Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
Feb. 18, 2020

Jan Sawka: Polish Refugee in the Hudson Valley

Jan Sawka: Polish Refugee in the Hudson Valley
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In 1976, renowned artist Jan Sawka fled communist Poland with his wife Hanna, and baby daughter, also named Hanna. They eventually settled in High Falls, NY, and Jan would draw inspiration for his paintings from the Ashokan Reservoir and Catskills Mountains. We spoke with Jan’s family at an exhibition of his work at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, at SUNY New Paltz.

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Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via https://otter.ai

Brett Barry  0:02  
Welcome to Kaatscast, a biweekly podcast delivering interviews, arts, culture, and history from New York's Catskill Mountains. In 1976, renowned artist Jan Sawka fled communist Poland with his wife, Hanna, and baby daughter, also named Hanna. They eventually settled in High Falls, New York, and Jan would draw inspiration for his paintings from the Ashokan Reservoir and Catskill Mountains. We spoke with Jan's family at a new exhibition of his work at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz. This episode is sponsored by Albert Shahinian Fine Art in Rhinebeck, New York. Celebrating its 22nd year as one of the region's premier art venues and full service galleries, exhibitions present quality, original, contemporary regional, 20th century and Hudson River art. The gallery mostly represents regional artists shows representational and non-objective work, and offers curatorial installation, delivery and art consultation services. More at shahinianfineart.com.

Hanna Maria Sawka  1:13  
My name is Hanna Maria Sawka. I'm the co-curator of this exhibition, which is called Jan Sawka, the place of memory and in...in parentheses, the memory place, and I'm also the daughter of the artist.

Brett Barry  1:26  
What is it like to curate your own father's work?

Hanna Maria Sawka  1:30  
Well, that's actually pretty fun. I'm close to it. I kind of know a lot of the work and I can think of things that might come together. I wouldn't want to do it by myself, and I have a wonderful co-curator, Dr. Boyer, who brings, you know, an outside perspective. I mean, he knew my dad; he became interested in his work while he was alive. I can, you know, point us to a lot of things because I know where they are or I saw my dad making them, or I remember something, my mom even more; my mom's an encyclopedia. You know.

Hanka Sawka  2:02  
We were in political refugee, and we have to in '76, we have to leave Poland in one week. My daughter was nine months old and my husband was very popular among her entire Eastern Bloc, and their occupation of Russia, which so called Soviet Union, it was Soviet Union. So he was very popular because of his work and message. When (the) artists made a living, they were making posters, because everything has to be censored. So including your business card. So without approval, you could not do the work. So many artists were doing posters. This is why Polish posters was so outstanding. So when they expelled us, we went to Paris, where he became a resident artist on San Pompadour and we were living in Paris for one and a half years where he had two gallery shows, and also one in Holland, and when Soviets realized that he's not disappearing, like they were hoping he would disappear. They asked France to send us back and we came to America on special loophole, which was created (in) during Second War by Peggy Guggenheim. With the added 2 spy and scientists, artists, and this is on this law, we came to America.

Gregory Bray  3:27  
Well, I can tell you that as an artist, he took a lot of risks while he was in Poland. As a matter of fact, he got on the communist radar as somebody who is creating work deemed to be undesirable and unfit for public consumption. He and his wife Hanna, fled Poland, and the communist government was hot on their heels when they came to the United States as refugees. My name is Gregory Bray. I'm an associate professor at the State University of New York in Digital Media Production. I've known Hanna for a number of years now, we've been very good friends and for this project, I've helped her as a videographer for her documentary that she's making about her father. His art, while he was in the United States was absolutely spectacular. He did a lot of light and projection art on the sides of large buildings in Houston as well as Tokyo, and he also did design for the Grateful Dead.

Brett Barry  4:24  
When Jan first heard the Grateful Dead, he was imprisoned in Poland for leading a protest against the communist regime. He and his fellow inmates had tuned in to an illegal broadcast of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Two decades later, Jan's work would feature in both a rebranded Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz, and a ten-story stage set for the Grateful Dead's 25th Anniversary Tour.

Hanna Maria Sawka  4:54  
So it all started actually, with Neil Trager. Neil and my dad, Matt. Neil was the director of what was then the College Art Gallery. He's a photographer himself. He...my dad invited him, you know, they...they met and my dad invited him to the studio in High Falls and Neil loved it and they started working on what would become my dad's mid-career retrospective at the College Art Gallery. Neil already (had) befriended Sam Dorsky, some time ago; he had a vision to actually have a museum here. You know, the College Art Gallery already was here, and it was meant to enrich teaching, and it was doing that, and he wanted it to be bigger. You know, and he also felt that, and rightfully so, that the Hudson Valley was a very important art hub. The first school of art in America was, you know, ours, right. We're at Ground Zero. As they were working on the retrospective. My dad got one of the more like, interesting commissions of his life, which was to create an art installation for the Grateful Dead. When you first mentioned it to Neil, Neil was like, like, he's crazy. That can't be true. But it was, you know, my dad was like, Neil, you know, can you come photograph the SAT and why don't we invite Sam to meet Jerry Garcia, which they did, you know, this huge stage set starts touring the country, Neil takes wonderful photos of it and in the meantime, I think it might have been Alice Chandler who had the idea for a first Gala and they had just gotten Vladimir Saltzman here and they were like, well. Jan Sawka is a dissident to will have to dissidents, you know, featured at the Gala. My dad has the Grateful Dead. Can we borrow some of the banners from that installation, and they hung it, you know, in the gala space. So it was a big success, and also Sam had a gallery in New York, and he started representing my father, and let my dad do some really ambitious stuff in his gallery, you know, that a lot of gallerists wouldn't let fly, and he collected my father's work as well. In fact, the postcards that are here, they were donated by the Dorsky family, but they were, you know, purchased by sound. So all of this kind of helped create the perfect good storm that encouraged Sam to give his request here. So you know, and then Neil became the founding director and the rest is history. Also intertwined (in) here...the story of a friendship because wonderful things happen when friends come together and do cool things.

Hanka Sawka  7:40  
We love this place because it reminds us, both of us; we didn't know each other when we were kids were going for vacation in the mountains in Poland, and they were very similar, like here. So we didn't expect that communism ever collapse. So we were, we bought it here and since then, he was working here in Hudson Valley.

Brett Barry  8:05  
Featured front and center in the museum is a series of 412 foot triptychs or 3 panel paintings inspired by the Ashokan Reservoir.

Hanka Sawka  8:16  
Well, Ashokan was very special place. We love to walk around Ashokan, and taking our daughter on bike and for hike and looking at the seasons when they were changing. My husband absolutely love it. So it was like a special place for us to go.

Brett Barry  8:34  
And so I've heard a lot about memory and place, (are) those two words that are often used to describe Jan's work?

Hanka Sawka  8:40  
Because all of us we are going not only if you are immigrant or somebody we everybody are going through the memory to the past what happened in the home when they were tried. So this is also when you see my husband painting or postcards. You can see many postcards from the past where he was going through, but we can also interpret them to ourselves.

Gregory Bray  8:45  
He...his work is very difficult to describe, and that is to his credit, not to his detriment; and if we look at the work of Jan Sawka, he has a lot of fun with character. So you'll see very humanoid shapes. He has a lot of fun with writing very abstract landscapes, but there's always bold, interesting color choices.

Hanna Maria Sawka  9:29  
Oh yes, he was quite a colorist. He loved color. He mixed all the colors himself. He would buy just five tubes of paint with the three primary colors, and black and white and all of these colors. You mix them himself in, by the way. I love this. He didn't use a palette. He used muffin trays, zero; they have lots of deep cups. I miss my dad and, and the second best thing to having him come back, that's not gonna happen right? Is to have the work continue to, to live and to communicate because that's why he made it. He wanted it to say something to people.

Gregory Bray  10:08  
I highly recommend anybody who has an interest in the arts and an interest in politics or an interest in seeing something that is so beautiful and so bold. Almost indescribable that now's a good time to come to the Dorsky Museum on campus at SUNY New Paltz and give the show a look, Jan Sawka is a remarkable artist, and I think the Dorsky is fortunate to have his work on his walls.

Brett Barry  10:33  
Jan Sawka, the place of memory, the memory of place runs through July 12, 2020, at the Dorsky Museum of Art on the campus of SUNY New Paltz. Thanks to the Sawkas and to Greg Bray and to our sponsors. Albert Shahinian Fine Art and the 52-mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway; following New York State Route 28 through the heart of the Central Catskills. For maps, itineraries and links to area restaurants, shops, and accommodations, visit sceniccatskills.com. Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. Please don't forget to subscribe and we'll see you again in two weeks. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening.