Her Ukrainian grandmother fled the Nazis. Now This CT Artist’s Drawings Draw Attention To Refugees

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BRIDGEWATER — On Feb. 24, just before Russia invaded Ukraine, resident Pamela Sztybel watched a broadcast by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The speech moved her so much that she said she felt compelled to create a design based on it.

“The war in Ukraine is very personal to me since my family is from there,” said Sztybel, 65, a full-time artist who lives with her husband Skip Stein and their one-year-old poodle named Jack.

To date, Sztybel has created around 30 drawings relating to the war in Ukraine. She draws a new illustration almost every day and publishes them on social networks. She uses the images to draw attention to an organization that supports Ukrainian refugees.

His drawings depict a variety of people fleeing their homes, searching for food, and carrying animals. She said she attaches great importance to women and children.

The drawings, which are done in pencil, pen and ink and watercolor, are created in a three-by-four-inch space in a bound sketchbook and drawn directly from news headlines.

“The day before, I spent hours researching the headlines online, reading reliable news sources to see what struck me,” said Sztybel, a graduate of the New York Academy of Art.

His work has been shown across the United States. She also had a home in Manhattan, but moved to Bridgewater full-time during the pandemic.

It takes her up to two hours to create each drawing, and she usually draws in the morning.

“All my background material comes from existing news stories, but I change things up frequently. I will add elements that are not taken from a specific photo,” she said. “My drawings are caricatural. They are cartoonish. They are not meant to look like photographs.

She posts her drawings on Instagram and Facebook. Each time, she shares a connection with World Central Kitchen, a charity on the Russian-Ukrainian border that feeds refugees as they pass through Poland.

“When people are displaced, their most immediate need is to have a hot meal for themselves and their children. In a high stress situation it can be lifesaving and it can also be comforting,” she said.

Over $6,000 was raised for World Central Kitchen through its social media pages.

It’s not the first time that Sztybel has created drawings based on current events. During the pandemic, Sztybel created 366 illustrations, most of which were about COVID-19.

While the pandemic has impacted Sztybel’s life like most others, the war in Ukraine is hitting her closer to home.

“My paternal grandmother was born in kyiv (Ukraine) and educated in St. Petersburg (Russia), and when the revolution happened, she fled to Poland in a train luggage rack” , said Sztybel. “She grew up and married my grandfather and had my father. When the Nazis invaded on September 1, 1939, they had to flee again. They escaped on September 4, 1939.”

She said she felt a very deep connection to what Ukrainians do.

“My grandfather arrived in this country with nothing. They had lived a very comfortable life in Poland and arrived with $20 and had to make a living here – not speaking the language, not knowing anyone,” she said. “It takes a lot of courage, luck and help from people you don’t know to survive this and to bear the pain of extreme loss if you make it out alive.”

She also said she was grateful for the sacrifices made by her ancestors.

“If they hadn’t done all of this, I wouldn’t be here in beautiful Bridgewater, Connecticut with my poodle and my brushes and my great upbringing and all the things that happened to me,” said Sztybel, who will be teaching a course on oil pastels at the Washington Art Association. Her work will be featured in an exhibition at the Roxbury Public Library.

In addition, she has illustrated a book on canine poems soon to be published in the UK by former American Poet Laureate Billy Collins.

Hugh O’Donnell, chair of the Washington Art Association’s exhibition committee and professor of visual arts at Boston University, said he was thrilled to see people being creative in his community.

When it comes to issues such as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Sztybel’s work “shows how the local community and social media can really raise creative voices in response to affliction,” O’Donnell said, a resident of Boston and Washington.

“We are at a pivotal moment in history where individual voices can be amplified more than ever before,” O’Donnell said. “We all listen to the news, but we don’t learn how people’s normal lives are affected. I think Pamela has put up a signal that you can do it.

Creating the wartime cartoons has been “extremely rewarding,” Sztybel said of the feedback she’s received.

“I get comments and messages from people all over the world saying they’re looking forward to the drawings, it helps them digest the news,” she said.

She also said the drawings made her feel like she was doing something in response to the tragedy.

“It’s very difficult to sit here and listen to the news and feel like you’re doing nothing,” she said. “That’s what I can do right now – draw.”

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