Connecticut Art On Display In U.S. Embassy In Ukraine — At Least Until Recently | Connecticut Public Radio
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Connecticut Art On Display In U.S. Embassy In Ukraine — At Least Until Recently

Feb 13, 2020

New England art is well represented in U.S. embassies around the world. And at least until recently, art from Connecticut was hanging in the embassy at the center of President Trump's impeachment.

The U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Vermont native W. Patrick Murphy, recently selected works of Putney, Vermont, artist Deborah Lazar to hang in the embassy. Three pieces were picked up last month from Lazar's studio — and as far as she knows, she said, they are on their way to Phnom Penh.

Lazar applied to the Art in Embassies program when Barack Obama was in office — though it doesn't matter, she said, who is president when it comes to diplomacy.

"I think that the most important thing is to share our best work with other countries," Lazar said.

One of Lazar's pieces is a large scale photo of a quintessential New England autumn. 

Day Road, Dummerston, Vermont. Photo-composite image.
Credit Courtesy: Deborah Lazar

"The photograph is from this moment — I believe it was right in the middle of October," she said. "After two weeks of rain, when it stopped raining, and all the colors came out. And I just wonder whether people in Cambodia — how they're going to respond to the bouquet of colors that we have in the trees."

Julia Jensen of Putney also had several paintings just shipped to Cambodia. Jensen and Lazar's works are expected to remain at the embassy for at least two years.

Artist George-Ann Gowan of Kent, Connecticut, said she didn't actually apply to the Art in Embassies program. She and a few other Connecticut artists were hand-picked several years ago to have their work hung at the embassy in Kyrgyzstan. 

The ambassador at the time — from 2004 to 2008 — was Marie Yovanovitch, who grew up in Kent.

"I knew her since she was maybe 10," Gowan said. "Her mother and father were good friends of ours. She wanted to, through the arts in embassies program, have work done by artists from her hometown."

Gowan drew something new for the embassy walls: a botanical study of a rose of Sharon plant the ambassador's father gave Gowan as a gift.

"I was just trying to think of something that would be personal, and yet somewhat interesting," Gowan said.

When Yovanovitch went on to become ambassador to Ukraine in 2016, Gowan's art was in the mix again.

"I had several pieces from this three-dimensional found object series," she said. "And then I also did two specific drawings of the sunflower."

The sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine, Gowan said, and is important to the economy.

"Look Away" by George-Ann Gowan. Pencil on paper, 22 x 20 in., hanging recently in the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Credit U.S. State Department

When Trump recalled Yovanovitch last year from her embassy post, Gowan said she wondered what would happen to her work. 

"Which sounds terribly selfish, but it did cross my mind," she said. "I was more upset about Masha being removed, because I've known her for so long — and I knew that everything that was being said about her was absolutely untrue."

Few ambassadors in recent years have become as widely known to the public as Yovanovitch. After her dismissal, she accused the Trump administration of a "smear" campaign against her. Her ouster became a key topic in the president's impeachment.

An angry Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly asked an NPR host whether she thought Americans actually care about Ukraine. 

Gowan said she does — and that she met an amazing group of people in Ukraine in 2017 as part of the State Department's artists-in-residency program.

Gowan said she stayed at the embassy with Yovanovitch, who had a busy schedule.

"But we did spend some time in sweatpants eating late-night dinners," Gowan said. "And I can tell you, she — even in that casual setting, with me, around the kitchen table — the consummate diplomat... Of course, I wouldn't have asked her what was going on politically — never came up to me."

Gowan said her art was returned to her a few months ago.

And Yovanovitch? News got out recently that she's retiring from the U.S. Foreign Service.