An artist in her home country of Ukraine, Olia Kovalenko offers painting and drawing classes to children and adults at her art studio at The Shops of Sydenham mall in Strathroy. Photograph taken on Monday, June 5, 2023. (Calvi Leon/The London Free Press) Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Olia Kovalenko always knew she had artistic talent – her father and grandfather were artists – but realized how gifted she was in grade school.

“In art class at school, I helped my classmates a lot. They asked me to help them because they couldn’t do it,” said Kovalenko, who immigrated from Ukraine to this small town in Southwestern Ontario with her husband and two young kids in late 2020.

Facing pressure from her mother to choose a different career, Kovalenko put her passion on hold and pursued management and psychology at university.

It wasn’t until she switched gears again years later – when she enrolled in courses to become a travel agent – that she realized her artistic potential. Kovalenko included a self-drawn portrait in her resume, her instructor took note of her talent and pushed her to keep going.

From there, “I just started to draw my friends,” she said.

Word about her sketches spread quickly, and she started accepting commissions. Soon, customers from different countries were requesting oil paintings.

“They asked me, can you do oil portraits? I said, ‘No, I can’t,'” Kovalenko recalls, adding the technique intimidated her. “But the next day, I started to practise.”

It wasn’t long until Kovalenko became a high school art teacher and opened a studio to offer private classes to kids and adults. Rarely did the place sit empty.

“Every other hour, I had like 20 people,” Kovalenko said. “I was so busy. I didn’t even sit.”

Kovalenko is aiming to create a similar environment at her recently opened studio in the Shops of Sydenham shopping mall in Strathroy. A part-time day-care worker, she offers classes and workshops in various disciplines, from watercolour and pastel to acrylic and glass painting, on weekends and by appointment on weekdays.

While Kovalenko hasn’t received the same reception she did back in Ukraine, she’s hopeful business will pick up this summer. It took her a while to find her footing, plus some encouragement from Ukrainian newcomers who own the bakery next door.

“I am very grateful for them because they pushed me,” she said of Mykola and Iryna Bilovol, who opened U.Cake bakery in January, after fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Kovalenko’s studio is filled with vibrant artworks, including from her 14-year-old daughter. One wall features a massive illustration of the statue of David, a Renaissance sculpture by Italian artist Michelangelo.

“I did this for three days,” she said, pointing to the painting. “I left the studio at midnight (each night).”

The name of the business, OK Art Studio, stems from Kovalenko’s initials. Her five-year-old son has crafted his own way of pronouncing it.

“My son loves to be here. Every day, he says, ‘Can we go to the Oak,’” she said with a laugh.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

By Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 06, 2023 at 07:30

This item reprinted with permission from   London Free Press   London, Ontario
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