Painting the Taiwanese Countryside

Ivan Yehorov

2019 / July

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

Ukrainian artist Ivan Yehorov moved 8000 kilo­meters to Taiwan thanks to his marriage of destiny to his Taiwanese wife, Marie Lin. Once here, Yehorov, a friendly Slav with brown hair and deep-set blue eyes, brought elements representative of Taiwan, such as old red-brick homes, temples, bananas, and fields of ripening rice, into his work. His paintings leave deep impressions of the Taiwanese countryside in people’s minds.


Arriving at the home of Ivan Yehorov and Marie Lin on Dong­hai Arts Street in Tai­chung’s Long­jing District, one finds a rather typical Taiwanese residence. The roses and leaves drawn with colored crayons on the wooden doors are the only obviously unusual feature. Inside, landscape paintings are hung here and there on the walls, and stacks of painted canvases rise nearly to the ceiling. One can sense that the residents of this space are free spirits immersed in the realm of art.

A professional illustrator

Ivan was born in 1968, in Yampil in Ukraine’s Vinnytsia Region, across the Dnister River from the Republic of Moldova. Vinnytsia is an important Ukrainian agricultural area, and Ivan grew up in a farming community, amid the rich blessings of the land. It gave him a sensitivity to and deep reverence for nature.

Showing a talent for painting from a young age, he received a comprehensive education in the fine arts. At 16, he started his career by designing display windows for department stores. He then became an agent for performing artists, as well as a painter himself. In those capacities he traveled throughout the Soviet Union, and his experiences nourished his creativity.

In the USSR of the 1980s, artists and designers weren’t illustrating with computers yet. Creating commercial designs and advertising signs and posters was still labor-intensive work mostly done by hand. All that practice gave Ivan a deep grounding in technique, which has served him well as a painter. What’s more, during his military service he spent some time drafting portraits of political figures. That experience likewise provided a good foundation for his later portraits.

Love in a fallen city, 1990s style

Ivan and Marie met in the Soviet Union shortly before its fall.

In 1990, Marie Lin and some Danish friends set off on world travels and arrived in the Soviet Union, a place for which it was difficult to obtain a visa. Back then people in the USSR had little contact with the outside world, she recalls. Everywhere you looked, you saw Russian, and hardly anyone even spoke English. Although she had a foreign-language degree and much experience traveling by herself, all that was little help in the USSR. At a particular moment of confusion, Marie met Ivan, who was then working in Moscow. He volun­teered to be her tour guide. From that meeting prompted by her asking for directions, they became pen pals.

As their romance blossomed, the world was changing. The Soviet Union, which had been the world’s largest communist country, disbanded in 1991, and that same year Ukraine declared independence. Many of the agencies named on stamps in their passports from those years no longer exist. But the two continued their lives hand in hand, moving from Moscow to Taiwan, and settling down in Tai­chung’s Qing­shui, where they had a child. The difficulties they faced in establishing their home have led them to treasure it all the more. When people hear their story, they can’t help but regard it as an updated version of Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang.

A painter’s long gaze upon Qingshui

In 1996 Ivan and Marie married and settled down in her hometown of Qing­shui. Consequently, that town became his main subject as a painter.

He made a visual record of the then little-known Gao­mei wetlands. There were no boardwalks back then, and no wind turbines generating electricity. There was just the old eight-sided lighthouse, a temple to Mazu, and a military sentry post, as well as egrets and migrat­ory birds foraging along the shore. The unhurried, peaceful images of the wetlands he captured in his paintings evoke a wistful sense of longing. Over two decades, he painted more than 40 pictures of the Gao­mei wetlands in all four seasons and at all times of day.

“Do you know which perspective there is the most beauti­ful?” asks Marie. “It’s the view from the wetlands looking back toward the old town.” Ivan’s take on Gao­mei is a view that few have captured, but it’s one of Taiwan’s unique landscapes. Qing­shui faces the sea with its back to the hills, and at the foot of the hills there is a row of old houses, where a train passes from time to time. All of these elements feature in Ivan’s paintings.

At first glance, few would guess that Ivan’s paintings of Taiwan are by a foreigner. “I think what’s unusual about Ivan is that he doesn’t try to force his own conceptions onto his work,” observes Marie. “He takes Taiwan as it is.”

Or perhaps it is only because he was diligently ­working here and striving to adapt to his locale that he was able to discover that bright yellow loofah blooms make such a beautiful match with old red-brick houses. Then there are those plump watermelons growing on sand that engender such a sense of joy, and those bright yellow rape flowers seemingly expending every last bit of their energy, as if knowing that their mission as a cover crop is to protect the spring mud. And there are slightly me­ander­ing rows of green rice shoots, and off to the side a banana tree with ripened fruit weighing it down nearly to the ground. Though painted by a Ukrainian, these landscapes are bursting with “Taiwan flavor” and record the simple life in Taiwan’s countryside—one that is gradually dying out.

Ivan’s painting style is largely impressionist. As for his subjects, he looks to nature, along with the casual beauty of daily life. His paintings record the changing light and shadows of different times of day. His journey as a painter moved from the super-­realism of his youth gradually toward impressionism, and then recently once again toward a more realistic style as he has become a self-­described “nature minder.” His paintings do not cater to the whims of the marketplace. He often sits in a corner of a field and paints images of the beautiful Taiwan in his mind, which have a fidelity only to the feelings of his heart. Eschewing over-­perfectionism, he renders the simplest of outlines, to which he adds vibrant color as he conveys his emotions through exuberantly blooming hibiscus, lushly ripe ears of rice, and brash sea waves.

Painting has soothed his homesickness: “Immersing myself in the environment here and coming to passionately love it has made my longing for home less severe.”

Respecting “freedom”

Back when Marie was traveling through the Soviet Union, she was frequently mistaken for a Kazakh. Likewise, the father of her host family in Germany would often mix up Taiwan with Hai­nan Island. People in Ukraine still have very limited knowledge of Taiwan even today. Ivan and Marie have worked hard to become a bridge of understanding between these two places, so that more people can gain a better understanding of Taiwan. Ivan has been profiled in Ukrainian print media, and his story has even been covered on television there. In Taiwan he has put on several painting exhibitions with a Ukrainian theme, such as the “Golden Ukraine” exhibition at the Kao­hsiung County Cultural Center in 1998, his “Ukraine My Homeland” solo show at the Chang­hua County Cultural Center in 2003, and his “Memory over Ukraine” solo exhibi­tion at the Hsin­chu City Art Gallery in 2012. Taiwanese have also gained a perspective on their own homeland through the eyes of this Ukrainian painter, thanks to his “Qingshui Through the Eyes of a Ukrainian Painter” show at the Tai­chung City Seaport Art Center in 2000, and his “Heart of Taiwan” solo exhibition at the Tai­nan Cultural Center in 2018. Through the medium of painting he is helping people to gain better understandings of each other across geographic and cultural divides.

We visited Ivan on his birthday, and he offered us a simple, healthy meal of brown rice, a salad, shrimp and chicken soup. A discussion about food led to the issue of genetically modified foods before talk turned to Ivan’s paintings of old houses and his hopes for Taiwan. Ivan believes that the people of Taiwan should show more care for its natural ecosystems and for preserving traditional buildings. The bars over the windows of many of Taiwan’s residences made a big impression on Ivan when he first came here. In his estimation, windows should able to swing freely open. In Ukraine only the wealthy put bars over windows to secure their spaces. There are interesting cultural differences between the two places.

This family has a simple lifestyle and communicates through a mix of Chinese, English and Russian. They don’t have high material demands, but they live on a rich spiritual level. Ivan has wide-ranging interests. His mother was a chef, and he learned how to prepare several dishes from her. He can take driftwood and turn it into cute and colorful handicrafts. Happily chatting, Ivan brought out some home-brewed flower wine to make a toast. He was in good spirits that day, and he sang a few lines of a song. His resonant voice gave the impression that he is quite the singer too.

This multitalented man experienced a big turn in his life when he met Marie and decided to move to Taiwan. After Ukraine gained independence, Ivan, who was working in Moscow, became regarded as a foreigner there. As the cost of living there rose, his salary was cut. Meanwhile, Ukraine fell into a severe depression, such that many Ukrainians left to find work in various European nations. That’s why Ivan decided to leave for Taiwan, explained Lin. To that explanation Ivan added one word: “Freedom.” 

Ivan has been in Taiwan for 23 years, and the island has become his second home. With a Taiwan identity card, he has become a genuine Taiwanese. He has witnessed the island’s progress on all fronts, and he regards the air of freedom in Taiwan as something that is sacrosanct and nonnegotiable.

“Another?” Ivan invited us to raise our glasses again. The wine went down smoothly, and its aroma was enchanting. We toasted to freedom!                            

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