CHICAGO — A Chicago-based artist from Ukraine is busy painting one of Uptown’s most historic sections.
Zhanna Biletska has been painting for over 20 years and doesn’t take too long to create a masterpiece.
The Ukrainian, who came to Chicago in 2013, specializes in the French style “en plein air” — which means painting outside with the subject in full view.
From CloudGate to the Chicago Theatre to Rogers Park’s beaches — Biletska’s busy as a professional artist since returning from basic training for the U.S. National Guard in 2020 — which she joined to speed up her citizenship.
Lately, Biletska has started working on one of the most historic streets in all of Chicago — Uptown’s Castlewood Terrace.
Chicago was known as one of the early epicenters of the silent film industry. Due to the Essanay Film Company, several stars, including Charlie Chaplin, lived in the neighborhood.
The street contains 26 homes built between 1897 and 1927. In 2009, Castlewood Terrace was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Castlewood Terrace resident Michael Tomsa, 37, saw Biletska’s post showcasing some home paintings on Facebook and was immediately struck by the style.
He grew up on arguably the most famous home on the block — which was designed by John A. Rogers and sold by Lyman Baird, of Baird and Warner, in 1896 as the original model home for the street. It was completed the following year.
Tomsa’s mother still lives there and he contacted Biletska for her to paint it as a gift.
“That’s why (mother’s home) has so much detail,” Tomsa said. “(Baird) tried to make it look fancy, so it has a lot of plaster work.”
With the timing of Biletska’s schedule, the “just because” painting turned out to be an excellent Mother’s Day gift.
“There’s so much history here,” Biletska said of the street.
After Biletska’s “en plein air” painting of his mother’s home, Tomsa wanted one of his own, which is just down the street.
Built in 1924 for the postmaster general of Chicago, Tomsa was able to buy it in 2019.
A home near Tomsa could have been a part of “Boardwalk Empire” if it was set in Chicago.
“The house next door to me was beach front and during prohibition, it was a speakeasy,” Tomsa said. “There was a tunnel to the shore where the booze was brought in.”
After Biletska’s work for the Tomsas, word has spread among Castlewood Terrace like wildfire. She has already been commissioned to paint a neighbor’s home and Tomsa said another home nearby is interested.
“(My mother) loved it and she’s going to take it to the block meeting,” Tomsa said. “We are all a little quirky on this street and love our old houses and there’s a strong demand for it.”
Biletska’s journey to become a professional artist had some challenges along the way.
On February 24, 2022, she was back in her hometown Kryvyi Rih visiting family when Russia invaded Ukraine. A no-fly zone was implemented and Biletska was stuck there.
Being over 500 miles from the Polish border to be able to fly back to Chicago, the artist began a three-day journey by bus.
“You didn’t know if it was safe or okay to go by buses,” Biletska recalled.
Once she made it to the border, a massive line of cars greeted her and a mother she was traveling with.
“We stopped and were not moving. We spent eight hours just sitting. Our (taxi) driver said, ‘I don’t want to leave you,'” Biletska said. “The woman with me was like ‘it’s better for us to walk.’ So I got out my luggage.”
Biletska, the mother and her two kids walked five hours to the border — all without water.
“I was not prepared that I would need to walk,” Biletska said.
After an intense journey to Warsaw, all while Russia was bombing various parts of her homeland, Biletska made it back to Chicago. Ukraine remains on the top of her mind.
“I had people contacting me to do interviews about coming back,” Biletska said. “At first it was just hard and I was watching and reading the news all the time and so depressed.”
She started to take part in fundraisers in the area to aid Ukraine by selling her paintings.
Biletska regularly stays in contact with her family and her brother-in-law is on the front lines fighting.
Through all of the challenges, Biletska is glad she’s achieved her dream to become a professional artist and loves setting roots in Chicago.
“Chicago is so interesting,” Biletska said. “Every where you look around, if you pay attention, it’s such interesting architecture.”