Ukrainian refugees in Philly step into the light to have their portraits painted

In February 2022, Slava Levytskyi sent his two children away from Odessa, Ukraine, over concerns that the Russian troops that had been maneuvering nearby would ultimately invade. His fears proved correct.

His daughter Julie, 18, and son Slava Jr., 22, fled with few possessions and arrived in Bucks County. The parents arrived shortly after the invasion began.

Over the last 18 months, the family has been living in Southampton, Pa., trying to fit in. Julie, who missed out on going to prom with her friends in Ukraine, said it’s hard to make new friends here.

“People are so different,” she said. “I do not understand American people at all.”

Slava Levytskyi Sr., with his portrait. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Julie spoke in a video interview recorded last May at Studio Incamminati, a fine art school in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia, which trains artists in classic figurative portraiture. In May and June, the school invited five Ukrainian families displaced by the war to the school, to have their portraits painted.

For two days, the Ukrainians came to the seventh floor of the Bok Building to sit for hours at a time (with breaks every 20 minutes) in a series of studios as 40 artists went to work. The resulting portraits — 65 in all — are hung in Studio Incamminati’s long hallway, available for purchase. The Ukrainian families will receive all money from sales.

Called “What We Face,” the portrait project started with Michael Ballezzi, a fourth-year student at Studio Incamminati, and his cousin Meg Burke, who works as a family refugee liaison in Bucks County. Burke learned of five families being supported by the Davisville Church in Southampton, and wanted to raise money for housing, education, and medical costs.

The Levytskyi family, Slava, Sr., Slava, Jr., and Julie, at Studio Incamminati for the opening of “What We Face” portrait exhibition. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

She also wanted to help the Ukrainians acclimate to their new home.

“Michael and I were shocked at how this spread,” Burke said. “We thought we’d get five artists and five families. We had almost 50 different people here. Even people that weren’t being painted came just to watch and be a part of it. It was a collaboration of art that really helped people be seen and heard and tell their stories.”

  • August 31, 2023
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