Ukrainian artists in Chattanooga surprised by Russian invasion

Staff photo by Barry Courter / Victoria Kalaichi and Denis Sarazhin are husband and wife and both are renowned artists based in Ukraine. They are in Chattanooga for a gallery showing of her work and a portraiture workshop at Townsend Atelier.

It is both easy to see and to understand the conflict that shows on the faces of husband and wife Victoria Kalaichi and Denis Sarazhin. The two artists left their home in Kherson, Ukraine, on Monday and flew to Chattanooga for a gallery showing of her oil paintings at Townsend Atelier and were actually at dinner here on Wednesday when they heard that Russia had invaded their homeland.

Both have dozens of family and friends in Ukraine, so the past three days have been filled with anguish and unknowns, but on Saturday morning, Sarazhin said he felt a little better after having spoken with members of his family.

"They are helping other people with food, clothing and places to live and I think that helps them," he said.

Kalaichi said she has talked to her family, as well, and added that "things are a little different for me. I'm from Crimea, so we are used to Russian military traveling through."

Still, both said they were very much surprised by the invasion and the bombings that ensued. They started planning this trip to Chattanooga almost three years ago thanks in large part to Rossville, Georgia, resident and fellow artist Melissa Hefferlin.

While she and her husband Daud Akhriev were spending part of their time living in Spain, she reached out to Kalaichi about coming to Spain to paint together about five years ago. The two couples became friends and Hefferlin suggested a show at Townsend Atelier and plans were set into motion.

From the time they boarded the train for the eight-hour ride to Kyiv to catch their flight, until they landed in Atlanta and were driven to Rossville, they had no idea an invasion was possible.

"We were surprised," Kalaichi said.

Even though the couple watched the news and kept up with the Russian activity, Sarazhin said they didn't think an invasion was going to happen. And, if it did, Kalaichi said, no one thought it would involve actual warfare.


— What: Reflections of the Soul featuring works by Victoria Kalaichi.— Where: Townsend Atelier, 301 E. 11th St., Chattanooga.— When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and by appointment.— Admission: Free.— Phone: 423-266-2712.— Exhibit opening: 5:30-9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26.

"Even my mom told me 'Don't worry, they don't need bombs and no shoot,'" Kalaichi said.

She added that she lost her home in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and hasn't been back. She and her mother meet in neutral locations to visit each other, she said.

Sarazhin said the last few days have been an emotional rollercoaster as he is torn between the occasional feelings that he should be home taking care of family and friends and the outpouring of love and warmth he has received while being here both from people the two have met and the thousands of people who have reached out on social media.

"I do think about it," he said. "Maybe I need to be in Ukraine, but here, I feel safe."

"We have mixed feelings," Kalaichi said. "We are safe with our friends and feeling big love from many people who support us, but our family is not safe."

She said they spend a lot of time in front of the TV "and sometimes cry."

Hefferlin said she took the couple to Roy's Grill on Rossville Boulevard Saturday morning and the people working and dining there asked the couple where they were from and made small talk.

"When we were about to leave, someone paid the check," Hefferlin said. "That was very sweet."

Kalaichi's work will be on display from Saturday through March 26. She will lead a sold-out workshop on March 5.

Gallery owner Peggy Townsend said Kalaichi's work "is all about finding the joy in the ordinary" whether it is a portrait, a still life or a work featuring an animal, and the colors "are amazing."

The artist herself said that color is the most important aspect of her oil paintings, but that her works feature both the dark and the joyful sides of life.

Neither Sarazhin nor Kalaichi said they know what the future holds for Ukraine and Russia, nor do they know when they might return home. They are scheduled to stay 12 days, but the airports are closed and travel is restricted.

"It is too early to tell," Sarazhin said of the future.

"But, we are so lucky to be here," Kalaichi said. "We have our oils and materials. We could be in Turkey or Egypt on vacation with just bikinis and some clothes."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354. Follow him on Twitter @BarryJC.