Polish folk traditions around Easter

This past Sunday was Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week. In Poland, for Palm Sunday, people make or buy palms made of either dried flowers and plants or live plants (like a branch of birch or boxwood) decorated with ribbons, live, dried or paper flowers. These palms, although now celebrate Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, have even earlier (pagan) roots in Polish culture. They used to represent life, fertility and health.

During Holy Week (the week before Easter Sunday),  an important activity was (and is) cleaning and preparing the home. It was tradition to decorate the home for Easter with wycinanki (paper cut-outs), pająki (“spiders” – decorations made of straw), and flowers. Any signs of winter had to be eradicated. All waste was burned on a road or in the orchard with the belief that fire destroys what is old and cleanses what is alive.

pająk made of straw and tissue-paper flowers

Also, during Holy Week, pisanki (colored eggs) were prepared.  The simplest method I know of is using onion peels to dye eggs (brownish tan color). My mother-in-law uses this method to this day, and I remember my grandmother used to color eggs this way. Other ways are oak bark (dark brown and black), young rye (green), apple bark (yellows) and various other plants and flowers. Of course, chemical dyes have mostly eradicated the use of natural ones.

The egg in folk tradition is the concentration of life, a symbol of the universe, fertility, the beginning of spring. The symbols and markings made on the egg were supposed to multiply its magical power. There were symbols for the sun (a swastika), growth (branches with leaves), happiness (rakes), etc. This symbolism is no longer used as many traditions have been wiped out by Catholicism or world events. Today’s pisanki are just beautiful to admire. And now more and more often the interpretation of the egg as the symbol of the resurrection is used.

There are several ways to get the look of the pisanki as pictured below. One method is batik (same as for fabric). Patterns are made with wax and each layer gets a color beginning with the lightest – that is how some of the very colorful pisanki are made. Also, the design can be scratched out on the already dyed egg. These are the methods most often used here in Podlasie, there may be other ones in other regions of Poland. (Authentic) Pisanki is a dying art as there are few people who still make them in the traditional ways. Now there are groups of (mostly) women who create wydmuszki and sell so others have these traditional eggs as decoration. Wydmuszki is an empty decorated egg.

pisanki from Podlasie


On the Saturday before Easter, Polish Catholics prepare the Easter basket and go to church to have it blessed with holy water. It must include eggs, gammon (usually homemade, although nowadays it is often replaced by a store-bought meat product), salt, horseradish and bread. The basket is laid out with white linen and decorated with green live plants. Below is an image of a typical Easter table with a basket.

This tradition of blessing food with water is older than Christianity in Poland. It was connected with the magic of creation, ensuring abundance for the year, and the unbreakable bond between life and death.

On the Monday after Easter is Dyngus (Wet Monday), as on this day (usually young) people pour water on each other. This is another pagan tradition that has been kept up. Dyngus was the pagan god of water. The water was supposed to wash off winter idleness and bring health, and the intensity of pouring the water was supposed to ensure plentitude of water for crops. Water in mythology is generally considered a symbol of fertility, as water falling on the ground brings crops. It also has cleansing properties, especially ritual cleansing (blessing, ablutions, etc.)

In searching about Dyngus on the net, I found this interesting entry on Wikipedia.

There are so many other things I could write about related to Easter (like food) and folk traditions, but I think I’ve provided a fairly decent overview here.

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Funds for writers

I have already written about funding for artists and various mobility grants. Oftentimes, these grants are also available to writers, so it is worthwhile to check out my other posts on this topic. (Searching for Grants and Grants for US artists)

There are also specific grants for writers only that I would like to mention. The first good resource is Funds for Writers. This article by Megan Potter also has some good information. And this post can also prove useful.

As I always say, start locally. Check your local arts councils as well as arts and writing organizations. If you need help funding travel expenses, your country’s embassy in the country you are going to may prove helpful.

If any of you know of any other sources for grants and funding, please feel free to add them in the comments.

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Feminism in Poland until 1989 and some “feminist” artists

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but I’ve been very busy. It’s amazing how I always think I have more time than I actually do. You’d think I’d learn at some point, but no… I still feel like maybe somehow I can squeeze more hours out of the day. Anyway, on to the post…

Feminism in Poland is divided into 7 waves. I don’t want to spend too much time discussing the earlier waves as I’d like to tell you about modern feminism. The earlier waves assured women the right to an education and the right to vote (Nov. 28, 1918).

The 6th wave is from 1948-1989. After the end of WWII, the situation of Polish women differed from that of women in Western Europe and the U.S. Communist Poland propagated the emancipation of women at home and at work. This period was characterized by mass propaganda promoting gender equality and called women to join industrial manufacturing and collective farming (popular slogan of the times: Women on tractors!).

The peak of the sixth wave was the legalization of abortion by the Sejm in 1956, which was accompanied by “pro-abortion” propaganda and heated debates with Catholic groups. After that, feminism in Poland pretty much ceased to exist (until 1989), because authorities deemed that they fulfilled all the requirements of feminism. The fact is that the legalization of abortion took place in communist Poland almost 20 years earlier than the US and France (but later than in the Scandinavian countries).

Formally, gender equality was guaranteed, and sexual education was being gradually introduced in primary schools. Contraceptives were also legalized. However, in practice, gender equality existed only theoretically. Any sort of debate on the problems and issues of women’s rights was forbidden. Any contact with “western” feminism was also forbidden (as a result ideas of feminism reached Poland only after 1989). Communism only tolerated “limited” official feminism, mostly aimed at propagating removing the burden of the family and household, and active participation in the workforce. This, of course, was also in theory, as Poland was and is a patriarchal society, and women were (and are) still responsible for childcare (despite the proliferation of public child care facilities) and household duties.

Some “feminist” artists associated with these times often focused on the body and female sexuality. Some artists worth checking out are:

Natalia Lach-Lachowicz whose “consumption” series of photographs and films evoke comparisons to pornographic advertisements and introduce a discursive tone to the rigid view of women.

“Consumption” series. http://nataliall.com/

Maria Pinińska-Bereś created soft, organic forms with erotic sounds and in candy pink colors evoking the aura of the boudoir – the contractual place of pleasure and erotic kitsch produced by urban culture.

Ewa Partum did performances. She would show up on the street nude. She organized street interventions and actions calling women liberate themselves from married slavery. She ran a “flying gallery” and published manifests until the 1980s when she left Poland.

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day

We Poles have a lot in common with the Irish. One thing that brings us together is that we like to drink, so today we will all celebrate Irish-style. Have a wonderful day everyone.

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Prince Charles in Podlasie

Yesterday Prince Charles visited Podlasie, more specifically he went to Bialowieza National Park and to a small town, Kruszyniany, to visit the Tartars. You can see a slide show of his visit here. At the Park, he learned more about the last primeval forest in Europe and its role in helping save the bison, Europe’s largest mammal. There are efforts to include more of Bialowieza Forest in the National Park Reserve, and so Prince Charles was asked to be the Park’s ambassador, to which according to the daily Gazeta Wyborcza he agreed.

In Kruszyniany, he visited the local mosque and was treated to local specialties: pierekaczewnik (a Tatar specialty with pasta dough and meat filling), pieremiacze, bliny, kołduny and drożdżówka (a sweet cake made of flour, yeast, milk, and sugar). All that was embellished with a Tartar dance show performed by the youth group Buńczuk.

The newspaper reporter overheard a woman saying the following: “Camilla isn’t coming. On TV they said her back hurts. But perhaps it’s not surprising,  since we know that Podlasie is for tough women, not princesses.”

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Female Artist Month – Magdalena Abakanowicz

I’ve decided to declare March Female Artist Month as there are many worthwhile Polish women artists to look at, and I realized that I’ve featured only male artists thus far.  March seems like a good month because in Poland on March 8th we celebrate Women’s Day.  It’s a controversial holiday left over from the communist times.  On this day, men give women flowers and other little gifts.  I’m sure you can imagine why it’s controversial. On the other hand, there are also many demonstrations and debates organized by feminists.  My personal opinion is that if something gets people talking on such a hot topic, it can’t be that bad, and this holiday does just that every single year.

Anyway, I’ve decided to start off with an artist most, if not all, of you should be familiar with – Magdalena Abakanowicz.  She’s probably the most famous Polish artist.  Even most Polish people who don’t know a thing about art know who she is.  What I’m including below is an essay I wrote in 2003 while studying at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Chicago is a lucky city because in 2006, they got a permanent Abakanowicz installation (image below).

Sometime this month I’ll post an interview with Abakanowicz.  Here’s my essay:

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Ninety-Five Figures from the Crowd of One Thousand Ninety-Five Figures

I first saw Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Ninety-Five Figures from the Crowd of One Thousand Ninety-Five Figures at the Cultural Center in Chicago in November 2000.  I didn’t realize at the time, but the Ninety-Five Figures would have me thinking for the next three years.  This piece consists of ninety-five headless and armless figures made of bronze.  Their backs are hollow and the skin has a wrinkled texture to it.

Looking at this headless crowd, you can’t help but feel solitude as well as melancholy.  It reminds me a little of Edward Hopper’s work, because in his paintings, there are people, but they are always alone, they never interact with one another.  That is the feeling I get with Abakanowicz’s figures.  It is a large crowd, overwhelming in mass because of the material, but it is a lonely crowd.  In thinking of that, I started thinking of my everyday experiences.  On my way to school or work, I pass many people, avoid them, but never really interact with them.  In these large crowds of people, we are always alone.

That is a really sad and depressing thought.  And I think that is why I have always thought about this exhibit.  To have an image impact me so much emotionally is not an everyday occurrence.  I mean, I look at a lot of great artwork, but I can honestly say, that there are only a few pieces that I think about constantly.  I really enjoy when a piece overwhelms me and submerges me in an experience.  That is exactly what Abakanowicz did for me.

Magdalena Abakanowicz was born in Falenty, Poland (near Warsaw) in 1930. (1) She grew up on her parents’ estate, spending most of her time making forms out of clay, stone, twigs, broken china, etc.  She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and graduated in 1954. (2) She has received honorary doctorate degrees from the Royal College of Art in London, the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and the Academy of Fine Arts in Lodz, Poland.  She has been a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poland and a visiting professor at UCLA. (5)

First Abakanowicz was a painter, and then she became famous for her organic textile reliefs that “were expressive, monumental, and evocative of the human condition.  Her use of natural materials was in response to the dire economic conditions in Poland, but her eloquent use of these materials imbued her textiles with great presence.” (4) Eventually, Abakanowicz started working with burlap, glue, resin, and sisal, then turned to casting in aluminum, and finally in bronze.  “In her early bronzes, Abakanowicz created diverse forms that still relate to her organic sensibility.” (4)

Ninety-Five Figures in a Crowd of One Thousand Ninety-Five Figures “reveal her ambivalence about crowds.” (3) Abakanowicz said, “I’m frightened by crowds of people, birds or even insects swarming in great masses.  People in an airport, people on a metro or on a tram, can seem threatening, horrible, a brainless entity.  Today we are pushed by quantity in general.  I create these crowds of figures as a warning: they’re saying we are too many.” (3)

“Unable to think, fight, or even gesture, these anonymous husks of bodies become monuments to the mute human endurance of regimentation and repression so tragically characteristic of modern history.” (1) It is tempting to think that works such as these are commentaries on the oppressive life Abakanowicz experienced in Poland under the Nazis and then the Communists.  But while she admits that her vision has been shaped by her life in a totalitarian society, she rejects constricted political readings of her sculpture and thinks of them in more universal terms.  “If I talk about problems, it’s global,” she says. “Everything I do is about the human condition.” (1)

I’m not the only one who thinks Magdalena Abakanowicz’s work is emotionally provocative and powerful.  Kathy Zimmerer in her article on Abakanowicz says, “Abakanowicz’s work delves directly into the human sensibility.  While mute, her figures resound with a raw emotion and power that is full of psychological tension.” (4) There are so many things you can read into this work.  And I think that the artist intends on there being some ambiguity.  She wants the viewer to bring into it of their own life, their own experience.  Like I quoted earlier, she deals with the human condition, and we are all a part of that.

“Abakanowicz’s genius at gathering a group of figures and creating an eloquent whole is evident throughout her work, while her emphasis on individual personalities is stressed in their expressive surface textures and subtle poses.” (4)

Magdalena Abakanowicz has been rewarded a multitude of awards:  Grand Prix of Sao Paulo Biennale in 1965, the Comandor Cross of the order of Polonia Restituta, Chevalier dans l’order des Arts et Lettres in Paris, the Leonardo da Vinci Prize in Mexico, and the Award for Distinction in Sculpture, granted by the Sculpture Center in New York.  Her works are in many public collections, including the National Gallery in Washington, Nelson Atkins Museum in Missouri, the Seson Museum in Tokyo, Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, the Sun Jeu Museum of South Korea, the Reina Sofia Muzeum of Madrid, the Center of Modern Art in Warsaw, and the Museum of Modern Art in Seoul. (5, 2)


(1) Cateforis, David. “Magdalena Abakanowicz.” http://old.jccc.net/main/docs/news_entertainment/cec/gallery/htms/Abakanowicz.htm

(2) Przyuski, Alyssa D. “Magdalena Abakanowicz.” http://www.personal.psu.edu/users/a/d/adp132/3.htm

(3) Reif, Rita. “The Jackboot Has Lifted.  Now the Crowds Crush.” The New York Times, June 3, 2001. http://abakanowicz.art.pl/times/index.html

(4) Zimmerer, Kathy. “Magdalena Abakanowicz.” http://artscenecal.com/ArticlesFile/Archive/Articles2001/Articles0301/MabakaniczA.html

(5) _______. “To the Rescue: Eight Artists in an Archive.” International Center of Photography. http://www.icp.org/exhibitions/to_the_rescue/artistbios.html

Images from Abakanowicz’s website.

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Grants for U.S. artists

I recently happened upon a website called The Artists Objective. It has some useful information, particularly of interest for U.S. artists is the ART FUNDERS link. Hope you find these useful.

Also, a reminder that there are  4 days left to apply for the June writer’s residence. Click on the Writer’s Residence page for more information.

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Searching for grants

Money – I think this a topic many artists and people in the arts hate talking about. The reason is mostly because of the difficulty of attaining it. I have problems with getting it for the residency as well, and it pains me that the artists invited must pay some of the costs. I’m working as hard as I can to reduce these costs to a minimum.

Below are some funding resources. These can be helpful even for those artists who will not participate in the residency this year.

Of course, good places to start are local Arts Councils, Associations and Foundations, local Polish organizations (i.e. Polish-American associations). If any of you have good sources or leads, please add them in the comments and I will try to add them to this list. The list below is of course tailored mostly to the needs of artists going on residencies, but not exclusively. I hope it is of help for everyone.

ChangingRoom – Big online database

Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe

Foundation Center

Kulturkontakt Nord Mobility Program

Lab for Culture

Open Art Projects

European Cultural Foundation Mobility Grants

Andy Warhol Foundation (may be for institutions only)

If I find anything else, I will update this post. Please let me know if any of the links aren’t working.

P.S. – If any of you have good funding resources for NGOs in Europe, specifically Poland, I would be much obliged.

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One of the most interesting Polish painters from Podlaskie

As I mentioned previously, I would like this blog to serve not only as information about the residence in Bialystok, but also function as a place for information about contemporary Polish artists, Polish art in general, Polish culture, music, food, as well as regional information about Bialystok and Podlaskie province – of course, stuff you won’t find in most guidebooks or art books (in English).

Today, I present Leon Tarasewicz, one of the most interesting contemporary Polish painters. Leon Tarasewicz comes from the village Walily in the Podlaskie province located near the eastern border with Belarus. He was born on March 14, 1957 and continues to reside in Walily. He studied at the Fine Art Academy in Warsaw (1979-1984) and debuted in Galeria Foksal in 1984. Since then, his work has been widely exhibited in Poland and around the world.

Tarasewicz’s work challenges the ideas of what painting and art are. His paintings are monumental, architectural installations, where the viewer is not a passive viewer – we are able to physically experience the “paintings”. These works exceed the traditional understanding of painting. In his work, painting in not limited to the canvas – it covers floors (like at the Venice Biennale in 2001), pillars, ceilings, entire walls. It isn’t flat, but three-dimensional. Some installations are like mazes, where the viewer literally gets lost in the painting – or maybe the comparison should be to a fun house; the artist uses the architecture of his paintings along with mirrors to completely disorient the viewer.

There is a lot more I could write about this artist, but I think this is enough for today.

I hope this inspires you in your own work.

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