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Angels in the architecture

Artist blends Byzantine detail with Prairie simplicity in his designs, which range from credit unions to churches

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People sometimes ask Ben Wasylyshen why his immigrant great-grandparents didn't anglicize their Ukrainian surname, which is the Slavic equivalent of "Williamson."

It was a matter of cultural pride, says the architectural design consultant, who is also a painter, sculptor and passionate gardener.

That pride was still strong when Wasylyshen, 50, was growing up in Garden City.

His artistic mother made pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs) and taught him their ancient symbolism. (His older brother, Dave, is now well known for innovative pysanka mosaics.)

The family attended Ukrainian Orthodox mass, which exposed Wasylyshen to Byzantine iconography from earliest childhood.

In his teens, he was a dancer in the Rozmai Ukrainian Dance Company.

As an adult, he became a bass-baritone in the O. Koshetz Ukrainian Choir.

"We were immersed in the language, art, music, food," he remembers. "We were growing up Canadian and playing hockey on the street... but we were raised under an umbrella of this other culture."

The attention to detail in the culture's visual art was a lasting influence on Wasylyshen. He was also able to view Ukrainian architecture and art -- and learn how it was suppressed during the Communist era -- on two memorable tours of Ukraine with the choir in the 1990s.

On one of those trips, he visited the ancestral village of his mother's family.

"That was very meaningful in terms of understanding roots," says the tall, deep-voiced artist, who now lives in East St. Paul.

The University of Manitoba interior-design grad started his self-named design studio nearly 30 years ago. The common thread in his career, he says, has been designing beautiful spaces and landscapes that always integrate fine art with the goal of lifting people's spirits.

He has designed corporate offices for clients such as Manitoba Blue Cross and Steinbach Credit Union.

Two of his style icons are early 20th-century architects who brought grace, simplicity and lightness to interiors: Frank Lloyd Wright, of the Prairie School, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

So Wasylyshen's projects for Ukrainian clients, such as the national office of the Shevchenko Foundation, may have more of a Prairie-inspired look than a Kyiv one. But his highest-profile Ukrainian commissions are thoughtful blends of medieval Byzantine tradition and contemporary Prairie style.

About 16 years ago, his studio beat out proposals from across North America to create two towering stained-glass windows, as well as other design elements, for Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral.

Wasylyshen is a member of the congregation at the five-domed Main Street landmark. He describes the windows depicting Christ the True Vine and the Mother of God as "light and fresh and new," particularly in terms of the amount of light they let in.

He also designed the elegant interior of the Bishop Velychkovsky Martyr's Shrine at Winnipeg's St. Joseph's Ukrainian Catholic Church, from the lighting and symbolic floor tiles to the stained glass and the sarcophagus that holds the remains of the beatified Ukrainian bishop.

Typically, Catholic shrines are laden with dense decoration, he says. He felt this modern one should be inviting and leave space for people's prayers to rise.

Another of his projects is a stained-glass window of two angels at Holy Family Home, a seniors' facility where most residents are of Slavic heritage. Some have been moved to tears by it, he says.

In his personal art practice, Wasylyshen is currently producing large abstract paintings. Some are available at the Winnipeg Art Gallery's rental and sales shop.

Looking back on his efforts to exhibit his early works, he says he encountered prejudice from some Winnipeg art gatekeepers. They treated him like a nice Ukrainian boy who should stay in the North End.

"When it came to grants or support, I recall being told, in very diplomatic ways, 'Go back to your own community... and get your support there.'"

These days, Wasylyshen is something of a gatekeeper himself as curator of Manitoba Hydro's art collection for its new office tower. He has been in charge of choosing, buying and installing about 400 pieces from about 90 Manitoba artists.

Another recent gig was a volunteer one: conceiving the overall, art-inspired design -- from linens to lighting to extravagant florals -- for last fall's Gallery Ball at the WAG. Wasylyshen is doing it again this fall for the Centennial Ball.

"There is no boredom," he says about his varied career. "I don't even know what that means."

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 J16

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