I was born and grew up in Milanowek, outside Warsaw, in Poland. My father was a professor of agriculture and my mother was an art teacher. I spent the time I wasn’t in school roaming the deep forests and endless fields, studying bees and flowers and all the nature exploding around me. I was fascinated by growth and decay, life and death. I wanted to understand when things began, how they changed, why they ended. In high school, I studied philosophy and majored in biology and chemistry. I surrendered myself to books and microscopes until one day in the meadows I was so moved by the cool reds and the warm reds that I felt compelled to paint the scene. It was the only way I could understand what was in front of me. I began to paint the world.
When I was nineteen, I chose formal training and studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. I learned the language of art and its many subtleties from one of most recognized painters in my time in Warsaw, Janusz Petrykowski. I was able to take private lessons with Janusz thanks to the generosity of my parents. To Janusz and to my mother and father, I am forever grateful.
Even at a state-sponsored institution, I had almost no access to the western art world. Very few Poles did. That’s because an article of faith in our country and the entire Communist bloc was that art served a purpose. It promoted a particular social meaning. Bursts of vivid colors and strange shapes that ignited the imagination and challenged the viewer to see the world in a different way, I realized much later, represented a threat to the very basis of communism. Those images represented freedom. Abstract expressionism? If I heard those words then, it would have been like a Martian hearing the phrase “cheeseburger with fries.”
The study of art history in Poland in the seventies meant leafing through state-approved books and illustrations, nearly all in black and white. It meant looking at landscape after landscape, still life after still life. It meant that even when I saw something authentic, I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t. There was an exhibit in Warsaw of American painters featuring the Hudson Valley school of painting. “America exaggerates everything,” we said to one another. “So of course they exaggerate the hues. Those colors in the paintings don’t exist in the real sky.”
The little western art I did see made me suspect that there was a different world outside my country’s borders. I wanted to see it, to be part of it, but to obtain a passport then was near impossible without connections or a bribe.
It was only when I stood in London, looking at a Turner painting, and in Paris, nearly drowning in a Van Gogh exhibit that I saw how inadequate the approximations of color I had seen before, had been. In both cities, in different museums, I looked at those colors and I felt things I didn’t even understand, and I wept.
I arrived in 1981, a political refugee with a large portfolio of my work from Poland, and virtually no understanding of the English language.
A stranger in a strange land, I questioned my decision every day—until Parsons granted me a full scholarship to study art. It was there that I met my teachers, Sean Scully and Jackie Brookner, loving and important mentors.
That was over thirty years ago. Today I’m a Pole living in New York City, an American and citizen of the world who was born and who still returns in her memory and her art to the deep forests and loamy soil of Eastern Europe.
Today, Art to me is not about promoting any kind of social agenda. Art is what I do, and who I am. It’s a way of exploring the connections between You and I, between Me and the Universe. It’s exploration and discovery.
I’m still obsessed over where things begin and how they change and when they end. I live in a high rise but I’m still the little girl staring at flowers and honeybees, gazing at the vast skies of the universe. I’m interested in matters of life and death, truth and beauty, how my experience is your experience and how we’re all different but we’re all the same. These are the subjects I address in my work.