Olivia & Jess in Ukraine

Above: At the Pototski Palace in Lviv.

Six artists were chosen to participate in the 2018-2019 Canadian Forces Artist Program (CFAP). I found this past summer that I would be joined by another artist and that we would be embedded with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in Ukraine at the same time. At first I felt a little disappointed as I was hoping that this opportunity to merge my military experience with my art practise would be a solo journey. I imagined that having another artist there would take away from the relationships I hoped to build with the soldiers while embedded. I knew this was a selfish thought so I embraced the fact that there would be two of us. And in the end it was the complete opposite. But on a side note, this artist later admitted that she thought I was an old woman until she found my instagram account. So we are basically even.

Above: In the field with the tankers and eating rations as we sit and wait.

A few weeks prior to leaving, Olivia Rozema and I started talking via instagram chat about the trip and about what to expect while embedded. We ran questions by each another about what to pack, our flight options, and logistal stuff like “how much access we will have to electric outlets to charge our batteries?” Or, “Are you packing snacks like granola bars just in case?” These check ins with each other gave me comfort in knowing that I would have someone to work through these things with.

Additionally, we both planned to stay in country and travel following our commitment with the military. We are both very independent travellers and made that clear, but agreed that it would be nice to split the cost of Air BnB’s and to have someone to enjoy dinner with in the evenings. Turns out we got along just fine and ended up doing everything together.

All dolled up at the Lviv Opera House for a ballet

I arrived in Lviv first and Olivia a couple hours after. Her first words were, “I swear I am not an idiot but I left my cell phone on the plane.” I had a feeling right there that we would get along fine. The PAO and two infantry NCM’s were there to meet and escort us to the Yavoriv training base. Once settled into our sleeping quarters (in a large open room between make shift plywood walls and a curtain for a door), Olivia and I chatted briefly about our project proposals and goals. We were both relieved and agreed that neither of us were assholes and that this would be an incredible experience.

Sleeping Quarters on base at Hostel 7

The beautiful thing about having a co pilot on any mission is that you take care of one another. I made an incredible friend and her perspective and knowledge had a profound impact on how I developed relationships with the soldiers and this helped shape the information and research that I gathered. Olivia had no military experience prior to Ukraine She noticed details of military experience that I had taken for granted or what seemed to be ”normal” activities or behaviour that I had experienced during my time in the CAF. She also asked questions that I didn’t and vice versa. The answers filled gaps in my source material and allowed me to reflect and analyze with new perspective.

Olivia was studying the military but not about the mission per say. She was interested in the individual expressions of humanity within a homogenous institution, where everyone dresses the same, eats the same, has the same orders, and working for the same goal. Olivia wrote in a recent instagram post, “I was particularly interested in those things that seem relatively insignificant to the broader context of the conflict in Ukraine. I spent a lot of time thinking about the things that people make, carry with them, of how they decorate their space. These little things are expressions of humanity and individuality in an institution that emphasizes group homogeny. Even in environments born of conflict and hostility you can find profound moments of humour, creativity, and positive self expression. I think these moments are beautiful and should be celebrated.”

Her project intentions made me think about my own personal expressions of humanity when I was in the military; the things I carried, the shared stories that were shared between soldiers that were filled with dark humour to bring light to the shitty situation we were in, and the creativity and self expression that rises through it all. I have always been aware of these sentimental objects, be it a book, a letter from home, a key, a teddy bear, or a coffee mug. Though, I had never purposely examined them on their own.

At the end of each day we had a little debrief of that days activities and reflect over dinner and make a mental list of objectives for the next day. These conversations were instrumental in adapting and gathering source material.

Above: We spent a lot of time at cafe’s and restaurants between museums, galleries, and wandering endless streets. I edited these with a KAWAII app!

From Yavoriv training base to our Air BnB in Lviv, we slid seamlessly into our travels through Ukraine. We spent five days in Lviv, five days in Kiev, and four days together in Odessa. On December 23rd Olivia flew home to Canada for Christmas and I stayed for another week and travelled to Nikopol, Zaporizhia, Dnipro, Kharkiv, and back to Kiev for a couple days before flying home for New Years Eve.

Having a friend to dig into discussions on philosophy, education, religion, art, war, and whatever else came up, was unexpected and wonderful. I am so grateful that I had a partner to share these experiences with and I look forward to catching up via skype with some wine for a massive debrief and some good ol’ reflection next week!

I have included some images below of Olivia and I. And I should note that Olivia is not one for selfies and tonnes of pics of herself. But she travelled with me and that meant she had no choice.

Above: Taken post a lot of vodka!

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 © 2019 Jessica Lynn Wiebe