ART BEAT- A Finger on the Pulse of the Arts in OEE – OOE Artist Feature Blair T. Paul and the Ukraine Paintings

Tanis Browning-Shelp

February 24, 2023 will mark one year since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Canadian artist Blair T. Paul wants us to reignite the flames of our anger and take action in any way that we can. In 2022, Paul wanted to make his art “do something” for Ukraine. He launched his first Ukraine initiative: a fundraiser through which he sold his selected paintings to collectors for half market value in exchange for their direct donation to the Red Cross, Ukraine, raising $12,000.

The Mainstreeter generally features artists who reside in OOE. However, Paul’s second Ukraine initiative crosses neighbourhood boundaries and reaches out to all Canadians in a provocative and moving series of 19 works titled: Perceived Consequences of War—The Ukraine Paintings.

“In my opinion, these paintings are powerful depictions of the Ukraine tragedy and hugely impactful to the eye and to the mind,” says Lorne Abugov, Mainstreeter Editor. “They evoke the desolation and senseless destruction of war and the needless and brutal campaign against the people and cities of Ukraine.”

Paul hopes that this article will stimulate interest in exhibiting these paintings and heighten public awareness of the dire circumstances under which the Ukrainian people live. “I hope it will encourage more people to help,” he says. “This is a David and Goliath battle that was supposed to end in a week but look at how things have gone!

Escape, by Blair T. Paul, 30” x 30” - acrylic on canvas, 2022. Painting by Blair T. Paul

Escape, by Blair T. Paul, 30” x 30” – acrylic on canvas, 2022. Painting by Blair T. Paul

Paul, who worked on the paintings for hundreds of hours from February to August of 2022, wants the series to be shown this year in public venues in Ottawa and in other Canadian cities. “The Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) has a copy of my exhibition proposal and is firmly behind it. I received a strong letter of support from the UCC Ottawa Branch of the Ukraine Crisis Committee which states: ‘We appreciate the way you have captured the physical and psychological consequences of conflict experienced by civilians and soldiers in your paintings. Your artwork serves as a powerful reminder of the human cost of war, and we believe that it has the power to enlighten and motivate people to take action.’ Several other venues including the Canadian War Museum, the Canadian Museum of History, and the Carleton University Art Gallery have been made aware of the project and I plan to bring it to the attention of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg.

“Canada has a notable history of twentieth century war artists whose works portrayed visceral scenes of wartime carnage and its aftermath. My own art practice has been inspired by two such artists, Alex Colville and Aba Bayefsky. As the son of a veteran of World War II, I acknowledge the legacies of these and other distinguished Canadian war artists and feel a sense of duty and privilege to contribute to this important genre of Canadian art.”

Artists from Rubens to Picasso have evoked the brutal consequences of war in their work to make a political statement. “Picasso said that painting is ‘seeing,’ and that he could use his art, in particular the painting titled Guernica, as a political weapon,” Paul says. Guernica was a Spanish town bombed by Germany in 1937. “With that painting, Picasso fought Fascism. I feel precisely as Picasso did, and the Ukraine paintings are my visual expressions of outrage.” In 2006, Paul was Artist-in-Residence in Vallauris, France, where Picasso lived and worked from 1947 to 1955.

With nearly 50 years in the visual arts and education field, Paul was well suited to take on this latest project. He graduated from the Ontario College of Art & Design University in 1974 and continued his studies at both Queen’s and Carleton universities, becoming a member of The Ontario Society of Artists in 1986. In the ensuing years, he has worked as a professional artist and fine art educator. Paul began teaching at Algonquin College in 2003 and started the Introduction to Fine Art Program in 2007.

Prior to the COVID pandemic, Paul taught painting classes for adult students at community centres in Greenboro and Nepean. In the nearly three years since COVID-19 struck, Paul has been offering weekly drawing, watercolour, and acrylic painting classes online, and he now hosts a once monthly, in-person painting workshop at the Royal Canadian Legion in Manotick. His works may be found in the Canada Council Art Bank, Carleton University, and The Corporation of the City of Ottawa as well as in public and private Canadian and international collections.

Combat, by Blair T. Paul, 48” x 36” - acrylic on canvas, 2022. Painting by Blair T. Paul

Combat, by Blair T. Paul, 48” x 36” – acrylic on canvas, 2022. Painting by Blair T. Paul

Paul used black and white acrylic paint in his Ukrainian series to create an archival look. “I felt that there was no other approach but to produce monochromatic pieces with no colour to influence the viewers, and to convey a sense of despair, and timelessness.

I chose this approach to evoke strong, unflinching images that border on the surreal and nightmarish,” he says. “We can turn off the news but what I’m saying is that we can’t just turn off this conflict. In the series, I show what Ukraine looks like now, and illustrate that it could become even more devastated without our help…without the world’s help.

“I studied news reports and tried to imagine what these people must be feeling. The individuals in my paintings are fictional, but I show the effects on various groups in Ukraine society—families, the military, young, old, displaced, alone. They are what inspired me to paint. This is undoubtedly my most important series of paintings and represents the best work of my career.”

Next, Paul describes the three paintings from Perceived Consequences of War—The Ukraine Paintings that he selected to accompany this article and illustrate what he was thinking at the time of creation.

Escape: “As the Russian onslaught began upon Ukrainian towns and villages on their eastern boundary, citizens became terrified of what had already happened and of what might yet happen, resulting in mass evacuations. Gathering their family members and a few belongings, they started their escape, some to safer Ukrainian towns, and some to countries to the west, including Canada. As they made their way on foot, they encountered dead bodies and burnedout buildings, and faced the real danger of being attacked from the air. This terror is reminiscent of news reel footage from World War II, where refugees struggled to escape the Nazis.”

Combat: “The Ukrainian soldiers have fought heroically from the first days of the invasion and continue to do so relentlessly. Fortunately, western allies have supported their efforts with much-needed military equipment. As President Zelenskyy has stated: ‘We are not asking you to fight, just give us what we need, and we will do the fighting and take back our country.’ For the outnumbered Ukrainian forces, surrender is not a word in their vocabulary. The soldiers pictured in this painting are possibly surrounded, and despite injury and loss they courageously fight on.”

Dignity and Destruction, by Blair T. Paul, 48” x 36” - acrylic on canvas, 2022. Painting by Blair T. Paul

Dignity and Destruction, by Blair T. Paul, 48” x 36” – acrylic on canvas, 2022. Painting by Blair T. Paul

Dignity and Destruction: “Here we can see a family huddling together under a makeshift shelter amidst total destruction. Their home and belongings are gone, but, together, their dignity and determination pull them through the horror. They are like an island in a river of destruction. Are other family members safe? Are their children injured and possibly dying? Will there be any rescue effort to take them away from this nightmare? We just don’t know. They are facing us—not cowering—but demanding that we not look away. ‘This is our country!’ they seem to say.”

“We all live on this planet. Canadians have been strongly behind Ukraine. Together, we can continue to help the Ukrainian people.”

“I commend Blair T. Paul for his artistic vision and for his service to the people of Ukraine,” says Abugov. To see more of Paul’s work, and to find out how you can help support an exhibition of Perceived Consequences of War—The Ukraine Paintings go to: .

Author Tanis Browning-Shelp ( pens her Maryn O’Brien Young Adult Fiction series, published by Dog-Eared Books, from her home in Old Ottawa East. Contact if you have information about artists or art events that you believe would enrich our community members’ lives.

Filed in: Art Beat, Front Page

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