An Ocean on the Tip of a Finger

By Kim Latimer, Photos provided by Olena Riaboshapkina

Art in its tiniest form: a perfectly crafted, microchip-sized replica of a ship floats atop a ring fingernail, which has been transformed into a sea. Below, as though under the surface of the water, you can see whales, tortoises, octopuses, brilliant orange fish, even a starfish. Each one is perfectly glossed and embossed with ice and waves.

Nail artist Olena (Elena) Riaboshapkina has begun to win international awards for her tiny, intricately detailed works. A recent award she won was from a free international charity online festival held by the International East European Beauty Association (IEEBA) in support of the masters of the beauty industry, with the theme “Faith, Hope, Love Will Save the World.”

“I’m inspired by nature,” says Riaboshapkina, who created a micro-mini aquatic composition on exaggeratedly long, ocean-blue gel nails, the likes of which a real mermaid herself might don. “I was invited by a Ukrainian community of nail technicians to be part of their team,” she says. “I inlaid items and crystals on the nails. It’s important to ensure my idea would come across and would be done perfectly.” She says Lake Superior and the Marina in Thunder Bay inspired this design.

Riaboshapkina holds several certifications and awards for her nail art. She recently won first place in another international contest based in Indonesia. “It’s always been my passion,” she says. “It’s been my dream since I was a child.”

It’s been over five years since she and her husband moved to Canada, leaving their jobs as engineers in Ukraine. Since then, she’s gained certifications in esthetics, including hand and foot care, and opened her own business in 2019 that includes esthetics and selling candles, bath bombs, and Footlogix natural cosmetic products for footcare.

She also gave birth to her daughter, the family’s first Canadian-born child. “My husband took the two-year electrical technician course at Confederation College, and we chose to come to Thunder Bay in the hope of making a better future for our children,” she says. Since then, they’ve endured both COVID and the terrifying war between Russia and Ukraine that is directly impacting their immediate families back home.

“My mom, dad, sister, her husband, and their children are there. A few weeks ago, my family’s city was bombed,” she says. “My husband’s family and parents are there too. We don’t have the financial support to bring them here and the men can’t leave the country,” as they’re deemed servicemen. Last year, Riaboshapkina lost her grandmother to dementia—a direct cause of the war, she says, due to the lack of access to care, as health resources have entirely shifted to triaging war victims.

She says the art helps “to make sure I don’t have time to cry.” She’s a year into the practical nursing program at Confederation College and currently on placement now at Pioneer Ridge, where she’s working with elderly people with dementia. “I try to care about people who don’t have family nearby, and Pioneer Ridge is a really lovely place,” she says. Her aim is to specialize in podology and provide footcare nursing. She leans on the nail art as a creative way to cope amidst the family hardships of war and worry.

“I dream about these nail contests,” she says, smiling.

See Riaboshapkina’s work on Instagram @elenariaboshapkina and on Facebook @Elena’s World.