Olenka Pevnys bags are unpacked. All her books are neatly arranged
upon the shelves in her Carlos Hall office. By all accounts Pevny appears
This is a temporary condition.
Pevny is in the middle of the second year of a two-year Mellon Fellowship
in the art history department. Emory is the third stop of Pevnys
academic career. An expert in Byzantine art and architecture, she previously
held visiting professorships at Columbia University and the University
of Michigana trio of universities that would make a pretty impressive
While Pevny acknowledges the difficulties of saying goodbye to people
she meets along the way, she is quick to point out the positives of being
a visiting faculty member.
It has a lot of advantages, Pevny said. For me, the
foremost benefit is having the opportunity to teach in my field. I get
to develop courses I would like to teach, as opposed to teaching general
And Pevnys field is one that doesnt always receive a lot of
Byzantine culture flourished for more than a millennium, primarily in
the eastern Mediterranean, up through eastern Europe and into what is
present-day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Its existence mirrored that of
Consantinople, from its founding (in 330 by the emperor Constantine) to
its fall (in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks).
Much of Byzantine art is iconic in nature, while in Western Europe veneration
focused on the relicthe remains of a given saint or an object associated
with the life of Christ, in Byzantium icons also served as avenues of
communication with the holy. When Byzantine faithful were in the presence
of an icon or image, Pevny said, they believed they were in the presence
of the depicted holy person.
What I find fascinating about Byzantium is that it is so cosmopolitan,
Pevny said. Constantinople was the cultural center of Europe from
the sixth to the 12th century, and Byzantine art was exported to Western
Europe and appreciated there. It also maintained a dialogue with Islam
and then was appropriated in Eastern Europe. Im very interested
in the way Byzantine art came to impact and formulate the identities of
Despite that long history, Byzantine art classes are not common. Pevnys
courses, in fact, are the first offered at Emory in the subject.
One of my goals is to make this material accessible to a broader
student body, Pevny said. I never got to take a Byzantine
art class as an undergraduate; I didnt encounter Byzantine art until
my first year of graduate school. My goal is to hopefully make this subject
an integral part of the study of Western culture. If you think about it,
[Byzantium] extended over half of Europe for over 1,000 years, and Byzantine
Orthodoxy encompasses a whole branch of Christianity that really doesnt
receive much attention. I think its almost criminal not to offer
classes on Byzantine art and culture.
One of Pevnys favorite accomplishments is a lecture on Byzantine
art she gave to an art history survey class. That was a great achievement,
just to reach 100 students, she said. If you present this
material in a 101 class, then youll have students interested in
taking a 300-level class in the area.
A native of New York, Pevny is a first-generation American of Ukrainian
descent. Her parents emigrated from Ukraine and arrived in the United
States in the 1950s. That ethnic background naturally drew her to Eastern
Europe, where she has done a majority of her researchparticularly
in the former Soviet Union.
It hasnt always been easy. Pevny ate cabbage cooked in tomato sauce
for two months while the city of St. Petersburg struggled through a food
shortage. She has dealt with less-than-stellar conditions (political and
otherwise) in Crimea doing archival and archeological work on the city
of Khersones, an ancient Greek colony that also was ruled by the Romans,
Byzantines and Genoese.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, not long after Pevny earned her masters
in art history, the political fires of independence began burningand
she was in the middle of it all. Pevny witnessed student demonstrations
and became so involved in the political developments that she now jokes
her parents were afraid she might not come back to the United States.
In the summer of 1991, Pevny was in Moscow for the Aug. 19 coup that overthrew
the communists and established the Russian republic. She had been attending
an international Byzantine conference. Less than a week later she was
in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, for that countrys declaration of
Pevny is quick and happily excited to show a visitor slides documenting
these events: a tank rolling through the streets of Moscow, dozens of
light-blue and gold flags and banners being waved by thousands of ecstatic
Ukrainians in Kiev.
I love what I do, and Ive enjoyed every position Ive
held so far, but the best part of it all has been my dissertation research
in the former Soviet Union, and then in Russia and Ukraine, Pevny
said. Just being there during the events that led up to the coup
was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Pevnys dissertation studies the relationship between Byzantine art
and collective identity in medieval Kiev through the exdploration of the
art and architecture of the Church of St. Cyril in Kiev, a 12th century
landmark of the Byzantine period. Its a work she is turning into
a book, which she hopes to complete by August.
In addition to her teaching and research, Pevny has museum experience,
having worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for several
years. The highlight of her time there was an exhibition called The
Glory of Byzantium.
It brought Byzantine art and the art of various Slavic people to
the attention of so many visitors, she said. When you teach
classes, you deal with an audience of 30 students, maybe, but here we
had over a million visitors to the exhibition. The impact was great. We
were able to present a wide range of facets of Byzantine art.
Opening Byzantine arts doors to a wider audience is most certainly
one of Pevnys foremost goals, but for next step will be in a slightly
different direction: discussing Byzantine art with students in Byzantiums
backyard. After she leaves Emory following the academic year, Pevny hopes
to continue her teaching in Kiev.
It would be wonderful to find a permanent position, maybe even here
at Emory, but I also think it would be a stimulating experience to learn
how my presentation of Byzantine art is accepted by the people who are
the inheritors of this culture and tradition, and to see how they will
critique or react to my classes. she said, adding she would like
to teach there for about a year.
Just long enough for a nice visit.