Ukrainian sculptor becomes part of prestigious UK art society after fleeing war

A sculptor who fled Ukraine with just his family, pets and a suitcase after his studio was destroyed in the Russian invasion, has been accepted into the Royal Society of British Artists.

Alex Lidagovsky, his wife, Dasha Nepochatova, and stepdaughter, Sofia Krotova, who is 16, were forced to leave Kyiv when Russia’s invasion began on February 24 2022.

Now settled in the UK, Lidagovsky, 63, who was an in-demand sculptor in Ukraine, welcomed the PA news agency into his studio at Fusion Arts Studios, in Kingston upon Thames, in south-west London.

Reflecting on the beginning of the war, Lidagovsky, whose words were translated into English by his wife, said: “My studio was destroyed at the beginning of the war and was near Kyiv and I knew about it later from my friends when they sent me photos of destroyed and bombed studio.

“When we were leaving Ukraine to save our daughter we never thought it would be for so long.

“Now, because I’m so far away from my country and it looks like I live another life, I try not to think about it, to deny it, to drive this pain into the depths of my consciousness and give myself more time to reflect on it.”

Ms Nepochatova, 43, has recently been accepted on to the MPhil in Slavonic Studies at Oxford University, which starts in October and has “always been a dream” of hers.

“My focus will be Ukrainian female literature as a women empowerment tool because, in Ukraine in 2020, I founded the first, feministic, publishing house called Creative Women Publishing and we want Ukrainian female voices to be heard,” she explained.

Man looking at something on the ceiling
Lidagovsky fled Ukraine at the beginning of the war (Danielle Desouza/PA)

She said the day Russia launched its invasion on Ukraine was “unbelievable” and “surrealistic”.

“You don’t plan to be in another country, and one day you just wake up in your own bed and somebody calls you on the phone and tells you that the war has started,” she added.

“And then you have an hour to get your suitcase and put in some stuff.”

The couple made sure their pet dog and rat went with them as they travelled to western Ukraine and then Poland.

Man smiling and looking at the camera
Lidagovsky is to showcase a sculpture in Italy (Danielle Desouza/PA)

They reached Kingston upon Thames on April 13 2022 via the Homes for Ukraine scheme because one of Ms Nepochatova’s friends, Liz Smith, lived there and hosted them in her house for six months.

Initially, Lidagovsky said it was difficult to forge a new life in the UK due to the language barrier.

However, the kindness of people he met and becoming a part of World Jewish Relief (WJR)’s specialist training and employment programme (Step) for Ukrainian refugees, which set him up with a dedicated employment adviser, Caitlin Bugler, in November 2023 – allowed him to flourish.

He said Ms Bugler was “amazing” and from the first moment they met, she “behaved like a proper art manager” and offered support and information about opportunities.

Person walking on tightrope
Model of the Tightrope Walker sculpture (Alex Lidagovsky/PA)

“Starting from scratch here in the UK with the status of a refugee, it was very important for me to stay in the profession because I felt like I lost my voice and my language, so it was important for me to not lose my professional identity,” he said.

“When I arrived here, I just felt emptiness because I was cut off from my previous life.

“Compared to Ukraine, I knew the market and society there, but I was invisible and nobody knew me here so the first step was to show up to let people see me and become visible.”

Some of Lidagovsky’s highlights from his career in the UK so far include showcasing a work at the Winter Sculpture Park in Bexley, south-east London, in February 2023, and being granted honorary membership of the Royal Society of British Artists.

Man and woman posing together
Alex Lidagovsky with his wife Dasha Nepochatova (Danielle Desouza/PA)

He said the honorary membership was an “exciting” and “unexpected” surprise and was a way for the UK art community to show support to Ukrainian artists.

“I also found out the news on the same day as my birthday, so it felt like a birthday gift.”

Lidagovsky recently won one of the five residency prizes for indoor sculpture at Lucca Biennale Cartasia, the biggest event in the world about paper art and architecture, which will see his sculpture, Swallow’s Flight, on display in Lucca, Italy.

A miniature paper model of the piece was present in the studio, which Lidagovsky used to describe the work.

“The piece will be made from corrugated cardboard and the sculpture is in an acrobatic position called swallow and metaphorically shows her leg is in the past and her head is in the future, but she’s trying to balance in the present with her hands open,” he said.

He will travel with his wife to Lucca on May 27 and will have roughly one month to create the sculpture, with the show to take place from June 29 to September 29.

His metal sculpture, Tightrope Walker, will also be featured in a new public art trail commissioned by Great Yarmouth Borough Council, alongside nine other sculptures from other artists in November 2024.

Lidagovsky said: “I am extremely thankful to my friends and colleagues in Britain, as well as the British Government and World Jewish Relief, for giving me the chance to stay true to myself and my profession and continue to fight for my country, Ukraine.

“The ability to keep creating art is a valuable opportunity for me to represent Ukrainian culture, which Russia is trying so hard to destroy, to the world.”