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Cape Cod's first Artist of the Year raises money for Ukraine

Jo Hay of Provincetown has jump-started the global #ArtForUkraine movement locally with a one-of-a-kind Zelenskyy portrait to benefit Ukrainian children.

The Arts Foundation of Cape Cod has named Provincetown painter Jo Hay Artist of the Year, the nonprofit's first honor for a creator who inspires change.

The award recognizes Persisters, Hay's ongoing portrait series of women who fight for social justice including Vice President Kamala Harris, the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Rachel Maddow.

This week on Instagram, Hay auctioned off a canvas of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy and gave its winning $2,300 bid to Save the Children’s Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund.

Hay spoke with CAI's Patrick Flanary on Monday.

Patrick Flanary: Describe Zelenksyy and how you were able to capture a person I assume you've never met.

Jo Hay: I haven't met him. I think I'm so emotionally overwhelmed as many people are by this situation. It's just an emotional charge that I feel the need to paint somebody. That's always been the driving force of the series that I work on. And it was the same in this instance, almost more immediate and urgent that I had to paint him. I thought, this has to work out in the world in a bigger way and be of more benefit to him and his people.

PF: Do you have a connection to Ukraine?

JH: I don't have a direct connection to Ukraine. I just feel that this is a humanitarian crisis. I feel that the older I get, I realize we are all the same. We all belong together; we are one. If some are in pain, we are all in pain. 

PF:  The Arts Foundation of Cape Cod recently named you its first Artist of the Year. What does it mean to you? 

JH: It's a really tremendous acknowledgement of the work that I've been doing. In a broader context, I think it recognizes the position of women in the world also, so I'm thrilled that it's got both of those angles. 

PF: You've painted 17 portraits for your Persisters series. How long does each portrait take from start to finish, and which portrait was most difficult?

JH: They vary. I always say if I can have a month to six weeks to work on one, that's sort of the ideal amount of time, because I do like parts of the painting to dry so I'm not always painting wet onto wet. That said, I made Christine Blasey Ford in nine days because it all came about so quickly. The most difficult? I would say Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stacey Abrams were the two that I think I spent the most time going back and forth trying to make sure that I really got their likeness. Because that's the technical difficulty for me: Are people going to recognize these women? I need them to do that. So I spent many sleepless nights with both of those paintings. They can go through stages of not looking like themselves and also looking rather grotesque.

PF: I love the word grotesque.

JH: It's a frightening moment to be in because I have to think, Can I get it back to where I need it to be? But it's also the most invigorating because at that point I'm sort of flying by the seat of my pants. So I now acknowledge when that phase is coming up that it's a good phase.

PF: Do the subjects acknowledge the same? I've seen a photo of Rachel Maddow posing next to your portrait of her. How did she like it?

JH: I think that she was surprised and she was quite humble to the idea of having a large painting thrust in front of her. I think it made her a little uncomfortable. But she was very kind to stand there and look at it and talk about it. I remember her saying to me that it looked to her as though she was looking through a kaleidoscope and seeing reflected images of herself.

PF: We should note that portraits from your Persisters series can be seen at Michelle Axelson's shop Womencrafts in Provincetown. Womencrafts is lesbian-owned-and-operated and carries work made and written by women.

JH: It's a really amazing venue, and it just feels like a really good symbiotic relationship. I'm most happy when these paintings are being seen by regular people on the street. I feel that they're at their most alive when people are in front of them and talking about them in an environment that isn't necessarily a museum or a gallery. They're doing the work that I've realized that they can do, which is connect women and support women.

Jo Hay is from Newcastle, England, and has lived in Provincetown since 2005. Her work can be seen at Womencrafts and her partner's space, Carolyn Kramer Gallery.