by Blaire Grady & Kayla Sosa
edited by Kayla Sosa
In the city of Kyiv lives a remarkably resolute and equally resilient Ukrainian artist named Iryna “Ira” Komashchuk. Before the invasion — an event dubbed 24 — her art captured the vibrancy of life that had for many years surrounded her. Works from this time vividly depict the everyday joys she observed, mostly in leisure and nature. But war has a way of reshaping one’s perspective. Iryna’s artistic journey took a turn she had not anticipated as a newlywed, not long out of university.
As conflict escalated, she found it difficult to ignore geopolitical reality, one that became a new normal to most Ukrainians. Hours upon days of air raid alerts, electricity shortages, food insecurity, and the rule of two walls helped fuel an inevitable shift in her art.
While less interested in painting large canvases of traditional subject matter, her sketchbook became a tool which serves as a poignant expression to the harsh lessons of war. Progressively, she turned to quick-and-dirty sketches, snaring the haunting essence of new surroundings. Among all of her works, her distinctive style provides a solid cohesion throughout, giving us a full spectrum of emotion.
There is something in how she has managed form and color within each piece that deepens the subject’s context and empowers the core of her message. It’s what can make observing all of her work , before and after 24, an emotional experience. That is, to see the stark contrast in messaging. Komashchuk’s work is a profound commentary on the impact of sudden conflict and how it curves creative expression.
The once vibrant pops of color from delicate and airy forms are abruptly followed by a heavier, however richer, however drastically more vulnerable abstract expression. It’s easy to assume that Iryna’s sketches are likely a form of despair hiding beneath her smile in photos. But what is truly remarkable about her transformation as an artist and illustrator is her own unwavering spirit.
Throughout a series of emails spanning a seven-month period in 2022 and ‘23, she reminds us that Ukrainians are not simply statistical casualties. Civilians who remain in Ukraine continue daily life as naturally as possible, partly for the country’s economy, but also to state through action that the Ukrainian identity will not be muted by fear. Iryna demonstrated this ideal by responding to our request for press permissions (specifically the use of her full name) with, “I am not anonymous.” As one can see from the below, Komashchuk’s responses are the rare combination of humility and courage.
Ira’s perception reminds us that even in the face of terror, there is still beauty to be found and hope to be nurtured. Simultaneously, she stands her ground when necessary, believing in what she contributes for the sake of her own peace through the exercise of self expression.
Iryna’s embodiment of strength and positivity are a testament to the transformative power of resilience. It’s something that leaves an indelible mark on those who connect with her as an individual as well as through her art.
I am Ira from Kyiv.
I am 25 years old.
I am an artist and illustrator.
I graduated from the Academy of Arts two years ago (2021).
I have been married for 3 years.
September 2022, Iryna wrote:
I dream of peace. We believe in our army, and we are so grateful for help from all around the world. It’s so important to us.
October ‘22, Iryna wrote:
Monday was a terrible day, but I never ceased to be amazed by the brave people around me. There was an air alarm almost all day, the sounds of explosions and shaking of buildings. Electricity and mobile communication were absent, but no one panicked.
We did not start this war, but we have to end it.
We have good news from the front, and our army liberates our villages daily. But [the enemy] also need “good news.” Their army cannot do anything successful at the front, so the only thing they can do is terrorize unarmed people. But we are not afraid of them; the truth is on our side.
We have daily electricity outages due to network damage. They are pretty sudden [12 hours without electricity daily, but sometimes more]… I don’t complain; I remember about the guys at the front; they don’t have it easier than me. I am sure that the electricians will repair everything soon.
November ‘22, Iryna wrote:
The streets are without electricity and cold dinners with candles. It’s an interesting experience, but not the most comfortable.
This is the street where I live. There has been no electricity for three days. The light in the photo is from a car.
I am working on new illustrations for the Stevenson horror stories. So I continue the horror mood in the dark time. Really dark 🙂
I saw the news about Banksy, very cool. I haven’t visited this place yet, because it hurts to look at the massive destruction, but maybe I will go later.
March ’23, Strangers & Karma wrote:
Describe the work you did pre-wartime and what you’re creating now… with a little commentary on what the works represent and what inspires you.
Maybe I am not a master of writing, visual art is my area. But I will try to describe a mutation of my art. Because my art changed a lot after the war began. Previously I liked drawing the life around me.
But last spring everything changed. The course of my thoughts and my art is always best shown by my sketchbooks because this is a quick way to exhibit the way of my thoughts.
Some of my favorite artworks are from different times. My artworks and sketches before 24 and after. In the life of each Ukrainian 24 is a noun. 24 it’s a new time mark. Most often no 24 February, just 24.
This was my last piece produced before the war began. Everyone was speaking about war, but I didn’t believe. Sketchbook, Iryna Komashchuk, at the cusp of 24
The constant waves of bad news weigh heavily on me, and I try to drown them out with art. I don’t often talk about my experience during these times because it feels mundane. Plus, it’s quite difficult to describe it in words. Words seem to oversimplify everything. Illustration, Iryna Komashchuk, Hello, I’m Doing Fine (2023 exhibit)
These feelings are impossible to convey in words. Even as I write this letter, I feel how banal it all sounds. I’m sorry if that’s the case. Sketchbook, Iryna Komashchuk
Overall, things are going well in some ways. There hasn’t been a power outage for several weeks, which is incredibly convenient in my fully electrified apartment. But that’s just everyday convenience. Illustration, Iryna Komashchuk, Hello, I’m Doing Fine (2023 exhibit)
More and more thoughts and discussions with loved ones about the future. How long will the war last? How long will the military hold out? Sketchbook, Iryna Komashchuk
How much more can we withstand? Will there be jobs in the future? Sketchbook, Iryna Komashchuk
Illustration, Iryna Komashchuk,
Hello, I’m Doing Fine (exhibit)
My programmer friend lost his job due to downsizing and can’t find work because no one wants to hire a Ukrainian due to “too much risk”. Everyone prefers those who have moved abroad. Sketchbook, Iryna Komashchuk
But according to law, men aged 18 to 60 do not have the right to leave the country. That’s why my husband and I are here. There are more and more thoughts, but they don’t bring me much comfort. Sketchbook, Iryna Komashchuk
But don’t worry, these are just fleeting moments of weakness. When the spring sun shines brightly, it’s hard to believe in anything negative. Sometimes just being able to talk about things is helpful. Sketchbook, Iryna Komashchuk
April ‘23, Iryna wrote:
There is no bomb shelter near my house. So we stick to the 2 wall rule. We sit in our closet between 2 walls with no windows. Sometimes we sleep there. It’s the safest place in our apartment.
My husband doesn’t like to photograph me when things are bad. Almost all the photos we have at this time are photos where we smile. I think it’s something about protecting our psyche, or a defensive reaction. We don’t want to remember. And when we take pictures of each other during bombings or other problems, a strange smile immediately appears, as if it’s all a joke and we’re having fun, not scared. You have to understand that these are just difficult mental states, not happiness. It’s more about despair.
There was an explosion near my home followed by three days without electricity. Photo, Iryna Komashchuk
A separate explosion seen from Iryna’s apartment window, one year later. Photo, Iryna Komashchuk
We are all very grateful for such incredible support. Thank you to you and everyone for this! I understand your fear. I don’t wish for anyone to go through what’s happening to us. I believe that you will be okay. It’s better to enjoy this life and not dwell on the disagreements that may trouble us.
It’s my dream. If you have a chance for a good life, enjoy it for us.
Don’t worry so much about me. In Kyiv, we feel safe and we are doing our best to continue living a normal life. I understand that some people may perceive this as indifference, but it’s really not. We go to our favorite restaurant to support them, we drink our favorite coffee so that the people who sell it have a job so that everything keeps working. It’s essential that people can keep their jobs.
We enjoy music or books.
I understand that there are people abroad who may not understand this and may want me to cry at night and make cartridges during the day, but that’s not my life. We donate money for all possible needs of the army and volunteers. But my life continues…
That doesn’t mean that my friends or relatives are not at war and that I am enjoying life while someone is dying. It’s more complicated than that.
I feel guilty, of course.
People’s lives here are very different. It’s very dangerous near the borders. But Kyiv is almost a peaceful city, thanks to our troops and your help.
I understand if I’ve expressed too many different thoughts or if they don’t hold together. This experience provides too many prompts for thoughts and sometimes it’s difficult to rein in this whirlwind. Illustration, Iryna Komashchuk, Hello, I’m Doing Fine (exhib.)
Getting to know Iryna and learn her story has been a tremendous privilege, an unforgettable experience for our editor, Kayla Sosa, and myself. Thank you, Iryna.
For more art by Iryna Komashchuk, please check out her illustrations in the story The Death of Unkindness by Welsh author Gruffudd Watts.
Iryna Komashchuk is an artist based in Kyiv, Ukraine and graduate of the National Academy of Visual Arts and Architecture. Visit her portfolio for more info and commissions.
Blaire Grady has hardcore Imposter Syndrome. She’s just happy to present unique content and work with literary and visual artists. A dream come true for her. For inquiries, please email.