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Edmonton artist Zhelisko reclaims women's portraits

Ukrainian-Canadian painter showcases the power, intensity and sensuality of women in art

Oksana Zhelisko, one of Edmonton’s strongest contemporary artists of the feminine portrait, puts women first. 

Unlike Picasso’s paintings of women who look like paper cutouts or Paul Reuben’s insipid fleshy females, Zhelisko paints her subjects in a 21st-century impressionistic style that is both self-contained and strong, vulnerable and sensual. 

The classically trained visual artist creates beautiful feminine portraits that differ in emotions, moods and atmosphere. Passion, love, curiosity, exhaustion, sadness and elegance are all highlighted. Each painting engages on a meaningful level. 

In addition, the composition and the way light plays on the face and body add a mysterious quality to the canvas, while the subjects' eyes act like magnets to draw the viewer further into the painting. 

VASA is currently featuring this stunning 20-piece showcase titled State of Mind that runs until March 30. 

Born in Ukraine, Zhelsiko attended the Ivan Trush Lviv State College of Decorative Art. Trush was Ukraine’s most dynamic impressionistic artist, whose creative output numbered more than 6,000 works. 

“I don’t think I made a choice to be an artist. The choice was given to me from above. I was always painting and drawing non-stop,” said Zhelisko, who gleans much of her inspiration from nature. 

Upon graduating after six years of art school, the professional visual artist moved to Canada with her then fiancé. Prohibited from working for the first six months after landing in Canada, she painted portraits and fell in love with figurative art. 

“For the past nine years, I’ve become more aware of who I am as an artist and mother. Art has opened me up to new possibilities. I am a human being who loves to paint and this is how I communicate with the world,” Zhelisko said. “All my art is about a feeling, an emotion, a moment or a story.” 

The dreamy Soul Echo is of a woman sitting and clutching her knees. Behind her are drooping sunflower plants. But the golden rays of the sun warm the gloomy vibe with hope. 

The painting was undertaken shortly after the Ukraine-Russia war started two years ago. Zhelisko, normally a fast painter, felt mentally sluggish because of concern for family and friends in the war-torn country. 

“What I wanted to portray was freezing the moment. The sunflowers are not open. They’re not happy. The bird is not singing. The painting is about finding peace.”  

Another work, Exhale, depicts a woman who has collapsed on a sofa chair from exhaustion. 

“It was the exhaustion of COVID and what was going on. Nobody could go anywhere and the number of commissions I received kept me busy. But you had no control over the emotional exhaustion.” 

Meticulous Mind, completed one month ago, is of a woman who stops to appreciate certain moments of time. And First Date shows a woman wearing a sexy off-the-shoulder top prepping for a date. She appears to be fixing her lipstick while taking one last glance in a mirror. 

Melancholy is an older piece that marks her divorce. A woman stands dripping in the rain while the paintings’ colours run into one another. 

Zhelisko explores Black identity in Quiet Contemplation, a portrait of an African woman with closely cropped hair and hoop earrings. 

“It’s about women’s strength and how women of colour face so much pressure and struggles.” 

Momentum is a tableaux inspired by an autumn walk at Mill Creek Ravine. It exudes a magical quality as a young woman walks through the natural forest in the middle of swirling snowflakes and golden leaves. 

VASA hosts an artist’s reception on Saturday, March 9 from 1 pm. to 4 p.m. The gallery is on 25 Sir Winston Chruchill Avenue. 

Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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