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Ukrainian artist fleeing war finds second home in San Diego

Ukrainian refugees Vira Ustianska and her nine-year-old daughter Vasylisa feel very much at home in a Spanish-style house in San Diego.

That’s because owner Connie Terwilliger welcomed them into her home and even opened her art studio for Ustianska. Ustianska said their first sponsor family kicked them out only a month after they arrived from Poland.

Terwilliger listed the room on AirBnB in February right after the start of the war in Ukraine, but the listing remained open for a while.

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"Then all of a sudden an incredible painter drops out of the sky right into my garage and my house, and it’s been wonderful," she said. "And they are welcome to stay as long as they need to."

Ustianska's husband is a military airplane mechanic needed in the war effort in Ukraine. She said the rest of her family is too close to the war zone.

"I think when I escape from war it was the most scary; it was the most scary situation, but no," she said. "The most scary situation was staying in America without good English on the street without money with (a) child. It’s really scary," she said. "I don’t know where I will be now if Connie didn’t help us. I don’t know. I’m so scared."

Ustianska can smile again because her daughter is safe and she can paint again. She’s an accomplished artist with her own studio in Ukraine. Her art is in museums and private collections, and she's had solo exhibitions. So this studio where she can paint her famous sunflowers has brought her back to life.

Her goal is to once again earn a living from her art to support her family while she lives in San Diego. What she now struggles with are the wasted moments.

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Roland Lizarondo
/
KPBS
Painting “Seize the Time” by Vira Ustianska that shows a wilting flower, Nov. 25, 2022.

"We (planted) sunflowers in our summer house and we (had) a big field and we (felt) freedom every time," she said.  

She hopes a piece that captures a wilting sunflower called “Seize the Time” inspires others to learn from the moments she wishes she would have savored a little more.

"Everyday I fight with myself," she said. "It’s difficult to try and find enough time for all your dreams."