Vera Nakonechny

NEA National Heritage Fellow
Headshot of the artists.

Photo by Yury Nakonechny

Vera Nakonechny Transcript

MUSIC CREDIT: “Winter Sunshine” from the album Winter Sunshine  by Evgeny Grinko, used courtesy of Creative Commons.

Vera Nakonechny: Ukraine is so rich in the arts, in the carving, the eggs, the headpieces, the embroidery, the weaving, everything. There were things that I wanted to learn and nobody knew. It died, and nobody knew because there were certain patterns and certain villages that just disappeared. It wasn’t passed down.

Jo Reed: That was Ukrainian embroiderer, bead worker, and 2014 National Heritage Fellow Vera Nakonechny and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Vera Nakonechny has made the creation and preservation of authentic Ukrainian art textile her life’s work. And she’s made her mark: she creates magnificent beadwork, embroidery, and weaving, probably best represented by the bridal headpieces that she’s become known for. Magnificent pieces of worn art that reflect a culture that almost slipped away. In fact, Vera played no small role in ensuring the rich and varied Ukrainian textile culture remain vital in the 21st century. When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, these are artistic expressions were seen as pro-nationalist and anti-Soviet, and the consequences for creating them could be severe. Often, it was the Ukrainian community in exile that kept the traditions alive. After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Vera took the first of many trips to Ukraine, both to research and to teach artistic traditions lost to the present generation.  Vera Nakonechny has received many awards for work, including a 2014 National Heritage Fellowship, which is the highest award that the US gives to folk and traditional artists. I spoke to Vera at her home in Philadelphia where she filled me in on her journey, as a child, from Europe to the United States, via Brazil:

Vera Nakonechny:  My mother and my aunt were taken to the labor camps during the Second World War and my father was in a concentration camp. But once the war was over they met in Germany, got married, and then I was already born. The United States was not taking families with children at that time, so they went to South America. They went to Brazil. And my father knew someone that had family in Brazil and they took us in and they helped us. So that’s how we got to Brazil.

Jo Reed:  Embroidery in Brazil, how is it different, how is it similar to the embroidery you do in the Ukraine?

Vera Nakonechny:  They’re not. They’re not all. And everything was stamped. So I just followed the stamp design. And my mother would look at it and she says, “Vera, there’s nothing like the Ukrainian embroidery.” She says “In Ukraine you embroider from the reverse side and the pattern comes out on the right side.” And, all of my life, I searched for that technique. So when I came to the United States then I started looking for it, who know how to embroider from the reverse side.

Jo Reed:  Your mother, did she know how?

Vera Nakonechny:  My mother knew a little bit. She would talk about it but she had a problem with her eyes. But she would tell me exactly how it was but she could not show me. But when we came here I found people that were able to show me and teach me. And one of my teachers was Eudokia Sorochaniuk. She had also received the NEA award. She, to me, is like my mother. I always called her my artistic mother, you know.

Jo Reed:  Now, how old were you when you came to the United States?

Vera Nakonechny:  Fourteen.

Jo Reed:  To Philadelphia. And there is a big Ukrainian-

Vera Nakonechny:  There’s a big community here, very big. And when I just came in, I joined the choir. And shortly after that I got married, not shortly, but, you know, an uneventful life from then. But I was always searching. A friend of mine and I, we would sit and watch our brothers and sisters and we would sit and embroider while my other sisters were going dancing and going wild and all that and here I am. But that was me, that was my passion and it still is my passion. I always did different handwork, but then when I came here it’s a different thing. Then I immersed into the Ukrainian art and I wanted to learn my own. You know, I love cultures. I love all of the cultures but I love mine and I wanted to learn.

Jo Reed:  Now, you moved from embroidery, to weaving, to doing beadwork, I mean really moving through all of textiles. How did that begin to happen? One step at a time, I would assume, but what moved you in that direction?

Vera Nakonechny:  Yes. It started, again, with my Hutsul mother, as I called her. And I wanted to learn the embroidery which is called nyzynka, from the back to the front in depth. And then together with that I wanted to do the skirt. And to do a skirt, it called for weaving, to learn how to weave. So, she taught me how to weave a belt; it’s not a belt, it’s a sash because it’s like three yards long. We did the belt, and then after the belt, the skirt.

Jo Reed:  And very colorful.

Vera Nakonechny:  Colorful. And the Hutsul region is very colorful. So from there, I learned how to weave, to learn to be able to put this costume together. Then you needed the adornments, the neck pieces, the beadwork. So to do one costume, there’s a lot to do. After that we learned how to do a bride’s headpiece: how to prepare a bride for the wedding which, again, had metal work that we did, the adornments for the head piece, for her forehead, and how to do the braids, and how to do, yeah. So each costume takes, to do its fullest, takes a lot of steps to learn. And as I went along I kept learning all the different modalities and becoming good at it. 

Jo Reed:  Another pivotal moment for you was when you finally got to go to Ukraine.

Vera Nakonechny: Yes.

Jo Reed: And that was when?

Vera Nakonechny:  Nineteen ninety-two.

Jo Reed:  What a moment that must have been.

Vera Nakonechny:  It was. It was a very, very emotional. When the plane touched the wheels, I realized I actually was in Ukraine and that there is a land called Ukraine.

Jo Reed:  It must have always been, like, kind of this dream.

Vera Nakonechny:  It was, it was because we were always taught the history, the this, the that, from our parents, all of the little nuances, you know, how they grew up and all of that and all of a sudden to be there. My mother and my aunt after 50 years, they went back home. Words cannot describe because the emotions that went through. And there were eight of them and that reunion was really something. So then, when I did that, I left her at the village where she was because my husband also has family in there. And I started traveling to different regions in Ukraine and seeing. And I was just amazed, amazed through what I was seeing and what I was not seeing.

Jo Reed:  And we’re talking about the art, the textile art.

Vera Nakonechny:  Art, yes.

Jo Reed:  Tell me what you were seeing and tell me what you weren’t.

Vera Nakonechny:  What I was seeing, it was in the mountain regions, people still had their old costumes, their old embroidery, you know, all that. In other regions, it really was more like cross stitches and it wasn’t what it was supposed to be but what it became the norm. So that really struck me as to how they assimilated to different modalities.  And I got angry and my teacher who was there a year before me, she was also very upset because everything changed and not really for the good. And she says, “What happened to this beautiful art?”

Jo Reed:  And what did happen to it?

Vera Nakonechny:  Well, they adapted instead of doing a lot of the pieces. There were pompoms all over. And some of it was distorted. And it lost the beauty from the old time.

Jo Reed:  The authenticity.

Vera Nakonechny:  Yes.

Jo Reed:  Am I right that, because the Soviet Union wanted one culture, they really quashed other expressions of distinct nationalities like Ukrainian art?

Vera Nakonechny:  Yes. Yes. A long time was if you did that, you, many were were taken to labor camps. They were taken to Siberia because then, quote, you were now looked at as a nationalist. That’s why it’s really interesting that in some of the Ukrainian embroidery they wove disguised the Ukrainian flag. The will put a blue and yellow thread and will embroider a row and, with all that they didn’t allow but he still put the colors of his flag in there. And I think this is where the gap came from not to put their family in harm’s way, they would not teach. And it lost because of the occupation, it got lost, a lot of it. So now, thank God for people here that came and escaped and were able to teach us because they said to us, “One day you will have to go back and teach.” And I just thought how ironic that is but yeah, it did happen. And yeah. So now, with all of this awareness, a lot of it is coming back.

Jo Reed:  The stitch you talked about, the technique, nyzynka, that was a stitch that you found was getting lost in Ukraine.

Vera Nakonechny:  With the young people, yes, very much so because the old people stopped teaching and the young people never learned. And it really got lost. It is basically used in the mountain region and when I went one year, they were looking and say, how is that you know and we don’t?  And it was funny, I said, if you get a piece of cloth and thread I will show you. And when I came back home I said to my teacher, you need to send patterns. And she embroidered yards and yards of patterns and she shipped it back. And she singlehandedly revived it, all of the patterns and the colors and the styles and all that.

Jo Reed:  Did you find that young people when you talk to them about it they had an interest in learning how to do it?

Vera Nakonechny:  Yes. It took off and it took off so beautifully. And now all of the old things are coming back and they are redoing, relearning and all of that. So, yeah, it’s just a big rebirth.

Jo Reed:  You do a lot of research. Can you talk about how you do research? How do you find these things? How do you find people who can show you?

Vera Nakonechny:  Well, you literally find people and go to them. And one time I remember there’s a certain region where my husband from Ternopil region and it’s the Bukovyna region were they embroidered black on black very puffy and things, a very interesting technique. And my husband’s cousin said, “There’s a little old lady that knows how to do it.” Well, we drove two hours to go one way and we went there when there was no gas. So we really went in God’s breath to get there and we got there. And the little old lady was doing but she says, “Those techniques are no longer being used. And I don’t know how to do it.” Which was a big disappointment. But what I do is I have people that I work close with in Ukraine especially in the museums. And we look for older people that still remember the old ways. And I go to their houses. And believe me, it is nice to be able to go and meet them and sit with them. And they are more than willing to show and to teach you. And the same thing was when I did this feather headpiece, the woman just was more than willing to show.

Jo Reed:  That’s one of the pieces I definitely would like you to talk about; tell us about the feathered one, if you can describe it because it is spectacular.

Vera Nakonechny:  The mummers, think of mummers in full stride. That headpiece when I saw in a museum to me was fascinating because it was big. It was white with the feathers but yet the centers having this colorful center that they do just little flower in the middle. When I went to visit this woman she says, “oh,” she says, “You need four geese, the feathers and just from under the neck because under the neck, the feathers are slightly curved. So therefore, as you’re doing the flower it curves.” So you take six feathers, put together, tie it, and do six bunches like that. So you have 36 feathers per flower and then you tie them together and then it forms this beautiful flower. And there is 45 flowers. So you do the math.

Jo Reed:  And the feathers are just some of the flowers on this headdress.

Vera Nakonechny:  Yes. And then you do the centerpiece that it’s like a little bullion stitch that it attaches to the wire and just for colorfulness. And, again, that had about close to 1,000 bullion stitches to do, like, little flowers, to do the centers. And the front piece has its own décor.

Jo Reed: How long did it take you to do the feathered wedding headdress?

Vera Nakonechny: I would say a good three months, about three months or so, because putting those flowers together took a while and then putting it all-

Jo Reed: I think the geese would take a while.

Vera Nakonechny: I brought, the feathers I brought from Ukraine, because I couldn’t find them here. I didn’t bring any germs no nothing with me and the fear of bacteria and things like that. They were all washed and cleaned, and I was able to do it the proper way.

Jo Reed:  You mentioned the belt and the skirt that got you into weaving. Can you first tell me how long it takes out to set up a loom?

Vera Nakonechny:  First, you measure how long you’re going to need. So, if my skirt has three yards I am putting about four yards of threads of each color that I need and put on a warping board and put it into sequence. Sometimes you have hundreds of threads, you have two, three hundred. I’m doing a skirt now that has 1200 threads. And you put that on to what they call the warping board. And that in there you have your sequence of threads. And then we take it out and very carefully put it on to the loom, dress up the loom, wrap it on to the loop, and from there we into the heddles which are like the metal eye pieces, we put a pattern in and pull everything in. So you are talking sometimes to put a loom together to put it up depending on how complex it is, it takes me two days, three days. If the pattern is very complex you really need to think on how you’re putting into 1200 little threads all into those heddles. And the easiest and the most beautiful part is to weave. The weaving part is, you know, you could hit it out in no time. A sash, if it’s a plain weave it could take me four or five hours tops to do it.

Jo Reed:  And how often are they a plain weave?

Vera Nakonechny:  Not too often. Not too often.

Jo Reed:  I saw those belts. They are very intricate.

Vera Nakonechny:  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  I’m also really interested in the embroidered towels. There’s a wedding towel that is very particular. Can you explain what that is, what the significance of it is?

Vera Nakonechny:  The wedding towel especially in Kiev, Poltava, they are basically done in the red colors, for the significance of energy. A lot of the things for the brides and groom, they were done in red for energy. The towel has what they call the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Life is put together in three different parts. It has the underworld, what they call it, which is your ancestors. Then comes the parents and then comes the bride and groom. The ancestors have a pattern that runs under the design, and it is closed in. Then comes the above, where there’s a beautiful pattern, a flower pattern, and then there is the parents. And then from that comes the bride and the groom, and they will have the birds, signifying the couples. Because it’s embroidered on both sides of the towel, it’s never closed in. It’s always room for growth, you know, that’s why you have that big space. Normally they are three, four yard long, the towels. They’re used to wrap their hands during the ceremony. They’re also used for them to kneel on it, and later they will put it over icons and use it at home for that purpose. Now, when that couple will have a daughter, that daughter will take that design and build on it, build her pattern, you know, do her motif, her patterns, her birds and all that. It’s really intricate. Also, the wedding towel is known as their path of life. The cloth should never be cut. You can never use two pieces of cloth to put together, because then meaning that’s a severing of life. So the ritual towels has a lot of meaning. The towels in the Ukrainian tradition goes from birth to death. Sorry. They will receive the child on a towel and they will then cover a body in a towel. And so it has a very big meaning in the Ukrainian tradition.

Jo Reed: The Ukrainian tradition is so colorful, so complicated, so varied. I know you grew up in that tradition, but when you finally went over there and got to see that country, were you surprised by that?

Vera Nakonechny: I still am. I still am, because it’s like I said, when you think you learned, you didn’t. When you think, “Okay, I got it,” no, you don’t, because Ukraine has 22 different techniques, and with those techniques there’s 200-

Jo Reed: Of embroidery?

Vera Nakonechny: Of embroidery. And with those techniques, there’s 200 and some stitches. Each technique has its own group of stitches, and I’m like, “Okay. Go try to learn all of them.” I know a lot, but not 200-some. So, this is where I still can’t die. My work is not done. You know?

Jo Reed: When did you begin to teach?

Vera Nakonechny: I think I always taught. I think that’s in my nature. What I learn, I teach. There’s a Ukrainian college, two-year college, Manor Junior College, and in there there’s a Ukrainian heritage center, and through them, I also have gotten a few grants, but we always had the shows and we would teach classes. So I think I go back to the ’80s, and I just been teaching ever since.

Jo Reed: You had an exhibit, “Looking Back to Move Forward.”

Vera Nakonechny: Yes.

Jo Reed: Perfect name.

Vera Nakonechny: Isn’t it? Yeah, because only by looking back you could learn and then move forward with it. And I said, “What can I change when everything they did was so beautiful?” It’s so modern when you look at it. It’s complex, beautiful.

Jo Reed: Tell me about that exhibit.

Vera Nakonechny: I think I had about 30-some headpieces that I put together. I did a lot, and then few I had borrowed, because a lot of it was embroidered. But I wanted it to show that every village had their own styles, and I wanted it to show, not only wedding headpieces, but also headpieces that young girls would wear. So that took me about two and a half years to put it together, between the research and the making of the headpieces. So that was quite a bit. I became a hermit. I just sat at home and I wouldn’t go out, because I had a due date. But I was just so pleased when I was able to accomplish that, to be able to show to people our traditions.

Jo Reed: You’ve won many awards.

Vera Nakonechny: yes, that was so great.

Jo Reed: Including a Pew Fellowship, which is-

 Vera Nakonechny: That’s big.

Jo Reed: It’s very big, and now a National Heritage Award. What does receiving the Heritage Award kind of say to you about the work you’re doing, the path you’ve chosen?

Vera Nakonechny: You know, the award itself is being recognized not in Ukraine but in America. For my art, it is big. It’s a big. I’m sorry.

Jo Reed: It’s okay.

Vera Nakonechny: I’m such a crier. For me, to receive something like that for the Ukrainian art, is big, not only for me but for Ukraine. I said “I really feel like I got a gold medal for Ukraine,” It kind of validates what you’re doing. I don’t do my art for getting awards for this and that. That’s just the icing, you know, the cherry on top of that cake, and it is beautiful. I’m grateful, in a sense, to live in a country that sees and understands and appreciates folk art, appreciates art. When I let them know in Ukraine that I got the highest award, it was, they were waiting for me to celebrate up there. For me personally, I just can’t, there’s no words. I don’t know. How do you put something like that in words?

Jo Reed: It’s very well deserved.

Vera Nakonechny: Thank you.

Jo Reed: It definitely is. It’s a wonderful part of the American mosaic. I think it’s the best of who we are.

Vera Nakonechny: It really is.

Jo Reed: I think art is always the best of what a country is.

Vera Nakonechny: And, you know, when I looked at other people’s, what they do and all that, I love art. And it just shows how beautiful, as you say, the mosaic, and we’re all one.

Jo Reed: That was Ukrainian embroiderer, bead worker, and 2014 National Heritage Fellow Vera Nakonechny.  You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. 

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Transcript coming shortly.

Ukrainian embroiderer, weaver and bead worker Vera Nakonechny keeps a traditional culture alive.