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Dolls created at Yury Melnychuk’s Studios
Dolls can be more than toys — they can reflect the national traditions, national spirit and cultural continuity. Such dolls are created at Yury Melnychuk’s Studios.
Yury Melnychuk is deputy director of the Ukrayinsky Kostyum (Ukrainian Traditional Dress) Cultural Centre and a senior research fellow of the Ukrainian Folk Culture Centre Muzey Ivana Honchara (Ivan Honchar’s Museum). At the same time he runs a workshop, Yury Melnychuk’s Studios, which works within the framework of the Ukrainian Traditional Dress Cultural Centre and which makes dolls — dolls of a special kind. About twenty people who work in the Studios create dolls that wear traditional Ukrainian national dresses or rather small-sized replicas which faithfully reproduce all the details of a normal-size dress. Each doll wears a traditional national dress which is typical for one particular region of Ukraine and reflects its historical background.
Dolls and toys must have come into being at the earliest stages of civilization. They were made of clay, rags, threads, hay, grass, and of many other things. Dolls were given basically human shapes which hinted at the human figure rather than depicted it faithfully. In many cases, so many lengths of threads, for example, were bunched together, folded at the centre, and a thread was tied around the bunch, separating “the head” from “the body.” In more sophisticated dolls, the face was painted but again no attempt was made to create a convincingly “realistic” image.
In Ukraine, dolls have been a feature of everyday life since time immemorial. A doll in a peasant’s house was looked upon as a sort of Berehynya — Protectress of the household. When a woman was given a doll as a present it was an encouragement for her to have a child. This tradition has survived well into our days — quite often you can see dolls fixed to the front of the hoods of festively decorated cars that carry brides and bridegrooms to marriage registration ceremonies, to churches or to wedding receptions.
In creating a doll there is a divine element present like in any act of creation but in case of dolls, we create something “in our image, after our likeness.” Making a doll reminds one of the Biblical story of God creating man.
Yadviga Vasylevska, the leading doll-maker with Yury Melnychuk’s Studios who has had forty years of doll-making experience, is currently working at creating dolls which represent different regions of Ukraine. A careful research had been conducted before the work began. Yadviga Vasylevska painstakingly gathered information she needed by perusing ethnographic works, archives of ethnographic materials, old photographs and modern books on the subject of national dress (of a particular help was the book written in the early twentieth century by the Ukrainian ethnographer Khvedir Vovk). She came to the conclusion that more than 50 dolls can be created, each wearing a dress of a particular region of Ukraine, distinctive from all others. So far six have been made — Kateryna, representing Kyiv; Anastasiya, representing the Land of Kyivshchyna; Natalka, representing the Land of Poltavshchyna; Olesya, representing the Land of Rivnenshchyna; Marichka, representing the Land of Hutsulshchyna, and Vasylyna, representing the Land of Bukovyna.
Each of the dolls also symbolizes a craft, activity or inspiration. Kateryna represents fancywork and serves an inspiration for handicrafts in general. Natalka is a singer that inspires musicians and bards. Olesya is a benign witch that knows herbs with medicinal properties. Anastasiya possesses knowledge about the secrets of powers of nature. Marichka is an artist that paints Easter eggs, and Vasylyna is an expert weaver. Vasylevska says that she starts work only after the image of the doll and what it is supposed to represent has been fully formed in her mind. The artist invests her dolls with character and individual traits.
She begins the creation process by modelling a figure with plasticine, modelling clay or wax. When, after introducing necessary changes and corrections, she is satisfied with the result, a plaster cast is made of the head and the upper part of the torso, of arms and legs. Further but smaller changes are made until a satisfactory result is reached. Only then comes the next stage — casting the parts of the figurine in much harder plaster of Paris (the legs and arms are provided with copper frames inside). These parts are polished and painted. The trunk is made of fabric stuffed with cotton wool. A wig crowns the head whose face is painted to look like a real human face.
The making of the dress is a very elaborate and careful process. Pieces of fabric are carefully selected and decorative elements are made in full correspondence with the real, big-sized ones. A particular care is taken to make the dress look as an authentic representation of the traditional dress worn in this or that region of Ukraine.
It takes about a month to make a doll like this, and up to four or five people are involved, each responsible for a particular segment of work — embroidery, weaving, knitting, or whatever else is needed to make the doll’s dress and decorations for it as authentic as possible.
A special care is taken in making shirts. Their cut and embroidery vary greatly across Ukraine, and even in villages situated not too far one from another the patterns of embroidery and the cut may differ. The dolls are about 50 centimetres (about 20 inches) in height and to make a shirt for such a doll is a challenging task. It would be impossible to preserve all the authentic details on a shirt of a smaller size. All the parts of the costume, all the accessories, the headgear, and footwear are made to look fully authentic, the only difference from the big-sized items being their miniature size.
Ornaments and decorative patterns of the Ukrainian national costumes come in a great variety and reflect the age of the wearer, her or his social status, occasion on which this shirt is to be worn, and, of course, they reflect regional differences.
At one time, the most popular in Ukraine was the “white-on-white” embroidery which has come down to us from the pre-Christian, heathen times. White was a very popular colour. The walls of houses were whitewashed, both outside and inside, festive dresses were white, decorative rushnyky (towels) were white with white embroidery on them.
When coloured threads were used, they were usually steeped in infusions made from medicinal herbs or such natural substances as the bark of trees. The embroideries made with such threads were believed to give people, who wear embroidered shirts, strength (if the threads were coloured in infusions made from the oak bark, for example), or longevity, or vital energy.
Red was another colour widely used in embroidery and decorations. Children clothes, wedding dresses, rushnyky, tablecloths, head scarves and other items were embroidered in red. Particularly popular was the red colour in the Land of Polissya. Red was believed to radiate energy and protect from evil.
The black colour symbolized earth, opulence and solemnity (it was only later that it became to be regarded as the colour of death). In contrast to the red and white colours, which were believed to radiate energy, the black colour absorbed energy. The black colour symbolism was particularly rich in the Land of Podillya which has cultural and other traditions going back hundreds of years. Some of the ornaments and decorative patterns used in Podillya are thought to be among the most ancient known today.
The Ukrainian Folk Culture Centre Muzey Ivana Honchara held an exhibition of dolls created by Yadviga Vasylevska and Yury Melnychuk’s Studios in December 2005 and in January 2006. Natalya Yaresko, Ihor Figlyus, Olga Atamanenko and Yury Melnychuk lent some of the dolls from their private collections.
All of the dolls were unique in the very literal sense of the word — each doll had its own particular dress, decorations, accessories and face, with no copies of it in existence. The exhibition attracted both adults and children and provided more than joy for the eyes — it encouraged national awareness and built links with age-old national traditions.
Yury Melnychuk’s workshop plans to start making dolls not only as collector’s items — they will be made in commercial numbers for souvenirs and as actual toys for children who, using the pieces of fabric supplied together with other materials necessary for making decorations, would be able to make dresses and do the needlework themselves.
Photos are from Yury MELNYCHUK’s archive
Marychka, a Hutsul doll.
Doll Pereyaslavka, the Land
Doll Lvivyanka, the Land
Doll Kyianka, the Land of Kyivshchyna (detail).
Doll Sumchanka, the Land of Sumshchyna.
Doll Kyianka, the Land of Kyivshchyna.
Doll Volynyanka, the Land of Volynshchyna.
Doll Kyianka, the Land of Kyivshchyna.
Doll Bukovynka, the Land of Bukovyna.
Doll Podolyanka, the Land of Podillya.