Monday, July 29, 2013

Stone Upon Stone

I just finished reading "Stone Upon Stone" by Wieslaw Mysliwski, translated from Polish by Bill Johnston. This book was chosen by the University of Rochester as "the finest example of world literature in translation" for the year of 2012.

 I found out about this book a few months ago online by a great resource for those of us interested in Polish culture: The Cosmopolitan Review, "A Transatlantic Review of Things Polish, in English".

"Stone Upon Stone" is a raw, honest and human piece of fiction narrated by the protagonist, Szymek Pietruszka. The memories from his life are sometimes brutal, other times funny, lovingly tender and often painful. His recollections are sometimes poetic and poignant and other times long winded and rambling.

The book is set in communist era Poland in the mid to late 20th century. The story weaves back and forth as Szymek sets forth a stream of consciousness recalling memories from his childhood, young adulthood, time fighting in World War II, and adulthood as he looks back from the perspective of the winter of his life. His memories come to the surface as he prepares to build a tomb in which to be buried. So many rich stories and perspectives roll from page to page. I felt like I was a part of Szymek's mental wanderings and intimately witnessed his 20th century life, lived as a peasant in a small village, where he lived so much and saw so much change.

Szymek is the real deal. He's doesn't lead a pretty life. His stories certainly are not sugar coated. He suffered much and his neighbors suffered along side him. Yet you see a resilience and a strength of character through his humanity and humor.  At times I cringed while I read about his behavior and actions as he deals with strong emotions related to love: the love of a woman and the love for his invalid brother. Szymek lets the reader in to witness both his dark side and light side. My heart ripped open as I read his first hand account about fighting in World War II and what kind of atrocities he witnessed during that time. He's a man who grows up with all aspects of raw reality coming to him. It's one event after another: abuse, war, hunger, hard work and hard drinking, love gained and lost.  I wonder if his story mirrors the story of Poland? Poland greatly suffered during the time of Symek's life.

What I most enjoyed about "Stone Upon Stone" is how Szymek remembers the traditions of his family and of the rural peasants in the village in which he lives. He is down to earth, often blunt, as he recalls his memories of working the land, and the traditions and rituals around the holidays. Nothing about this story is veiled with nostalgic memories that shine as if looked through rose colored lenses. Szymek tells things as they were. He remembers hard work mowing the field at harvest...

"Plus harvesttime was getting close. And harvesttime was a curse. From dawn till night you worked like and animal. Your head's pounding from the mowing, your eyes are blinded by sweat. Instead of crossing the sky, the sun just keeps moving to a fro across your back, all the time from when it rises in the east till when it sets in the west. It's like its claws were sunk into your skin. Because it's not even the sun, the sun is what shines over the river and the meadow and the reeds, this thing is a huge bright bird that's got it in for you. The moment you feel like straightening up a bit, it jabs you in the back of the head with its beak. Like it was reminding you your life belongs down below, not up above, that your life is this eternal unmown field you keep moving across, swinging your scythe. And you don't even know if you'll ever finish mowing it. You'll only be done when death takes you."

Field near Korczyna, Poland

Farmer's fields near Zakopane, Poland
 I recommend reading this book if you are interested in Polish literature, history, life and culture. The story is told in the most personal of ways through a character who is not afraid to tell a story about the realities of his life and the experinces of his heart.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Art work by Kazimierz Sichulski

Spring, design stained glass triptych
In 1909. Pastel, tempera, cardboard. 145 x 231 cm.
The National Museum in Warsaw.

Palm Sunday (triptych)
In 1906. Pastel, gouache and tempera on paper glued on cardboard.
The National Museum in Krakow.
Girls Hutsul (left part of the triptych Palm Sunday).
136 x 71.5 cm

In 1906. Pastel and gouache on paper. 76 x 56 cm.
The National Museum in Krakow.

Bridesmaid (Hucułka)
In 1906. Pastel, tempera, gouache and charcoal on paper. 76 x 55 cm.
The National Museum in Krakow.

I came across some postcards in my studio recently that I purchased at the National Museum in Krakow a couple years ago. The postcards include images of some of the artworks shown above. The artist responsible for these works is Kazimierz Sichulski (1879-1942). I particularly like the paintings that were inspired by Hutsul traditional culture found in the south-eastern Carpathian mountain region. This area, for a time, was part of Poland but is now part of the Ukrainc. Sichulski was born and died in the city of Lviv.

I love the above pieces, as much for their traditional subject matter as for the rendering of the subject with rich expression, harmonious use of color and lyrical line. You get a sense of the beautiful ornamentation on the peasant dress. The lines are organic, graphic and bold. The way the cloth folds on the blouses and headscarves gives you the impression of the feel and weight of the cloth used for these traditional garments. The peasant's features are captivating as you see them here, looking, thinking and praying.

The Hutsul people that captivated Sichulski were mountaineers found in the western part of the Ukraine, Eastern Carpathian mountain region. Sichulski was not alone with his fascination as many artists and ethnographers were inspired by Hutsul traditional culture. Sichulski's artistic career was not only focused on traditional culture. He was a master of caricature and also created religious works. I am most attracted to his Hutsul inspired works.

It is not surprising to me that Sichulski studied with Wyspianski, who is an artist I've written about here on my blog . Wyspianski was inspired by traditional peasant culture in Poland as well. These artists were part of a larger movement called the "Young Poland" movement where something called "Chlopomania" occurred. "Chlopomania" is a Polish term used to describe these artist's fascination with traditional culture, folklore and peasant life. Some artists, playwrights, writers, and members of the intelligentsia at the turn of the century (1891-1918) in Poland felt cautious about, and in some instances, disgust for the modernization around them especially in the cities and politics at this time.  They desired to look to nature, return to nature and shun aspects of modern city life. The peasants lived close to nature so they and their customs fascinated and inspired artists. Some of the "Young Poland" artists, like Wyspianski, went so far as to marry peasant women. Another important aspect of this movement was the way in which artists looked for and expressed a strong national identity through traditional culture. This was especially important in Poland as the country for so long was partitioned by it's surrounding countries and political systems. Folklore and peasant life became the subject of many artistic creations. Artists involved with the Young Poland movement were working with thoughts and philosophies that were strongly reminiscent of Romanticism. The Romantic movement revolted against industrialization and the scientific rationalization of nature in artist expression. Romanticism looked to the authentic reality of strong emotion and looked back to traditions, ritual, and awe inspiring nature.

Let's fast forward to the 21st century. At this point in time another wave of interest in our connections with nature, with our farming and food, with our production of goods and even in looking at how we spend time in our families and within communities is gaining more interest and attention. Industrial farming, the outsourcing of manufacturing, and our plugged in culture needs to be looked at. Are we growing healthy food and taking care of the land that grows our food for ourselves and children? Are there meaningful jobs where a worker can feel pride in what they make? Are we sharing meals with our family and friends, having conversations, telling stories, marking important passages of time both personally and within our communties, connecting with something greater than ourselves?

Artists like Kazimierz Sichulski with their interest in and depiction of traditional cultures can show us something today. How are we feeling connected to meaning, health, communities and family and how are we feeling disconnected?  One of the reasons I enjoy works of art is for their aesthetically pleasing and/or thought  provoking effect. There is a reason I am so inspired by traditional cultures. I feel I can learn something from them and have learned something from them that brings me and my family more meaning, more health and more of a connection to something greater. With this, I think the Young Poland artists and I have something in common.

Sources: Wikipedia
               images found here:

Monday, July 8, 2013

First Year

Kazmir has had a very good start in life. The past couple of weeks I've been feeling reflective, emotional and hopeful as we marked the coming and going of Kaz's first birthday on June 29th.

I've reflected on his birth, the evening turning to morning when we worked hard to welcome him to this world.  It was a joyful birth and now I can say from experience we have a joyful little man on our hands . I've been thinking about those first weeks at home when I learned so much and grew so much. Kaz has been one of my best teachers. All along, not just those first weeks, but this whole year. I imagine this is one of his roles as we share our lives: mother and son.

I've been feeling emotional. How could this year have passed so quickly and yet in moments seem to go so slowly? I'm feeling a certain amount of joy and sadness. Everyday we welcome something new in him and about him and at the same time let go and say goodbye to another phase of growing. Little habits that are so endearing in the moment like his newborn cry,  his crooked smile, him laying in bed for hours nursing and cuddled against me have faded into memories as I now chase a speedy, curious crawler, stander, cruiser and drawer re-arranger around the house during his waking hours. This kid does not sit still!

I'm hopeful, a bit superstitious or maybe just a romantic. At any oppurtunity I look at the stars and make a wish for Kaz and his life. I say a prayer and Kaz is first on my heart and mind. We blow out his first birthday candle on a homemade cherry pie we share with my parents and a coconut pound cake we share with Josh's family and I close my eyes tight as my heart fills with so much love and hope for my little guy and his big life that lies ahead.

I pray and wish for his life to be LONG and filled with LOVE, BEAUTY, GOOD HEALTH and MUCH JOY. Happy Birthday Kazmir.