Ernest G. Welch School Sits Down with 2017-2018 Fulbright Scholar Taras Lesiv
In February, Georgia State University announced its 6th place ranking among the top research universities in the United States to receive grants under the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Scholar program for the 2017-18 academic year, but Georgia State has also hosted Fulbright scholars across departments. The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government’s flagship international educational exchange and grant program. The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program operates in more than 160 countries around the world and was founded to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” In the 2017-2018 academic year, the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design had the pleasure of hosting an artist and scholar from the Ukraine: Taras Lesiv. Dr. Kimberly Cleveland, Associate Professor of Art History, was his Faculty Mentor.
Taras Lesiv is a lecturer in the Department of Sacred Art at the Lviv National Academy of Arts Ukraine, where he teaches composition, drawing, painting and art history, and is also pursuing graduate studies. His Fulbright Ukraine Faculty Development grant had two main objectives. In part, his time at Georgia State University was intended to inform his knowledge of curriculum development and teaching practices in art, art history, and art education programs at the university level in the United States, as Ukraine reshapes its higher education programs in these areas. The Fulbright grant also supported Lesiv’s research on twentieth-century Christian art. He is currently writing his dissertation on sacred art and national identity building processes in Ukraine.
Lesiv sat in on undergraduate and graduate classes, participated in discussions with students, met with faculty, and took advantage of the university inter-library loan system to access scholarly materials not available in Ukraine. He also presented his research on a politically charged fresco of the Last Judgment in the St. Josaphat Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, in the town of Chervonograd, Western Ukraine, for the Georgia State academic community at the Welch graduate research conference, “Artistic Endeavors.”
When asked what piqued Lesiv’s interest in Georgia State, Dr. Cleveland said that he was drawn to the fact that the Welch School has art, art education, and art history all in one department, and he was taken by how much freedom students have to chose courses based on their interests.
“I think he has found some people here that he has not only learned from in an academic way, but who he really enjoys. He was interested in understanding how we teach what we teach. Even if they are learning something similar in the Ukraine , he was trying to glean ideas from our methods and learn how people in the United States approach these topics,” Dr. Cleveland shared about Lesiv. She also said that Lesiv brought a lot to the conversation, “ The students in my methodology class, which he sat in on, definitely benefited from him being in the class. The questions he asked were good questions because they were coming from his perspective; he was getting us to think about things we normally wouldn’t have thought to consider.”
We sat down with Fulbright Scholar, Taras Lesiv, to let him tell us in his own words what he took away from his year studying with our students and working alongside our faculty.
Welch School of Art & Design: Tell us more about you.
Taras Lesiv: In my professional life, I wear several different hats. I am an artist, an educator, and a scholar. My three career paths are closely connected to each other. I received both B.A. and M.A. degrees in Fine Arts specializing in sacred art from the Lviv National Academy of Arts, and I also completed a postgraduate program in art history and theory at the same institution. Currently, in addition to art history, I teach practical visual art subjects such as drawing, painting, and composition. My research interests embrace the history and theory of Christian art over the last century. I am also employed as an artist, designer, and project manager on various interior design projects for Eastern Rite Christian churches both within and outside Ukraine.
WSAD: In a few sentences, what is the premise of your current research pursuits?
TL: I am currently working on my dissertation devoted to the development of iconography in Ukraine in the 20th and early 21st centuries. I have observed that iconography plays an essential role in national identity formation processes in post-Soviet Ukraine, and my insider knowledge helps me significantly in trying to understand these processes.
WSAD:What sparked an interest in this topic?
TL: It is my close professional involvement with post-Soviet revivalist processes as an artist that inspired me to think about these phenomena in scholarly terms.
WSAD:Why Georgia State? and why the Fulbright path?
TL: There are several reasons. My country recently is undergoing significant educational reforms. Both scholars and students in Ukraine are encouraged by the government to produce works that are also in line with western standards. As a young scholar, I can see that these reforms cannot be introduced without close contact with western scholarship. Therefore, Fulbright seemed to be a promising program. Regarding Georgia State, I was looking for an institution which somehow resembles my own that has established visual art, art history and theory programs to familiarize myself with contemporary American teaching strategies. As a scholar, I was also interested to find a venue that gave me access to resources that could inform my research.
WSAD:What resources have you found most valuable here at the University?
TL: Since I was focusing on published articles, the library was the most valuable resource. Before coming to Georgia State, I had limited access to literature published in English in the West that deals with identity formation processes, sacred art, and art methodology. What I did while I was here was to placed culturally specific tendencies that I absorbed in Ukraine in the context of this literature.
WSAD: What facets of your research developed while at Georgia State (i.e. did you discover anything while using the resources here)?
TL: This is an interesting question. A part of my research here concerned the Christian notion of hell in visual art. Of course, I found significant information in the library, but my understanding of this imaginary place came mostly from direct communication with people from different cultures and different religions that I met in the US. When I described my project to various people, their reactions were usually the same: “Wow, this is so interesting, I had never thought that someone could study hell”. This often lead to long conversations about the supernatural. I noticed that many people have a strong notion of hell as something very familiar. The most confusing part of such conversations was that people asked me one typical question: do I think hell really exists? Only minutes earlier these people were describing their fascinating supernatural experiences, and now they were looking for my response as a scholar. After a couple of such conversations, I realized that it less important what scholars think about otherworld, what really matters is that, for many people, the otherworld is real. In many cases, this imaginary world reflects their attitudes towards real life: it is people’s projection of reality. It is likely that many artists have had the same approach to hell over the history. I did not expect to find this before coming, and I would not have been able to realize this based only on literature.
WSAD: What have you learned about Georgia State that might be different from the universities back home?
TL: I would not be able to list everything, but one aspect of education is very distinguishable. Here, students are strongly encouraged to think critically, while in Ukraine memorizing information is still a more significant part of education. In contrast to Ukraine, you also focus on the process of studying, the result is less essential. I would say that development of study skills is a key concept of education here. I came to this idea by taking drawing classes. For example, during the class, students at Georgia State usually have 4-5 drawing sets with different poses. At my art institution, on the other hand, one model pose can last 30 hours. The obligation of a Ukrainian student is to show a well-drawn finished work, while an American student should show an understanding of the drawing process, the set of skills.
WSAD: What classes did you participate in?
TL: In addition to drawing classes (Professor Ralph Gilbert), I audited the art methodology classes (Dr. Susan Richmond and Dr. Kimberly Cleveland ), as well as Contemporary Art, Theory, and Criticism (Dr. Susan Richmond ). I was keen on understanding contemporary art processes and art history methods. As an artist, it was important for me to maintain and perfect my skills exploring local approaches.
WSAD: Did you interact much with students?
TL: Yes! This was the most exciting part of my program. I was lucky because students at Georgia State are very friendly and open-minded. Moreover, the Fulbright community at Georgia State is one of the largest in the country. I could interact with people from different countries and cultural backgrounds, so I feel as though I visited not only US but numerous other places around the world.
WSAD: Did your research overlap with anyone else’s?
TL: Not directly. However, it did overlap theoretically and methodologically. For example, Dr. Cleveland’s focus is not on Eastern Europe or sacred art but she focuses on identity formation processes in African art and Afro-Brazilian art. Her work and advice helped me to look at Eastern European art through the prism of other artistic traditions from other parts of the world.
WSAD: Did anything surprise you about Georgia State, the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design, Atlanta, or the United States?
TL: To be completely honest, yes. I had some prejudice about the US before I came here. I had thought that I would find a completely secular society, but I was totally wrong because I found the opposite. I am not talking about specific denominations, but religion as whole. The fact that Americans are very religious surprised me.
WSAD: Did anything (interactions with others, current events in the US, certain classes, faculty, etc) illuminate certain perspectives for your research?
TL: Certainly, I had come here to develop my theoretical and methodological approach towards my dissertation, and I left Georgia State thinking about a new research project regarding hell in contemporary art. I am also planning to design new courses based on the experience I gained in the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design.
WSAD: What’s next? OR What do you hope to do with your research once you return home?
TL: First of all, I plan to defend my dissertation in a few months, and I also plan to submit the article I was working on here to an American journal.
WSAD: Looking back on the year? Do you have any significant reflections?
TL: It was the most exciting and productive research time in my life. Thanks to Fulbright, I have met wonderful people within and outside Georgia State, visited numerous places, and gained new experience. This program definitely changed my life.