Dark Komedy: Polish Identity & Art

I’m a bleeding optimist. I can’t be any other way. James Baldwin said, “I can’t be a pessimist because pessimism implies humanity is an academic value”, and my art harkens to that. Both my parents—being immigrants—traded their desires for my own. Despite days of poverty and inevitable moments of regret, they persevered. My father would undyingly remind me that negativity and violence never end in long lasting success. Even when these vices would push through to the surface of my dad’s personality he’d tell me what he did was wrong. His awareness, my parents sacrifices, have dug the way into my psyche. For better or for worse, I’ve let this positivity into every medium of expression I partake in.

I drew a lot as a child. I’d tear through packs of looseleaf paper and cheap pens like a dog who’d discovered a new chew toy. I gave it up sometime in middle school. It was a time I gave up a lot of things. My culture felt the biggest loss. I attended a very homogenous school, and I couldn’t for the life of me fit in. Yeah, I was the awkward kid who liked books and fantasy games, but that was okay. I could hide that; it was my choice to like the things I did. I couldn’t, however, hide my ethnicity. Snickers would snap in the classroom like hot kernels whenever I spoke in Polish. The simple act of opening my lunchbox was met with disgust from my classmates as they’d make—generously speaking—untasteful remarks about the Gołąbki or Zurek Barcsz my mom made me. It left me wishing for a pack of Dunkaroos or a simple PB&J (which to this day I’ve never had). It left me hating the fact that I was Polish. It’s a terrible thought, but until late into my high school life, I’d effectively put my Polish-ness on the back-burner.

Late last fall I started to pick up my drawing habits, thanks to a friend who snooped at the doodles I had in my notebook. Since then I’ve found myself expressing my culture wholeheartedly within my art, and that started to leak through into my life. I found myself loving my ethnicity and reading more into it. When I started on these two pieces, I spent a good chunk of time just looking through old photo albums.

It’s a cliche scene yes, but it genuinely affected me. I’d never seen my parents as they appeared in the photos. Their eyes were young, and the fire of ambition still burned. Nowadays, their eyes just hold the need to survive. I wanted to capture that transition, that separation between the leisure of joy and the consuming nature of survival. I didn’t want the piece to be solely focused on my parents. I wanted to stitch them to a fixture of Polish history.

I chose Krszytof Komeda: arguably the greatest Polish jazz musician ever. He didn’t leave his ethnicity at the door to join in a genre based in America, and in fact Komeda’s form of jazz would eventually be known as the Polish School of Jazz. He scored various movies and showed an interest in showcasing both negativity and positivity. Komeda’s soundscapes attempted to capture the pendulum of emotions that occupy every human.

One piece features a more textured, and slightly dissonant sketch of Komeda with an intentionally reflective look. The images I chose to collage around it feature my dad in a black and white setting—a more bleak depiction. The woman tilling her field references work and my dad growing up on a farm. The image of the man writing has a lighting that gives it a somber feel, and I felt that it fit well as well as suggesting the importance of expression in times of distress. The second piece features a much lighter sketch of Komeda surrounded by pictures of my parents together, flowers, and the mountain to quite literally represent a high point in life. Poland’s history, much like my parents’ journey to the states, is certainly a complex narrative and I wanted to capture that.

I’d continue along this particular series by picking other figureheads in Poland’s history and using images of my parents that fit the emotion said person is connected to. Reversely I’d also sketch both my parents and then surround them with images from Poland’s history that influenced them in some way.

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