As artist Elliot DeBear watched the attack on Ukraine unfold and the mass exodus that has followed, he was gripped with a sense of horror that he tried to express with his brushstrokes on canvas.
“I was working on this painting, and it was just going to be a very simple contrast of colors,” he said. “And then the war hit.”
DeBear stores unfinished paintings in his closet, often returning to them when inspiration strikes. About six days after Russia's attack on Ukraine began, he saw a painting that was matte yellow and matte blue, mirroring the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
“It was just an attempt to meld two colors and different geometrics together," he said. "I never knew what I wanted to do with it.”
Working on the painting over the next week, the 72-year-old DeBear wanted the violence to be represented along with Ukraine's resilience. The result was his work titled “Be Strong. Be Brave. Be Free.”
“I started messing around and said, 'How can I violate the blue background?'” he said. “How can I take this painting and represent the violation of Ukraine?”
DeBear hadn’t been to Ukraine and was not personally connected to people involved in the war. Neither does he typically paint about issues in the world.
“It’s a feeling, and it's personal,” he said of his work, which he began after the loss of his left leg due to peripheral artery disease in 2018. “I don't do this for a living. I do this just to explore my emotions, to explore color and shape.”
Nonetheless, his sense of horror at what the Ukrainian people were going through drove him to bring his sympathy with them to canvas.
“You think, how would you feel if you were there?” he said. “What if your parents were in Ukraine, trying to get into Poland? It’s horrible.”
He slowly reworked the painting, adding more shades of the different colors and reducing the sharpness of the contrast, while also adding the red and black streaks across the bottom.
“You’ll see that it’s not a flat blue and it’s not a flat yellow,” he said. “I started changing the blue to look ravaged. You'll see it looks like it started with a matte blue in the background, that now has become very disturbed. And I put in a few different depths of yellow to show a big impact.”
Across the bottom of the painting, a red streak is overlaid on a streak of black. He said the red represents bloodshed and the black is there to bring out the contrast of the red, though it can also represent darkness.
“Bloodshed and darkness is what war is,” said DeBear.
However, DeBear said the theme of resilience is important in the painting.
"Although your eye is drawn to the violence," he said, "I tried not to have the violence be the main theme and show there is still a Ukraine there by having the larger part of the painting in their colors. You notice their flag — but it’s being torn up, this country.”
He said he does not want to over-define the meanings of his work. He noted that while viewers can look at his paintings and try to determine what different colors represent, or at least how they interact with each other on the canvas, art is also personal.
“Abstract art is a single person's emotional interpretation of something,” he said.
DeBear does not invest great effort in selling his artwork and said that he often gives away pieces for free. However, this painting is for sale at $900, which will be donated toward charities that will assist the Ukrainian people. For information, send an email to [email protected].
It is rare for DeBear’s artwork to involve issues in the world. However, this is not the first time that DeBear has entered such a realm. His art is typically inspired by music and nature and is usually highly abstract.
“You never know how it’s going to finish,” he said of his painting process.