PULASKI — An artistic collaboration has taken on new meaning for a northern children’s book author and his illustrator in Ukraine, highlighting the inspirational power of art.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Steven MF Cohen, a retired teacher and lay Franciscan, was certain that the artist he had found to illustrate his books would not be able to continue the partnership.
“I couldn’t have been more certain that the project we had been working on for a year and a half was going to be a thing of the past – something we had both thought about, but which would never come to fruition,” Mr Cohen, 70 years, said. “I was certain that our book would never be published because she was going to take what she could carry and immigrate to Poland and all of our works would just disappear.”
But in March, Mr. Cohen’s book, “Birds, Birds” was published, illustrated by Olha Maksymtsiv, a Ukrainian who has been drawing since childhood.
“She is more than a dedicated illustrator,” Mr. Cohen said. “She wanted to continue working on the book, even during the war. I said, “Maybe you should stop the project so you can take care of yourself.”
For Mr. Cohen, it is a transcendent partnership, the Ukrainian artist aligning perfectly with his visions.
“I was thrilled to find her,” he said. “She realized this image in my mind. It was pretty amazing how she was able to capture the images I had been thinking about for so many years.
Miss Maksymtsiv lives in western Ukraine, in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, named after the Ukrainian political activist and writer Ivan Franko (1856-1916) and with a population of around 200,000. In the early days of the war, the city, 450 km from the capital Kyiv, was bombarded by Russian missiles, including its airport.
Air raid sirens still puncture the skies of Ivano-Frankivsk, Miss Maksymtsiv said. She recently responded to questions emailed by a reporter for the Watertown Daily Times.
“It’s relatively quiet here. I can work,” Miss Maksymtsiv wrote. “Of course, morally it is very difficult. We also have sirens, and at the moment I am sitting with a laptop on the floor in the corridor. But these are such trifles in comparison with what the inhabitants of other regions of Ukraine.
The artist, who turns 26 in July, was asked how she finds inspiration with the danger of war that could happen at any time, and without warning.
“It’s hard for me to answer that question,” Miss Maksymtsiv said. “My work is probably the only island of peace among all that is happening around. I hide there.
“conscious” and musical
Mr. Cohen, a retired music teacher who is also certified in elementary education, grew up in the Bronx and attended New York’s High School of Performing Arts. He then went to Queens College, majoring in Elementary Education and Music. For seven years he taught at the United Nations International School, where he said he formed the United Nations International Children’s Choir. He then taught fifth grade for 11 years at Canton Central School. In the North Country, he played accordion in the pit for Music Theater North and taught puppetry and centering classes, incorporating aikido and tai chi at Upward Bound at St. Lawrence University in Guangzhou.
Mr. Cohen and his wife, Virginia, moved to Pulaski after being hired by the Syracuse City School District, where he taught music to students in kindergarten through fifth grade for 20 years. He also led a refugee children’s choir for the Catholic Youth Organization of Catholic Charities in Syracuse.
Ms. Cohen worked at the Fort Drum Behavioral Health Clinic as a psychiatric nurse. The couple have two children and a grandson.
Mr. Cohen, who retired in 2018, is also a workshop leader and website manager, Mindful Children Alive, a program for children and teens. Components and activities include the practice of mindfulness, compassion, and self-esteem studies. After retirement, he took online mindfulness courses at UCLA, the University of Massachusetts, and Brown University.
His other hats include being “Professional Santa” for many years in Syracuse at the Carousel Mall, Unity Acres, and the Samaritan Center Inc. He has given several talks to Rotary clubs on “Joyous Living.”
“After the pandemic, I want to lecture on ‘Unleashing Your Creativity’ and ‘Awakening Your Mind/Sharing Your Gifts,'” he said.
He is also looking to one day start a foundation, “Anima Unum” (One Heart and One Soul) that supports children’s and animal organizations.
“Birdies, Birdies,” published in March, is just one of the books Mr. Cohen has collaborated on with Miss Maksymtsiv. He has been working on his books, all self-published, since retiring in 2018.
“Books are something I’ve thought about for so many years,” he said. “I put them on the back burner, waited a while until I could do them.”
Finding the right artist helped fuel his inspiration.
“When I retired, I was looking for an illustrator to illustrate a book I had in mind for many years,” he said. “I searched the internet and found freelance illustrators.”
Last year, Mr. Cohen and Miss Maksymtsiv collaborated on the children’s picture book, “I will always be with you.” There are no words in it; his art reflecting the simple message Mr. Cohen sought to portray. It’s based on personal experience.
“It’s a Christmas book,” Mr. Cohen said. “It’s the story of a little boy who goes shopping with his mother for a Christmas tree.”
The tree is brought home and the boy falls in love with it, not wanting to part with it.
“When it’s time for him to give up the tree and his mother takes the tree out of the house, he walks into his room and cries,” Mr Cohen said.
But the mother has an idea, which is based on something “somewhat autobiographical”, Mr Cohen said.
“In order to keep the spirit of the tree with him forever, she decides to remove the needles from the tree and put them in a sachet bag. She embroiders: “I will always be with you”. She goes upstairs and places the bag next to her son. He wakes up in the morning, smells the sachet and it reminds him of the tree. He runs down to his mother, delighted, holding the bag in her hand. He hugs his mother on the last page.
Capturing such history in art, Ms. Maksymtsiv explained, is something she loves.
“My biggest inspiration is people,” she said. “I have a well-developed empathy. I feel people’s emotions as if they were my own. And that’s an amazing feeling.
Ms. Maksymtsiv also draws inspiration from Mr. Cohen’s passion for storytelling, calling him a “dream” client.
“He and I understand each other well,” she said. “It’s really his calling, and that inspires me a lot.”
bet on a career
Miss Maksymtsiv has been drawing since she can remember. But it is not a discipline in which she was trained.
“I graduated as an architect, but when I finished my master’s degree, I realized that I didn’t want to tie my life to this specialty,” said Miss Maksymtsiv. “So I started to practice drawing on the computer. For two years, it has been my job and the business of my life.
The architectural background helped her in her work as an artist, she said.
“Compositional theory, sense of rhythm, style,” Miss Maksymtsiv said. “It’s important for both the architect and the artist.”
As an author, Mr. Cohen looks forward to further collaborations with Miss Maksymtsiv. Her first book, released in 2018 just before her retirement and not associated with Miss Maksymtsiv, is, “Daily Miracles: Moments when one can touch infinity. The book, on mindfulness, focuses on “the daily, ordinary, common miracle filled with wonder and awe that can be experienced in instantaneous events.”
“Birdies, Birdies”, his second collaboration with Miss Maksymtsiv, is 100 pages long. The rhyme book focuses on around 40 different species of birds. Miss Maksymtsiv’s designs are a deliberately silly and realistic combination.
Mr. Cohen dedicates it to the children of Ukraine, writing: “May peace, freedom, awareness, arts, nature, wonder, love and joy fill every day of your most precious lives. . He said part of the proceeds from the book will go to war-affected children.
Mr Cohen said the ‘Birdies’ book could be the first in a series of animal-related children’s books he will work on with the help of Miss Maksymtsiv. Currently, he said the Ukrainian artist is working on the illustrations for an adult comic he is creating about mindfulness.
“She and I are also working on a new book – an ABC book,” Mr. Cohen said.
Its working title is “Would You Ever?” Images would illustrate phrases such as: “Would you ever arm wrestle with an armadillo?”
“I can’t wait to see how she exemplifies that,” Mr. Cohen said.
The author is also working on a folk tale, “The Morning Music of the World”.
“I’ve always wanted to show my students how music came into the world through the way a mockingbird felt there was more to the world than just one sound, and the mockingbird actually introduced the music in the world since the beginning of time,” he said. .
Mr. Cohen hopes that Miss Maksymtsiv will also illustrate this book.
“I hope she and I have been collaborators for many years,” he said.
On Wednesday, Mr Cohen received news that could encourage Miss Maksymtsiv. Some time ago, he sent her a copy of “Birdies, Birdies.”
“Today will be the first day she gets to see the book for the first time,” he said. “The mail stopped in Ukraine for a very long time. She just learned today that the post office had a package for her, with a book inside.
In a biographical sketch on the back cover of “Birdies, Birdies,” the artist wrote, “May every child in the world be at peace and quiet.”
n WHAT: Steven MF Cohen, retired public school teacher and author, of Pulaski, maintains a collaboration with artist Olha Maksymtsiv from the Ukrainian war town.
n THE BOOKS: “I Will Always Be With You”, published in 2021 and “Birdies, Birdies”, published in March. Other books are planned by the team. Mr. Cohen self-published the first two books.
n WHEN AVAILABLE: “Birdies, Birdies” ($21.99 softcover and $3.99 electronic) is available at Xlibris.com and barnesandnoble.com. “I’ll Always Be With You” ($14.95 softcover, $22.99 hardcover, and $3.99 eBook) is available on Amazon and other online sites.
n PLEASE NOTE: Mr. Cohen said that part of the proceeds from the sale of books will go to Ukrainian children. Copies of “I Will Always Be With You” and “Birdies, Birdies” used by The Times for this story were donated to Flower Memorial Library. To contact Mr. Cohen, email him at [email protected]