Skip to main content
InsightFeb 07, 2023

6 Ukrainian designers and their contribution to Canadian design

Yurko Gutsulyak, Art Director & Graphic Designer at Gutsulyak Studio, highlights six Ukrainian designers who brought their unique design approaches and skills to Canada from the 1950s-1980s.

The modernist era of Canadian design was highly influenced by Western European designers who made Canada their home in the early 1960s. Their work was characterized by a minimalist approach with a focus on typography. However, this wasn't the first wave of creative immigrants to Canada.

A decade earlier, many Ukrainian graphic artists had to flee from an earlier Russian invasion to seek asylum overseas. As a result, many talented Ukrainian artists arrived in Canada contributing to Canadian design starting in the 1950s but continuing into the1980s. Their styles were a mix of European modernist movements like Fauvism and Neo-primitivism with a strong influence from Cossack Baroque. Experimentation with letterforms played a significant role in their work.

The six most notable Ukrainian designers of the 20th century who lived and worked in Canada were Myron Levytsky, Mykhailo Dmytrenko, Volodymyr Balias, Mykola Bidniak, Ivan Keywan and Bohdan Stebelsky. Bringing their unique skills and approaches to Canadian design, their legacy in type innovation is significant, particularly as it relates to Ukrainian Cyrillic script and its influence on Latin type design.

Work by Myron Levytsky

Myron Levytsky (Lev)

Born in Ukraine in 1913, Myron received his art education there and in Poland. He began his career as a book designer and illustrator. During World War II, he worked as a military correspondent for Division Galizien. He immigrated to Canada in 1949 and settled in Toronto where he designed over 300 books for various publishing houses, worked as an art director in film production and painted murals for Catholic churches in Canada (including Holy Eucharist Church in Toronto) and Australia. He gained international recognition through a series of solo art exhibitions and made Ukrainian design visible in Canada. Likewise, he passed away in Toronto in 1993.

work by Mykhailo Dmytrenko

Mykhailo Dmytrenko

Born in Ukraine in 1908, after receiving an art education, Mykhailo worked as an artist and a professor. He fled to Germany in 1947, and came to Canada in 1951. He lived in Toronto and later in Windsor, where his work focused on graphic design, murals and mosaics. Eventually, he moved to Detroit and passed away there in 1997.

work by Volodymyr Balias (Walter Balas)

Volodymyr Balias (Walter Balas)

Born in Ukraine in 1906, Volodymyr studied graphic and art in Poland. After returning to Ukraine, he worked as an advertising artist and art teacher. His posters and book covers earned him a reputation as a renowned designer. At the end of World War II, he moved as a refugee to Germany and arrived in Toronto in 1947. He continued his design career in Canada and explored mosaic art and paper sculpture. He also worked as a window display designer for Eaton's. Together with Mykhailo Dmytrenko, he created interior decorations for St. Volodymyr's Cathedral in Toronto. He died in San Diego in 1980.

work by Mykola Bidniak

Mykola Bidniak

Born in Canada in 1930, Mykola moved with his family to Ukraine in 1934. However in 1940 they fled from Russian terror to Germany. Mykola was only 15 when he lost his hands and an eye in an accident. Nevertheless, in 1950, he returned to Canada and studied art in Edmonton and later in Toronto. Painting only with his mouth, he created over 3,000 art pieces and hosted numerous exhibitions in Canada and abroad. He lived and worked in Toronto until 1991 when he move back to Ukraine where he lived until his death in 2000.

work by Ivan Keywan

Ivan Keywan

Born in Ukraine in 1907, Ivan started his art education in Ukraine, which he continued in Poland where he was arrested for his pro-Ukrainian activity. Fortunately, he was released soon after. After graduation, he returned to Ukraine to work as a graphic designer and professor. In 1944, he fled Ukraine right before the Russian occupation. First, moving to the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) and then to Germany, where he lived in a displaced persons camp for four years. In 1949, he immigrated to Canada and settled in Edmonton. He started as an advertising designer for Canadian Industries Limited (C-I-L) and gradually built his career as a graphic artist, painter, educator and writer. He actively participated in professional organizations and supported young artists. He passed away in Edmonton in 1992.

work by Bohdan Stebelsky

Bohdan Stebelsky

Born in Ukraine in 1911, Bohdan graduated from an art academy in Poland and returned to Ukraine to teach art in 1939. However, in 1944, like many other talented Ukrainians, he was forced to relocate to Germany, arriving in Canada in 1949. He earned a Ph.D. and was active in art unions and journalism. He passed away in Toronto in 1994.

This article is only possible with a fantastic retro archive collected by Marchela Mozhyna "Znadibky" and the Diasporiana, an online library.

Additional resources:

Ivan Keywan's website and the book Myron Levytsky 100 Ex Libris by Darewych, Daria Zelska


Related Articles