The enigmatic world of Józef Chełmowski, a folk artist from Brusy
The only incentive guiding the work of Józef Chełmowski is his internal need; he cannot be bothered with other people's manner of work, he does not yield any contemporary trends.
His outstanding imagination led his work far beyond the patterns set by tradition, and enabled him to find his own, unique manner of expression. The works, created as the result of the personal experiences of the author, are distinguished by their enormous artistic impact, fostered by an amazing self-confidence in the selection of the means of expression. The sculptures of Chełmowski bear distinct features by which the creator can easily be identified. They are mostly sculptures of a compact shape, emphasized by polychrome; works which are monumental, and although their monumentality does not depend on their size, many of them are of considerable dimensions. The frontal part of Chełmowski's work almost exclusively focuses the expression and content of the sculpture. Many of them are placed on pedestals, and can often be opened in the manner of books, revealing philosophical texts taken from literature or the Bible, as well as his own thoughts. The inscriptions written in Polish, Kashubian, German, Arabic, Latin, and Kurdish (written in Roman characters), complement the visuals and disclose the symbolism as well as the message of the author. Thus, when looking at the work of the artist, it is important to see not only the form but the message it conveys as well.
The sculptures of Józef Chełmowski are diversified in terms of the themes presented - he does not only create wooden saints, toys, bee hives in shape of figures, which he puts in his home apiary, nativity scenes, and custom invented musical instruments of his own invention, but above all, he keenly reacts to the old as well as the contemporary political, social and cultural events, which he deems to be significant.
His works repeatedly reflect an expression of spontaneous patriotism and sensitivity to the fate of the country. The artist created many sculptures pertaining to the reality of the early 1980s in Poland with references to the period of the partitions of Poland. He reacted to the Katyn massacre, one of the worst nuclear disasters in Chernobyl, the war in Yugoslavia, the war in the Persian Gulf, as well as to the events of September 11, 2001 in New York. A special meaning is attributed to a shrine built on a mound of stones, situated just in front of the entrance to his homestead. The shrine is called The Third Fall and portrays scenes from the most recent history of Poland. It depicts a symbolic representation of the third attack of the people's authorities on the Polish nation (1956, 1970, and 1981) combining religious and national elements. During the state of martial law in Poland, the works of the artist were considered to be a "threat to social order" and removed from display. Józef Chełmowski has also created roadside shrines in local villages, including one in Swornegacie (Przyserno Mother MaryThe Kind-Hearted/and St. Maximilian Kolbe), Borowy Młyn (St. John of Nepomuk and St. Francis), Ostrowite (Mother Mary with St. M. Kolbe), Buków near Sierakowice (Our Lady of the Herbs), and Zapceń (St. Joseph). Many sculptures are an emphatic representation of the strong bonds that the author has with the Kashubian region. The work Mateo Kaszebsko has a fitted door, which opens her heart revealing Kashubian decorative motifs and an inscription: Matemko wzerej na stroskane ledze Kaszebsci.
The philosophically endowed artist is a man of profound faith. His attachment to tradition and religion was ingrained in his family home. Many of the works are interpretations of his religious experiences.
Chełmowski identifies God with Nature (the natural environment), and it is Nature precisely, as a reflection of the perfect divine order, that is the best and infallible source of knowledge about the world. An inscription on the sculpture of the Christ the Sower: God, you sow the life of man.
Some will rise, grow and bear fruit, others will wither. But you harvest them all, God, expresses author's certainty that there exists a driving force guiding the life of man. The vision of Chełmowski sees life as simply a road, and man as only dust. The inevitability of fate is expressed by a sculpture depicting the severe face of God, and man bewitched into a star, with an inscription: Dear Lord, there is no escape from this star of creation, one must live their life. The artist also used prominent figures of legendary biblical prophets, popular characters from various eras, politicians, writers, scientists, philosophers, as well as saints and beatified, (...) inter alia: Mother Teresa, Adam Mickiewicz, Mikołaj Kopernik, John Paul II, Wernyhora, Henryk Wieniawski, Bill Clinton, St. Ambrose, St. Agnes of Rome, and St. Francis of Assisi. The sculptures expose much of a primitive style: figures carved in large wooden blocks exude an extraordinary, mysterious power; they radiate appreciation for people, who raised above others with their intelligence and deeds.
Apart from sculpting, Józef Chełmowski also avidly paints on glass or canvas. The artist learnt traditional forms of Kashubian glass painting. However, he still seeks his individual means of expressions, and not only in this field of art. Apart from flat compositions, he also creates double glass paintings, which allow him to obtain the effect of expanded dimensions. Many glass paintings represent the image of Mother Mary with Child and Saints: Barbara, Ursula, Ignatius, Rosalia, Anthony of Padua, John of Nepomuk and others. The artist used this technique to make the Way of the Cross leading to the church in Kalisz Kaszubski. Sometimes, however, the author veers away from religious themes and devotes his attention to portraying local Kashubian traditions by engaging in social, historical and existential topics.
The themes of philosophy, astronomy and religion dominate in his paintings on canvas. The greatest achievement of Józef Chełmowski in this area of art is the six piece painting named Apocalypse Panorama with a total length of over 55 m, and a height of approximately 80 cm.
This is what Aleksander Jackowski has to say about it: "This fifty metre scroll – a painting of the Revelation of St. John - is absolutely remarkable and striking. It is difficult to speak only of pictorial, literary or philosophical values. It is a complete work." In this multilevel artistic work permeated by symbolism, the artist translates the writing of St. John into the language of painting, referencing each scene with verse numbers and information on the content.
(...) According to Chełmowski, the very essence of the Biblical Book is the proclamation of the divine punishment for the sins of humanity. It is preceded by the signs described in the visions of St. John, which are striking to the artist. It should be found in the surrounding reality, and everything must be done to delay the inevitable end of the world. The Book of Revelation revealed the deepest meaning of the Creator to Chełmowski. Reading this book of the New Testament has given a deeper meaning to the artist's interests in religion, philosophy, astronomy and the history of the world. The Apocalypse Panorama is an exceptional work, not only because of its extraordinary form and the message it conveys, but also due to experiments of the artist with a new technique of painting. While creating it, he prepared custom made paints mixing in honey, eggs, lime and pigments. (…)
The book Mysteries of the Worlds' World, on the other hand, present his interests in alchemy, astronomy, philosophy, technology and medicine. The above work represents a summary of his reflections on these topics. The work expresses his outlook on life, comments on people's behaviour, argues with scientific theories, and seeks answers to his questions in the domain of science.
Elaborating on a discussion about the astronomical ideas of Copernicus, he painted a two piece work named The Completion of the Copernicus Theory. In the recent years the artist has completed several large volumes - paintings with handwritten text and colourful illustrations, which are a continuation of the reflections presented in the Mysteries of the Worlds' World.
(...) His artistic work originates from an exceptionally sensitive man, hurting because of the evil rampant across the world, feeling responsible for the fate of humanity. The artist does not keep the truths he learned and understood to himself. It is his duty to share them with the people viewing his work. The resulting interpretations and conclusions are left to each of us to reflect on.
To make the presentation of Józef Chełmowski's artwork complete, it is worth mentioning that he makes musical instruments based on his own ideas, giving them original names: "sztymowy" instrument, "trep" (clog), brzozoliść (birchleaf), muzyknos, or angel's instrument. The artist has also created nativity scenes, ritual props and wooden folk toys. His interests in technology are reflected in the structures he devised all by himself. The Machine for capturing the Elements, which stands in his garden, is an attempt to tame nature. The wheel of the machine, with a diameter of over 2 metres, two wings inside and vessels placed on the outer rim, driven by the power of the wind and water flowing into vessels, moves the figure of a sawyer sawing wood. Chełmowski also built a sledge on springs, an aeroplane he called the Muscle-flight, and placed a sun dial above the entrance to his workshop.
Józef Chełmowski is an exceptional and individual character, full of inventive ideas, seeking different methods of artistic expression. This calm, focused, but always cheerful man is inspired by his vibrant spirit to create extraordinary works. (...) The strength of the artist lies in the Kashubian traditions, in which he is deeply rooted, and which render his art a distinctive feature. Chełmowski appears to be a happy man, deeply satisfied with his talent, which, with the use of artistic measures, can also be a source of joy to others.
Maria Flinik - Huryn
The Leon Wyczolkowski Regional Museum in Bydgoszcz