BARKAS is Ann Bartok and Olena Kassian, two Toronto artists collaborating and creating large scale sculptural projects and installations. On the day I meet them in their studio, they are at work on a large wall sculpture titled Flamboyant. It is composed of a multitude of individually crafted pieces using a laborious process that involves creating a wood pulp and pigment paste, pressing the mixture into various shapes and then adding them piece by piece to form the larger composition. There is such an elegance and fiery complexity to Flamboyant; the intensity of the red pigment on the wall is in itself a statement, the cloud like shape of the sculpture evoking movement and flight.
It is rare to meet two artists that collaborate together. This is a first for me. The artists I have featured on the site often describe an internal creative process. For BARKAS, the back and forth between the two artists is where the creative flow begins. They met in 2012 in a shared work space and an instant kinship soon developed into an easy friendship. Ann was asked by a designer friend in Brazil to travel there to repair the work of another artist. She agreed to it only if Olena was also included. Her experience with Papier-mâché was necessary for the repair but by using techniques never before tried, they unleashed a new and amazing creative process.
Their collaboration and friendship has created a deep bond over the years; the support they give each other as well as the energy and enthusiasm they project unto one another keeps the creative flow alive. Ann tells me that when she met Olena, she was in a stage of her artistic practice with no clear direction. Meeting Olena brought her to new levels of creativity and passion for making art. They are so in tune with one another’s ideas that they finish each other’s sentences.
Before that meeting, both women were accomplished artists; each having paved her own way in various creative fields. Ann was born in 1941 in England where she studied and worked as an artist before arriving in Canada. She established her studio in Toronto, receiving commercial commissions across Canada, the United States and South America. Her experience is vast and versatile. She is a multi-media artist, working in whatever medium is needed to create her work: bronze, fibre-glass, papier-mâché, concrete, steel and aluminum, along with 3D murals and magical mobiles. Her pieces range in sizes from four inches to thirty feet in height.
Olena was born in post war Munich in a displaced person camp in 1947. She came to Canada as a child. Olena’s early early work was as an illustrator in animation, publishing and advertising. She published 16 children’s books. Once she retired from advertising work, she gave room to her art practice and began exhibiting images made using powdered graphite and culminating in large scale translucent shadow boxes. There is a monumental shadow box in the studio. Light shines through the objects collected inside, radiating light while keeping the mystery of what is inside.
There is an emphasis in their practice on found and repurposed materials; They often find the concept in the material itself. They visit recycling depots around Toronto for scrap metal and leftover construction materials. They are increasingly interested in large scale projects involving metal. The wood pulp and pigment work is available for commission only because of the incredibly laborious and time consuming process in creating each work.
When I met Olena and Ann Bartok in 2014, they were in the midst of an intensely busy period in their collaboration after a record year of commissions . Exhibiting their work at IDEX in Toronto in 2012 led to several commissions: first for Le Germain Hotel in Toronto followed by several commissions in Brazil and in Columbia.
We spend an afternoon talking about their work and our conversation goes into many directions. I tell them I struggle with being a middle age artist…They laugh… You are just at the beginning of your maturity as an artist. You finally know who you are, your vision is becoming clear. I find these words both comforting and encouraging.
I am a strong believer in mentorship and I am grateful to speak with Olena and Ann. They are seasoned female artists that continue to evolve and grow in their practice. I can relate to their stories of creative pursuit through marriage and children. I am inspired by stories of coming up during the seventies when the creative fields still marginalized women, of continuing to persist despite skyrocketing rents in Toronto and of struggling now to create in the time of Covid.
I organize a conference call in December 2020 to catch up. We have kept in touch over the past 6 years. They participated in both The Soulfood Hudson and The Soulfood Toronto and we worked together on a commission for The Hilton in Toronto last year.
Olena tells me that becoming an artist is clearly a sign of mild insanity but still, they have managed to be successful for decades, having paid their dues time and time again. But, this time, maybe the most challenging yet. This year has been unusually difficult. They struggle with both the pandemic and wanting to create monumental sculptures for both interior and exterior display. It's hard to convince developers to take a chance on ideas these days. They share a feeling that civility is eroding in people or as Olena better describes it formalized kindness. Despite these challenges, they installed three large pieces in the lobby of the tower at 60 Bloor St West in Toronto. A happy highlight of an otherwise terrible year.
After decades as artists, a solid core and intelligence brings humility and clarity to Ann and Olena's process. When I joke with Olena that they've arrived. She laughs and tells me… 'The life of an artist is a roller coaster ride… you ride the ups and the downs… What goes up, eventually comes down and so on....What’s arrived anyway? We're still waiting to arrive…. '