Canadian-Ukrainian artist Janelle Knihnitski grew up in Saskatoon and currently lives and works in Vancouver. A recent project—a large-scale Ukrainian Vinok, which is a circle with a ribbon woven into it decorated with flowers, herbs and multi-coloured ribbons—shows how proud she is of her Ukrainian culture. We spoke with Janelle to learn more. —Noa Nichol
Please tell us a bit about yourself to start.
I’m a Canadian Ukrainian artist and have been fascinated with art, dance and fashion for as long as I can remember. I’ve always dreamed of a creative career, which brought me to Vancouver. After graduating from the fashion merchandising and marketing program at Blanche MacDonald, I specialized in the creative role of visual merchandising. I’m grateful for the success that being a VM has brought me in the fashion retail industry. It eventually landed me a role at the multinational corporation LVMH for Louis Vuitton. In March of 2020 when Covid-19 started, I was laid off. I spent two years rediscovering my approach to art. I drew on my new experiences in the fashion world, while reflecting on and utilizing my lifelong Ukrainian dance and cultural experiences. I use a variety of mediums to pair elements of vibrant colours, curvilinear forms and bold compositions to create original art and sculptures.
Your most recent project is connected to your Ukrainian roots; can you please describe this work of art, which is a large-scale Vinok?
As an artist I saw this as an opportunity to tell a story about the beauty and strength of Ukraine and to show my solidarity through art. To honour Ukraine, I made a large-scale Vinok. A Ukrainian Vinok is a circular structure with a ribbon woven into it, decorated with flowers, herbs and long multi-coloured ribbons. Traditionally, it is worn by young unmarried women and associated with the marriage ceremony. Today, it is commonly worn with a Ukrainian dance costume, primarily associated with the region Poltava. I hand-built the Vinok starting with a 30-inch base. Over 10 days, I meticulously layered over 250 flowers and herbs, completing it all with long multi-coloured ribbons. The Vinok honours our love for nature and respect for the land. I conceptualized and creatively directed a photo shoot for this work in a local forest with my boyfriend as the photographer. It felt like a beautiful way to respect tradition while celebrating Ukrainian culture.
What was the inspiration behind this piece?
I Ukrainian danced for over 20 years; nine of those were with the Yevshan Ukrainian Folk Ballet Ensemble in Saskatoon. In 2012 I was able to travel with Yevshan and tour Ukraine. During this trip we received our new Vinoks to go with our Poltava costumes; they were handmade in Ukraine. My inspiration for the design is based on this Vinok. It’s an honour to use this infinitely valuable and beautiful Vinok as my concept.
How else do you honour your heritage through your modern folk-art?
My dream is to showcase just how beautiful Ukrainian culture is. With each piece that I create; I see an opportunity to research, learn and share about this rich culture that many connect with deeply. On my Instagram account, I share memories and inspirations for my modern folk-art and sculptures. I also use it as a platform to share my research and growing knowledge of Ukrainian culture. I hope my content can serve as a source of strength and connection during these difficult times. I see this as an opportunity to celebrate Ukrainians, our ancestors and future Ukrainians.
What’s coming up next for you?
I love my Ukrainian roots and I wanted to show how proud I am of my culture. With my art, I aim to embody a rhythmic quality and energetic expression, reflecting my connection to Ukrainian culture, fashion and movement. So, what’s next is my website! I am currently in the process of curating it to sell my art. I partner with my boyfriend who is a graphic designer, web developer (and breakdancer) to help bring my work into the digital and print realms. The website will showcase originals, cards and an art-based fundraiser for Ukraine. I deeply want to show the beauty of Ukrainian culture while helping support Ukraine in any way that I can.
Concept and styling by Janelle Knihnitski. Photographed by Mark Siller.