An artist confronts the anguish, and hope, of Ukraine

As Russian forces advanced on Kyiv in late February, the Ukrainian military tried to stop them by blowing up a highway bridge north of the capital.

Maybe it helped. But it also slowed the exodus of civilians.

For days, crowds hid under the ruins of the bridge for fear of Russian artillery, while snow whirled around them and Ukrainian soldiers helped people – some with children or elderly or disabled citizens on their backs – cross the icy Irpin River on a series of planks cross.

Like millions of people around the world, Roberto Marquez followed television coverage of the ordeal.

“It really touched me,” recalls Marquez, who was in his native Mexico at the time. “I thought this is the place to work.”

A Man in Black works on a Cubist painting amidst a damaged bridge while a blue and yellow flag flies nearby

Mexican artist Roberto Marquez paints a work inspired by Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ on a destroyed Ukrainian bridge in Irpin, near Kyiv, April 26, 2022.

(Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

And so Marquez — an artist who sees his work as social advocacy — made his way to Poland and then to Kyiv. After the Russians withdrew from their positions around the city in late March, he set up a makeshift open-air studio in the shadow of the destroyed bridge.

With the blessing of Ukrainian officials, he worked there on two large screens.

Outfitted in his 10-gallon leather hat and a bandolier holding his paintbrushes, Marquez painted for more than a month while Ukrainian military patrols dropped by on their daily rounds.

A man in a hat and bandolier with paintbrushes holds two paintbrushes forming an X in front of a painting near a damaged bridge

Roberto Marquez is working on his Picasso’s Guernica-inspired painting in Irpin, where thousands of Ukrainians crossed a river on planks after a bridge was destroyed as Russian troops advanced.

(Patrick J McDonnell / Los Angeles Times)

He created two works – one 6ft by 14ft, the other 6ft by 9ft – both inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

They depict two distinctive early events of the war in Ukraine: the dramatic river crossing at Irpin and the discovery of what Ukrainian officials are calling mass murder and war crimes in nearby Bucha and other Russian-held towns.

With the help of Ukrainian friends, Marquez also made wooden crosses, which he planted in the ground next to the rubble of the bridge to mark the escape route and to honor the war dead. The idea came from the crosses set up by activists along the US-Mexico border to commemorate migrants who died or disappeared there.

Crosses on a bridge railing near a white sign with blue lettering in Ukrainian

Crosses on the bridge in Irpin, Ukraine, honor the dead. The art installation at the bridge includes works by Roberto Marquez, a Mexican artist. The sign reads: “President Zelenskyy declared the Irpin Bridge a memorial to the Ukrainians who died during the Russian invasion. We respect everyone and their families. peace to all.”

(Patrick J McDonnell / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m a frontier man,” said Marquez, 60.

He said he was 15 when he illegally crossed the border from Tijuana and worked as a farmhand in California. He became a US citizen as one of millions granted legal status under the US Amnesty Act of 1986. He later pursued a lucrative real estate career in Dallas and had four children.

As a part-time job, Marquez turned to art in the 1990s. Among his first works was a portrait of his mother as a young girl, painted at a time when she was seriously ill with cancer.

“It was like opening the door to another world,” he said.

His creative career turned to activism during the Trump era, when caravans of Central American migrants began making their way to the US-Mexico border. In Tijuana, he unveiled a giant variation on the US flag—one that had no stars and was intended to dramatize the immigrants’ contribution.

He called the work “United States of Immigrants”.

He later created on-site artwork at Black Lives Matter rallies and other national protests. “I want to be right where the action is happening,” he said. “That’s where I get my inspiration.”

Arriving in Poland in March, Marquez began painting at Warsaw Railway Station – a major transit point for refugees – and in the town of Medyka on the border with Ukraine. He stayed in Poland for a few weeks and produced cubist takes against the stream of refugees.

He left behind a handful of completed works, and while he’s not sure what happened to all of them, he’s heard that some are now in the possession of Polish museum officials.

In Ukraine, he opened a shop next to the destroyed bridge with support from the mayors of Irpin and neighboring Bucha, two Kiev suburbs struggling to return to normal after the Russian invasion left widespread death and devastation in its wake.

Marquez said he chose the Cubist Picasso motif because “Guernica” – which commemorates the Nazi bombing of the Basque city in Spain and stands as one of the great anti-war statements of all time – inevitably draws attention. The look is certainly derivative, but never obscure. For Marquez, the message can trump the aesthetic.

“Every time I do a project, the first thing I think about is: what do I need to do to connect with people?” he explained. “I can do something in my own style, but sometimes you lose the audience. … I can paint a ‘Guernica’ with my eyes closed.”

A man dressed in black with black gloves is working on a cubist painting

Mexican painter Roberto Marquez said he chose Picasso’s Cubist motif for his work in Ukraine because “Guernica” – which commemorates the Nazi bombing of the Basque city in Spain and stands as one of the greatest anti-war statements of all time – is inevitable attracted attention.

(Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

With the Ukrainian flag fluttering overhead, the site has been transformed into an outdoor art installation of sorts, featuring paintings by Marquez, the rows of wooden crosses and several handcrafted signs with messages of peace. Also on display is a collection of Russian military equipment found abandoned in a nearby town.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has announced plans to build a national monument at the bridge to commemorate all those who made the journey.

Marquez said he would love to have his paintings incorporated into the final design. “I hope they leave them there as part of the memorial, but I’m not sure,” he said. “What they do is fine with me.”

War is still raging across much of Ukraine, and many civilians are now fleeing conflicts in the east and south. But at the moment calm has returned to the capital and its suburbs.

All that remains of the bridge are two huge concrete blocks with protruding strands of rebar. A temporary span allows traffic to cross. An overturned white minivan is still parked on the river bank. Nowadays there are few pedestrians. An artist confronts the anguish, and hope, of Ukraine

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