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Katarzyna Gajewska exhibits in Joan Clancy Gallery Christmas Show

Katarzyna Gajewska first arrived in Ireland partly because her Polish boyfriend had come here. Now the prize-winning painter whose family defied the drabness of the Communist era, tells Joe Jackson in an interview in the Sunday Independent, November 26th 2006, that she loves the place so much, particularly our respect for art, that she's here to stay.

"Believe me, I'll always remember Katarzyna Gajewska. And not just as a result of her pretty memorable name! …The night we were introduced , Katarzyna self-consciously explained, "I normally speak better English than this but I am so overwhelmed by all that is happening here I can barely speak at all!" What she was referring to, specifically, was the understandably overwhelming positive response to her work on the opening night of her exhibition The Battle Over Madam X in the Origin Gallery, when she sold no less than 11 of the paintings on show.

This response obviously meant even more to Katarzyna Gajewska given that despite winning a ‘Ministry of Culture 2004-2005 Scholarship' in her homeland of Poland and the April 2006 Liquitex Artist of the Month, and exhibiting widely she had been turned down by many galleries in Dublin—"probably because she is Polish", Origin owner Noelle Campbell Sharp believes. Katarzyna, though does not share that perspective, and suggests instead that she was "too abstract for some, too traditional for others!"…..

Before moving to this country the classically beautiful 28-year-old Katarzyna Gajewska spent more than a quarter century in Poland – and that obviously is where her artistic roots are…. "I was born and raised in Warsaw, and both my brothers – Jakub, who is three and a half years older than me, and Stanislaw, who is nine years younger – are involved in the fine arts, my father is an art historian and my mother is an editor in a publishing house. But my upbringing was unusual in the sense that I had a lung disease, so for the first 10 years of my life, I was educated at home. I'll always remember me and Jakub acting out scenes from stories frozen in photographs from Life magazine. That was my first contact with visual art, and also I used to copy the works of great masters like Titian, Giorgione, Rubens and Caravaggio, and it all felt quite natural to me. Also, learning at home was far more fun than going to school because I could pick and choose the subjects I wanted to study!....I have fond memories of my father reading me books and making paper costumes for me and my brother" and sees how "big an influence he was in a positive way……My father has a very powerful personality, and is very traditional in that he believes a man's strength should keep the family together….I never agreed with that, but I now see how similar we are, because he was so paternal and I just didn't see that as a real strength then."

Katarzyna discovered when she went to primary school, around the age of 11, that there was a social stigma attached to her family because of them "being part of the intelligentsia," in Poland.

"Children can be very cruel," she muses. "At school, they didn't regard my father's job as a real job, because he was ‘just writing articles', they said, so they treated me as a freak, and were very antagonistic. Partly, probably, because we were upper-middle class. In fact, it was only when the teachers started talking about politics that I realised the difference between my childhood and the childhood of most of those kids. When I was small, we were under Communist power but my father stood against Communism and would, say, always listen to Radio Free Europe.

"I also remember, in school we had a choice between religion and ethics and when I chose religion –I was raised as a Roman Catholic—everybody started laughing because the Communist regime did not recognize religion. All of that may be a reason I didn't let people, in general, very close to me in those days."

That said, when Katarzyna Gajewska went to Fine Art Secondary School at the age of 14 it was "a form of release from boring schoolmates" and she took up with some punks which gave her a "totally new, creative and anarchistic experience". The same, however, could not be said of her later period at the Fine Art Academy, where Gajewska feels she was "forced to learn about anatomy, realistic paintings, drawings and sculpture in a traditional way". Her liberation, artistically, didn't occur until far more recently, after she had done her Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and started working as a graphic designer in Polish TV.

"My wages were very good and I could go into any store and buy all the Gucci and Prada I wanted and I had a high-flying social life, but I felt like an element in a machine and I was very unhappy, very unfulfilled. I know I had to do something more with my life. So I left the job and devoted myself completely to my own work, to my paintings, and it was then I found that they began to say exactly what I wanted to say. I then realised that painting for me is the only way of true communication, the only was I can feel completely free.

"But also, my parents have a lot of specialist books on psychology and psychiatry, so I was always interested in those subjects – and at one point, a friend of mine who worked in a psychiatric clinic asked me to go and give classes, as an art therapist, to people in that clinic. I agreed, but I wasn't very self-confident in the beginning, yet the more I worked with these people who started out very closed, but in time seemed to explode with self-expression through art…that, to me, was the most amazing experience in my life, ever. When I saw how they were painting it was like someone had kicked their eyes, and my eyes, wide open! These people were filled with so much joy simply from the act of pure self-expression and that became what I aim for, above all, in my art."

Now you know why art is so central to Katarzyna Gajewska. As for men, her first relationship was "with a guy back in secondary school but that was a short-lived experience", and she didn't really fall in love until her current relationship, with a Polish man she met seven years ago and now lives with in Ireland…..I am very happy with my boyfriend, he's an architect who has been working here for three years whereas I, at first, just came to visit him and check out Ireland –a country I'd always been attracted to – then I moved here a year and a half ago. But now I love Ireland so much, particularly the respect Irish people have for art, that even if my boyfriend decides to return to Poland, I probably will stay here. Ireland is my home now –and although I do love my boyfriend, I have to say he is not central to my life. My art is."

© Joe Jackson

Katarzyna Gajewska's artwork is available for sale in Joan Clancy Gallery, Ring, Dungarvan, Co. Waterford.

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