Ukraine’s devastation manifested in statistician’s ceramic art


When Russian forces invaded Ukraine just over two years ago, they pierced a piece of Irina Bondarenko’s heart.

Bondarenko, a statistician lead for the biostatistics department in the School of Public Health, grew up and lived in Kyiv, Ukraine, until the mid-1990s.

The start of the war propelled her to take a six-month leave of absence from U-M to volunteer for United Help Ukraine, an organization helping to deliver humanitarian aid. It also sapped Bondarenko of the joy she experienced creating functional ceramics.

Friends from the Clay Work Studio in Ann Arbor nudged her to come back to the ceramic studio and perhaps recapture that joy while she struggled with news and images of her home country under siege.

A photo of a woman standing with her art installation
Irina Bondarenko, a statistician lead for the biostatistics department in the School of Public Health, grew up in Ukraine and was inspired to create an exhibition called “Guardian Passage: The Power of Ukrainian Cultural Memory in the Face of War,” an exhibition hosted by the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

Step by step she made her way back to the studio. One day, just to practice, Bondarenko elected to make some simple cylinders.

“The truth is, if you feel unbalanced inside, whatever you’re doing is wobbly, and your hands project what’s inside to the clay or other material,” Bondarenko said. “I didn’t like my cylinders.”

After making about 20 of them, she started to cut them up to recycle them and in the pile of rubble, she found something unexpected.

“I cut the wire through the rubble and it exposed cross-section reminiscent of beautiful calligraphic forms,” she said. “I was surprised by my discovery and was keen on exploring this idea of beauty emerging despite injury or destruction,” she said.

A photo of a work of art called "Reflection."
Irina Bondarenko created this work called “Reflection,” the result of discarded pieces of cylinders. (Photo by Irina Bondarenko)

Finding beauty in unexpected places is something Bondarenko has done since her childhood in Ukraine. Suffering a pediatric stroke when she was 11 months old, her mobility was affected and thus she spent much time in solitude, reading and drawing, she said.

She would regularly spend summers in the small, remote village of Pliuty near the Kyiv countryside with her grandmother. It was a place she didn’t appreciate in her teens, but later became a positive focal point in her memories.

“When not too many things happen around you, the simple things, you zoom into them,” she said. “You take time to explore.”

Bondarenko said she always had an interest in ceramics but there weren’t any public ceramic studios in Ukraine during her time there. She picked up the craft about 15 years ago when her children started elementary school and focused on making functional pieces.

That all changed Feb. 24, 2022.

“The world around me changed, my environment changed, and I started to respond to this,” she said.

The devastation in Ukraine first manifested into her artwork through what she called “shrapneled” bowls. She mixed organic materials like grains into clay while making bowls, and the grains burned cavities into the bowls when placed in the kiln.

“They reflect the injury, sort of like from shrapnel,” she said. “It’s an interesting process, and it was fascinating to me when I discovered it.”

Ukraine featured heavily in her next project in multiple layers. She made several boat-shaped ceramic tiles and on the inside drew scenes featuring Motanka, a guardian doll without facial features that is traditionally made from old textiles that in Ukrainian lore simultaneously represented nobody and everyone and offered protection from evil.

On the underside of the boats, she inscribed poems, many of them written during the war and others that held deep meaning for Bondarenko.

The 24 boats were then hung by red strings, and “Guardian Passage: The Power of Ukrainian Cultural Memory in the Face of War” was displayed in the International Institute Gallery of the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia in October-November 2023 and in the Duderstadt Center Gallery in December. These two exhibitions were part of the Arts & Resistance theme semester and supported by the U-M Arts Initiative.


An accompanying web app contained visual and verbal readings of both the original Ukrainian versions and English translations of each poem.

“The Guardian Passage, I felt like it was rewarding working on these individual tiles,” she said. “I felt like every time I made one, I’m sending some sort of protection there. Showing this work, it allows people to connect to Ukraine and feel the impact of the war on people.”

While the installation is no longer available for public viewing, the website remains live so visitors can hear the English and Ukrainian versions of the poets’ works. One of those poets was Maksym Kryvtsov, a Ukrainian junior sergeant who was killed Jan. 7 at the age of 33, reportedly in an artillery strike.

Bondarenko never met Kryvtsov, but his death hit her hard. She tracked down his mother and during a three-week visit to Ukraine in March met with his family to share the translation of his poems by Oksana Rosenblum.

“I think Maksym’s mom is about my age, and I cannot even think about that experience,” she said. “It was difficult to approach her, and I’m so glad I did.”

Kryvtsov was also a photographer, and his family invited Bondarenko to a national literary museum in Kyiv where his work was to be displayed during her visit. Family members and friends also read his poems aloud during the exhibit. Bondarenko was so moved that she is working on a new installation called “Boat for Maksym” dedicated to Kryvtsov and using tiles to share his poems here.

“Being honest, I lost an ability to cry since 2022,” Bondarenko said. “It’s very hard for me to cry, but it was very emotional. If nothing else happened on my trip, it was worth going there.”

  • The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, email the Record staff at

Bondarenko’s visit to Ukraine was her first since before the COVID-19 pandemic. While it was jarring to witness the trauma, she was struck by something deeper that she witnessed.

“I found a very beautiful society,” she said. “I think the relationship between people changed in a way that people are more connected to one another and people are more supportive, and you can observe it in the street. People are more attentive to each other than four years ago.”

She also observed a deep interest in arts and literature in Kyiv with people clamoring for any opportunity to see art displayed and visit theaters. She thinks people feel empowered by art and it feeds into the nation resilience in the face of the war.

Three of her friends are involved with the Kyiv State Academy of Decorative and Applied Arts and Design, and she’s visited it a few times.

After Bondarenko had returned from Ukraine, the academy was bombed March 25 and suffered significant damage. Her friends escaped injury, but knowing this leading art academy and many of its contents were victimized by the war devastated Bondarenko. She helps to fundraise money to replace shattered windows in the study halls.

“This war is existential for Ukraine. I want to ask people to think about it, because the world without Ukraine would be different,” she said. “It will lose an old resilient and beautiful country that strived to be a new democratic state on the map, inspired by the democratic ideals that is in the core of our American democracy.  

“For me, as a Ukrainian-American, it’s very hard to watch from a distance what is going on there and knowing that the country I call home for 25 years has the power to save Ukraine, but it may choose not to provide help desperately needed in Ukraine.”

(Correction: This article has been updated to correct Irina Bondarenko’s appointment.)



  1. Marina Epelman
    on April 19, 2024 at 8:29 am

    I was at the opening of the exhibit of works Irina by two other Ukrainian artists at the Duderstadt last Fall. The works were beautiful and heart-wrenching. The website for the Guardian Passage showcases the pieces and the context for them. But seeing them hanging on threads in the gallery, gently moving and casting delicate shadows on the floor, adds to the feeling of fragility and elusiveness of lives and memories…

    I am so glad to see Irina and her work showcased.

Leave a comment

Please read our comment guidelines.