In folk art, every brush stroke and stitch tells a story, and when those crafts are lost to time, so too is a piece of history. It’s a reality that Natasha Kamenska and Maria Gavryliuk, founders of the Gunia Project, know all too well. “Handmade items have always been at the heart of Ukrainian life, yet few people pass on the beauty of this national culture to their children,” says Gavryliuk.
In 2017, while volunteering at the Ivan Honchar Museum’s National Centre of Folk Culture in Kyiv, both women began to wonder why younger generations had forgotten folk crafts integral to their heritage. It sparked an idea: Form a collective of artists dedicated to producing Ukrainian crafts for a new audience using the traditional, time-worn skills of their ancestors.
The duo embarked on a quest to find artisans, traveling throughout Ukrainian villages to seek out craftspeople by word of mouth. At a market in the town of Yavoriv, they encountered a gunya, a handmade sheep’s wool coat that serves as a talisman-like garment used during major life events. Finding inspiration in the object, they christened the company Gunia Project in 2019.
Handmade items sold through the collective include fiber arts, glass and jewelry, in addition to a large inventory of painted ceramics featuring playful takes on folk-art motifs and religious themes. Many of the pieces sport images of saints and angels that loom lage in Ukrainian faith and lore (their ceramic production began with a single artist who happened to be trained as an icon painter). While the artistic sensibility of these pieces feels modern and fresh, the subject matter is timeless and deeply ingrained in the national identity.
For Gavryliuk and Kamenska, preserving Ukrainian culture for future generations has acquired even more significance as of late. “With the war at our doors, we know that our culture needs to be preserved and cherished,” says Gavryliuk. “Art is so closely intertwined with history that destroying folk crafts destroys our cultural heritage, and the country as a whole,” adds Kamenska. thenopo.com