'Sweet Jesus' art exhibit inspired by Edmonton artist's Catholic roots

The son of a parish priest, Borys Tarasenko has drawn plenty of inspiration from the Bible. But he's far from a typical believer.

The stories of Jesus like you've never seen them before

Borys Tarasenko is the Edmonton artist behind a new exhibit at the Bleeding Heart Art Space. (Dave von Beiker)

The son of a parish priest, Borys Tarasenko has drawn plenty of inspiration from the Bible.

But he's far from a typical believer.

Tarasenko is the Edmonton artist behind the Sweet Jesus exhibit at the Bleeding Heart Art Space on 118th Avenue.

His handmade drawings, outlined in rudimentary black paint, depict a series of strangely reimagined Bible stories.

In one, an apron-clad Jesus is shown barbecuing, extending his holy hand to offer his disciples a slice of grilled hot dog. A rotund bear in priestly robes stands with jaws agape waiting for the grilled godly offering.

Further down the paint-scrawled walls, the Prince of Peace helps heal a crusader who has been stabbed in battle. 
Tarasenko says his work was inspired by the iconography of the Ukrainian Catholic church. (Dave von Beiker)
 The exhibit includes an open invitation to colour its walls, even supplying the felt pens.

Much like the pages of a colouring book, what was once stark in black and white has gone technicolour, and the already bizarre images have become even more outlandish.

"It's crazy. It's bonkers," Tarasenko said an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active. "People have been adding things I couldn't have imagined. Speech bubbles, fish, what looks like a hot air balloon, wings on characters. Such a different way than I expected. Every time I come in it's like opening a present.

"I wanted people to be able to add themselves to the work."

Tarasenko, 27, grew up surrounded by religion and the images of Ukrainian iconography. But as he got older,  his dogma changed, and departed from Catholicism.

Now he doesn't believe in any higher power. But religion is still a big part of his life, and he faithfully attends St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church in Edmonton at least once a week.

"As this was happening I came to enjoy going to church more because I could appreciate it for what it was," he said. "And I really loved going, because it was just culturally beautiful. So much a part of me growing up that I loved going back there."

That continued affection for the church, its art and legends served as inspiration for his paintings. But for a time, Tarasenko had been keeping the exhibit a secret from his devout parents. 

It took some time to make converts out of his mother and father, but he finally worked up the courage to share his controversial art. 

"It went better than I ever could have imagined," he recalled. "That being said, it wasn't all sunshine and lollipops either.

Father worried 'it's sacrilegious'

While his parents like some of the exhibits, "there was definitely some of my work that needed explaining," Tarasenko said. "My dad would put his arm around my shoulder and say, 'You should explain this because it's sacrilegious.' "

But for Anton Tarasenko, Borys' father, it will take more than a few paintings of Jesus at the grill to shake the faith he has in his son.

"Somehow I don't agree with how it's presented," the father said. "But when he explained to me what he was meaning with that, for me it's like, a parent, it's satisfaction.

"It makes me happy that he did that, that he's trying to express himself. He's a good kid. He always was a good kid. He is willing to learn, to listen and he respects what I told him."

The final day for the exhibit is Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Bleeding Heart Art Space at 9132 118th Ave.
Once black and white, the artist's images have gone technicolor as visitors to the gallery make their own additions to the work. (Dave von Beiker)