Interview with Olya Lyubchenko by Katja Schmidt–Mai
In March 2022, UNICEF reported that about 4.3 million children were displaced by the war in Ukraine: more than half of Ukraine’s 7.5 million children. 1.8 million of the children have fled to neighbouring countries, 2.5 million children are fleeing within the country (https://www.unicef.de/informieren/aktuelles/presse/2022/ukraine-mehr-als-die-haelfte-der-ukrainischen-kinder-vertrieben/264610. Access 17/08/2022).
Children have faced threatening and uncontrollable events, which can fill them with fear, powerlessness, and helplessness. Such traumatic experiences can greatly impair the further development of a child. Whether a child will be able to cope with traumatic experiences depends on the conditions of his or her surroundings. The opportunity to dedicate oneself to art and painting projects in a safe environment is of decisive importance here. Olya Lyubchenko has launched an artistic initiative that starts right at this point and gives children who have fled Ukraine with their families an opportunity to come to terms with what they have experienced. Children can thus gain distance from what they have experienced by painting or drawing and begin to cope with their experiences and memories through the creative process of creating art, based on their own perception, imagination, and intuition without fulfilling a specific purpose.
Katja Schmidt-Mai: How did this initiative come about?
Olya Lyubchenko: When the war started, like many Russians I felt devastated. In Berlin within a very short time thousands of people of all nationalities started to organize themselves to volunteer. Many still do.
The most obvious places were points of arrival like stations and bus terminals. I went there a few times, but no people were needed. The demand was during the nighttime but having two small kids it wasn’t possible for me. When I was at the stations, I saw the areas set up for kids to hang out while waiting for their next trains or for parents figuring their future steps. Seeing little kids sitting there drawing or looking at books among the chaos and hectic around them left a very strong impression on me. It was like a tiny island, there was something that for a second was letting them to be distracted, an activity just like something kids in a normal situation would do.
Shortly after, on one of the Telegram channels that I joined used by Ukrainians in Berlin, I saw a post that someone was offering free online drawing and painting lessons for Ukrainians of all ages. I contacted the person and so I met Dasha, a young artist and art educator from Odessa who just arrived In Berlin. I asked if she could imagine giving life lessons to kids “offline” and she was immediately up for it.
The next step was to find a space for it which also turned out very easy. There is a traffic school, where I go sometimes with my kid so they can bike around, with a building that isn’t used in afternoons which they agreed to let us use for free for a few hours. I used Telegram to make an announcement and within a few minutes 10 parents signed their kids for the first lesson. The feedback was very good, so we continued and for the next time offered two lessons. Since then, we have up to 50 kids at our weekly events, 35 on average.
Shortly after Julia, a Russian illustrator, graphic designer and a political artist, joined our initiative. She came up with the logo and together with Dasha gave it a distinctive look to our branding. Currently we have about 8 volunteers offering various classes and activities. A few more people come to help us with the organizational part.
Katja Schmidt-Mai: Who is supporting this much-needed project?
Olya Lyubchenko: We received a very generous donations from the University of Hamburg, Deutsche Stiftung für Engagement und Ehrenamt, and a little bit of money from a few friends. We have also been chosen by Start Social e.V. to receive a stipend in the form of consultancy for future development.
Katja Schmidt-Mai: How did you come up with the name for this project?
Olya Lyubchenko: When we realized that we are going to continue offering classes and other activities for a while we realized we need a name that people can use referring to us. I only know a few Ukrainian words, one of them from my Jewish grandmother who was born and grew up in the Ukraine: Mistechko – a little village. I suggested it to the girls and they liked the idea: A little village, a safe familiar place where people know and trust each other, where kids learn, play and run around, a little island of normality.
Katja Schmidt-Mai: How important is unrestricted creativity and spontaneity for children?
Olya Lyubchenko: Being creative is natural and vital for kids, but creativity needs to be nurtured either by the environment or other people. Being able to be creative in a safe environment is very important for the sense of normality. Being able to provide that to their kids gives their mothers at least a tiny bit a sense of control.
Katja Schmidt-Mai: How relevant is it for the children that there is a free and especially value-free space in which they can be creative and draw or paint?
Olya Lyubchenko: Playing, being creative, learning and socialising are the most natural things for kids to do. Being torn out of a usual environment is scary and traumatic. Being in a safe place where they can do both, create and socialize, makes their lives feel a bit more normal, and we provide a framework for it.
Our format of a free event is not restricted to a one-hour lesson, there is time for everything. Often kids can even choose which of a few lessons that are offered on that particular day they would like to take. There are different themes, (e.g. masks, houses, birds) and techniques that they can choose from. And a break with fruit and snacks is always very appreciated. For the kids who want to show what they’ve done, we make a little exhibition, and they always can take home their creations. Although all our lessons and workshops are run by professionals, there is no pressure on kids to achieve something. It’s the process of creation and letting things out that is particularly important for these kids right now.
Getting together with other kids who are going through the same experiences is very important too. For some kids it was the first opportunity to meet other kids. Now that many kids have started schools, they are struggling with lack of German knowledge and feel very isolated. When they come to us they are meeting other kids who speak Ukrainian or Russian, they also understand what the topic of the lesson or the workshop is. And again, this is something that gives them a sense of normality.
Katja Schmidt-Mai: What does this opportunity mean for the parents?
Olya Lyubchenko: Because all activities at Mistechko are free and open to everyone, the parents, 99% of whom are women, don’t need to worry whether they are able to afford it. They also don’t need to bring anything as we provide art supplies and refreshments. Many still live in temporary accommodations and don’t have much money or possessions. But most importantly, mothers feel that they can do something for their kids, something that is fun and makes their kids smile. It gives parents a little bit more sense of control in their current situation.
We’ve had amazing feedback: Parents told us that it was the first time in weeks that they saw their child smiling or happy or that they are so glad their child can attend creative classes. Also, parents share their worries with us and we ‘ve been asked if we could offer more support, like in German or child psychology. We already have a child psychologist helping us, and we are in the process of figuring out other things we can offer. Also, apart from tea and biscuits for moms we offer a range of activities like psychological support and therapeutic writing, German and yoga and pilates. And for some it is a unique opportunity to have even just a little bit of time for themselves while kids are occupied.
Katja Schmidt-Mai: Does visual art help the children to process what they have experienced? What is your personal impression?
Olya Lyubchenko: One time we offered a subject “bird” for our painting class and we had kids drawing birds carrying rockets or riding tanks. But we also had doves carrying “peace” signs. I’m convinced that arts, like drawing, painting, collages and also improve theater that we offer to teenagers, help them to process the traumatic experiences and to express emotions that kids might not be able to do using words: fear, hope, sadness, loss.
Mistechko and Creative Freedom – Reflections on an interview with Olya Lyubchenko
By Katja Schmidt-Mai
The possibility to do art is protected by the German Grundgesetz (Artikel 5, Absatz 3 Grundgesetz). Art is seen as a result done by a human being. Artists are people who make art, whether they are adults or children. In addition, the UN Convention states on the Rights of the Child in Article 31, that every child has the right to participate in cultural and artistic life. The State must promote children’s opportunities for cultural, artistic activity, recreational and leisure activity (https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/convention-rights-child). On top of the necessity for fostering a broad knowledge about art and culture in children, children need to be encouraged to create art themselves. The official statement of the German Bundestag’s Children’s Commission (Kinderkommission KIKO) which was founded in 1998, refers to these rights of children and calls for the introduction of artistic and cultural activities for all children and young people, regardless of their social and cultural background, thereby enabling individual development and participation in society.
The systematic exploration of human creativity began in the U.S. around the 1950s. Before that being creative and active or having a creative talent were primarily assigned as attributes to artists. The American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford (1897–1987) is remembered for his psychometric studies of human intelligence and creativity. Already in the 1950s he pointed out that creativity dwells in every human being. The socio-economic trigger for systematic creativity research was probably the so-called “Sputnik shock” and the associated scientific race between East and West during the Cold War. In 1957 the Soviet Union’s launched its first satellite into Earth orbit; an event that led to a series of investments in American universities to promote research into artificial intelligence and educational programs in order to encourage creativity in the science sector. Guilford was commissioned by NASA to explore the potential of human creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). The beginning of creativity research was therefore more politically and economically motivated than socially or educationally. Creativity research is still based on Guilford’s approach to value creativity as an innovative problem-solving competence.
In a pedagogical context, art is seen as a necessary human experience in particular in regard to children or young people. By engaging in an art project whatever form internalized feelings and thoughts might surface through the creative process. Art as a subject not only found its way into school curricula, but it also plays an important role in educational institutions for children and young people. Expressing themselves through a creative process will allow children to evaluate their experience at their own pace. Hence it is well document and known that art therapies have a positive effect on the individual. The Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and founder of analytical psychology C. G. Jung (1875-1961) initiated the use of creative remedies in psychotherapy. He encouraged his patients to paint, draw or even dance. Jung saw the design process as profoundly psychologically sound therapeutic technique that would make unconscious content of the mind capable of being conscious and therefore ready to concretely editable by therapy. The positive effect of art mainly unfolds in protected spaces, where the quality of art works is not subject to judgement or prejudice, nor is it influenced by financial impact on personal existence, but rather respected for the individual act of creation. In this way, artistic design can become a resource for every person’s spiritual and social development, which strengthens and helps them to reflect, manage and shape their own lives in times of crises.
Creativity in the field of psychotherapy is seen as a resource for psychological change therefore a variety of art therapies began to surface. The importance of creativity in psychodrama was recognized by Jakob Levy Moreno (1889-1974). Moreno’s approach to the development of human beings and children is based on the capacity of individual self-organization.
Moreno believed, based on psychotherapy, that the capacity of self-organization is developed by supporting creativity and spontaneity which are interconnected individual resources (Moreno, 1991). Using and expanding those resources helps to create a stable mind and person. This potential can be further developed if the child receives stimulation in his environment, interacts with other individuals in a variety of ways, is flexible in dealing with the demands of the outside world and develops orders and structures of perceptions and experiences in a self-determined and self-organized way (Moreno, 1991). In Moreno’s view, this has led to stable structures, which contain the positive aspects of security and orientation, continuity, and stabilization. However, given that life harbors constant processes of change that can cause destabilizing of existing structures and might enforce the organization of new structures and orders, creativity is seen as a constructive way of dealing with these processes of change.
In order to cope with processes of change children need, according to Moreno, spontaneity, which stimulates actions. In his view children’s’ organisms are equipped with the ability to act spontaneously (spontaneity factor) and adapt to situations in a flexibly and appropriately way through creativity. It is therefore important to challenge a child’s spontaneity and to positively reinforce his or her creative actions in order to foster their self-development: “My thesis, the locus of the self is spontaneity. When spontaneity is at zero, the self is at zero. As spontaneity declines, the self shrinks. When spontaneity grows, the self expands” (Moreno, 1947, p.9). This promotion of spontaneity and creativity in a child thus supports the development of a positive self. Creativity is seen a problem-solving competence that can be strengthened, but this does not take place without the right encouragement: to foster creativity through artistic approaches in a non-judgmental environment can promote children’s self-competences.
“Mistechko is in the spirit of my father’s work in more ways than one,” said Moreno’s son Jonathan, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania in the US. “While he was in medical school in Vienna he was assigned by the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I to serve as a medic in refugee camps. In those camps he noticed the need for social arrangements that would enable families to feel more secure in the chaos of the war and displacement. He had already developed some ideas about children’s role-playing games but in the refugee camps he came to appreciate the need to be aware of group dynamics like in the camps.”
Moreno, J.L. (1934): Who shall survive? New York.
Moreno, J.L. (1947): The Future Man ́s World. Psychodrama Monographs. New York.
Moreno, J.L. (1989): Spontaneität und Katharsis, in: Fox. J. (Hrsg.). Psycho-drama und Soziometrie. Essenzielle Schriften. Köln. 77-102.
Moreno, J.L. (1991): Globale Psychotherapie und Aussichten einer therapeutischen Weltordnung, in: Buer, F. (Hrsg.): Jahrbuch für Psychodrama, psychosoziale Praxis und Gesellschaftspolitik. Wiesbaden.11-44.
Moreno, J.L. (1991): Theorie der Spontaneität – Kreativität, in: Petzold, H., Orth, I. (Hrsg.). Die neuen Kreativitätstheorien, Band 1, Paderborn.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997), Happiness and creativity,The Futurist; Washington Bd. 31, Ausg. 5, (Sep/Oct 1997): 8-12.