Joseph Chełmowski (* 1934 † 2013) was a Kashubian folk artist, who spread traditional values of the region as well as principles of folk aesthetics, a man of outstanding personality and many talents: a sculptor, painter, designer, philosopher, as well as the patron of the monuments of material culture and home folklore.
He was born in Brusy on 26 February, 1934 and settled in his parents farmstead in Brusy-Jaglie, where he created an asylum for his life and work. He started working as a folk artist in 1970 and somehow assumed it was a quest of his life. His sculptures, as well as canvas, wood and glass paintings communicate his profound reflections on life and death, nature and space, good and evil. Whatever he was not able to voice through his art he wrote down in words as part of his works. He is the author of exceptional books, which remind us of philosophical dissertations describing the universe, histories of the Earth, region, nearby area and his home village.
One of the oldest artist biographies, written by Joseph Chełmowski himself, reads as follows: [...] I neither attended any school nor had anyone in the family been a sculptor. I started this profession right away - first pipes and human figures, and the people also bought them right away. Even now I cannot explain what triggered this need for sculpting.
He presented his works for the first time in 1972 for the "Folk Sculpture of Northern Poland" competition in Sopot. He had not, ever since, missed any major exhibition and competition regarding folk art in entire Poland, and many times held exhibitions abroad. He was always noticed, appreciated, and surprised others with his innovativeness.
From the beginning of his work, Chełmowski cooperated with the museum in Chojnice. The artist regularly participated in a series of competitions for the contemporary folk art of the Kashubia region (between the years 1978 to 2008), and Christmas nativity scene (1992–2007). His works were presented on several occasions by the museum in Chojnice as part of group exhibitions, and two solo ones (1994, 2007) at its own gallery and other cultural institutions, some of them abroad. The 1994 solo exhibition, with an accompanying catalogue of works, exhibited 120 works by the artist with distinguishable interdisciplinary features of his art, performed between 1975 and 1994, coming from the author's own collection, Museum of Ethnography in Toruń and the Museum of History and Ethnography in Chojnice. Some of his favourite subjects, often employed in his works could already be distinguished at that time. They include: Christmas, Marian devotion, biblical scenes, iconography of the saints and great humanists of literature, politics and cultural tradition, the images of the community life in a Kashubian village. The exhibition was also a great source of knowledge on the interests and philosophical thoughts that the artist presents in his painting. The works exhibited included original musical instruments designed and made by the author himself. The exhibition confirmed the words by Joseph Chełmowski, which we can read in the above quoted biography [...] It could be mentioned that I am, in fact, greatly interested in inventing things [...] I also respect the land and people of Kashubia, I am very close to them. I adore music and I teach myself how to play.
The other solo exhibition of the artist held at the Museum in Chojnice in 2007 was of a different nature: Joseph Chełmowski. Madonnas. The purpose of the exhibition was to take a close look at the folk artist's work within the framework of a narrow subject area such as the Madonna iconography,
The exhibition proved that the artist's comprehension of the subject goes far beyond the traditional image of the Mother of God. The idea embraces a variety of representations of women, creating own iconographic models. Dr A Błachowski stressed in his analytical article to the exhibition catalogue that Joseph Chełmowski, a Kashubian from Brusy-Jaglie, convinced me that he has a right to create Madonnas, who are not Madonnas at all.
The exhibition attested to the fact that the work of Joseph Chełmowski is, on the one hand, closely linked to tradition, and, on the other, exposes profoundly individual solutions idiosyncratic to the author himself. The author was mainly inspired by the Bible, the world around him, and belles letters, but above all he searched for inspiration within himself, in his own imagination. The specific way in which he comprehends the world, his profound reflection upon it, and deep and true folk religiosity make his art a real wonder. Joseph Chełmowski professed the harmony of the world created by God. His life motto had always been the „Adorat Deum in terra”. In his view, man should live close to nature, become one with it, and be "humble toward the Earth". He saw the evil man perpetrated on Earth, the threats of contemporary civilization. His philosophical reflections, a key to his art reach deep down to the mystery of life and death. He spoke of a continuous transformation of the world, some material structures transforming into others, the constant movement of life. All of this had been a subject of his thoughts and reflections expressed in his sculptures, paintings, words and sentences.
Joseph Chełmowski used basswood, pear tree or oak trees to create his figures full of simplicity, and folk realism, decorated with abundant polychrome, using paints mixed by his own secret recipe with a wide spectrum of colours. The artist created several roadside shrines traditional to the backdrop of the Kashubian landscape, original sculpted bee hives in a multi-structured apiary of his home orchard, a place where we can also find a wise man with a pipe, saints, angels with trumpets, Kashubian women with flowery kerchiefs, bear cubs and Kashubian devils. His reverse glass painting had also been penchant for experimentation and search for unique form, which is, for instance, demonstrated in his paintings created with two pieces of glass. The most exceptional work of the artist is, without doubt, a four part canvas with a total length of 50 metres, representing the Book of Revelation.
His entire legacy and the extraordinary surroundings created by him and his wife in the midst of his hard-working life demonstrate his exceptional awareness and need of life in harmony with nature and art, in peace with God and the spirit of the Kashubian culture.
Joseph Chełmowski died unexpectedly on July 6, 2013.