‘Tis the season for Christmas carols, holiday cards and family traditions — and Natalka Pavlovsky’s “The Illustrated Carol Project” intertwines all three to create a musical and visual journey into her Slavic heritage.
Pavlovsky, a first-generation Ukrainian American who earned her Ph.D. in musicology at Princeton University and teaches music at Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ), acknowledges a life-long avocation for painting. The Illustrated Carol Project, which came to life while homebound during the pandemic, includes a series of four paintings she envisioned after listening to Ukrainian Christmas carols, or koliadky, and reading the verses.
“The vivid, descriptive nature of the texts first prompted me to start painting them,” said Pavlovsky. “The more I looked into their meanings and historical contexts, the more the project engaged my scholarly interests, and I became more invested in sharing the images as well as the deeply rooted traditions these carols represent.”
After completing the paintings, the college professor soon found her academic side kicking into gear, leading her to establish the Illustrated Carol Project website. For each of the four Ukrainian carols, Pavlovsky shares her paintings, the verses that inspired her artwork and their symbolic and historical background, ending with a recording of the Christmas song.
“The more I painted, the more I researched,” admitted Pavlovsky. “Creating the website was the scholar’s response to the artist’s work. This series of paintings draws entirely on traditional Ukrainian holiday music, as represented by Christmas carols and New Year’s songs. The texts are a window into the Slavic past: richly layered tapestries in which Christian concepts nestle comfortably among earlier pagan symbols and surviving traces of pre-Christian traditions.”
Pavlovsky’s paintings — “They’re Building a Church in Kutzivka,” “The Saints,” “Greetings on This Evening,” and “Shchedryk,” also known as “Carol of the Bells” — are the focus of this year’s holiday celebrations by the non-profit Ukrainian History and Education Center in Somerset, N.J. Her paintings have been adapted into holiday greeting cards as part of the Center’s Giving Tuesday campaign. On Dec. 26, Pavlovsky will speak about her project during their annual holiday fundraiser.
RCSJ colleagues Sylvia Baer and Eoin Kinnarney find the project’s “interconnectedness of the arts” fascinating. The three College professors — each accomplished in their fields of music, writing and art—agree about the relationship and have enjoyed discussions on the topic.
“When I saw and read about and listened to the project, it was more than just the paintings, more than the educational materials, more than the recordings. I see the project as symbolic of the transcendence and connection of humanity through the arts,” said Baer, a communication and creative & performing arts professor. “It’s all connected, not just one artistic dimension.”
“I love that the art is handled with enough detail to describe the subject and the story, but the art also leaves enough room for the viewer’s imagination to take off with it,” added Kinnarney, who helped Pavlovsky convert the paintings into digital images for her website.
“One’s passion doesn’t have to be one’s day job. Art was always my first love, though music edged it out when it came to choosing a career,” said Pavlovsky. “I speak to my students about this all the time — that the arts have value for everyone, far beyond employment.”