Arts Visual Arts

Resilience: The Heart of Ukraine, a Photography Exhibition at Toe River Arts

The women of the Monotheistic Holy Transfiguration Church (the oldest parish in Ukraine, since 1798) in Zlynka. They are singing in “hook notation,” which is considered the oldest chant and was used in Byzantine times. Photo by Michael Andrews

By Natasha Anderson

Toe River Arts presents work by photographer Michael Andrews in Resilience: The Heart of Ukraine, on display at the Kokol Gallery in Spruce Pine from Friday, August 4, through September 9. The exhibit offers a window into remote village life in Ukraine before Russia’s invasion, and focuses on the lives of Ukrainian babusyas (grandmothers) and their cultural roots.

Anna Markivna Kolomiets, born in 1940 at home in the village of Krymky, with an apple pie she just baked. Photo by Michael Andrews

“The images have a painterly quality, with the light appearing to almost come through the photographs,” says Toe River Arts exhibition manager Kathryn Andree. “They show the landscape and the people who inhabit these landscapes in a way that makes the viewer realize just how horrible and tragic the destruction in this country really is.”

As a volunteer with United States Peace Corps Ukraine in 2018–19, Andrews augmented his service as consultant to an HIV and AIDS service agency by working as a photographer for Baba Yelka Cultural Expedition. The group was formed in 2018 to preserve and share the unique traditions of Ukraine’s Kirovograd region—stories, songs, recipes and material culture, including embroidery.

Babusya Polina Hryhorivna Dymchenko, born in 1935, holding her kitten, dances with Наталія Михайловська at her cottage in Nechaivka. Polina has just recorded the traditional song, “Wormwood, Wormwood,” for researchers, which was transformed into a modern song by the Yelka Band in Kropyvnytskyi, Ukraine. Photo by Michael Andrews

“I was in awe of these events as they unfolded in 2018 and 2019 and continue to be astounded by Baba Yelka’s discoveries today, despite the myriad tragedies and obstacles that surround their work,” says Andrews. “Resilience: The Heart of Ukraine is a tribute to the babusyas and families who preserve the country’s unique and beautiful culture and to the Baba Yelka Expedition’s race against time and unthinkable war to preserve Ukraine’s traditions for future generations to embrace.”

The exhibition was a year in the making and required long-distance collaboration between Andrews and his Ukrainian colleagues. Resilience debuted in Charlotte in 2022, and is presently on tour to a number of American venues. It invites discussion of a range of timely topics, including the iconic role of grandmothers in Ukrainian culture, the country’s history, traditions and today’s war.

“Every one of these images is intensely personal to me because I was invited into people’s homes and lives,” says Andrews. “They and the people I love in Ukraine are still very much a part of me. I hope people get a sense of the beauty and uniqueness of Ukrainian culture from these images and what is at risk of being lost.”

The Toe River Arts Kokol Gallery is at 269 Oak Avenue, Spruce Pine. Learn more at

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