Celebrating our ancestors who are ‘Close to Home’

‘Ukraine: Close to Home’ opens at Canadian Mennonite University gallery

Photo by Arthur Mackinnon, provided by Margaret Shaw-Mackinnon

Canadian Mennonite University’s MHC gallery hosted the opening of two new exhibits on March 10 that deep dive into the idea of home. 

Writer and artist Margaret Shaw-MacKinnon is the creator of the exhibit Ukraine: Close to Home. The show is dedicated to her Ukrainian immigrant grandparents, who came to Canada as part of the first wave of immigration beginning in the 1890s.

For Shaw-MacKinnon, the journey to find information on relatives whose history seemed lost in her family tree began sporadically about 12 years ago. Her research intensified following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“With the war in Ukraine I just felt like, ‘I have got to delve into this in a deep way,’” Shaw-MacKinnon explained. 

“It’s been an amazing year of immersing into the lives of first-wave Ukrainian immigrants, and into retrieving my family heritage that was lost through ethnic discrimination and life trajectories.”

Shaw-MacKinnon described how, at the start of her research process, she was reading information about Ukraine, beginning with its history. During all this research, she came across a piece of writing about her great-grandfather written by one of his friends. It was through this text that she learned the two of them had built a church together, and that for nine years her great-grandfather had preached there. 

After devoting time to her research, Shaw-MacKinnon began painting while attempting to incorporate what she had learned into her pieces. 

“That was a very interesting process because I wanted to capture the history and yet make the paintings accessible and folkloric and narrative,” she said. “So, I wove in little symbols that have meaning and painted with colours that also have meaning.”

For Shaw-MacKinnon, this journey has been a chance to learn about and connect with this side of her ancestry she had not previously been well aware of.

“While I learned so much about my Scottish ancestry, I really didn’t learn much at all about the Ukrainian heritage, except that my father took me to the North End when I was a little girl to paint Ukrainian Easter eggs, or to use the wax, the dyes,” she said.

“He must have been standing by with such a feeling, seeing me engaged in that.”

Shaw-MacKinnon said that she would like attendees to think about their own family stories and what their family has been through. 

“When so much of the world is enduring war, what are we doing with our peace?” she said. “How are we measuring up to what our ancestors sacrificed for us?”

Answering these questions can seem daunting, but all it takes to start is a little bit of interest.

“Be curious about where you come from and where you’re going,” she said.


Ukraine: Close to Home is open to the public and located at MHC Gallery from March 10 to April 29.