Last March, not long after Russia invaded Ukraine, Mark Kelner set out to GW’s campus with a handful of balloons in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, yellow and blue. His destination: a statue of Alexander Pushkin. Kelner tied the balloons to Pushkin’s hand, snapped a photo, and uploaded it to Instagram with a caption beginning, “Had to be done. And so I did it.”
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The balloon idea was meant to be a one-off, but as the war raged on, Kelner—a DC artist and filmmaker—decided to keep going. He’s since brought the concept to 12 statues around the city, including luminaries like Nelson Mandela, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, and Marion Barry. The project now has a title: “Helium Visionaries.”
For Kelner, the war is personal. His parents were Russian refugees who emigrated to the US just before Kelner was born. Growing up in Rockville, he spoke Russian at home and felt isolated at school. “Right outside my front door was America,” he recalls, “but inside, it was Russia.” Kelner studied literature and film at George Mason University, then got into art after graduating. His Russian background has often been a theme in his work.
Though he hasn’t bothered to get permission for most of these balloon posings, Kelner has never had serious issues with the authorities. Now he’s hoping for a gallery show in DC, with a published catalog to go along with it. And while the project is intended to support Ukraine and everyone affected by the war, Kelner has another goal: for people to notice statues that sometimes slip into the background. By adding of-the-moment resonance via the balloons, he hopes he “can make something old seem relevant again.”
This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Washingtonian.