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  • Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Audrey Ushenko, a faculty member at IPFW, works on a painting in the main hall of Walb Student Union that was commissioned by the school to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Instead of working solitarily in a studio, Ushenko favors working among people in public places.

  • Ushenko’s 5-by-7-foot painting has about two dozen figures. She calls her style of painting narrative realism – large-scale impressions of populated spaces.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Working in the main hall of Walb Union, Audrey Ushenko, a faculty member at IPFW, works on a painting commissioned by the school to celebrate its 50th anniversary. With Video

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Working in the main hall of Walb Union, Audrey Ushenko, a faculty member at IPFW, squints as she works on a painting commissioned by the school to celebrate its 50th anniversary. With Video

  • Courtesy An example of one of Audrey Ushenko's still-life paintings.

  • Audrey Ushenko

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 9:59 am

Keeping it real for IPFW 50th

Rosa Salter Rodriguez The Journal Gazette

On a cold Tuesday night in January, Audrey Ushenko, her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail and her clothing splotched with paint, was in full creative mode in a first-floor corridor of the Walb Student Union at IPFW.

In front of her on an easel stood an oil painting with about two dozen human figures sketched in pencil or partially filled in with color. Gripped in one hand was a preliminary painting on drawing paper of a young man in a wheelchair and in the other, a paintbrush she was using to transfer the image to the bigger work.

Ushenko had been there most of the day, as students filed by and attendees at an awards dinner in a nearby ballroom stopped occasionally to chat. And, as the clock ticked toward 9 p.m., she admitted feeling a bit of creative anxiety.

The work on the easel had been commissioned by the university for its 50th anniversary, and its unveiling is scheduled for May 9 at a gala celebration. Between teaching a painting class at IPFW, commuting back and forth to Chicago, where she lives part time, Ushenko, 70, says she has her hands full. 

And that’s even before helping to care for her 74-year-old husband, retired lawyer and refugee-advocate Slawomit Hatsay, who has end-stage kidney disease and is on dialysis.

"It’s starting to be not a lot of time," she says of the remaining weeks until the painting must be finished.

But for Ushenko, who has taught at IPFW since 1988, deadlines are nothing unusual. What is unusual is her way of working, not to mention her path to a long career as a visual artist.

Instead of painting solitarily in a studio, Ushenko makes a practice of working among people in public places. She calls what she does narrative realism – large-scale impressions of those spaces populated with people.

For some of the people, the setting is a native habitat; others are individuals Ushenko meets by chance when they pass by while she is working.

She paints, she says, while "being part of the stream of life." And she finds it exhilarating.

"Some people think the artist has to be alone to paint. I have to be alone to plan, but not to paint. Not painting in a studio was so energizing to me," she explains.

"I was at a point in my career where I thought there was nothing new; everything was S.O.S., same old (expletive). It was taking architectural spaces and putting people in them as well, interacting with the space and with them, and them interacting with the space, that was new to me. … It enriched my creativity."

Over the years, Ushenko’s creativity has taken many forms.

Growing up at the university doorstep as the daughter of a Canadian mother and an emigre from Russia who was a philosophy professor for a time at Princeton University, Ushenko was a serious piano student as a youngster. But as a result of that training, she also was a high school dropout who needed to get her GED certification to enter college. 

There, her first academic interest was English literature. She got her Bachelor of Arts in it from Indiana University, where her father also had taught, in the heady mid-1960s. She earned a master of arts in painting from Northwestern University shortly after.

But her entry into academe came not as a visual artist but through art history. As an expert in the history of papermaking, she was hired to teach art history and be director of the printmaking shop at Valparaiso University. There, she began painting seriously and, she says, nearly abandoned work on her dissertation.

But she was persuaded to finish, and she earned her doctorate in art history from Northwestern. With an influential mentor in art historian Sherman Lee, one of the Monuments Men of World War II, she thought her career path was set. But painting lured her.

"I became," she says with a smile, "another New York starving artist" and migrated from school to school, teaching for a time. 

Painting was a constant, but her subject matter continued to evolve. Intrigued by the paintings of the 17th-century masters, she created still lifes using everyday objects in contemporary settings, juxtaposing those items against scenes of the outdoors, sometimes seen through a window.

She did portraits, especially self-portraits, but with a twist. Several works for which she is known show multiple self-images from various perspectives. Another is a startlingly vulnerable-looking frontal nude that depicts her head as the snake-springing head of Medusa of Greek myth; she says the painting was a feminist commentary on the devaluing of women as they age.

For a while, Ushenko did paintings loosely categorized as in the tradition of memento mori – the phrase means "while in life, remember you must die." She did landscapes, went through an abstract expressionism phase.

And she found success. Ushenko has been represented for many years by the Denise Bibro Gallery in New York. She has exhibited in many shows there and elsewhere.  

It was a flash of inspiration while viewing an exhibit on ancient Egypt with her daughter, Emily Hartsay, a graduate student in archaeology, that drew her to placing people from different periods in the same physical setting. "In the same boat, as it were," she says. 

Her first large works of this type depicted a friend’s party, populated by people she knew at different times, and memorialized a prominent artist by imaging people he knew in life. 

But now, she is drawn to the public square. She has painted at a parochial school, where the commission was to capture God in the faces of children; and in a Chicago hospital lobby, where she tried to capture the depth of the human dramas going on around her.

One of her largest commissions had her painting at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago, a state office building. There, her subjects included an ex-police dog with cancer named Max and his officer owner and a man Ushenko says she later saw being led away in handcuffs.

Sometimes, those who stopped to watch her paint added a few brushstrokes. Children, she recalled, lined up to take swipes at her Thompson Center painting; not all their marks made the final cut, but some did.

Ushenko has painted an IPFW-themed work before and has done a portrait of Chancellor Vicky L. Carwein. She confesses a real kinship with the university. Her new painting, 5 feet by 7 feet, mingles the image of a mastodon with features of campus landmarks and portraits of students, staff and others connected to the institution. 

"One of the reasons I was attracted to come here – I mean, I never heard of IPFW when I was looking for a job – was its mission, which is providing a liberal education to people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity," she says. "It went from a ‘desperation job’ to a place where I really wanted to teach."

Ushenko says she especially enjoys "eccentric students" – not necessarily those with quirky personalities, although one senses that quirks are appreciated. She means those who come with other than the typical straight-out-of-high-school résumé. 

Giving students who won’t become artists "a window" into the mind and work of those who are is important, she says. "Allowing students to see how they are as an artist for a little bit. … It’s wonderful," she says.