Cherish the Clear Skies! 

Solo Show at Houston Center for Photography  

April 8–June 19, 2022

Exhibition abstract by Dorota Biczel

Cherish the Clear Skies!
celebrates the vibrancy and exuberance of Ukrainian rural culture and its deep, symbiotic relationship with the lands that have spurted it. Since 2018, Houston-based artist and visual researcher Jake Eshelman has been working in Heisykha, Kyiv Oblast, focusing on a single family and its life on a tiny ancestral farm. Even though the small village of Heisykha is far from immune to the pressures of climate change and the onslaught of industrialization—particularly the proliferation of monocropping—its dwellers rely on the fruits of the earth and maintain a daily connection with the rhythms of the planet and its seasons. Indeed, celebrations of crops, harvests, and natural cycles dictate the Ukrainian calendar and underlie all major holidays whether secular or adopted by Christianity. Likewise, local plants, flowers, birds, and animals abound in the material and visual culture: from symbol-loaded bouquets to various forms of home decor and embroidery. Especially, they give meaning to rushnyky–highly ornate ceremonial towels that adorn icons and also, today, images of loved ones. As Eshelman observes, neither communism, capitalism, nor even Christianity could fully displace the centrality of the ancient “Mother Earth” to Ukrainian culture.

Although the adults of the Ivanchuk family have day jobs that would be familiar to many here in the US (the father is a handyman and the mother–head teacher at the village school), and two daughters delight in secrets and Instagram as much as their counterparts elsewhere, they also grow, raise, forage, and preserve their own food. And despite its miniscule size, their subsistence farming is rich and diverse, encompassing fields of different grains, potatoes, fruit trees, and lush herb and flower gardens. Guarded by their beloved cats and dog, Rex, the household includes myriad other-than-human residents: chickens, ducks, rabbits, goats, and pigs. As is the case in any agroecology, the relationships between people and animals is endlessly complex, yet all protagonists—including the other-than-human—are equally important to the dwelling and in Eshelman’s work. Ultimately, the sheer delight in simple pleasures of the Earth’s gifts experienced by all living beings takes center stage in his photographs. Many images exude vitality and fecundity. These photographs are also a sobering reminder that we already have all that we need and that we are also on the brink of losing it all. However, at the moment, the stakes for the inhabitants of Heisykha and Ukraine are much higher than for us in Houston. As there’s much to learn from this quietly profound household six-thousand miles away, this work also encourages us to consider what was—and is—possible for a future we all share.

Archival digital pigment print exhibited with hand-embroidered rushnyk by Tetiana Ivanchuk 

Rushnyk, detail.

Excerpt from “Ukraine is my heart. I can't live without my heart.” 28 Mar, 2022
Looping video letter by Olexandra Ivanchuk & Sophia Ivanchuk, with images contributed by Yulia Tsviakh and a sung performance by Serhii Ivanchuk.
7 minutes and 11 seconds | Courtesy of Olexandra Ivanchuk & Sophia Ivanchuk

To enrich the exhibition and provide a real-time lens into everyday life for the family in Ukraine, we invited Sasha & Sophia Ivanchuk—the sisters depicted in the work—to takeover the Houston Center for Photography instagram account for two 14-day installments. Select screen recordings courtesy of Sasha Ivanchuk, Sophia Ivanchuk, & Houston Center for Photography.