The Multilingual Calligraphic Artist of Ukraine
Interview by Marina Gracen-Farrell
Since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Multilingual magazine featured courageous Ukrainians surviving and working during wartime. Working under the worst conditions imaginable, they continue tirelessly collaborating on projects with colleagues from elsewhere.
One such individual is Oleksiy Chekal. A Ukrainian graphic designer, calligrapher, and art historian with an eye for multilingual scripts, he lives and works in war-torn Kharkiv. He describes himself as a cross-cultural designer, working in a complex array that includes museum, scientific, and religious projects, through typography and calligraphy featuring Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac scripts.
Tell us about your background. How did you get started in art and art history?
I am a painter by training. Then I studied painting restoration and icon painting. It was sacred art that instilled in me a love of script and calligraphy. The inscriptions on icons had an unusual aroma of mystery. I became interested in paleography and then started to study calligraphy on my own. Afterwards, unexpectedly, I began to study digital technologies and joined the PanicDesign studio in 2000. Eventually I was a bit bored in this field and realized that with the help of font culture, it is possible to perform unusual tasks at the junction of design and scientific, philological, religious, and cultural projects. This led to a whole range of work in my portfolio, from designing exhibitions on Stalinist repression and the history of the Jewish Passover to church design and calligraphy; from tattoo designs in Greek, Syriac logos, and historic conference decorations at Oxford to jewelry designs in Italy and Arabic calligraphy for books on Muslim culture.
Because I chose not to work in an office setting and freed myself from studio commitments, I gradually developed a worldview close to that of Ukrainian philosopher Grigory Skovoroda. The idea of a long path, in which: “The world tried to catch me but didn’t succeed.” I travel to different countries and find friends, projects, and orders. I even wrote “Traveling Calligrapher” in the column of my workplace once. I like the state of motion. It stopped being routine and turned into a constant creative feast, which is interesting to me and does not weigh me down.
Where have you been showing your work? What projects did you do in different countries?
I work quite a lot in Europe. As a rule, European customers turn to Ukrainian designers because our services are cheaper. But orders come to me precisely because I can solve unusual design problems, where you need to combine several professions, and where you need graphics with a pronounced individuality — not a sterile design. I am fascinated by the moment of immersion in a new project, by exploring new themes and styles. It could be Arabic demonology, Balthasar’s theological aesthetics, a book design by the Syrian mystic Isaac of Nineveh, or the travel branding of German castles. Every time I explore historical and artistic context, there is a creative germination of an idea.
I can remember a number of important projects in Europe. This is a series of exhibitions at the largest Christian festival in Rimini dedicated to: the archaeology of Syria, the Christian view of the Ukrainian Maidan, the destruction of religion in the USSR, or life in Christ of Metropolitan Anthony of Surozh. There was an interesting project to develop a graphic image of the Santuario Madonna del Miracolo (Basilica di Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, Rome) and the exhibition La Madonna di Alfonso Ratisbonne. I collaborated with the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona and did graphic design for some churches in Greece. Now I’m helping on a series of conferences on theology, sociology, and church art with the Oxford Women’s Ministries Initiative and The Center for Applied Theology (CAT) in England. There have been several solo exhibitions in Florence (Italy), Montreal (Italy), Torun (Poland), and Lublin (Poland) et al. I also teach from time to time as a visiting professor at the Florence Classical Arts Academy.
What are some of your favorite projects and why?
I always have about 20 projects of varying intensity running in parallel. From inscriptions in Arabic for a collector’s sword to the design of a Judeo-Christian studies monograph by Cambridge and Oxford scholars; from creating a port wine brand for a German ancient castle to calligraphy on ancient Greek poetry by Sappho. But the main project was to develop the Church of St. Yuri the Victorious’ artistic design for the military in Kharkiv. We planned to create an iconographic program in cooperation with famous Ukrainian artists. Thus, the church was not only a symbol of our nation’s courage and dignity in the fight against Russian imperialism, not only a cozy place of prayer, but also an unusual art project with experiments in church art between Ukrainian avant-garde and early Christian asceticism.
For Ukrainians today, subjected to inhuman torture and violence by the occupants, the example of the holy Eastern martyr shows us that dignity and justice can help one stand before death and torture. In the Syriac ancient version of the hagiographic legend of St. George the Victory-Bearer, the emperor Diocletian is called a serpent (the dragon appeared later in iconography). Thus, St. George struggles with the symbol of pagan power and the symbol of hell. But as John Chrysostom says in his Easter sermon:
O death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and you are cast down!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Russian shells damaged the temple, but we hope that after our victory, we will rebuild it and realize everything we have planned.
No less important a project (almost the main one in my life) was the creation of a graphic image of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The work included development of cross-marks, fonts, ornaments, and general design concepts for dioceses and church products. Setting the aesthetic tuning for the national religious organization was a unique opportunity, a wonderful chance to reorient the religious consciousness of Ukrainians away from imperial remnants toward something more democratic, free, and domestic. This historical reversal from Moscow to Constantinople is certainly no less important than the Ukrainians’ desire for European values and rights. And we now see that the Russian Orthodox Church supports and blesses the criminal actions of its authorities, thereby descending into an anti-Christian, infernal worldview.
That is why I participated with undisguised enthusiasm (at the request of the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Epiphanius) as a designer when Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople visited Ukraine in 2021. I created a series of sacred topographical images uniting two towns and two churches of Sophia (Sophia Kievskaya and Sophia Constantinople). And I am now continuing to work on a number of projects for the Ukrainian church, including creating an NFT platform to seek funding for military and refugee aid.
Tell us how Ukrainian art and culture has influenced your work.
We have very powerful cultural and historic traditions in Ukraine, including influence from Greek culture on our alphabet. We’ve also absorbed the spirit and achievements of European art. But in contrast to the European graphical outlook, our attitude to script is livelier and less mathematical than the halo of Latin alphabets. In Ukrainian writing, there are more emotional forms, a lot of plasticity, which is associated with Eastern culture. Accordingly, it is reflected in the design and font atmosphere of historical handwriting and cursive writing, which passed into modernity. All our pillars of Ukrainian design, from Heorhiy Narbut to Vasyl Krychevsky, moved in this direction, complementing it with their creative vision. Then avant-garde, futuristic, and constructive experimental styles were added to this Ukrainian background. As a result, the modern designer has a wide enough range for their own creation. I recently described this technique in an article about my design for the 100th anniversary of the Kharkiv Academy of Art and Design.
The peculiarity of Ukrainian design is the ability to work with individuality and national or supranational inclusions, always remaining somewhat unusual. Because in pursuit of relevance and modernity, sometimes you can lose the depth and timelessness of the image. As Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan reminds us: “God sympathizes with outsiders.”
The designer’s task is to develop empathy, an understanding of the “Other.” Not to egotistically push one’s own vision, not to subserviently fulfill the client’s task, but to achieve a kind of creative tandem between performer and client, to create layers of meaning in both aesthetic and outlook. It seems to me this is what makes a project profound and meaningful. I would call it design that touches the human heart.
I try to show with my works that through design, you can show ideas and meanings of social consequence, in which a designer creates visual symbols important for the country and the challenges of time. It allows you to return to the awareness of your tradition, aesthetics, and national melody of the soul. And when you have found your own independent voice, it is that voice that is interesting, not the overdubs of other people’s voices and meanings. As Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus said: “An artist is needed by his people and the whole world only when his art merges with the cry of his nation.”
Can you tell us how you got involved in creating multilingual calligraphy and fonts?
The first time I thought about interfaith and intercultural dialogue was when I visited excavations at Dura Europos. This is a small town on the edge of empires and between eras. It existed in a peaceful neighborhood of different mindsets. Moreover, there are suspicions that the paintings in the Synagogue, the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods, and the Christian Baptistery were painted, if not by the same artists, then very close in style and technique.
Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote in his theological aesthetics that beauty can pass bounds and create connections where people and ideas do not agree. Orthodox philosopher and theologian David Hart clarifies that beauty levels our differences, casts doubt on them, and demonstrates the harmony of the universe. Likewise, Israeli researcher Shlomo Pines studies the paradigms of mutual influence through aesthetics in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Thus, undoubtedly, beauty is a unifying principle.
On that topic, a quote from the Bible might be helpful:
“God gives beauty to Japheth, And he dwells in tents of Shem, And Canaan is servant to him.” (Genesis 9:27)
I’ve often seen calligraphers and artists from different religious and cultural communities find common ground faster than theologians. Perhaps that’s why Catholic priests, Orientalists, rabbis, and researchers of Muslim sects contact me for design work. And I am already trying through my work to show the multicultural, multilingual, and ultimately multi-human nature of any creative endeavor.
I worked on an exhibition-conference in Oxford dedicated to martyr Maria Skobtsova. During the Second World War, saint mother Maria Skobtsova was martyred supporting the Jewish people in the concentration camps. She became a saint for both Christians and Jews, and her name is in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations in Yad Vashem. Beauty and ethics can unite us, but love can do it too.
And perhaps love is the greatest unifier of people across different religions and cultures. That, and the courage to sacrifice your life for the sake of another person without thinking about differences and disagreements, driven only by the principle of infinite love.
How did you come to combine languages together in your designs? Do languages fit well together in the design?
Given that I’m not a philologist or a polyglot, my view of different scripts and languages is a bit unusual. I deal with letters like a dyslexic artist, studying their anatomy, character, and structure depending on the writing tool and style of the form. Of course, I don’t work blindly and can read what is written in Syriac or Greek, but I always consult with my philologist friends so that I don’t make mistakes. I don’t put anything together on purpose. There are specific orders. For example, in one academic book about the Christian East, my friend had to design inscriptions in Ethiopian, Syriac, Greek, Georgian, and Slavonic letters. I found a common graphic solution for these different alphabets.
My interest in the Middle East was born after my trips to Syria, Turkey, and Israel. Through the study of Byzantine art, I immersed myself in more ancient history, trying to understand the continuity of cultures. And the inscriptions and images of funerary portraits in the abandoned city of Palmyra so interested me that I even decided to study the influence of Hellenistic sacred art on the formation of the early Christian canon. Last year I gave the world’s first workshop on Palmyra calligraphy. These Aramaic letters, slightly influenced by Roman Antiqua, have not been written for over 1,700 years. No Palmyra inscriptions on soft materials (paper, papyrus) have survived, only on the stones of buildings and on funerary portraits. So I had to reconstruct the movement of the pen and the logic of lettering, so that scientists could better understand how the grapheme was constructed in this alphabet.
As a calligrapher, it is very important for me to study the entire cauldron of Middle Eastern scripts, to build aesthetic bridges between cultures, to design scientific publications as a designer, or to make calligraphic compositions.
An important part of the quest for multilingualism is the school of Semitic languages at the Ostroh Academy. Some of the best teachers of Aramaic, Arabic, Syriac, and Ethiopian from different countries gathered there. Another important element to some of my successes in this field was the Orientalist Publishing House Gorgias Press (Piscataway, NJ). I created an elaborate spiral in the style of Estrangello’s Syriac writing, telling the story of that publishing house’s creation.
I am currently working on a multiscript font for scientific publications, where the plasticity of the European and Oriental scripts are in harmony with the texts on the book page. This problem is very topical — just look at a book with quotations in Greek, Church Slavonic, Hebrew, and Arabic to see the lack of proportional combination. We should take a lesson from 17th- and 18th-century printing houses, when a scientific publication was a work of art, not just a sterile, boring, unaesthetic rendering of the text.
How has your work continued during wartime?
It turns out I can work under any conditions. Here’s a funny example. My eldest son filmed our family during the start of the war and the evacuation, capturing the frightened faces of his parents, the nervous movements of my wife, the dog and cat who stopped fighting with each other. The photos, which he posted on Facebook, were picked up by journalists from New York Magazine. That famous magazine printed them, but I’m the only one not in there. Because, as Peter said, “Dad looks the same all the time: shells fly — he works. Shells don’t fly — he works.”
It seems to me that the living response of authentic art to war can be in different directions. Some are like Picasso painting Guernica or like Dante referring to political opponents in Hell. And some are to the contrary, creating complex and not so precise allegorical images, like J.R.R. Tolkien. His response to World War II was not direct, but The Lord of the Rings is an example of the deepest understanding of the nature of evil within a fictional world. It seems to me that war raised the creative forces in Ukrainian art.
I’m focusing on projects with an immediate benefit during the war. An example is the Lviv Municipal Gallery, which helps organize jobs and communication for refugees in Lviv. I make designs for military chevrons, design leaflets dropping on occupied territories, and logos for charity projects to help refugees (in Ukraine, Poland, England, and other countries). As a designer, I help the Ukrainian-Swiss and Ukrainian-Austrian project, which is dedicated to strengthening the Ukrainian identity in Europe. The money I earn from foreign orders I try to invest in ammunition for our defenders or vehicles for territorial defense. This is of course insanely small in the face of the invasion. And the feeling of guilt and powerlessness doesn’t leave me. Recently, my friend and great calligrapher Brody Neuenschwander invited me to participate in the A Brush with Silence project, where calligraphers from all over the world will write texts in support of Ukraine. And I will soon be giving a lecture at The Typophiles, one of the most authoritative design societies in America.
What would you like those of us on the outside to know? How can we help you?
When I went to Europe 10 years ago, many Italians or Englishmen could not understand why Kyiv or Kharkiv was not Russia. Now the situation has drastically changed, but it has cost us the blood and lives of our compatriots. We have been fighting for our history and identity for about 1,000 years. Unfortunately the image of Ukraine as one part with Russia has been formed for centuries. But it is not so. Much has been stolen from us, and now our task in the eyes of the world community is to return the names and events to where they should be. St. Vladimir baptized Kyivan Rus, the future Ukrainians, and the Moscow kingdom has nothing to do with it. The Church of St. Sophia of Kyiv and the Gospel of Ostromir appeared when there were marshes in Moscow, and Kazimir Malevich or Vladimir Tallinn were Ukrainian artists, not representatives of the Russian avant-garde.
The only request to people of different countries is to take interest in the history and culture of Ukraine. It will enrich your horizons and help us in our struggle and in the creation and restoration of the country.
Anything else you’d like to comment on?
Ukrainians have realized that they live in a very cool country that is not afraid to call evil what it truly is and stand for civilizational peace, without ideological temptations and bureaucratic squabbles. For me, all the events of recent years are not simply a war between Russia and Ukraine over land and the post-Soviet complexes of their neighbors, but a battle of archetypes and worldviews, a conflict of different community perceptions of freedom, conscience, and power. And we have been over this many times in the history between our countries: the genocide in Baturin in 1708, the treacherous destruction of the Zaporizhian Sich by Catherine II in 1775, the crimes of the Bolsheviks in the Soviet-Ukrainian war of 1917-1918, the Holodomor in 1932-33. These were no less cruel than the massacre in Bucha or the bombing of Mariupol. The cruelty and dehumanization of Russia has historical roots and logic in its formation.
Unfortunately, the line of such great Russian thinkers as Chaadayev, Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Vladimir Voinovich has always been marginal in Russia, not mainstream. Osip Mandelstam, Mother Maria Skobtsova and Daniil Andreyev existed not thanks to, but in spite of, the general Russian path. And many cultural figures and writers fueled this imperial narrative.
It is under the bombing and suffering of Ukrainians that another type of society is born: not vertical, but horizontal; not bureaucratic, but free. A society of intelligence and humor, a kind of European type of thinking, but unafraid of dictator threats, or material difficulties. Every Ukrainian now has many functions: business, creativity, and protection of the earth.
This is a new type of thinking, when you do not wait for handouts from anyone (neither from the state, nor from institutions, nor from the church), but with your friends, you help the country and the people for the glory of God.
When you yourself take full responsibility for the creation of history. The figure of the free Cossack-artist and merchant in one person entered the arena, and when there are so many of us, we cannot be defeated!
View more of Chekal’s work on his Instagram: @oleksiy_chekal
Marina Gracen-Farrell learned to appreciate languages early on as a localization desktop publisher for LSPs, then by providing localization guidance and services for one of the world’s largest education corporations. She is currently a consultant who writes articles on localization and personal development.