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'You try to figure out how this happened': A Ukrainian family of artists, with one in western Mass.

For more than a year, Sergei Isupov has been watching the war in Ukraine from afar. His family lives in Kyiv. He lives in western Massachusetts. Art is one thread that connects them.

From his studio in Cummington, Massachusetts, Isupov makes and paints sculptures of humans and animal-like creatures, found in galleries and museums internationally.

At an outdoor event last year in the Berkshires, small sculptures were placed on tree branches surrounding an park. At dusk, a giant kiln — built on-site — fired one of Isupov's sculptures made with 800 pounds of clay.

Isupov's figures tell stories, though the narratives aren't linear. He often places contrary images in one piece.

"Like female-male. Like cat-mouse. So all these opposites together create for you some sort of emotions," Isupov said.

Isupov' s wife, Kadri Parnaments, is also an artist. Their daughter, Roosi, is growing up in this small town. Most summers they visit Parnaments' family in Estonia.

Along with Isupov's art dealer, Leslie Ferrin, they live a sort of idyllic artists' life, alongside a river in a compound they built over two decades from a rundown 19th century mill. They call it Project Art 01026.

In addition to their apartments, there's also a space for art classes and a gallery on the first floor.

Sergei Isupov is an artist in a family of artists. He grew up in Ukraine and came to the U.S. in the 1990s. He's seen here with some recent sculptures in the gallery at Project Art in Cummington, Massachusetts, where he lives with his family.
Jill Kaufman
/
NEPM
Sergei Isupov is an artist in a family of artists. He grew up in Ukraine and came to the U.S. in the 1990s. He's seen here with some recent sculptures in the gallery at Project Art in Cummington, Massachusetts, where he lives with his family.

On the third floor is a large art studio overlooking a branch of the Westfield River. In the weeks and months after Russia first invaded Ukraine, it's here that Isupov listened closely to the BBC.

"You try to figure out how this happened," Isupov said. "People from same background fight with each other."

Isapov knows this well. He attended art school in Estonia and then moved to the United States in the 1990s. But he spent his childhood in Ukraine, when it was still a Soviet state. And he speaks the language, but he connects more with his family’s Russian background.

"My first language [is] Russian," Isupov said. "I'm so sad to see how everything [is going], in such a worst scenario. Even speaking Russian right now — embarrassing."

According to the United Nations, more than 8 million Ukrainians have so far left the country.

Now Isupov has stopped questioning how this could happen he said, because he knows the history of these two entangled countries and the war was inevitable.

"It's already been the occupation of Crimea," Isupov said. "So there's some tensions you see for a long time."

His mother, ceramics artist, has lived through those tensions. Nelli Isupova was born in Russia in 1939 and has lived in Ukraine for decades.

Since the invasion, she and her son speak almost daily. On a recent spring day, speaking in Russian, Isupova told her son she went to an art opening.

Works in progress in the studio of sculptor Sergei Isupov. He lives in an art compound, of sorts, with his family and art dealer in Cummington, Massachusetts.
Jill Kaufman
/
NEPM
Works in progress in the studio of sculptor Sergei Isupov. He lives in an art compound, of sorts, with his family and art dealer in Cummington, Massachusetts.

Sirens were also blaring for hours, she said, though she didn't find out what happened. When they sound, she told him, they remind her of being a child in World War II.

Isupova, in her 80s, is healthy, living on her own and — like her son — creates anthropomorphic sculptures, which she sells on the international market. It supplements her pension, her son said.

Long ago, she was a designer in a Soviet factory and later she owned a gallery. Her obligation as an artist, she said, has always been to make beauty.

Living in Ukraine's capital city, with the war fought more intensely closer to the borders, she said her life goes on almost as usual.

She has materials to work with and the electricity has been steady, Isupova explained through her son.

Right now, restaurants are open. So is the museum, though the art had been put away almost immediately after the invasion for safety. She said some artists are using parts of the museum for their own shows.

She's not afraid of what's happening, she said. But Sergei Isupov said his mother, who is a very optimistic person, is putting up good front.

Nelli Isupova is the matriarch of "the bright creative Ukrainian dynasty of the Isupovs, each of which is somehow connected with art," according to Huxley media, based in Ukraine.

Sergei Isupov's father, Vladimir, was a painter. He died this winter.

Artist Sergei Isupov's sculptures range in size from hand-held, to giant. This piece was in a gallery in North Adams, Massachusetts.
Courtesy
/
Ferrin Contemporary
Artist Sergei Isupov's sculptures range in size from hand-held, to giant. This piece was in a gallery in North Adams, Massachusetts.

"He's still on Facebook," Isupov said. "I feel like I just not talk to him, you know, like psychologically."

His parents separated years ago. His father lived outside of Kyiv, where the Russian invasion has been more volatile and more obvious. The electricity and phone lines were often down when Isupov tried to reach him before his death.

Isupov's brother, Ilya, is a painter, also in Kyiv. He's had a very different experience in the past year than their mother.

"For him, if you're you're talking to him, you feel through his answering, he been injured," Isupov said. "He go through difficult checkposts, almost routed to war. His kids away," sent to live in western Europe.

Isupov is careful not to complain about his life in front of his family in Ukraine, he said, or post photos on social media showing too much of a good time, like having dinner with friends. It might upset his brother.

But not his mother.

As they said goodbye on this day, Isupov translates: "She says she's not feel like she's far from us, because it's so easy to talk to each other."

And they'll talk again soon.

Isupov said it is hard not being able to see her in person, but he is candid about how much he loves living in the U.S.

He's been in western Mass. for about 20 years. The Russian invasion, he said, makes him realize how rare it is to live without war.

"So suddenly I actually start getting more appreciated how we live here in the peace," Isupov said. "I suddenly saw how neighbors so good, really realized how treasure is this."

 "Miss Comet," a public art sculpture in Cummington, Massachusetts. It's at the foot of Project Art, where artist Sergei Isupov and his family live. Isupov grew up in Ukraine and came to the U.S. in the 1990s.
Jill Kaufman
/
NEPM
"Miss Comet," a public art sculpture in Cummington, Massachusetts. It's at the foot of Project Art, where artist Sergei Isupov and his family live. Isupov grew up in Ukraine and came to the U.S. in the 1990s.

In the last couple of years, Isupov got those neighbors involved in making a public sculpture that sits at the end of the Project Art driveway. Isupov said he likes to watch people's reactions as they walk or drive or bike by.

"Miss Comet," a 9-foot-tall, three-dimensional sculpture, is an upside down head, "as if she fell from the sky," Isupov said.

Her wavy hair is made out of rows of mosaics, with help from those neighbors.

"I asked everybody to bring something they had broken, so I got all these dishes!" Isupov said.

This was the first time Isupov made mosaics and they were a challenge, he said, adding that artists need struggle to keep creating.

He’s trying to look at Ukraine’s struggle this way. Maybe in his daughter’s lifetime, he said, she'll see something good created out of this war.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."