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Ukraine's beautiful heritage

Vera Nakonechny knows more about the country's stitchcraft than most Ukrainians. It's her mission to make sure the rich folk arts of embroidery and weaving do not die.

Ukrainian wedding headdresses by Vera Nakonechny. She has made it her life's work to resuscitate these folk arts.
Ukrainian wedding headdresses by Vera Nakonechny. She has made it her life's work to resuscitate these folk arts.Read moreAKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer

Yards of yarn, goose feathers by the fistful, even a few cowrie shells - with these and more, Vera Nakonechny painstakingly re-creates a past that is quickly slipping away.

The folk artist known for her stunning headdresses, as well as beautiful beadwork, weaving, and embroidery - all rooted in the traditions of her beloved Ukraine - is one of the few links to that country's rich heritage.

"A lot of this art has been lost," Nakonechny, 66, says, her eyes filling with tears. She sits in the front room of her modest Oxford Circle home/studio/gallery, overtaken with looms used to weave patterns of yore.

Her mission, Nakonechny says, is to rediscover - to learn the old ways of weaving aprons, to piece together the headdresses worn by brides, to re-create the symbolic patterns stitched on towels. And then, most important, to share that knowledge with others, both here and in Ukraine - where even the locals have lost touch with traditional folk arts.

"We all have what we contribute," she says. On this day, Nakonechny wears a cream-colored linen dress that she has embroidered elaborately at the sleeves with colorful threads. Even her black socks carry a swath of authentic embroidery. An apron that she wove in muted blues, purples, and greens completes the traditional outfit from the Hutsul region in the Carpathian Mountains.

"This is what I contribute," she says. "God gave me a gift, and with this gift comes a responsibility."

Last month, Nakonechny was designated one of nine recipients of the 2014 National Heritage Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. The $25,000 award, given for her craftsmanship and conservation efforts, is the nation's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. She adds it to an apron full of other recognitions, including a Pew Fellowship in the Arts Award in 2008, several Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grants and fellowships, and the Leeway Transformation Award in 2011.

"It's spectacular work," says Barry Bergey, director of folk and traditional art at the NEA. "There's the obvious beauty on the surface. Really, the Heritage Fellowships honor cultural knowledge and the willingness to teach others."

This year, other NEA fellowship recipients represent American Indian, Mexican, Irish, and African American folk and traditional arts. The winners, along with four fellowship winners for jazz, will be honored in Washington in September.

For Nakonechny, her art is a connection to her parents, Maria and Michael Yaremchuk, as much as to a country she has only visited. During World War II, her Ukrainian mother was forced to leave her homeland and labor in a German factory. Her father, in the Russian army, was captured and imprisoned. Later, the two met and married, and in 1947, Nakonechny was born in Germany.

With the Soviet Union's takeover of Ukraine, the family decided not to return and instead made its way to Brazil in 1949. There, embroidery was taught alongside math and reading. "Give me a needle and thread," she says. "That was my number-one subject." After all, she had watched her mother embroider Ukrainian patterns since she was hip-high.

In 1962, the family moved to Philadelphia - where about 60,000 people of Ukrainian descent live - to reunite with extended family members. While other 14-year-olds enjoyed evenings out, Nakonechny's strict parents insisted she stay home and watch younger siblings. She did - and she embroidered.

Nakonechny mastered more intricate stitches and patterns through classes at the Ukrainian National Women's League of America in Philadelphia, and through close relationships with other artists, including mentor Eudokia Sorochaniuk of New Jersey. Sorochaniuk, who died this year, also won an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the first Ukrainian American to do so, in 1999. Nakonechny called Sorochaniuk her "artistic mother."

After Ukraine won independence in 1991, Nakonechny made her first trip there and began to research the unique folk art styles that varied not only from region to region but even from village to village.

Since then, she has made it her life's work to resuscitate these arts. Like a detective, Nakonechny seeks out the old-timers who defied Soviet rules (variation in local traditions was suppressed in favor of a homogenized national identity), and kept up traditions. Her interest and skills spread from embroidery to weaving and then beadwork.

Folk art is a family affair, to a degree. Her husband, Yury, 73, a mechanic as well as a Ukrainian radio show host, has a talent for decorating eggs in the Ukrainian style of geometric patterns. Both of the couple's daughters know embroidery.

"Vera has done an amazing amount of work to keep these traditions going in the Ukrainian community," says Amy Skillman, a folklorist and former director of the State Folklife Program at the Pennsylvania Heritage Affairs Commission, who has known Nakonechny for years. "In some ways, she has created a resurgence of interest."

In fact, the Philadelphia woman has garnered attention in Ukraine for knowing more than many of its natives.

On a windowsill, a feathered headdress - easily a contender for a Mummer's fancy dress - demands attention. Intended for a bride, it is a mountain of white goose feathers (plucked from under the neck, Nakonechny says) and paper roses, mums, and periwinkle. A centerpiece of flowers and beads made with the complicated bullion stitch adorns the front.

Some of Nakonechny's 30 headdresses can take only a few hours to assemble, others months. On top of that, she spends enormous time on research and acquiring the components.

This feather one, in particular, demanded a lot.

In 2010 during a visit to Ukraine, Nakonechny saw a feather piece at a museum in western Ukraine and learned that it was specific to the village of Velykyi Klyuchiv. Of course, she had to learn to make it. A village grandmother showed her.

A couple of years later, Nakonechny returned to show the woman her finished piece, to get her blessing. But the old woman had died. If not for Nakonechny, the details needed to make the headdress also would have perished. Instead, she offered to conduct a workshop for any takers.

Nearby, another headdress on a form consists of a woven band and a rainbow of colored yarn that trails behind. Buttons and cowrie shells from Africa (historically acquired from merchants) are braided in the form's hair. A third piece shows off pom-poms and a spray of peacock feathers.

"This is my passion," she says. "I reproduce. I replicate all the traditions. I don't have time to create."

She thinks for a moment and then says: "The old things are so beautiful. What can you really add on your own?"