Thursday, December 3, 2009

Karolina Danek, the Jewel of Worcester

It’s hard to describe the first time I met Karolina Danek. I had heard from a colleague in the field that she created unique religious paintings and had them all gathered together in a large room in her house. This was the early 1990s, and I was on the lookout for great contemporary folk art to help round out our largely 19th-century collection. So I found out where she lived and headed out on the road.

She lived in a drab part of Worcester, Massachusetts. All of the houses looked the same, a typical working-class neighborhood but since it was late fall there were no people out on the street. It was grey and overcast. I had called Karolina beforehand, of course, and when she greeted me at the door she was very cordial and eager to show her work to any interested person. She knew I was from a museum.

I vaguely recall walking through a couple of non-descript rooms before turning a corner and coming face to face with a sight that made my eyes pop out. In the main rooms of the house, in place of furniture, there were several dozen paintings of all sizes staring back at me. Historical figures, saints, Christ figures, the (Polish) Pope John Paul II, and other likenesses and scenes. They glittered like Tut’s tomb.

Karolina’s story was as fascinating as the artworks. She was born in 1913 and grew up in Poland, where she married and had children. The family survived World War II, but Karolina had some close calls. Once, when a bomb killed a German officer, the Nazis executed some 60 locals in retribution. Karolina narrowly escaped by jumping a fence and hiding out in an attic. She lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany for several years before coming the United States in 1950.

Settling in a Polish neighborhood in Worcester, Massachusetts, Karolina took a job at a show factory and sold jewelry on the side. Over the course of her working life Karolina also ran a Rock ‘n Roll club for teenagers and operated a pool hall. She also ran a gift shop where she began in the 1970s to paint scenes of Poland to use as backdrops for her window displays.

As she was nearing retirement, Karolina took up oil painting with zeal. Her work was very good – her brother was an icon painter and restorer – but not distinctive enough to catch the attention of dealers, collectors, or museums. Then she had a brainstorm. After years of selling jewelry at a local store she hit upon the idea of adding “jewels” (mostly craft jewelry applied with Elmer’s glue) to her iconic images to echo the gilded and jeweled icons of her native land.


The result was stunning, as you can see. But Karolina had even bigger dreams. It was one of her overarching goals to create huge, nine-foot-tall images of Christ and the twelve Apostles and display them in a natural setting, with trees, grass, and flowers. She had hoped to complete this work by the new millennium in 2000. Shortly after I met her she moved from Worcester to Caribou in northern Maine, with the intent to purchase an old church building to house this group of religious paintings.

It never happened. Karolina died in 1997 at the age of 84. But her life’s work, hundreds of passionate, expressive paintings, grace many public and private art collections, including the one now in the Fenimore Art Museum collection (upper right and detail at right). She never referred to the painting we own as an artwork. To her it was her “Holy Mother.” It is a magnificent piece that is as infused with devotion as the formidable soul who created it.

9 comments:

  1. We have had many adventures looking for contemporary folk art. This is one of the wonderful stories.

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  2. These paintings remind me of early Spanish altarpieces that I saw at the Prado years ago; they too were encrusted with "jewels". I understood Mexican painting and folk art a lot better after seeing those works.

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  3. I love her work, its is gorgeous! Thanks for sharing this blog and introducing her work to me.

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  4. Stunning. I envy you your first view as you came around the corner.

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  5. Thanks for your comments! Yes, it was quite a moment when I turned that corner. One of the most memorable in my career.

    And yes, Altoon, there is a rich folk tradition of surface ornamentation of this type that goes back to Medieval Europe. With this in mind we can see Karolina's work as a rare survival.

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  6. Hi, Paul. I have a Danek painting that I acquired about 15 years ago but the dealer didn't know much about her life. Thanks for filling in the blanks.

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  7. Good for you, Kevin. Treasure it! She was special.

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  8. I know Karolina Danek as well, went to her house and saw a wonderful collection of her wonderful paintings all over in her home in Caribou, Maine. I remember her very well and her art collection is unforgettable. She gave me as a gift 5 little booklets of her poems, that were never published and are personally signed by her as author. I have them in my possession, hand written and illustrated by her in black and white. Anyone who is collecting Karolina Danek's art work and would like to have those booklets, please contact me at this email address: ubojanek@yahoo.com. I would be willing to part with them for the right price. Serious inquiries only.

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  9. i really like this article please keep it up.
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