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Raya Bodnarchuk didn’t plan her joyous, life-affirming series of 1,926 daily paintings as a formal project. For close to six years, she just decided to do something every day that she likes to do, no matter what else was happening. Something tiny, but really good.
“Life gets complicated,” she says. “We all take out the trash, or we all clean up something in the house, because we have to keep it going. But how about: Do something you love. Keep that going and see what happens.”
Once Bodnarchuk started, she made sure not to stop. It just felt terrible not to do it. She painted real life on the street, things that appealed to her; she took her paints along when she went on vacation or trips. Every day, she’d write the date on the back of the painting and a title for it, and try to post it on Facebook before midnight.
Currently on view at the American University Museum, Raya Bodnarchuk: This Is a True Picture of How It Was, presented by the Alper Initiative for Washington Art, displays all of her 1,926 paintings from 2013 to 2018. The fully illustrated exhibition catalog can be read online or in print. But the feeling of being in the big gallery with nice entrances and a curved wall in front, walking around, and being immersed in the art all around you is totally absorbing, she says. The museum reopened to the public on June 1.
All three exhibits open now at the museum—hers, The Long Sixties: Washington Paintings in the Watkins and Corcoran Legacy Collections, 1957-1982, and Peace Corps at 60: Inside the Volunteer Experience—went up in the winter. Installing Bodnarchuk’s exhibition required a lot of meticulous, very picky work, she says: preparing the walls with magnetic paint, and then putting up every single painting. “Our preparator, Kevin Runyon, managed this feat,” Jack Rasmussen, director and curator at the American University Museum, writes in his foreword to the catalog. “It was the museum’s challenge to show every painting, in order, as a fitting celebration of Raya’s life as an artist.”
Best known for her sculpture, collages, and silkscreens, Bodnarchuk was born in New York City but raised in Maryland by her artist parents. She always knew what she wanted to do, and when she was done with college, at the Rhode Island School of Design, she came back to the area and got started. She never made an outright decision to switch from one place or one desire for what her life should be to another. What she was doing in D.C. and Maryland was just so interesting, and here she had everything she wanted. She worked and taught at Glen Echo Park for 14 years and was a faculty member at the Corcoran College of Art & Design for 32 years. She’s known as a sculptor, and local art lovers can see her carved white pine sculpture, “All Good Dogs,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; cast bronze sculptures of animals, including this fox, along the length of the pedestrian bridge near the Forest Glen Metro station; her group of life-sized figures for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission headquarters in Laurel, visible from I-95; and more in several collections.
The title of this exhibition, This Is a True Picture of How It Was, is actually the title of one of the paintings. Rasmussen thought it would be a good title for the whole show.
The exhibition is organized by date, starting at the beginning, and punctuated by the years—from 2013 to 2018—in big type on the walls. The paintings begin as little four-inch squares of mostly black-and-white ink drawings that took a few minutes; she used an ordinary pen on nice Rives paper that she already had, liked, and cut to size. They evolve into horizontal seven-inch by four-inch rectangles, and to using tubes of gouache, an opaque, water-based paint.
Bodnarchuk would like people to look at each painting and decide what they like. Some paintings are very sad, and some are very uplifting, she says. They depict all seasons, all weather conditions. They contain a lot of nature: branches and blossoms, animals, sunsets and moonrises, snow. They’re dated, so people can find their own birthdays. The paintings are often local—houses and streets, the Potomac River, the C&O Canal, the day when President Obama’s helicopter carried the former First Couple away—but also range further out to Baltimore, Lake Erie, and the West Coast.
She can tell a million stories about these paintings. “My reason for doing them was to put down what I saw in my own way,” she says. More Blossoms Nearby, from April 9, 2018, depicts cherry blossoms not far from the Tidal Basin’s famous trees. She started this painting with the forms set against a green background. Then she saw it needed some branches and white petals. She allows that cherry blossoms are pink and fluffy and pretty, but standing under the mass of blossoms is a magic thing, beyond the pale. Like clouds at sunset, they’re fleeting, powerful, and beautiful.
A Colorful Shrub Late Afternoon, from Nov. 21, 2017, looks like the Biblical burning bush, she says. It had a giant form and was a color that was so exotic but so down to earth. It was just a shrub in somebody’s yard. And then, the season changed, and that quality was gone.
In 2012, Bodnarchuk found out she has mesothelioma, a rare cancer. Painting every day was a big help. “To keep going, just simply keep doing what you do,” she says. “It’s the kind of thing you tell students, art students—the whole thing: ‘Take your sketchbook with you when you’re on the bus. Just do something while you’re sitting there,’” she says. “And so, I told that to myself.”
She had to redesign her life to do what she wants. “It’s not my main goal to finish things,” she says. “It’s my main goal to open new paths that allow me to keep going, in ways that I’m interested in and that are physically possible.”
When she finally stopped painting every day after more than five years, she didn’t plan to quit entirely. She thought, “Well, I can take a vacation from it.” She had to convince herself that it was fair to take a break. Since then, she has started some other paintings, three times the size but like her daily series, and some sculpture, three more life-size figures that are almost done. “I’m determined,” she says.
Some people start thinking that they want to do major work but have no place to do it, no materials, no money to get them. Bodnarchuk has advice: “Clear a path to make something because you did it every day, not because you knew what it would look like,” she says. “Even if it’s teensy, clear the path to make it easy for yourself to accomplish what you want to accomplish.”
At the American University Museum through Aug. 8. 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. (202) 885-1300. More information, including health and safety guidelines and timed tickets, is available at american.edu.