Ukrainian muralist does God's work

22.12.2014, 20:00

He climbs the metal scaffolding - stepping over the high metal side bars - and stands eye level with an ornate column capital.

It's one of many wide, cream pillars lining the rectangular sanctuary in Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.

Each awaits a marbling makeover by master muralist Bogdan Chernetskiy, originally of Ternopil, Ukraine.

"I eventually want to paint the ceiling," said Chernetskiy, 58, in a noticeable eastern European cadence.

Glancing upward at the convex plafond, he continues, "If I do it might be the best work of my life."

The artist has completed 22 churches in his lifetime, each one taking years to finish.

Last year to a packed congregation, he unveiled phase one of the mural behind the altar, a depiction of the apparition of Mother Mary to Bernadette Soubirous, a shepherd girl of Lourdes, France, in 1858.

It's the scene to which the church takes its name.

He's been gone for a year, living in Cleveland, Ohio, but he's returned to finish painting the surrounding walls of the sanctuary, so that even those in the farthest pew will have a view of the artist's work.

"Art is evidence the church is alive," he said. "All I ever wanted to accomplish with my work was for people to be able to sit and know their surroundings are alive and changing just for them."

Making a career of religious art and Michaelangelo-esque church murals has certainly been a prodigious feat for the Ukranian, who was born to an atheist nation with prohibitive views toward religion.

He and his family were Ukrainian Greek Catholic, yet the open practice of religion in public and in the media were punishable offenses.

Those who practiced in public forum or attempted the display of religious views outside a church building risked imprisonment, physical harm, or exile to Siberia.

"Everyone was watching everyone ... To be a member of a church or declare your religion openly was not allowed. The KGB would punish people or their children if this happened," he said, remembering. "There was one church I remember we would go into, but it wasn't the same. Everyone had to be anonymous."

Chernetskiy never suspected he would graduate at the top of his art school years later, the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture, only to leave Ukraine and settle in the United States to create religious mural art for a living.

He had been hired to complete church art assignments in Ukraine and Russia, but all of his jobs had to be done in secret.

When he came to the U.S. on a refugee visa, he experienced for the first time a country with religious freedom.

"I didn't have to hide anymore," he said, mentioning his initial living quarters were in the basement of the first church he was employed to mural. "I became a warrior against satanic forces and decided to use my art to bless others."

Neatly laying the gold pieces against the capital, he says his work often carries over into the wee hours of the night.

He aims for perfection of the colors and movement of the mural, and if it's not right, he'll start over.

Mary Cox, chairwoman of the church's sanctuary restoration project, said Chernetskiy painted the low ceilings of the sanctuary three times before he approved the color.

"He said, 'No, that's not right, let's do it again,' and he painted it again and again until he found the right shade of blue," Cox said. "He mixes all the colors himself, and you can see that everything he touches is just beautiful."

Chernetskiy believes God has allowed him to use his artistic abilities to spread joy and contentment. And he knows his artistic abilities provide a calming space for people to gather that encourages brightness, kindness and a spirit of God.

"Church is a living spirit; it's not just a building," he said. "I still believe you can reach God in any grotto, barn, or another place that isn't a church. But there is life in art, too."

Chernetskiy hopes when the painting is complete at Our Lady of Lourdes, people will be inspired by the artistic hand of God.

"I want them to know God is the creator of all this. I am just the hand to glorify him," he said.

Jennifer Lee Preyss

19 December 2014 Victoria Advocate