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‘We have our own long history and culture’: Listening to Taissa Decyk, Ukrainian American Artist

Taissa Decyk showing her Ukrainian embroidery

Taissa Decyk with a sample of her embroidery work, as part of the Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection (AFC 1991/022). Photo by Geraldine Niva Johnson, 1979.

“Now, this tablecloth,” Taissa Decyk says, “I was in a camp expecting my first child, who is now thirty-one, when I made this tablecloth.” In September 1979, Mrs. Taissa Decyk was interviewed in her Providence home about her extensive knowledge of Ukrainian embroidery traditions. Conducted by folklorist Geraldine Niva Johnson, the interview was for the AFC’s Rhode Island Folklife Project, an ethnographic field survey that, in cooperation with the Rhode Island Heritage Commission, the Rhode Island Council on the Arts, and the Rhode Island Historical Society, sought to identify the needs of statewide artists and communities in keeping their cultural traditions alive. Over the two-hour conversation, in Decyk’s bedroom with embroidered “pillows scattered on top the bed,” she showed Johnson her work, taking out dresses, blouses, the tablecloth… and pillows. “She must have had a dozen pillows on the bed and every time I turned around, she was dragging out another pillow which represented to her another important design,” Johnson wrote in her field notes. At one point, while showing a blouse her mother embroidered, Decyk asks Johnson to stop the recording so that she can “run upstairs and bring you two [more] dresses.”

Yet, the interview is not only about Ukrainian embroidery, but also her life story, shared in great detail, and the distinct history and culture of Ukraine: “We have our own long history, and our literature, and our own culture; we don’t need to borrow anything from anybody,” she states.

Taissa Decyk showing her embroidered pillows

Decyk and her bed full of embroidered pillows, blouses, and dresses, as part of the Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection (AFC 1991/022). Photo by Geraldine Niva Johnson, 1979.

Decyk was born in late 1920s Warsaw to Ukrainian parents studying at university and in 1940, they returned to her parent’s home region of mountainous Western Ukraine. Under German occupation, her family was taken to forced labor camps in Germany, where she worked for years alongside prisoners of war in making munitions. “Labor camp was not as bad as a concentration camp, but it was very close to it: you had to go to work; and the conditions you had no control of; you had to survive on some skimpy rations; you had to produce the work…” Following WWII, they lived in a displaced persons camp, and not wanting to return to Ukraine, as it was under Communist rule, they eventually made their way to Newark, New Jersey in 1952 (via the Displaced Person Act of 1948). At the time of her interview, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and she discusses the lack of freedoms that Ukrainians endured, including crackdowns on speaking Ukrainian. “So, that’s why we are trying to preserve what we can, because the others who are in Ukraine cannot,” she states.

Decyk grew up learning traditional dances and, in grammar school, embroidery, as they are closely linked: “This is what leads you into the embroidery, because by knowing which dance you do from which part of Ukraine, you need a particular costume, and we didn’t have readymade costumes.” But it wasn’t until she was in the camps that her love for embroidery and “collecting” its many different designs took hold. She talks about how other Ukrainian women would sometimes share their designs for her to copy, as many brought traditional embroidered items with them to the camps. As she talks, Decyk flips through what sounds like binders full of designs and samplers. “She has file cabinets filled with patterns and designs,” along with a library of Ukrainian and English books, all so that the traditions “are not lost,” Johnson wrote.

The ranging designs, as she intricately describes throughout, correspond to particular regions and, long ago, even certain families with their own designated patterns. Traditionally, embroidered blouses, dresses, and towels were part of a woman’s dowry, with some worn for everyday use and others for special occasions, such as weddings and for burial. “The towels have special meaning. They are not used to wipe your hands; they are ritual towels. They are used over icons and in wedding rituals, and many other things,” Decyk explains.

An embroidered pillow by Taissa Decyk.

A copy of one of Decyk’s slides showing an embroidered pillow, as part of the Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection (AFC 1991/022). Photo by Geraldine Niva Johnson, 1979. Decyk estimates that one pillow takes her between 80-150 hours to make.

As a member of the Ukrainian diaspora, she stresses that it is dance that helps sustain embroidery: “One of the ways of keeping Ukrainian embroidery alive in Ukrainian communities is to hold a dance… the ladies come with modern dresses with embroidery, or blouses, or in folk costumes, and men come with embroidered shirts or ties, and sometimes there are prizes…” In 1979, these annual dances were held in Newark, New York City, and Philadelphia, among other larger cities, some of which are ongoing today.

In her notes, Johnson admits that she was surprised at “how little time she had actually spent in Ukraine” and “yet her feelings about Ukraine and Ukrainian culture are quite strong.” She goes on to recommend to the project partners that Decyk be provided grant support for her research on embroidery, as well as her efforts in safeguarding and promoting a range of Ukrainian traditions, which only grew in the following decades. “It had been a long day, but I did feel that I had encountered the most dedicated and interested craftsmen I had yet found in my fieldwork to date.”

Decyk’s interview is split into four parts, which you can start listening to here.

3 Comments

  1. Carter Rawson
    March 10, 2022 at 6:10 am

    Thank you for this fond remembrance of Ukrainian folklife. 1979 was the year I was introduced to pysanky eggs in Philadelphia at a festival. With Ukraine now facing its hour of need, I am looking forward to revisiting that tradition.

  2. Joanna
    March 10, 2022 at 12:05 pm

    Love this!

  3. Carl Fleischhauer
    March 10, 2022 at 8:45 pm

    Thank you for this evocative and though-provoking blog, with the look at one person’s view of her own identity in cultural terms: to feel truly Ukrainian without spending extensive time in that “geographical” place. It was also great — as a former colleague — to be reminded of the late Gerri Johnson’s meticulous and thorough fieldwork. Much appreciated.

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