At the Art’s House Gallery in River Falls, you’ll find sunflowers all over the artwork on display.
A way to help Ukrainian children, traumatized by the war that has been raging for more than five months now.
“As Midwesterners, we don’t really know what to do, and you feel helpless, because we want to help,” says gallerist Kay Fritz. “We think of a painting or a map. We have cups with sunflowers, because it was the flower of hope. And that’s how it started.
This month, the gallery focused on an exhibition that Fritz and his daughter Jill call “Stand With Ukraine.”
Sixteen artists present thirty canvases representing sunflowers, a symbol of this war-torn country.
One of them is Cheryl Maplethorpe, who says she was deeply affected by the war and Ukraine’s willingness to keep fighting.
“I was happy to be asked,” she says, pointing to one of her exhibits. “It’s a sunflower that gets a little fiery and burns. So for me it’s a symbol of Ukraine.
Fritz says that through the media she heard about a school in Montenegro, where 100 Ukrainian refugee children are taught by 20 refugee teachers.
She also obtained details of a summer camp for ten displaced Ukrainian children – now set up in the Carpathian Mountains.
“I’m a retired elementary school teacher,” Fritz notes. “So helping kids get to school was very important to me.”
Fritz says she got in touch with Paul Gavrilyuk, professor of theology at St. Thomas University and founder of “Rebuild Ukraine.”
Gavrilyuk says the nonprofit St. Paul has raised more than $20,000 to help fund both the school and the camp.
Fritz says sales from the exhibit brought in about $700 — his goal is to raise $1,000.
“Before, I wanted to take my whole class home with me and shower them, feed them and hug them,” she explains. “That’s how I felt when I watch these children taken from their families.”
Among the visitors to the gallery on Friday were Andrii Purtov, his wife Nataliia Purtova and their almost two-year-old son, Mark.
“They try to help the children,” he says. “We really appreciate that.”
Purtov, 36, says his family fled Ukraine days after the Russian invasion.
He shared a video and photos of their damaged building in a town northwest of Kyiv.
“We woke up hearing the bombs and the place where we lived was under Russians for the next few months,” Purtov recalls. “Russian soldiers were staying in our apartments and houses and they destroyed almost everything.
He says his young family moved to Hungary, then Romania and Bulgaria, before arriving in the United States – first to New York, then to New Jersey, then finally to River Falls in late May.
That’s where Tammy Smith, a mortgage loan officer in town, came in.
Even before Purtov arrived, she started searching social media, looking for a Ukrainian family in need.
“I posted on a Facebook site that I would like to help a Ukrainian family, and several people contacted me,” Smith recalls. “When (the Purtovs) reached out, I just video-chatted and felt an instant connection – then we started the paperwork.”
Smith says she helped relocate the family here – even hosting them in her home.
“I can’t imagine what they went through and how happy they are now and knowing what they are still going through with their family there,” she exclaims. “It’s quite remarkable.”
Smith says she hopes Purtov — who has also worked as a mortgage loan officer and in the hospitality industry — can get her federal work permit in a month or two.
He says he would like his family to move to River Falls.
“Not just happy, we’re very happy to be here,” Purtov said. “Really it’s a beautiful place, people are very good here. I really like that, we don’t want to leave River Falls.
Fritz says the exhibit officially ends on Saturday — but adds that she plans to keep all of the unsold paintings from the exhibit on display until August.
In this small art gallery — halfway around the world from Ukraine — two examples of kindness, help and hope — for dozens of Ukrainian children — and this newly arrived family.
“You know, it’s exciting, I hope they get some stability and some kind of normalcy, which they haven’t,” Fritz says.
“They didn’t do anything wrong. They were just living their normal life and all of a sudden there are bombs above their house,” Smith adds. “Try to imagine, what if this happened in our country, and we had to leave and needed another country to help us, or someone to help us. will help.
You can find out more about Art’s House Gallery here.
For more information on Rebuilding Ukraine, click here.