Poleskie and his relations on their farm in Lomza, Poland
I HAD BEEN INVITED to have an exhibition of my artworks in Warsaw. It was to be at an important gallery, or so I had been told by SB the Polish art critic who had arranged it. He had written a book, recently published in Poland, cataloging American artists of Polish descent who had had a modicum of success in their respective fields. Now I was known in at least three artistic areas, which was how I happened to be included in his book. I had founded a screen-printing shop in Manhattan, called Chiron Press, which had not only printed my works, but also made prints by such well-know artists as Rauschenbeg, Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Anuszkiewicz. And I had also built up a modest reputation as a painter. But it was as an “artflyer” that I was most know, especially in Europe, an artist who flew a biplane trailing smoke to make artworks in the sky. And so I found myself standing in Parade Square, staring up at the massive tower of the Palace of Culture and Science, the building that held the gallery where my work would be shown.
I had arrived, as instructed by SB, almost two weeks early so that my show of collage/drawings, hand carried on the airplane rolled up in a tube, would have time to be flattened and mounted under glass. For several days we had been visiting the tourist sights: Old Town, the museums, Chopin’s monument, and I suspected that SB was getting tired of me, or perhaps had other things to do. “Tomorrow, you will go to Gdansk, for a few days,” he surprised me by announcing. “I have a friend there who will put you up. It is an interesting city, very old, and there is a lot going on there now.”
There was indeed a lot happening in Gdansk, which I wasn’t fully aware of the significance of until several months later, when I was back in my home in Ithaca, New York. On a government sponsored visit to the USSR a year earlier I had given workshops on screen printing using the supplies and equipment that I had brought with me from the US. One day a Russian student cornered me and asked: “What good is all this doing for us? When you leave you will take all these things away with you and we won’t be able to do anything. We can’t buy these supplies in the shops here.”
In reply I had outlined a program where one could set up a screen-printing shop using ordinary household materials. I gave them a list of things to collect, like a windshield wiper, gum arabic, litho crayons, window curtains, a wooden frame, and house paint. The next day they brought in all the stuff I had suggested. Rising to their challenge I put everything together and produced a print. Everyone was quite impressed. I later learned that the printing process was very tightly controlled by the Communist Party, with all such activities only taking place in official shops, so that whatever was printed could be carefully monitored. At that time, which was before personal computers, I was told one even needed to obtain a permit to buy a typewriter. My demonstration of a “home-made print shop” had amounted to a rather subversive act.
In Gdansk I was invited to check out a screen-printing shop that some artists had just set up, and to offer my suggestions for improvements. I went there, made some comments and thought nothing of it. Several months later, I saw the shop again. This time it was in a photograph in TIME magazine. The caption read: Masked shipyard workers screen printing Solidarity strike posters at a secret location in Gdansk.
On the third day of my stay in Gdansk, I received a strange phone message from SB. I was told to return to Warsaw at once. My relations were camped out on the stoop by the front door to his building and were not going to leave until I appeared.
I had given SB a letter sent from Poland to my grandfather, on my mother’s side, that had been passed to me when he died. As I can’t read Polish, I had no idea who it was from or what it was about. There was also a photo enclosed of a group of people gathered around an open coffin. SB, using the return address, had hunted down these Polish relations knew nothing about. After learning that I was in Warsaw the family had sent two of the sons to get me and bring me back to their village. SB had told them that not only was I from America, but also that I was a famous artist, a university professor, and owned two airplanes. My relations were more than eager to meet me.
There was a knock on the door. Returned to Warsaw I was staying at the apartment of the well-known filmmaker TP-M. He had left for an early appointment, but was to be back by noon so that we could go and meet my relatives at SB’s apartment. I heard the knock again, only louder and more insistent. Thinking that it must be TP-M, who had probably forgotten his key, I opened the door.
“Wh-loo-jin-ski!” a brawny male in peasant-style garb announced, pointing to himself and then to a similar looking, but slightly larger, man standing next to him.
“Wh-loo-jin-ski!” the other man repeated, pointing at me.
Then he embraced me in a massive, bear-like hug. Stepping back I uttered a few words in English, which neither of them understood. They both smiled and shouted out what sounded like enthusiastic words in Polish, repeating the word Wh-loo-jin-ski.
I was beginning to understand that they were the Wh-loo-jin-skis and that somewhere in my background I was a Wh-loo-jin-ski too. But how had they found me. They were supposed to be camped at SB’s door waiting for my arrival. I guessed that in his eagerness to be rid of them SB had sent them over here.
“Please come in,” I said to no response. They did understand hand gestures though, and I led them into the living room, which I immediately realized was a mistake. I saw shock come over their faces when they spied the drapes. TP-M had recently done a film documentary in Japan, from where he had returned with window coverings lavishly decorated with pornographic images. Why? I had not asked him. The two men just stood there, probably in the finest apartment that they had ever been in, staring at the drapes. They turned to leave. What kind of den of sin had they been led into? I pretended not to notice their shock and gestured for them to sit down, but they would have no part of it. They were inching toward the door as I dialed SB’s number on the telephone. There was no answer, and he had no answering machine. I had no idea what to do, nor was I sure when TP-M would return. Sensing the reason for my call, and embarrassed situation at its lack of success, the two men respectfully took seats.
We three sat there in silence, looking from one to the other to the drapes. One of the few Polish words I did know was the word for beer, but I rejected offering them one at 9:30 in the morning. Time passed. They must be getting warm in their heavy coats and boots, I thought. They had taken off their hats in politeness. They were getting nervous. They began to chatter in Polish. I got up and dialed SB again; there was still no answer. Getting up was my mistake. The two men stood up and repeating “Wh-loo-jin-ski” took me by the arms and began hustling me toward the door. Luckily my coat was hanging on a hook in the hallway. They helped me into it before herding me down the stairs and out into a cold Warsaw early spring morning.
The two men hailed a taxi and urged me into it. Was I being kidnapped? They gave the driver directions in Polish and then turned to me. Pointing forward they conveyed what I took to be our destination: “Wh-loo-jin-skis.”
A taxi ride to the other side of Warsaw took us to a woman, also apparently a relative, who did not speak English, but did speak French. This, my captors assumed, must be something like English, which was why they had brought me here the woman explained as we staggered through a conversation, me using the high school French I had learned thirty years earlier. If I didn’t have much of a vocabulary I did have a good accent.
I discovered from the woman that what sounded like “Wh-loo-jinski” was actually spelled Chludzinski, which was my grandfather’s name.
“Melchior Chludzinski,” she said, “who lived in Pennsylvania. He was a banker, so rich that he drove a Ferrari.”
“Yes, I knew Melchior. He was my grandfather,” I replied, not mentioning that “Mike” was actually a coal miner who had died young from black-lung disease, and never owned a Ferrari, only a second-hand Chevrolet that his wife drove because he didn’t have a license as he couldn’t read enough English to pass the written test.
“He was my mother’s brother. She was so proud of him. He was doing so well over there in America,” the woman gushed.
“Yes, I remember him taking me for rides in his Ferrari when I was a little boy,” I added nostalgically, not wanting to disabuse the Chludzinskis’ of their family myth.
The two brothers were finally convinced to take me back to TP-M’s apartment, where we found him waiting for us. Everything was explained and agreed upon. The two men did not want to wait around in Warsaw for the opening of my exhibition, but would return to their village to prepare for my arrival. They would slaughter a pig, or something. TP-M promised not only to deliver me, but to also bring them “a big surprise.” Content with this arrangement my new found relations hurried away.
The opening of my exhibition at Galleria Studio seemed to be a success. A crowd of people came. It created a lot of interest, especially from the authorities who found my collages, which used US aeronautical charts as the substrate, to be rather suspicious. SB told me that they had asked him why I blocked out certain areas on the maps with black squares: “Were they secret military installations?” My answer that it was an “aesthetic decision” hadn’t been too convincing to their police state mentality.
The day after the opening we were on the way to my grandfather’s village. I say we, because there were actually nine of us in a three-vehicle caravan. TP-M had obtained funds from Polish National Television to make a documentary film about my visit to Poland. I was in the lead car, a kind of Russian limousine, with TP-M and the driver, directly behind us was a minibus with cameramen and technicians, and behind that a van with cameras and equipment. I was already picturing the scene we were going to create when we arrived at the Chludzinski family homestead in a village near Lomza.
But before we got to our destination there would be several stops for film shoots. I remember walking through a woods looking at rows of bunkers dug during a battle fought in this place during WWII. We did wide angles and close ups of my face staring down at the worn earth mounds. I cannot recall which side was supposed to have dug the bunkers in this now quiet forest.
Passing through another woods, we stopped and I was transferred to the minibus. TP-M handed me the letter from my grandfather, which I had not seen since I gave it to SB when I first arrived. I sat in the bus pretending to read the letter as we drove slowly along. TP-M hung on outside, standing on the step, filming me through the window. Every now and then I was signaled, by T’s tapping, to look out at the passing trees with a serious gaze as he filmed the shadows falling across my face. I realized then that this was going to be a very artful documentary.
About a mile from the village our party came upon an old man on a horse cart. TP-M ordered our driver to pass the cart and pull over. Then he got out and waved to the cart man to stop. After a brief negotiation, TP-M came back to the limo. I was told to get out of the car and onto the cart. I clambered up on the seat next to the driver. I would arrive at my grandfather’s village in a horse and wagon, probably the same type of conveyance he had used to depart from there more than seventy years ago. As I clopped along, the crew filming from the minibus, TP-M and the driver rushed ahead in the limousine to alert the village of my impending arrival, and to set the stage for my entry scene.
Just outside the village I was headed off by T P-M and told to wait with the cart. The second camera crew was to proceed to the village and get set up. After a short wait, which the horse seemed to greatly appreciate, T P-M returned and told us to head out. The spectacle that greeted me when we got to the village was just as absurd as the one that I was making arriving in a horse cart. The entire street was lined with people. Apparently T P-M had roused everyone with nothing better to do, and some with things to do but who just wanted to be in a movie, to come out and stand in the street to watch the arrival of the famous American artist—who owned two airplanes.
When we reached the house of my relatives, the horse cart and I were turned around and sent back to shoot the scene over again. When I finally got to meet my Polish relations they were all standing rather stiffly in a line and at attention, waiting to shake my hand. It must be the Communist influence, I thought. We shot the meeting scene three times before I was allowed to go into the house. My passing through the front door was shot twice from the outside and thrice from the inside. I was beginning to realize just what a boring and repetitious job being a movie actor must be.
After much fussing and filming, and translated conversation, I was finally sat down at the dinner table. The neighbors could be seen looking in at us through the windows. The food was typical Polish fare, or so I was told. My uncle would pour the traditional red beet juice into the traditional vodka. Having spent a whole month in the USSR last year, I was prepared for a tall glass of vodka with lunch.
“Wait!” TP-M shouted (in Polish of course), having filmed the liquid transfer from an over-my-shoulder vantage point. “Let’s do that again, I want to get a close-up.”
TP-M came around the table and moved in closer. He was not just the director but more often than not grabbed the camera out of the cameraman’s hands for what he thought were key shots. My uncle poured more of the red beet juice into another beaker of vodka.
“That was good, but not really great,” TP-M announced. “The red color didn’t flow into the vodka quite as dramatically as it did the first time. Can we do it again?”
Meanwhile the traditional Polish meal waiting on the table was growing cold. Red and white being the colors of the Polish flag, I wondered if TP-M might be going for some kind of metaphor with this liquid pouring.
“Ny-ma,” my uncle said. Now that was a Polish word I knew, even if I couldn’t spell it. It was a word I had heard my grandfather, the coal miner, say many times. There was no more vodka to play around with. At his direction the food was passed and we began to eat in earnest, all except the cameramen who continued to hover about filming various people eating. Apparently this table scene was not all that important as TP-M had sat down next to me and was filling his plate.
The plan for after lunch was that I would entertain the gathering by showing slides of my artworks. A variety of chairs were collected from the kitchen and the other rooms of the house. Some of the people from outside were invited in. But first, I needed to use the bathroom. I had said “bathroom,” that polite word American’s use when they really mean toilet. There was a flurry of excited conversation in Polish, my relations looking at each other with sheepish expressions on their faces.
“They say that they have no bathroom,” TP-M explained.
“Oh, yes of course . . . I meant to say toilet.”
“That’s not it. They are embarrassed to tell you that they have no such facilities in the house . . . you must go out back and use the outhouse.”
The relations were staring at me expectantly.
“Okay, I can deal with that. I have used an outhouse before.”
My uncle opened the back door and pointed to a small, rather rustic-looking shed at the far end of the yard. As I started my trek I noticed that cameraman number two had come out behind me and was following me up the path, his camera grinding away.
“Mind if I go in by myself?” I asked pushing open the outhouse door. Closing it firmly after me, I was careful to lock it.
The facility was a one-seater, with a copy of a Polish newspaper lying next to the hole. The paper, I realized, was not there just for reading. The cameraman was waiting for me when I came back out. He began filming again, and stalked me all the way to the house. I smiled and waved.
After several false starts we finally got the projector to work. My slide show went reasonably well. It should have, it was the same one I gave every semester at the university, and had presented at numerous other art schools and museums over the years. One slide of my early figurative paintings should have been left out though. A work depicting a nude female leaving a bathtub caused a bit of a stir, comments in Polish I didn’t understand, and which no one bothered to translate. A little boy sitting in the front row giggled and pointed before the woman sitting next to him made him turn his head away.
“Are there any questions?” TP-M said translating my question.
An old man at the back spouted out something and everyone laughed.
“What did he say that’s so funny?” I asked, feeling a bit defensive.
“He says that he would like to see a dollar.”
“See a dollar? What for?”
“He says that he has heard so much about the famous American dollar, but he has never seen a real one. If you have one he would like to hold it and to look at it. He will give it back. . . .”
A strange request I thought. Didn’t anyone have any questions about the artworks I had just shown, or their relation from the US who had made them? Fishing in my wallet the smallest American bill I could find was a twenty; I passed it back to the man. Everyone who handled the paper as it went on its way held it for a brief moment, looking at the money and studying it, before sending it on.
“Are there any other questions?” TP-M said continuing to translate.
“Does everyone in America really have a car?” a young man asked.
“No, not everyone . . . but a lot of people do, people who live in the country where houses are far apart and there is no public transportation,” I said subconsciously defending the American way of life. I had observed that although this was ostensibly a farm village, all the houses were rather close together, the farmland and pastures extending out behind the houses in long, thin rectangles.
“Any questions about the art?” I had TP-M ask, as I watched the twenty dollar bill slowly making its way back to me by way of the other side of the room. It seemed as if everyone wanted to handle this fabled currency. The group said nothing. These people were farmers, not art connoisseurs. I was handed back my money.
After a few moments of awkward silence, TP-M got up and thanked me in English. Then he said something in Polish and the group stood up. Most people left without saying anything—they had probably only come to be in the movie anyway. A few shook my hand before they left, taking the opportunity to say “goodbye” in English.
The afternoon was getting on. TP-M announced that it was time to pack up. He wanted to drive back in daylight as the roads we had come on were mostly through dark forests. I stepped outside, shaking hands and taking the opportunity to say “goodbye” in what I thought was Polish, but was actually Russian. TP-M corrected me. Then I noticed the motorcycle parked out front next to the house.
For many years I had ridden motorcycles, and even raced them a bit. This machine a CZ 250cc was a lot like the motocross bike I bought when I moved to upstate New York. I asked who the motorcycle’s owner was, and if I might try it out. The people who had been leaving stopped. Now here was something interesting. The bike’s owner, one of my cousins I suspected, came forward rather proudly.
It was agreed I could ride it. I mounted the bike and was shown the controls. With one kick of the starter the engine howled into life, the whining sound a two-stroke engine makes when you crank the throttle. I popped the clutch and roared off. A few yards down the road I had enough speed to pull a wheelie. Then, I put the front wheel back down on the ground, slammed on the brakes and let the back end of the bike drift around to the opposite direction. I headed back to the house, pulling another wheelie just before I got there. The gathering was ecstatic, people shouting and clapping and pounding me on the back. So this vaunted American artist really was skilled with machinery.
“I got it all on film, great stuff. It’ll add real color,” TP-M said excitedly.
“So . . . can you ride-ed a horse?” a tall man with a dark beard standing next to me asked, the first English sentence I had heard from anyone in the village all day. He nodded toward a rather tired looking animal standing in the field across the street as if he wasn’t quite sure I understood the word horse.
“Well, yes. . . .”
“Then you can to ride-ed a horse for the movie. . . .”
Now I had been on a horse only once before in my entire life, back in college using a Western saddle, when I had briefly dated a girl who was into horses. But I was the hero of the moment, an American artist who could do anything—I couldn’t back down now. “I suppose I can,” I said, hoping that was the end of the matter.
“Good. They can now bring-ed the horse. . . .”
So why were those men heading for a barn? I wondered. The horse was standing right there in the field.
Out it came, snorting and stamping its feet, a magnificent stallion that took three men to handle. From the way it was behaving it was clear that this horse wasn’t very keen on being ridden by anyone. Was this bearded man having a joke at my expense? “Here it is your horse,” he said, urging me to mount up.
“Where’s the saddle?”
“Ve have-ed no saddle . . . you must to ride-ed like this. . . .”
Three men were lifting me onto the horse’s naked back. To this day I am not sure how I managed to get up there. I struggled to keep my balance, my feet grasping for stirrups that did not exist. A rope bridle was thrust in my hands. Someone shouted the Polish equivalent of “Giddy-up,” and my horse took off down the road at a fast clip. Holding on to the rope with my hands, and gripping the horses smooth, damp sides with my legs, I was sure that my next accomplishment would be falling off. But if I managed somehow to stay on the question became where were we going: Russia, Ukraine? We had already proceeded farther down the road than I had gone on the motorcycle.
“Whoa!” I shouted. “Whoa!” Obviously the horse did not understand English, or the word meant something else in Polish for the animal accelerated its pace. I was holding onto its mane now—hanging on for dear life.
Then I remembered a word my grandfather used to yell at me when I ran around his house a bit to wild. I couldn’t spell it if I had to, but I recalled the sound.
“Check-eye! Check-eye!” I shouted. The horse must have understood for he screeched to a stop. In an instant I was sliding forward up the horse’s neck. I grabbed for its ears, which was all that stood between me and a nasty, head over heels tumble. I held on stopping my motion, and then I slid backward to where I should be sitting. The horse just stood there, looking down at the side of the road and nibbling grass. Glancing over my shoulder I could see that far back up the street, in front of my relatives’ house, people were waving and shouting to me. How was I going to get this cursed animal turned around and headed in that direction?
I tugged the bridle rope to the right, attempting to pull the horse’s neck around that way. It stopped grazing and looked up. Seeing that there was a wonderful field of grass off in the direction I had tugged it, my mount took my gesture to mean that it should head over there and chow down.
We were standing in the field now, 90 degrees to the direction off the house, at least half turned around. The horse was not running or bucking, just grazing contentedly. I felt that I was making progress. But I could see that three of the horse’s minders were now headed down the road in my direction, apparently to lead us back to the house. This would not do. Having gotten this runaway creature to stop, and turned around at least half way, I saw myself riding it back in triumph.
Pulling firmly on the bridle got the horse to look up. Perhaps through instinct the animal turned in the direction of the house, or perhaps it was the men he saw now running toward us. The horse shook his head and made a whinny, a gesture which I took to mean that it knew it was in trouble. Maybe we had come too far, maybe it wasn’t supposed to be eating the grass in this particular field.
“Giddy-up,” I yelled which this time the horse understood, or maybe it was my slap on its shoulder, or the kick I gave to its flank. At any rate we were off again, heading in the direction of the house at a fast clip, with me in a little better control than on the outward journey. We came abreast of the men and they began to run alongside of us. The horse slowed down and they caught hold of it as we pulled up in front of the parked vehicles. As soon as the horse was stopped, I slid off its back and bounced to the ground with the alacrity, but not the skill, of a pony express rider changing mounts.
All around me people were again laughing and clapping and patting me on the back and saying things in Polish. I looked up and there was TP-M standing on top of the van, his camera grinding away.
“It was a great show,” he shouted, giving me a thumbs-up sign. “It will look real good in the movie.”
I patted the horse on the nose and it was led back to the barn. I could swear that the animal looked back at me with a kind of fondness in its eyes.
We were packing the things into the vehicles when the man from in the house who had wanted to see the money came up to TP-M and asked to see the dollar bill again.
“It’s a twenty,” I said.
“Well he wants to see it another time.”
I handed it to the man, who just stood there holding the bill and staring at it.
“Let’s go,” TP-M said. A group had gathered around the man and they were all looking at the American money.
“Does he want me to give it to him, or what?” I asked trying not to sound annoyed as we got into the backseat of the limousine.
“They’re not allowed to have foreign currency,” TP-M replied. “But they can use it on the black market.”
Hearing the driver start the engine the man looked up. He walked over to the limo, signaled for me to open the window, and then handed me back my twenty dollar bill, saying something in Polish.
“What did he say?”
“He said that he thanks you for letting him see the money.”
I waved and smiled at the man as we departed. The limousine was in the rear of the convoy for the homeward journey. I supposed the plan was that if we should happen onto a wild animal standing in the road in the darkening forest the lead van would hit it first, and we would be spared—unless we crashed into the back of the second van. We drove along making small talk for awhile, and then we each fell into our own thoughts. After a few minutes I broke the silence.
“What was that business back there with them all wanting to see the money?”
“Your relations were disappointed with you.”
“With me! What for?”
“You embarrassed them in front of their friends.”
“How? Didn’t they like my slides? I should have taken out the nude picture.”
“That wasn’t it.”
“You didn’t bring them any presents.”
“Was I supposed to? . . .”
“In Poland it is the custom, it is very important. You were a big man from America. You came in a limousine . . . with a film crew. You should have been very generous with presents for everyone.”
“But I didn’t know that. I had no idea who would be there or what was expected of me,” I said anger building in my throat, “Why didn’t you tell me what to do?”
“Don’t worry. I have made a list of these relations of yours that you did not know you had; their names, sizes, likes, and so forth. Tomorrow I will send a man shopping and load up the van with presents for them. The next day the van will return to the village and distribute the things with your blessing.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The movie was made. Titled “Almost Polish,” it was widely shown on Polish television where it was apparently received not so much as a documentary, but as a fictional comedy. I never got to see it though. TP-M had promised to send me a copy of “Almost Polish.” However, shortly after he completed my film, he had made a film about the Solidarity labor strikes that got him in trouble with the authorities. TP-M traveled to London on a film assignment and never returned to Poland.
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STEPHEN (STEVE) POLESKIE is an artist and writer. His artwork is in the collections of numerous museums including the Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York: and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Tate Gallery in London, and the Museum Sztuki in Lodz. His writing, fiction and art criticism, has appeared in many journals both here and abroad. Among these are American Writing, Leonardo, Lightworks, Many Mountains Moving, Satire, SN Review, and Sulphur River Literary Review in the USA; D'Ars, and Spazio Umano, in Italy, Himmelschrieber in Germany, and Imago in Australia. He also has a story in the anthology The Book of Love, from W. W. Norton, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Poleskie has published five novels and has taught, or been a visiting professor at twenty-seven colleges and art schools throughout the world, including: MIT, Rhode Island School of Design, the School of Visual Art in New York and the University of California, Berkeley. He has also been a resident at the American Academy in Rome. Poleskie is currently a professor emeritus at Cornell University. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife, the novelist, Jeanne Mackin. Additional information can be found on his web site: www.StephenPoleskie.com/
photo by Tomasz Pobog-Malinowski
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