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Letters from Ukraine: 16/6/22 – Art Car

Preparing for his upcoming show at Irpin's House of Art, George Gittoes shares the story of the "Art Car" set to feature in the exhibition.

It has been a long time since I have experienced something as damaging as the Kibeho massacre in Rwanda but the Bridge of Death at Irpin comes close.

Like with the work I did about Rwanda, I knew I had to create at least one major work about the bridge. The cars were removed and placed in a long, rusting, and tangled pile near the road out. My painting combines studies of the wrecks in the pile with the sketches I made on the Bridge. I have gone back over and again to draw them, but it was not until my most recent time there that I noticed a car which had been hand painted. I thought, “Whoever did this had to be an artist.” The car seemed to beckon me to sit inside it. I did not have to go through a door to do this as the whole of the back of the car had been blown away. My friend, Kate, said, “So, now you are sitting in cars with the remains of dead people.” There was a terrible smell emanating from the car. I felt embarrassed and made a defensive reply: “This is not the smell of death; it is just rotting garbage.” I have smelt the smell of death too many times. The smell of death in the cars at the bridge was overpoweringly human decay. The difference was subtle but this I was sure this was not the same odour.

I sent photos of the painted car to friends and finding the story and fate of the owner of the car became a mission for my Ukrainian poet friend Viktor Solodchuk. Viktor’s quest struck a very sensitive cord with his wide circle of artist friends. The car was identified within days and soon I found myself waiting with Kate, in a café to meet the owner, S. The good news was that he was alive but if there was someone else in the car they could not have survived. 

S is twenty-eight, ultra fit, handsome, and had all the characteristic moves of resulting from Special Forces training. He sat across from me, next to Kate, and his eyes were investigating me the way an experienced detective would a suspect. I found myself gazing down at a remarkable graphic on his back T-shirt, of a hand grenade that had been sliced open with its blood-filled interior dripping into a bowl – with a section of the blood forming a peace sign. S pulled up his sleeve aggressively thinking I was wanting to see the rest of a tattoo of a knife with snake and skull symbols. I smiled and said, “No, I am looking at the graphic on your T Shirt and thinking it is probably designed by the artist we visited yesterday.” S had already told us that because of his work he could not be filmed or identified. Kate was translating and it was not clear if he was willing to tell us the story behind the car.

It was not long, however, before he figured out that he and I were kindred spirits in that we had both seen too much death, me in my long life and he in his short life. We talked about our mental scars and showed one another our physical scars from war wounds. He had joined the army and fought in the Donbas region for five years before this new Russian invasion. He said, “I saw our army do bad things in Donbas but nothing as bad as what the Russians do – it is an insult to animals to compare them to animals. What they have done to children . . .”

Having decided I was OK and after leafing through some books with my art and photos from the many wars I have lived through, he decided to tell me the story of the car. He had pictures of it on his phone. In its first incarnation it was all metallic blues and silvers with very professional-looking artwork featuring an angry bear on the front bonnet. This is a classic vintage car like a Holden Monaro, and he belongs to a club of fellow owners of the same model. He kept changing the paint job and at one point it was many different tones of red with very subtle designs. Its last design was very painterly, like a Basquiat canvas – loose and free. S said, modestly, “I decided to paint it myself without help from a spray shop.” I asked S if he saw himself as an artist and he tightened up. I could imagine him not wanting to admit to “artistic” sensibilities in front of his army buddies and not wanting it to get out. He squirmed in his seat and eventually agreed there is a creative spirit in everyone seeking to get out and this could possibly, also, be the case with him.

We told him how we would like to include the car in our House of Art show, and he fished in his wallet and found the plastic ownership/registration card and gave it to Kate. The car is now ours. He promised to be at the House of Art Show on June 21st but, of course, will remain anonymous.

Then we got the story of the car. His father borrowed the car to go to their family home in Irpin to rescue their cat. All the family had found sanctuary in Kyiv, but they were worried about the cat. His father parked the car outside in the street and was feeding the hungry cat and had just placed a saucer with milk under its nose when he heard a Russian plane and looked out the window. The low flying plane was zeroing in on the Red Cross building across the road. The missiles it fired destroyed the car. His father said he felt lucky because if he had not decided to wait for the cat to drink the milk, they would have both been in the car when the missile struck.

S’s car had joined the other wrecked cars from the Bridge of Death at Irpin, but unlike them, there is no tragedy of dead families and children attached to it. My fear that I would learn that an artist  and loved ones had been killed in the “Art Car” was, thankfully, groundless.

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