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.