Muzeum Historyczno-Etnograficzne im. Juliana Rydzkowskiego w Chojnicach

Józef Chełmowski: an artist from Kashubia

In September 1997, there was an individual exhibition of Józefa Chełmowskiego work, in the German city Stadtlohn. The report about the display and the organizer, her creative regard promoting Polish artist in German territories Urszuli Usakowskiej-Wolff, advertisement posted in the German regional periodical ”Heimatbrief” text written by Kreis Borken, Nr.126/ September 1997.

Józef Chełmowski: an artist from Kashubia

For the second time after 1994, an exhibition of the works of a folk artist, Józef Chełmowski, was held at the Hakenfort House in Stadtlohn, organized by the Folk University in cooperation with the town and the savings bank. On Sunday, 21 September, mayor Klaus Rems welcomed a colourful crowd of visitors, among them deputy starosts, Christel Lőns and Roman Cebaus.

The first presentation of glass paintings and sculptures, in 1994 in Stadtlohn, opened the gates to a wider audience for the Kashubian folk artist. It was followed by exhibitions in Herbstein, Bad Nenndorf and Siegburg. In 1994, in the crypt of the parish church of St. Otgerus, the artist presented his monumental painting entitled “The Apocalypse”, which received a great deal of attention from the Stadtlohn residents. His “Kashubian angel” is now a part of the nativity play in that church. The Kashubia and Stadtlohn connection were revealed on the same day during a solemn mass, Renata Świerczyńska performed with a jazz band. Renata sang two songs, in Polish and in English and Dean Clemens Röer warmly welcomed the Polish guests.

Entering the new world

The second presentation of Józef Chełmowski’s works was organized with the help of the Wolff family from Bad Oeynhausen. During the opening of the exhibition, Urszula Usakowska-Wolff, who was born in Warsaw, outlined the life of the artist born in 1934 in Brusy, southern Kashubia, where he was living. The couple met the artist during “the Kashubian Festival” in the Polish embassy, to which they were invited by the ambassador, Janusz Reiter, who also comes from Kashubia. A few weeks later they visited this modest man in his home town of Brusy. They immediately got to like him, and became interested in his works. As they visited the peaceful homeland of Kashubia, the artistic works of the man became “an entrance into the new world” for them. In her stories, Ms Urszula Usakowska-Wolff described her impression thus: ‘Upon entering, we were welcomed by a shrine with an inscription The third fall of Poland, which in a typical Chełmowski manner presented Christ's Way of the Cross, combining the biblical story with the history of the Polish nation.

In the house, an apocalyptic angel pronounced words of admonition, and next to it a great wheel with small metal containers was turning - a machine for catching the elements. In the yard Saint Ambrose, the patron saint of beekeepers, was standing, in the form of an oversized beehive, its lid covered with moss. It’s only nature, said Józef, who, of course, is a beekeeper himself. Art must coexist with nature.

Indeed, the numerous sculptures populating his garden, thanks to the patina caused by wind and weather, create the sort of charm which the artist could never himself achieve.

His enchanted garden also features: numerous angels and devils carved in wood, bears and partisans and countrywomen wearing Kashubian dress, saints and robbers, all in the shadow of the fruit trees, through the branches of which the afternoon sun is casting leaping spots of light to their noses and eyes. Bees are buzzing among all of the sculptures, and above all this, a family of storks lives on a mast, with young birds just learning to fly. In the winter Józef Chełmowski puts wooden storks in the garden.’

Ms Wolff spoke about the artist’s life and said: ‘He had been sculpting and painting since he was a little child. No-one in his family had done that before. As an adult he took up various jobs, because he did not manage to finish school and learn a profession. He was a farmer and a road worker, a railwayman, a cinema ticket seller, he even worked as an interviewer for a polling institution, and, until recently, he had been cultivating a small farm of 7 hectares.’

His dream ... a museum

Referring to his rich artistic output, Ms Wolff called Józef Chełmowski the Leonardo da Vinci of Brusy. She said: ‘He is a philosopher, an inventor and an astronomer. He collects artefacts of the Polish and German history of Kashubia and dreams of a museum next to his house, where he could display them. He also contemplates about the world, his works relate to and comment on current events. He tries to fathom the eternal secrets: of life and death, of the human existence and the universe nature and God. His thoughts and the problems he deals with are displayed in the sculptures and paintings, which he describes with his comments in various languages (Polish, Kashubian, German, Latin, English, French and Kurdish).’

Józef Chełmowski builds musical instruments and he has also won an architectural competition. He is an eager inventor, and owns a hang-glider. I try - says Chełmowski - to always think about something else, something new, so as not to be boring to myself and to others.

In his works, Józef Chełmowski refers to political events and topics which seem important to him. He is probably the only artist in Poland whose works were interned after Martial Law was imposed in December 1981. His sculptures, which he devoted to the “Solidarity” trade union and Lech Wałęsa, were considered a threat to public order by the military authorities.

Józef Chełmowski’s figures have stern faces, most of all, the angels. They are looking with serious expressions. Their eyes express admonition.They warn people against depravation, which is the worst sin and leads the world to a fall. These angels are apocalyptic. They warn of the changing world, where traditions fade, indifference rules the spirit, there is chaos, selfishness, hatred and doubt everywhere. The world where deadly boredom eats some, while poverty decimates others, and everybody is unhappy.

Since his first exhibition in Stadtlohn in 1994 he gained the recognition he deserved in his homeland - Poland. Nowadays his works are purchased and exhibited by renowned museums, and numerous television documentaries have been made about him. Collectors and folk culture researchers from all over the world visit him in the summer, numerous guests from Poland admire his enchanted garden. Within the last twelve months, he has been awarded four significant Polish awards: the Oskar Kolberg Award, granted to the best folk artists, the Stolem Award, the Silver Medal of the Kashubian and Pomeranian Association for nurturing the Kashubian culture, and the Grand Prix of Teofil Ociepka’s Competition for special merits in painting. The latter was awarded for his monumental painting “The Apocalypse”. (…)