Apr 27, 2023 - Health

Axios Finish Line: Improvise

Courtesy of Anatolii Tarasiuk

My daughter Sophie's high school art teacher, Kate Elkins, told her to never throw away a canvas. Finish the piece, even if you hate it. Improvise.

  • Why it matters: A Ukrainian artist โ€” Anatolii Tarasiuk, whose story will blow your mind and still your heart โ€” in recent weeks showed Sophie, and all of us, just how far you can stretch that canvas to improvise far beyond art.

๐Ÿ–ผ๏ธ The big picture: Anatolii's dramatic story reminded me how much about a startup, daily business decisions, relationships ... and life is about improvising in scary or uncertain moments that help define us.

  • Improvisation will be an essential skill and mentality in a world shaped by artificial intelligence.
  • The velocity of change in coming years will be neck-snapping. It demands on-the-fly agility modeled by Anatolii.

The backstory: Sophie is a junior at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, minoring in journalism. For a class she nearly dropped, Sophie picked the art scene to cover for her semester-long reporting class.

  • This brought her to Anatolii, a Ukrainian artist currently living just outside of Chapel Hill. A year ago, he was trapped with his family in Kiev, Ukraine, when Russia invaded.

"In the morning when all the sirens started to sound simultaneously, it was so surreal to look outside to see how people were trying to leave the city," he told Sophie. "But the road was blocked. Nobody was going anywhere."

  • He wanted to flee. But a new wartime law prevented it: No men were allowed to depart unless they were 60 or older, handicapped, or had three children younger than 18. At the time, Anatolii had two young sons and his wife was pregnant.
  • So he improvised โ€” and waited.

A few months into the war, their third baby boy was born. "We could actually hear rockets flying above the houses where we were staying," he recalled. Now, they could flee.

  • Anatolii refused to leave without his art. He traveled back to Kiev to grab 45 of his pieces to bring to America. But a nagging health issue demanded a look.
  • So he improvised โ€” and prayed.

Anatolii traveled to a medical center in Kremenchuk, Ukraine. After he saw the doctor, his wife wanted to hit the local mall, despite the danger.

  • He improvised for her โ€” and said no. He was too tired.

On their way out of Kremenchuk, smoke choked the distant sky. The shopping mall, located on the same street he'd just left, had been bombed.

  • In Poland, his phone rang. It was the medical center he had visited on his way out of town. He had cancer, the doctor told him.
  • So he improvised โ€” and flew to America with no job, no insurance. Just cancer.

Anatolii wound up in Durham, N.C. Little did he know he was near the Duke Hospital Cancer Center โ€” the best medical facility for his type of cancer. He met a friend who helped him get first-class treatment.

  • The treatment worked. As of December, he was cancer-free.
  • So he improvised โ€” back into art.

By pure chance, Anatolii heard of the Artist Frame Hub, a program by the The Frame & Print Shop in Chapel Hill, N.C., providing framing for local artists.

  • So he took a few of his 45 pieces of art, rolled tight to survive his transatlantic journey, and showed them to Becky Woodruff, the co-owner. She was inspired by his wild story.
  • So she improvised โ€” and hosted an exhibition spotlighting 15 of his best works. It was called "New Beginnings."

Anatolii was soon awarded a studio โ€” free โ€” at nearby Eno Arts Mill.

  • And he was back to improvising with his brush.

"When I start, I have an idea or image in mind of what I'm about to do," he said. "I donโ€™t have any print drawings. I just start with a palette of what I think is good for today."

  • He improvises from there: "It's kind of having a little expectation everywhere, in every way. In life and in art."

Last night,ย Anatolii learned his cancer had returned. "I'm going to keep fighting," he said.

  • Anatolii headed to his studio and once more turned to his art. He mixed up too much oil paint, and ended up staying late into the night to use it all.

He improvised ... creating three new pieces.

This article originally appeared in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness. Sign up here.

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