SOON AFTER RUSSIA invaded Ukraine in 2022, Svetlana Soldatova sent a painting of magnolias to the Montville Art Gallery. The painting was the artist’s reaction to the violence and the persistent resilience, beauty and life that she has observed in her birth country since Russia launched its attack.

“The first couple of months after it started, I was completely in shock, depression. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t paint. I can’t imagine how people lived in sight of that horror,” Svetlana says.

“One of my Facebook friends attended the same art college as me. He is living in the centre of Kyiv next to the botanical gardens and he has an old mum, and in the first horrible days of the war, they visited the botanical gardens every day.

“In March, magnolias start to blossom, and they took plenty of beautiful photos of magnolias in those horrible, horrible times. I asked permission from the guy to use those photos to make a picture.”

While not all her paintings carry the same meaning as the magnolias, Svetlana’s formidable florals and trees, painted with a brush heavily dipped in realism, are what she is best known for in Australia.

At Montville Art Gallery, which has represented Svetlana since she moved to the Sunshine Coast five years ago, she is regarded as a “true artist”, persistent and dedicated to her craft, with a growing following of admirers and a bright future.

“As with all well-known artists, her work is recognisably distinct from other painters. Impressively coloured and rendered with small brush strokes, Svetlana creates a lush thick impasto tapestry of paint,” says a gallery statement.

“Nature in general, and foliage and flowers in particular, are her inspiration, with dense, highly complex compositions. Occasionally underwater scenes will be part of the mix, blending effortlessly with the other works in her collection.”

While Svetlana chooses to concentrate on realistic portraits of nature, the truth is she is capable of many artistic styles – folk art, illustration, design, even collage.

“They are just different parts of my personality. I might be crazy,” she jokes.

Born to artist parents, she was destined to be an artist.

“My parents let me paint on the table and on the walls,” she tells salt.

“I can remember when I had chicken pox, and they used a very green liquid, antiseptic, green liquid, on the spots, and I took that very green paint and I remember there were plenty of animals on my body, a very crazy, animal zoo.

“Much later, when I studied Ukrainian folk art, I recognised it’s really traditional for Ukrainian women to paint plants and monster animals.”

Svetlana studied art as a teenager before she began illustrating children’s books and designing posters for children’s musical theatre.

The work of creatives was closely monitored. A poster she designed for a children’s musical about an ugly duckling attracted the attention of authorities, concerned that her depiction of a big egg surrounded by smaller eggs was a comment on the Soviet system.

“Those guys in the Department of Culture, they tell me, ‘He isn’t born yet and he thinks he is better than the others’?”

But times were changing.

“It was interesting times in the ’80s. The Soviet Union was collapsing. It was hard times but interesting times. Artists of my generation were lucky to live in a more free society than past generations,” she says.

“I had a few exhibitions: solo exhibitions and a lot of group exhibitions. It was difficult to make money, but it was easy to show pictures.”

Svetlana moved to Australia with her brother and mother in the mid-1990s, attracted by a relatively safe environment, strong democracy and warm climes.

It was not an easy transition. Language was a barrier, so she decided to learn English and study art and design again.

“Here, I am not illustrator anymore, I’m not artist anymore. I’m nobody here, let’s start from the very, very, very beginning,” she says.

“I thought when I came here that I already have design experience but no, it’s good to learn.”

She says it took her a long time to regain the feelings of connection and confidence she missed after leaving Ukraine.

“Only in the last 10 years, I come back to myself, who I was in Kyiv,” she says.

“I speak English better; I understand people around me. Thanks to computers, I have a Google translator.

“I can get a lot of information from Google, a lot of art history, a lot of folk traditions, the different cultures.”

Svetlana worked as a designer for Catholic Education and a t-shirt company in Sydney, painting at night, but has been able to focus on her own art since downshifting to Caloundra South.

Her first solo exhibition in Australia was at the Queen Street Gallery in Sydney, owned by the family of the late artist Robert Dickerson, which was an honour for her. She still has work in the Gannon House Gallery in Sydney, but after moving to the Sunshine Coast, Svetlana linked with Arts Connect Inc, which led to her ongoing relationship with Montville Art Gallery.

She is connected to Ukraine artists both in Australia and abroad, and was recently one of six artists involved in an exhibition, Terracotta Soil, at Scrumptious Reads Gallery, Red Hill, Brisbane to support Ukraine’s defence efforts and the creatives in Ukraine who defy Russia’s authoritarianism.

“Plenty of wonderful artists, wonderful actors, wonderful writers, scientists are dying in the war. They came to the war as volunteers,” she says.

“Ukraine is losing its best people. Russia sent criminals from jails but Ukraine, people that come and volunteer are the best people.

“They just feel strongly that they need to defend their country, the democracy.”

Svetlana admires the work being done by Ukrainian artists, who are continuing to produce and exhibit throughout the war.

“It’s like saying, ‘No, we’re still alive’. They’re so courageous. They go to exhibitions, go to concerts and continue conversations,” she says.

“Even in the first couple of months, when people were surviving in the subway train stations, they were singing songs.

“They’re trying to be creative. It’s a way to say no to Russia and yes to life.”

montvilleartgallery.com.au