Martynka Wawrzyniak has always been a conceptual artist. She thinks deeply about her relationship to the world and comes up with self-portraits that are inimitable and brilliantly unique. These ideas often utilize unusual substances and require her to collaborate with specialists in an eclectic range of fields.
For example, in her 2012 project, Smell Me, she spent two years working with Hunter College Professor Donna McGregor and a team of chemistry research students to create an olfactory-based self-portrait utilizing the extracted essence of her sweat, tears and hair.
In another project, Feed, she collected a year’s worth of her used cloth dinner napkins in order to create a suspended double spiral where viewers walked through her life in the self-described “stains of my existence”.
For most of the last twenty years, Martynka’s art existed predominantly in the context of the exclusive gallery world. However, in 2014, several things happened that began to change that.
Firstly, she released Eau de M, her first project to exist in the public art world rather than the gallery context.
Also, her grandmother passed away and she asked her uncle in her native Poland to send her a jar of soil from her beloved grandmother’s garden, in the Bieszczady Mountains of southeastern Poland.
Finally, craving a change of pace, Martynka moved from the Lower East Side, where she had lived for 18 years, to Greenpoint.
Immediately, she found the area strangely and cathartically catapulted her back into nostalgic memories of her childhood in 1980’s Poland.
“I moved here because many of my friends were living here and I would visit and feel nostalgia for these visceral things that made me feel comfortable—the many flower shops and gardens which reflects the Polish people’s love for flowers and plants, the smell of blossoming Linden trees and Polish bakeries,” Wawrzyniak said.
Of course, it wasn’t long before Martynka started feeling the desire to turn these feelings for her new neighborhood (and the subsequent re-connection it gave her to her past in Poland) into a conceptual art project.
She immediately returned to a thought she had had for a while – of symbolically incorporating earth into an art project.
“Soil is universally appreciated because everybody comes from it and returns to it,” Wawrzyniak said. “No matter what color, race, language, culture or birthplace you have, we can all relate to soil. It connects the human and the non-human.”
Suddenly, an idea emerged.
The idea became the public art project called Ziemia (Polish for “Earth”), a project which invites members of the Greenpoint community to enlist as Wawrzyniak’s collaborators by contributing a cup of soil from a meaningful place that each person feels best represents their identity.
Martynka says that most people she has asked want to contribute soil from somewhere like a garden or from under a special tree (her own soil will come from the nasturtium bed in her grandmother’s garden in the Polish mountains). But, the soil can come from anywhere, whether it’s a former home or the spot where you lock up your bike everyday.
The final piece will take the form of a 3-foot ceramic orb, which will be placed in a fenced-in area on the west end of McGolrick Park. The orb will be fired out of local clay and glazed with a mixture of the contributed soil. The hollow interior will then be filled with any remaining soil and soil that is contributed after the glaze is made.
The sculpture will also be surrounded by a meadow, which she intends to fill with doppelgänger plant species native to both New York and Poland.
The project has many other accompanying elements, including an offsite gallery installation which will include a giant map detailing the geographic origins of contributing Greenpointers, and an audio installation with a compilation of recordings featuring residents’ stories behind their soil contributions.
There will also be a regular program of community workshops that will meet at the site, including things like multi-generational storytelling circles, and crafts workshops.
Wawrzyniak is adamant to include as much of the community as possible in the project, and has been approaching youth groups, senior centers, and other community organizations to determine what ways they might want to participate. Already, she has arrangements with PS 110 to include some of their students.
She wants the sculpture itself and everything that shoots off from it to serve a unifying purpose for Greenpoint, a neighborhood that she sees as having a divide between longtime, Polish residents and those who have arrived more recently.
“I want it to help bridge the divide and to open the minds of two insular communities that exist side by side,” Wawrzyniak said. “I want to help them accept and appreciate each other.”
The project is a complex undertaking, but Martynka has already made many of the necessary arrangements, including securing a USDA soil importing permit to import internationally, and building a detailed website outlining how to participate.
She has also received the support of everyone from the Parks Department to local elected officials, including Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.
Now, she just needs to raise the funds and support to complete the vision. She has applied for multiple art grants, and is looking into whether the project might qualify for this year’s Participatory Budgeting cycle. Financial backing is needed to finish out the project, however Martynka emphasizes that there are many non-financial ways people can contribute, including simply spreading the word further into the community.
“There’s the planting of the meadow, the production of the ceramic sculpture, the need for an offsite space that could serve as the hub for some of the planned community workshops which will accompany the project,” Wawrzyniak said. “If you want to help in any way, or contribute soil, please, contact me!”
Ziemia seems the perfect artistic complement to Greenpoint, a neighborhood long associated with fertility, both in its’ pastoral history and many creative contemporary minds. Ultimately though, the project is about creating a lasting group portrait of the residents of the people who live here.
“After I moved here, I started thinking about how I wanted to create something that embodies this feeling that I was feeling,” Wawrzyniak said. “But I thought it’s boring if I just do it about myself, so why don’t I invite everybody that’s feeling the same thing who lives here? I want us all to be co-creators of this piece so everybody can have a little particle of their own past or identity in this object that is publicly accessible.”
Wawrzyniak will have a booth this Sunday at the McGolrick Farmer’s Market from 12:30 – 2:30. Please stop by, say hello, and talk to her about Ziemia!
For more information, please see Martynka’s project website. It includes a more detailed description of the project, and tangible instructions for participating. If you’d like to participate, she needs soil by January! Click here to contact Martynka.