On A Mission, Couple Works To Save Sacred Ukrainian Ritual Cloths

FRANKLIN, N.J. (AP) — After an unfortunate altercation with a pothole in Central Ukraine, Yuri Mischenko and Natalie Pawlenko stopped at a local car repair shop. There the husband and wife noticed young boys using scraps of cloths dotted with red and white embroidery to clean cars in a car wash. The two couldn’t believe their eyes — the boys were using remnants of rushnyky — sacred ritual cloths — as rags.

“We were shocked,” said Pawlenko, who was born and raised in the Garden State. “We have been brought up to revere them as sacred and treat them with respect. We stood there with our mouths open and looked at each other and said ‘This is a tragedy.'”

Though taken aback by the incident, it spawned a mission — and a passion — for the two — to find, save and preserve as many rushnyky as they possibly can. In the last decade, Pawlenko and Mischenko have collected more than 200 rushnyky, many of which can be seen at The Ukrainian History and Education Center (UHEC) through Aug. 31.

“We could see what was happening,” she said. “There was this lack of knowledge. In contemporary Ukraine, perhaps they weren’t being taught — perhaps the traditions had been lost, so we set off to preserve as many as we could. On that trip, we started asking people what they were doing with their rushnyky.”

If they were not interested in them, Pawlenko and Mischenko were — they promised to take care of them — keep them safe from decay, mold, moths and the like.

Curated by Pawlenko and Mischenko, the exhibit titled “Rushnyky: Ritual Cloths of the Cossack Lands of Ukraine” opened on March 3 and features more than 100 of the hand-crafted rushnyky, most bearing traditional threads of red and white. The red stood for blood and the white for life, said Mischenko, who was born in Kyiv. With the passage of time, other colors such as black, blue and gold were added to the cloths. There are intricate designs of flowers, plants, birds, trees as well as more graphic repeating patterns. Some have a lace style.

The symbols, designs and motifs have all been woven into Orthodox Christian religion, transforming some of the ancient images into those with religious meanings, Mischenko said.

“It is very interesting that Orthodox Christianity is very respectful toward this ancient tradition,” he said. “The Ukrainian Orthodox church was very diplomatic and very sensitive in incorporating this tradition into church rituals and traditions, adopting them. And the rushnyk makers responded to that.”

Rushnyk are hard to preserve, said Pawlenko, but early examples can be seen in Ukrainian museums that hail back to the 17th century. Mischenko added that ancient samples of cloths with embroidery that had similar geometric patterns as rushnyky were found in a Scythian burial mound in the Ukraine. According to Pawlenko and Mischenko, the rushnyky on display were made during the peak of their popularity in Ukraine from the end of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century. Though made for ritual purposes since pre-Christianity times, the rushnyky are pieces of artwork, worthy of display with each one taking hours upon hours to create.

“The amount of time that it takes to make a single one — all of the cloth is hand-loomed. That in and of itself takes a long time. Then to embroider is hundreds of hours of women sitting in candlelight, gaslight – many of these are pre-electric light bulb time,” she said. “That alone makes these pieces of art. These are master designers who really never got the acknowledgement they deserve. The rushnyky have never been displayed in this manner before outside of Ukraine and most of these rushnyky are being exhibited for the first time in the United States.”

Brick residents Mischenko and Pawlenko, both members of the UHEC Board of Trustees for many years, have traveled extensively throughout their ancestral homeland of Central Ukraine, and became fascinated with the beauty of the land and its folk art. During these trips they made extensive contacts with Ukrainian folk artists and collectors, as they gathered the traditional hand-made embroidered and woven rushnyky.