Thursday Spotlight: Two Polish Artists Separated by Decades, Bound by Creativity

Ziemia rendering
Ziemia rendering

Martynka Wawrzyniak, a Polish-born local artist driven by a creative vision, recently learned that local history eerily repeats itself. Researching Greenpoint history for her local site-specific artwork, she learned she was following in the footsteps of another Greenpoint Polish woman whose quest to create a local monument decades ago amazingly mirrored her own efforts.

Martynka is currently working on a community-engaged public art project, celebrating the disparate cultures comprising North Brooklyn. Her work titled Ziemia (which means earth in Polish), created in collaboration with local residents, invites locals to contribute soil from personally meaningful locations that symbolize their identity. Ziemia will take the form of a three-foot diameter ceramic orb sitting atop of a native plant meadow in McGolrick Park. Grenpoint clay will serve as the materials for the orb and the mix of soil contributed by residents will be used for the glaze. The piece will function as a collective community portrait, embodying the many Greenpoint homeland and migration stories. You can follow along with the sculpture’s progress on Instagram.

Ziemia site in McGolrick Park, via Ziemia Instagram
Ziemia site in McGolrick Park, via Ziemia on Instagram

Martynka is as passionate about soil as any human being I have ever met. She has managed to excavate local clay from a construction site for her creation and is eagerly reaching out to the community to encourage locals to contribute soil for the glaze. Soil for Martynka is deeply symbolic, not only of people’s roots and identity, but also as the medium, which makes the primal connection of all people to Earth. Soil in this work additionally represents the cyclical patterns of neighborhood growth and change that are occurring so rapidly such as in Greenpoint today.

Martynka-Flowers-photo by Erik Keithley
Martynka Wawrzyniak, photo by Erik Keithley

Martynka, as an avid student of local history, shares her discoveries with young Greenpointers through Ziemia-related workshops in neighborhood schools. Through her research she discovered the story of a like-minded older Polish immigrant Helena Prybylska, who embarked on creating a similar community monument. In 1984 Przybylska and Poles around the world were outraged at the murder of Polish dissident priest Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko. Raising money from the local community, Przbylska decided to create a statue dedicated to the Polish martyr. Ms. Przbylska received the support of the local politicians to acquire a site from the Parks Department in a square on Bedford Avenue and Lorimer Street. A granite bust of Father Popieluszko, sculpted by Stanislaw Lutostanski, was installed in the square in 1990, on the sixth anniversary of Popieluszko’s death. Horribly, the monument was vandalized and desecrated, and then restored and re-dedicated in 1992. For many years together with local Polish women, Przyblyska planted and maintained a beautiful garden around the statue.

Three decades later, Martynka learned that Ms. Przbylska was still alive, and an emotional meeting between the two comparing notes on their projects was captured on film in a soon to-be-released documentary about Greenpoint’s Polish immigrants, produced by The Museum of Emigration in Poland. The two women immediately bonded, touched by the many things they had in common.

Martynka has spent the past two years working on Ziemia. The meadow planting has already begun, with hopes of the sculpture being installed in the fall if she manages to raise the necessary funding. Information on how to participate in Ziemia can be found on the project’s website. Martynka encourages all Greenpointers to contribute a cup of their special soil to Ziemia, before June 1st.

Martynka is taking over the Greenpointers Instagram account this week, focusing on highlighting local Polish businesses.

And, you can watch and listen to Martynka talk about Ziemia during Greenpoint Open Studios on June 3rd and 4th at 3pm, at the project site in McGolrick Park.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over twenty years and is the author of a history of the area Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past.

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