retired Polina Rayko began to paint on the walls of her house. For over 15 years the painter has been with the saints, but the images she created remain alive and inspire others.

Polina Rayko’s Life and Times

Polina Rayko (her original name was Pelaheya Soldatova) was born in April 1928 in the small Ukrainian town of Oleshky. She married Mykola Rayko at the age of 22. Polina at that time had no interest in painting. She led a life typical of a Soviet woman – she worked hard and devoted herself to her family.

The Raykos had few means. They worked at a kolkhoz (a collective farm) and also did work for hire, grew fruits and vegetables in their kitchen garden, and generally tried to do their best. The couple brought up two children, a boy and a girl.

Late in life, Polina met with hard times. In 1994, her daughter Olena died tragically in a road accident and her husband Mykola passed away a year later. Instead of supporting his mother, her son drank heavily and made trouble. Later, he was imprisoned.

To keep from going mad with grief, the woman, to her own surprise, began to paint. She created her first paintings at the age of 69. The walls of her house became her “canvas.” She used the cheapest paints – enamel floor colors. But neither lack of experience nor her use of low-cost art supplies got in the way of her desire to realize herself. Painting became therapy for Polina Rayko, alleviating her loneliness and allowing her to appreciate herself more. She was sincerely surprised how she found subjects for her frescoes and ways of embodying her thoughts, considering that except for a few times at school, she had never before held a brush in her hands.

She Created Her Own Universe

The self-taught painter made all her frescoes in the same manner, with no free space between them – all her paintings are like one continuous mural. Granny Polina’s subjects are sometimes taken from her own life. One wall of her living room is covered with life-size portraits of her sisters. All are long-haired with big wings behind their backs. Little angels and white pigeons fly around them in a blossoming magical garden.

On another wall Polina depicts herself in a wedding gown beside her husband. Fantastic flowers and birds of paradise surround the newly married couple. In a separate portrait of her husband Mykola, he is shown in a boat with a float fishing rod and a bottle of vodka – everything he might need in the other world.

There also is a self-portrait of the mistress of the house – but this time in a military uniform with a rifle in her hands, wings, and a red star. The date is 1941-1945, which usually refers to the Great Patriotic War, when Polina Rayko was a teenager. Beside the female soldier she depicted a winged, female military medic. Religious motives interweave with Soviet symbols.

Animals make another vivid subject of her frescoes – her fabulous fish, birds, and butterflies are all over the walls, the ceiling, the stove, the doors.

This self-taught artist learned to render the feeling of movement in her paintings. Entering the house, we seem caught up in a swirl of images flying and circling around us.

What surprises the most are the huge, fantastically rendered leopards, resembling fluffy cats or perhaps owls. There are other exotic animals here, in particular koalas. This in itself is strange, as it is unknown where and when she could have seen them; she had no TV set, in her later years at least.

Although Polina Rayko “translated” flora and fauna on the walls directly from her imagination, she needed a prototype to depict a church. One painted on the wall was copied from a vodka label. (Polina Rayko’s husband abused alcohol, and in 2002 their son died from cirrhosis of the liver.)

The paradox of Polina Rayko’s frescoes lies not only in the fact that she began to paint in her declining years, or that she had never painted before, and not even that she chose the walls of her own house instead of paper or canvas. Her synthesis of naive and folk art, surprisingly, emerged in modern times, at the turn of the 21st century. Art experts, curators, and critics who have visited the house recognize her work as the first of its kind in Ukraine.

In her house we seem to touch a relic and find ourselves in another time and dimension – as if this house were several centuries old. Her works may evoke the paintings of the Georgian Niko Pirosmani, the films of Sergei Parajanov, and illustrations to Ukrainian folk tales dredged from our subconscious. Nevertheless, we can be fairly sure that Polina Rayko stirred her own creative concoction with no outside influence on her painting, since she lived her entire life in a small provincial town, working hard and having no time for self-education.

There are many naive painters. Sometimes even renowned artists try to paint like children, thus drawing our attention to something simple and primitive while conveying genuineness, lightness, and simplicity in their works. Polina Rayko (from pure intuition, almost jokingly) created her own system of images and invented her own “language,” thus making her paintings authentic.

Discovery, Acclaim, and Decay

The staff of Totem, a cultural development center in Kherson, were the first to learn of the phenomenon of Polina Rayko and her extraordinary house. They were fortunate to meet the gifted resident of nearby Oleshky in person. Olena Afanasieva, the founder of Totem, remembers that encounter:

“Our first meeting was very emotional – Polina Rayko welcomed us swearing! She was an incredibly quarrelsome granny – and it was no wonder, because her life hadn’t spared her. After we explained that we came in peace, she replaced her rage with mercy. Polina Rayko was a naive painter. Her images were very radiant, full of life and beauty. Her works had nothing to do with politics; she didn’t try to reflect any serious social problems in her paintings. If you know what I mean, naive painters simply admire the beauty around them and strive to share it with others in the way they see it.”

In 2005, as part of a program for small projects under the aegis of the Netherlands Embassy, a thick hardcover catalog was published. The Road to Paradise contained Polina’s works and interviews and photographs. Unfortunately, she never got a chance to see the book.

After Polina Rayko died in 2004, her house fell on hard times, Olena Afanasieva says somberly. Polina’s grandson wanted to sell the house as soon as possible, unaware that he had inherited not only some property, but a unique art object. The art community began to search by word of mouth for a potential buyer who could agree to save the house and its frescoes. When a Canadian living at that time with his Ukrainian wife in Kyiv, Andrius Nemickas, bought the house for $5,000, those who cared about saving the house breathed a sigh of relief. Nevertheless, the new owner had little interest in the destiny of his acquisition. Little by little the cottage began to deteriorate. Cracks formed on the fresco-covered walls and paint began peeling off the plaster. The paintings on the porch faded to nothing.

The Struggle to Save the House

Kherson’s artists and cultural figures have sporadically made efforts to save Polina Rayko’s house. After her death the artist Vyacheslav Mashnitsky established a charity fund in her name to promote her creative work and support other artists. In the same year, Totem’s Olena Afanasieva organized the first Terra Futura, an annual art festival in the painter’s hometown of Oleshky, hoping to acquaint as many people as possible with the art attraction in the town and generate publicity for its renovation. On the initiative of Borys Eghiazaryan, a Kyiv artist, a documentary about the house was made called A Paradise, directed by Nadiya Koshman. There also were many publications about the extraordinary house in the local press. Its glory spread, and more and more visitors from different corners of Ukraine and the world came to Oleshky to see the house.

“Granny Polina’s cottage is cultural heritage we should protect,” Mashnitsky says. “This painter was an original genius who left us an art memorial, a real museum! The issue is that this house is now private property. To stop the house from deteriorating, it needs serious, meticulous work by professional restorers. A renovation at this level would cost a pretty penny and it should be conducted carefully so as not to destroy the frescoes. … We need financing from the regional Cultural Department in Kherson Oblast and the authorization of the house owner,” he says.

Donations to the charity fund in Polina Rayko’s name raised about 14,000 hryvnias ($500)for a toilet near the house and a table and benches in the yard. The fund has also bought basic garden tools that neighbors use to care for flowers and trees. In short, the house’s protectors have tried to do their best to make visitors feel comfortable, says Semen Hramtsov, who has run crowdfunding campaigns for the house.

Polina Rayko and her house have drawn attention in Kyiv as well. Interiors of her home were recreated in a hall of the Pinchuk Art Center as part of an exhibition of women artists in 2018-2019, “A Space of One’s Own,” using photo-wallpapers with high-resolution reproductions of her paintings. Last year Kherson artists Oleksandr Pechorsky and Oleksandr Zhukovsky produced other reproductions of her work for Ukraine WOW, an exhibition in Kyiv highlighting lesser-known attractions of Ukraine.

Nevertheless, despite all this, the house has yet to be listed on the national register of cultural heritage, which would make possible funding from the regional and national budgets, as private properties are not eligible for state financing. Until now, all that the house’s friends have been able do is to clean and air the house regularly. Luckily, the last two winters have been rather warm and dry.

Unsuccessful efforts by the Kherson Oblast Culture Department to contact the house’s owner finally paid off last November, when Svitlana Dymynska, the former head of the department, met with Nemickas in Kyiv.

“I told him that we were ready to create a museum there and to make the site a living platform for artistic communication and a site for plein air painting and art events. We could also arrange a small hostel and a bus stop near the house,” Dymynska says.

So long as the house remains in private hands, regional authorities cannot invest anything in it, Dymynska notes. Officials have repeatedly asked Nemickas to come to Kherson to discuss selling the house.

“Now, the Culture Department has no authority even to write grants for funding to develop the site,” she says.

Nemickas planned to invite restorers from Italy to renovate the frescoes, she says. But that was before the coronavirus outbreak and the lockdown.

The governor of the Kherson Region has also taken an interest in the house. Governor Yuriy Husyev has put the recently named head of the Culture Department, Mykhailo Lynetsky, in direct charge of all measures connected with resolving the status of the house, including preparing documents for transferring it into public ownership. The mayor of Oleshky is confident the town council will vote to take ownership of the house, Lynetsky says, because its members understand how this work of art can raise the town’s profile to another level.

“Andrius Nemickas has made a fine gesture and agreed to donate the home of Polina Rayko to either the Oleshky District Council or the Kherson Oblast Council,” Lynetsky says. “Personally, I think that taking into consideration that the budget of Oleshky would not be able to handle the expenses for all necessary work to renovate and heat the house, it would be logical to transfer the ownership of the art object to the Oblast Council as an asset of the Local History Museum of Kherson Oblast.” He adds: “We need to wait for the end of the quarantine to begin serious work in this direction.”

This article originally appeared on Vhoru (Upward), a news outlet founded in 2002. Its goal is to report on public and civil affairs and develop civil society in the Kherson region. Reprinted by permission.

Translated by Tetiana Merega.