How Ukrainian-Canadian artists are lending their talents to help the people of Ukraine

From NFTs to benefit shows, Ukrainian-Canadian artists are coming together to bring aid to their ancestral homeland.

From NFTs to benefit shows, artists are coming together to bring aid to their ancestral homeland

Photographic artist Edward Burtynsky is just one of the Ukrainian-Canadian artists lending their skills to raise awareness and funds for the crisis in Ukraine. (Paul Smith/CBC)

For the award-winning Toronto-based photographic artist Edward Burtynsky, being concerned about events in Ukraine isn't anything new. After his parents came to Canada after the Second World War, Burtynsky's mother became the president of the local Women's League for the Freeing of Ukraine in his hometown of St. Catharines, Ont. and remained in that position for almost 20 years. 

When Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, it was his 97-year-old mother's lifelong commitment to her homeland that prompted Burtynsky to think about what he could do to help.

"I was speaking to her... and I said, 'Hey, mom, I've been thinking about doing something to raise some money for Ukraine,'" he tells CBC Arts. "'You were such an ardent supporter and you've worked so hard, you know, doing bake sales and pierogies and cabbage rolls and sending all the money back to Ukraine. I'm going to try and do something on the weekend.'"

The result was a special edition run of two of his prints — 15 of each, selling them for $10,000 apiece — with the money going to the Red Cross humanitarian fund for Ukraine. Burtynsky chose the Red Cross in part because the federal government was matching donations for Ukraine.

He put the prints up on social media on Feb. 27, expecting it to take a week or two for him to sell them all. Instead, they were gone in 14 hours. Between the sale and the government matching funds, plus donations from people who missed the prints but decided to give anyway, he raised roughly $700,000.  

"I don't think many people thought that this was actually going to happen," he says. "It's almost surreal. I think that's part of the success [of the fundraiser]. People wanted to do something. And in exchange, they also get a piece of mine."

While perhaps Canada's best-known Ukrainian-Canadian artist, Burtynsky is just one of many who are lending their talents to raise funds to fight both the ongoing humanitarian crisis and military invasion of their ancestral homeland. 

Mark Marczyk is the violinist and vocalist for Toronto-based "guerilla-punk-Balkan-folk-brass band" The Lemon Bucket Orkestra. In 2014, Marczyk went to Ukraine to act as a medic during the Maidan Revolution, which saw the eventual ouster of the pro-Russian then-President Viktor Yanukovich. That was also where Marczyk met his wife, Marichka, a fellow musician who is now part of The Lemon Bucket Orkestra.

Marczyk says that he and his friends in Ukraine saw this coming for some time. He's been raising money for Ukrainian causes over the last eight years. Even their wedding was a Ukraine fundraiser.

"For the last eight years, we've been screaming at the top of our lungs like, 'Hey, guys, this has to stop now because this is going to lead to World War Three,'" says Marczyk. "When Crimea was taken, and then Donetsk was taken, and then all this informational warfare that led to Brexit and Trump being elected, [it] was all happening through Putin. And everyone was like, 'Oh, that's just conspiracy theory. Nobody cares about Ukraine, right?' Right. So now we're here."

Not surprisingly, Marczyk has multiple Ukraine-related projects on the go right now. He's releasing a video and song about the crisis he hopes will "bring us together and give us the strength to carry on," while also giving people information on how they can help.

He is also working on an NFT project. An NFT, or non-fungible token, is a piece of digital art whose authenticity is verified via blockchain. Some NFT projects have raised millions of dollars. 

"The idea is that we would do a generative series that would be 10,000 avatars [based on] Ukrainian folklore, similar to the CryptoPunks idea, but that one hundred percent of the proceeds would go either to the army or the Red Cross or a combination of both."

As well, Marczyk helped the With Ukraine benefit concert find a venue. The show — which was organized by members of various Toronto-based Eastern European folk bands, including Polky and Korinya Ukrainian Folk Band — will take place at the Opera House in Toronto on March 11. 

He and Marichka's other band, Balaklava Blues, are currently in the U.K. They're helping the Belarus Free Theatre, a group of Belarussian artists-in-exile, score their play The Dogs of Europe, which is based on a Belarussian sci-fi novel of the same name. The play will premiere on March 10 at London's Barbican Theatre. It's a play which he says is eerily prescient.

"The adaptation was made two years ago, and it's almost like a line-for-line what's happening currently right now," he says.

According to Oleh Lesiuk, president of the The Ukrainian Association Of Visual Artists Of Canada, Russia's invasion of Ukraine hasn't just prompted a response from Ukrainian-Canadian artists, but from artists from many communities. His organization is planning a benefit exhibition at their gallery in Toronto on March 13, and he says the response has been incredible. 

"I have many friends in different communities — Turkish artists, Polish artists, Italian, Chinese, many, many other artists — and they are all willing to donate the artwork for this cause," he says.

Edmonton-based artist and illustrator Nancy Nickolson is another artist who is fundraising for Ukraine. She conceived of her "How to Perogy" illustrated recipe guide over two years ago, as a way to both do more food illustration and connect with her Ukrainian heritage. 

"It's sort of a way of nodding to my past, my family," she says. "My great-grandmother came from Ukraine in the early 1900s and settled near [the central Alberta village of] Andrew."

She finally finished the project at the end of last year, and was thinking about how to promote it at the same time as she was watching tensions rise in Ukraine. She decided to turn "How to Perogy" into a fundraiser to help the Red Cross humanitarian effort there.

"I kind of felt a little bit powerless, just kind of watching everything," she says. "So this is me making art to fight a war, I guess?"

Nickolson says that it's "easy to feel small" when faced with events of this magnitude, but the lending her art to a wider cause helps fight that feeling of being overwhelmed.

"I believe art can make this world a better place," she says. "So, yeah, for the first time in a long time, I feel like this is something I can help with."

Correction: this article initially said Mark Marczyk organized the benefit concert happening at the Opera House on March 11. The concert is being organized by a group of Toronto-based artists and musicians lead by Ala Stasiuk and Ewelina Ferenc. Marczyk helped them find a venue. We regret the error.


Chris Dart

Web Writer

Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he's had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now