“Art is a kind of therapy in this war,” says Maria Bilinska, who lives near the Polish border in Lviv. In the first days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the graphic designer and illustrator did nothing but follow the news on TV. Then she began designing posters about the war. “It was a very helpful placement.”
Bilinska’s first major project after the invasion was designing the cover for the Ukrainian edition of Sailing to Sarantium, a historical fantasy novel about an artist’s journey through wild and dangerous lands. It was first published in 1998 and written by Canadian bestselling author Guy Gavriel Kay.
In an email interview, she spoke about her design theme “Goldstadt” and creating art in a time of devastating conflict.
Sailing to Sarantium is the first book in the author’s two-part series The Sarantine Mosaic. How did having a mosaic artist in the story influence your cover design?
Mostly in the color palette. I love how the author describes the mosaicist’s passion for how light affects an image he creates. It’s very poetic and that’s why I chose yellow, almost gold, for the cover. When I read a book to create a cover for it, I think in slightly different categories than the average reader. I think visually. Historical events are not as important as, for example, the main character’s marvel at the mosaic in a chapel or the part about a golden tree and mechanical birds.
Has the current war in Ukraine had an impact on design ideas?
Sailing to Sarantium was the first book I read after February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine. And it’s interesting, not only in my case, but also in the case of many of my friends – I couldn’t read anything bigger than an article. All my thoughts turned to news of the war. I couldn’t turn it off. So I spent more time than usual reading this book and feeling its atmosphere.
Do you live in a dangerous area of the country?
We’re relatively safe, but we’ve got air alert and a few missile strikes. People here are trying to learn how to live in a new reality. We help refugees from the east and south of Ukraine. Some of them lived in our country house for a while.
Aside from reading the book, what kind of research did you do?
It all started with reading a book and noting down details and my impressions etc. Then I read about mosaics and Byzantine churches and looked at different mosaics from Hagia Sophia, a mosque in Istanbul. We also have mosaics in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv.
Did you stick to your first impressions when conceiving the design theme?
The first idea for the cover was to use the story about mechanical birds, which I think is a very strong metaphor in this book. But after talking to the editor, we settled on the Gold City travel theme. The style of the cover is modern, but I’ve included a small ship depicted from an ancient mosaic. This is how past and present are connected.
In general, what do you think of what a book cover illustration needs to accomplish?
I believe it needs to build a new, parallel line of the book’s story and not accurately represent what happened in it. This is more interesting for the readers because they can see the story from different angles – author, illustrator and their own.
The book’s author, Guy Gavriel Kay, praised your work, saying that art is difficult in a time of brutal invasion. can you talk about it
First of all, I want to say that Ukrainian publishers who are now releasing new books are heroes. Almost 90 percent of Ukraine’s major printing plants are located in Kharkiv, near the Russian border. The city is often bombed and has suffered major damage to its infrastructure. Printers are destroyed. We also have problems with paper. But in this difficult time, publishers create and publish new books. I find it amazing.
We look at the footage, but I don’t think people here get a sense of everyday life for Ukrainians.
It is logistically very difficult because many workers are fighting in the war. It’s difficult financially, but also emotionally. Every Ukrainian has the same thought: “Is my work important and necessary when hundreds of people are dying?”
And your answer?
Art, especially books, is a very important tool in this war. Because we too are waging a culture war. Russia has been trying to appropriate our culture for years, and we can’t stop this war for a minute.
This interview has been abridged and edited.
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