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It is difficult to find a similar case in art history when the desire to become an artist met as many difficulties as Kateryna Bilokur had to overcome. The dream of a girl from a simple peasant family came true in spite of, not thanks to her fate. Almost all her life she had to fight for the right to paint, and, despite this, her paintings radiated admiration for the gifts of nature. Wildflowers and garden flowers adored by the artist, like a mirror of a pure, fiery and gentle soul, reflect the view of the world of the enchanted little girl.
1. “I want to be an artist”Kateryna Bilokur was born in the village of Bohdanivka, near the capital of Ukraine, into a family of peasants, and nothing foreshadowed her becoming an artist. At the beginning of the twentieth century, village girls were destined for a completely different fate — early marriage, caring for her husband and children, household chores, and field work.
Little Katria’s dreams were completely different — from early childhood the girl wanted to paint. And despite the fact that it was impossible to get either paints or paper in her village, she made herself homemade brushes of twigs and scraps of wool, and painted on pieces of canvas she took from her mother, or on the tablets she found from her father. She felt special envy for the younger brother, who was sent to study at school — for he had notebooks!
Once Kateryna took one of them and painted it with wonderful drawings. Hoping to please her parents, she hung her fabulous pictures in the room. Father burned her creativity in the stove. Since then, her parents not only forbade her to draw, but punished her with rods, wishing to wean her from useless activities.
"Fate is testing those who dare to go towards a great goal, but no one will catch the courageous, they stubbornly and boldly go to their intended goal with clenched hands. And eventually fate rewards them a hundredfold and reveals all the secrets of truly beautiful and incomparable art to them."
2. The ingenious self-taughtKateryna did not spend a single day at school. She learned to read on her own in almost a week using the ABC book her father gave her. And then the girl had to read her favourite books secretly from her mother, who found the new work for her daughter on and on in order to distract her from the books.
The lack of primary education prevented Kateryna from studying at an art school. In the 1920s, she went to Myrhorod to enter an art school, taking her the best drawings, but they did not allow her as she had no primary school certificate.
3. The right to drawThe girl continued to paint, and the resistance of her parents persisted. In 1934, driven to despair by the persecution of her mother, she tried to drown herself in the river in front of her eyes. Only after the suicide attempt did her mother allow her to paint and did not force her to marry, and Kateryna had her feet affected by the cold water, she remained disabled for the rest of her life.
4. The artist’s flower symphonyKateryna Bilokur became famous for her flower compositions. The artist painted every single flower and all her works are distinguished by meticulous detail. Kateryna could work on one painting for a year. In winter, she painted flowers from memory, but in spring and summer she worked both in the field and in the garden and could even walk 30 km away to the neighboring Pyriatyn forest to draw lilies of the valley.
The artist is known to never pick flowers. She said: "A plucked flower is like a lost destiny." Maybe that’s why her lively bouquets with peonies, daisies, roses, mallows, lilies have a special magic that is bewitching the audience!
5. The long-awaited recognitionKateryna Bilokur became a famous artist at the age of 40, and a chance helped. Once she heard the song "Chy ya v luzi ne kalyna bula?" ("Wasn't I a Viburnum in the Meadow") performed by Oksana Petrusenko on the radio.
Wasn’t I a viburnum in the meadow,
Wasn’t I red in the meadow?
They took me and broke me
And tied me in bundles.
Such is my fate!
My bitter fate!
The words of the song disturbed the artist so much that she wrote a letter to the famous Kyiv singer. She told about her personal drama and dream, and enclosed her drawing of a viburnum. Petrusenko became interested in the fate of the talented girl and showed it to her friends, Kyiv artists. Very soon, the representatives of the Poltava House of Art came to Kateryna in Bohdanivka. And a miracle happened: the amazing works of an unknown but gifted artist were selected for a personal exhibition. The first exhibition of her paintings was held in Poltava, and soon in Kyiv.
6. The gift from aboveMany still lifes by Bilokur today are compared to the French ones, and the dark background is associated with the Dutch painting of the Old Masters. Meanwhile, Kateryna Bilokur never learned to paint professionally, but she called nature her teacher. For the first time, the artist visited the museums of Kyiv and Moscow after her personal exhibitions. Art critics call the artist a genius, a talent from God.
After the World War II, Bilokur’s paintings were regularly acquired by the Kyiv Museum of Folk Decorative Arts. Today, most of the works of the folk artist are kept in this museum and in the Yahotyn art gallery, there are almost no her paintings in private collections. In total, during her life, Kateryna created about a hundred works.
7. Picasso the AdmirerAfter the World War II, Kateryna gained worldwide recognition. Three paintings by Bilokur, King Spike, Birch and Kolkhoz Field took part in an international exhibition in Paris in 1954.
Seeing them, Picasso asked about who painted them, and when he was told that these were the works of a simple peasant woman, he said: "If we had an artist of this level of skill, we would make the whole world talk about her."
Apparently, not only Picasso was amazed by the paintings of Bilokur, because after the exhibition, during the transportation to the USSR, the paintings were stolen. And they have not yet been found.
8. LonelinessKateryna didn’t succeed in her personal life. She was an attractive girl and she had enough suitors in her native village, but none of them understood her passion for painting. The grooms were surprised and demanded to leave her creative dreams, saying "How it could be? Will my wife be a dauber?!" And Kateryna was in no hurry to get married. Already in her adulthood, she felt loneliness, she really wanted to share her joys and sorrows with a loved one, but they did not understand her in the village. She left her thoughts and feelings in her letters to Kyiv art critics, with whom she corresponded, and in her autobiography. All her lines are imbued with lyricism and sincere credulity.
9. The People’s ArtistDespite the fact that Bilokur’s paintings were bought by museums, her exhibitions were constantly held, Kateryna was awarded the title of People’s Artist and a large pension was assigned, she did not bathe in the rays of glory. The artist still lived in her parents' old house, besides, she took care of her ill mother, and she herself was already sick with cancer. Until the last day, she painted her favourite flowers with homemade paints and brushes, because the artist’s soul was still spring.
10. Estate museum of K. BilokurIn Bohdanivka, where the artist was born and spent her entire life, a memorial museum has been opened. Near the house, there is a monument to K. Bilokur by her nephew Ivan Bilokur. The house contains her personal belongings, the artist’s documents, some paintings, and the last work, which Kateryna did not have time to finish, stands on an easel — dahlias on a blue background.
Flowers grow around the Bilokur’s house, as in her lifetime. Kateryna wrote about them so enthusiastically and so sincerely in one of her letters: "How can I not paint them when they are so beautiful? Oh my God, I look around, and I see a beautiful one, and another is even better, and that one is even more wonderful! And they seem as if bow to me and say: ‘Who will paint us when you leave us?' Then I forget everything in the world and paint flowers again."