Maryna Bilak: Care
Derfner Judaica Museum
Oct. 23, 2023 - Feb. 19, 2023
CARE is an ongoing body of work inspired by the experience of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease—a progressive brain disease that disrupts thought, memory and language. The project centers around the artist’s family and her late mother-in-law, Dorothy, who was diagnosed in 2014 and passed away in 2019. The intimate works comprising CARE explore the different roles that the act of caregiving requires from each person involved, from professional in-home nursing support to the direct care provided by Bilak and her husband, Maurice.
In CARE, Bilak examines the changed states of being and of mind of caregivers and patient in paintings, frescoes, sculptures, drawings and assemblages. The project reflects on how tension develops as definitions of the self overlap and can become at odds with one another, the experience of physical and psychological fragmentation, and the material remnants the disease leaves behind.
Bilak did not begin the CARE project consciously. It emerged from a series of major life events beginning in 2014: Dorothy’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease; Maryna and Maurice’s marriage; their relocation to rural Hudson, New York from New York City; the artist’s nervous breakdown, and the birth of the couple’s daughter, Irina. The earliest individual work in CARE is from that first year—a poured plaster sculpture incorporating fabric scraps from clothing that Dorothy rejected because she didn’t believe it belonged to her. At the time, Bilak described creating the work “at a distance, without embracing the reality.” It wasn’t until she made a conscious decision to invite that more difficult reality into her studio that the project began in earnest. She described standing in her studio and “realizing that my life of caregiving . . . [was] on the walls looking at me.”
Portraiture plays an essential role in both how Dorothy and her state of mind are represented in CARE. Bilak first began using Dorothy as a model in 2018, making fresco portraits and terracotta sculptures that were later cast in bronze. The project includes a series of small-scale frescoes that provide glimpses of facial features such as an eye or mouth, mirroring the fractured mental state caused by Alzheimer’s. Two of the three bronzes in the exhibition are busts, entitled She and Queen of the Day (both modeled in 2018, cast 2022), that depict a woman with strong features and a regal profile executed in an expressionistic style. The roughly textured surface of the work emphasizes physicality while also evoking strong, turbulent emotions.
A grid of eighteen fictional monologues handwritten by Bilak in fresco, each measuring 11 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, present three different perspectives: her own as daughter-in-law, wife and artist; Maurice’s as son, husband and a man; and Dorothy’s as mother-in-law, older woman and Alzheimer’s patient. The writing process revealed to her that unconditional love could give way to anger and frustration. After she became pregnant, she changed her working process: instead of backing away, she actively engaged with Dorothy. When her daughter was born, she saw Dorothy’s smile and Dorothy’s cry in Irina, as if she were a little version of her mother-in-law and this helped to create an emotional connection that had been missing between them.
CARE also explores the relationship and emotional balance between Bilak and her husband who come from different backgrounds and have divergent dispositions. Bilak emigrated from Ukraine and considers herself rebellious, whereas her husband and mother-in-law immigrated to the United States from Jamaica and are more traditional by contrast. Despite the wide geographic and cultural divide, they found they had many things in common, from a deeply ingrained respect for the older generation to both having grown up with animals in their backyards. They also shared complex feelings of resentment and pain resulting from caring for a loved one with a debilitating disease that can strain generations of familial relationships. Coincidentally, like her daughter, Bilak’s mother also took care of her mother-in-law for six years while raising three children.
Sharing black-and-white photographs of Dorothy as a young woman in Jamaica with Bilak was especially important to Maurice, a process she has described as his desire for her to “. . . be invested in who his mother was before she got sick.” These later inspired Bilak’s charcoal drawings of Dorothy as a young woman that were taken directly from these images. In a tribute to her mother-in-law, in the installation Dorothy’s Table (2018), Bilak has arranged Dorothy’s sewing table with an open drawer containing hair, fingernail clippings and plaster casts of her hand and foot placed where they would have been if she was sitting there. Recalling an earlier time, an open notebook from an adult education class Dorothy had taken rests on top of the table, providing a glimpse into her life and who she was before Alzheimer’s.
CARE reflects aesthetically on shifts in psychological and emotional states that occur as identity changes, fragments and re-forms, whether in an Alzheimer’s patient or a caregiver, and gives visual form to an experience that is often impossible to describe in words.
About the artist
Born in Rakhiv, Ukraine, in 1984, Maryna Bilak is an artist based in Hudson, New York. She received MFA degrees from Transcarpathian National University, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, in fine and applied art, and from the New York Studio School, New York, New York, in painting. Her work has been exhibited internationally and is in the permanent collections of Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut, Museum of Transcarpathian Hungarian Institute of Ferenc Rákóczi II, Berehovo, Ukraine, Historical Museum “Palanok,” Mukachevo, Ukraine, Museum and Exhibition Center, Serpukhov, Russia, and Collection of Institute of Balassi Balint, Budapest, Hungary. She has had one-person exhibitions at Hudson Hall at the Historic Hudson Opera House, Hudson, New York, John Davis Gallery, Hudson, New York, and Long Island City Arts Open Festival, New York, New York. She is currently in three group exhibitions: Work it! Women Artists on Women’s Labor at Mattatuck Museum (through December 3, 2022); a juried exhibition, series five at Saratoga Arts, Saratoga Springs, New York (through November 5, 2022); and The Longest Shortest Time at Norwalk Art Space, Norwalk, Connecticut (October 20–December 8, 2022). Bilak lives and works in Hudson with her husband and their daughter.