Ukrainian woman forging new opportunities with help of local blacksmiths

Last updated on Jun 29, 23

Posted on Jun 29, 23

4 min read

A Ukrainian newcomer to Waterloo Region is getting support from a number of blacksmith shops in southwestern Ontario, allowing her to not only earn some income but to also make one of her designs a reality.

Irina Tereshchenko came to Canada with her two children last December. After Russia invaded her home country they fled to Poland, however that was only temporary. Her husband is still in Ukraine.

“After the missiles fell in Poland, I realized that I had to find a safer place for my children. So that the war and its echoes are not so close,” said Tereshchenko, who spoke to the Observer via email and using a translation app.

“Canada is the safest, most prosperous and developed country in the world, English-speaking, which will give my children not only shelter but also development,” she said.

The family stayed at the St. Jacobs Guest House for three months, where Tereshchenko met volunteer Holly White, who learned that Tereshchenko and her husband had run a custom metal business before the war started. In helping the Ukrainian woman look for work, she turned to Robb Martin of Thak Ironworks in Floradale. Although not in a position to bring on an employee, he was eager to help after seeing her portfolio album.

“I thought ‘wow, she’s got really nice designs – these are topnotch things. I wonder if there’s a way that we could do something to incorporate her skills to make her some money to help her get established and everything because I couldn’t employ her,’” Martin explained.

The decision was made that Tereshchenko would design a gate that will eventually get auctioned off. As the project grew beyond the scope of what Martin could do alone, he approached the Ontario Artist Blacksmith Association (OABA) and several members of that organization were eager to help.

“I just know there’s a bunch of people there that are very creative. Combined, a bunch of people working together, we might be able to actually realize this gate in real life,” he said.

Sandra Dunn, founder of Two Smiths in Kitchener, is one of the blacksmiths working on the project. She estimates that around 400 hours are being donated to the project.

“I think what’s special about it is that there are a bunch of volunteers working together with blacksmiths working in different shops. Blacksmiths make gates, but we don’t normally work together collaboratively like this – for special projects, we will,” said Dunn, whose shop is making aesthetic gears as part of the design.

White hopes this project will inspire other industries, particular in the arts to help other Ukrainians.

“A lot of our artistic endeavours are for individual people, so this is great that Irina’s name will now get across in the blacksmithing industry across Canada, and people will be able to see her design. This will give a great exposure, and hopefully something better comes out of this, maybe more projects for her,” White said.

Although she went into designing the gate unsure about how Canadian blacksmiths operate – for example, the styles and metal processing they use – the response was “wonderful,” Tereshchenko said.

“At first I was scared, after all, a different country, people, different styles, design…work is different. But when Robb introduced me to people who got excited about the idea of doing this project, and I began to explain what, how and why [I wanted], I felt in my company, in my place.

“It was exciting. I explained my idea, how I see certain details of the gate, and people listened, asked, consulted. I saw how their eyes were burning, they wanted to do it,” she explained.

“It’s a wonderful feeling, like when I had 10 employees, blacksmiths and welders, every morning we had a discussion of the tasks for the day, how we would solve them,” Tereshchenko added.

Intricately designed, the gate features a clock inspired by what Tereshchenko described as her “blurry associations with the sense of time.”

“I decided to depict a clock, because I suddenly realized that the unit of time had lost its meaning. I live out of habit: feed, wash, cook no matter what day, number, what will happen tomorrow. Time has lost its meaning,” she said of her current situation.

“I no longer make plans for the future. I don’t think about the development of my business, about employees, about the assortment of my store, about buyers and deadlines. Everything has changed, but here I met so many wonderful people, so much support.”

The gate also has steampunk elements that “speak of the complexity, chaos and uncertainty of this time,” Tereshchenko noted.

The gate is slated for completion at the end of July and will be showcased at the Canadian National Blacksmith Conference being held in Fergus in August.

“I hope that everyone who sees it will understand my idea and get aesthetic pleasure from viewing it. I believe that it will make many people think about the transience and unpredictability of time,” said Tereshchenko.

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