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Steliga Wood Sculpture
1612 West Northwest Highway
Sculptors have used wood as a creative medium since before written history and as an organic medium. It has a long pedigree as one of the most expressive and pleasing materials of art. Steliga Wood Sculpture not only builds and refines the legacies of high art traditions and Polish folk heritage, but reflects upon and innovates within the best of contemporary trends.
Steliga Wood Sculpture is a recently opened gallery and artist's studio at 1612 West Northwest Highway, just West of Arlington Heights, Northwest of Chicago. It offers a continuing selection of new fine art sculpture, bas reliefs, as well as commissioned furniture and decorative wood elements. It is equally well worth the trip for the opportunity to see two master artists, Jozef and Stanislawa Steliga, as they use a wide variety of tools and highly-skilled techniques to bring a surprising variety of art objects out of raw and naturally formed wood.
Unlike metal or most sculptural media, wood retains a memory of growth: it has planes of amazing strength and direction of ready release, and often an obstinate will toward its own natural flow. And each of the many woods used by the Steligas -- walnut, oak, cherry, cyprus, linden, maple and exotic -- has its own particular texture and grain. Each block as well has its own internal architecture. The Steliga creations are developed in cooperation with the wood's individuality and exploit the physical strengths, grains and textures of the medium.
A piece such as "The Woman" clearly displays the harmony between the natural flow of wood and the sculptor's own creative vision. The wood grain flows about the head and fashions a crown of hair. This flow of grain, transformed into hair, then continues in an illusion of almost-wind and merges down again into the breast of the woodblock. The whorls and knots of the wood swirl in eddies about the cheeks and lips, and together with the enhanced russet tones of the wood create a sensuous effect the recalls some of the best of Constantin Brancusi. The wood adds a further dimension that Brancusi's metal could not achieve. "The Woman" brings to mind the Greek legend of Daphne, who escaped Apollo's advances by being transformed into a laurel tree. If legends proved true, "The Woman" would be her.
"The Bathers" again illustrates how the course of the chisel and knife unite with the flow of wood to create an innocent, but deep sensuality. The color variances of the wood are developed by the sculptor's finishing to produce an illusion of well-oiled youthful flesh. "The Bathers" is a graceful, guileless creation that makes three-dimensional the spirit that the French sculptor, Aristide Maillol, displayed in his woodcuts. In any age, it is a pleasure to find joy and delight displayed in art.
"Musician" is a sculpture that demonstrates the Steligas' ability to harmonize persistent folk legacies with contemporary modes of expression. It portrays a highlander bass player -- for centuries, an integral persona of the mountains near Zakopane in Southern Poland, Stanislawa Steliga's birthplace. In this piece, a disembodied bust hovers above the instrument, and the eye substitutes the bass fiddle for the player's body. The viewer's intellect, which insists there is no body, is over-ruled by the eye, which feels that player and played are one creature. "Musician" exemplifies the Steliga's expert attention to the wood medium -- the natural flow of the wood is accommodated to ensure an integral strength and physical integrity to what would otherwise seem a rather breakable carving. The expression on the musician's face is one of relaxed satisfaction at some unheard melody within. It is a rare, but universal moment. One has at times seen it in the faces of Chicago jazzmen.
Jozef and Stanislawa (Stella) Steliga first met in the Antoni Kenar Liceum of the Plastic Arts in Zakopane, Poland. Stanislawa is from the mountain resort of Zakopane; Jozef Steliga comes from the picturesque town of Jurkow, near Limanowa. It was after they had gone abroad that the learned that their first studio there, on Nowotarska Street, had been destroyed by fire. It had been there that they first began their enduring career with sacred sculpture, and with objects of utility. By 1980, the Steligas had been receiving commissions for large works. The declaration of martial law in what was then People's Poland (the old regime's attempt to stifle Solidarity and forestall the consequent collapse of Communism in Europe came while they were in Austria. Feeling unable to return to Poland, the Steligas left for Australia. It was to begin a long term of traveling, complete with the Saints and other creations they had sculpted.
In an interview with Danuta Peszynska, correspondent for Monitor, Stanislawa Steliga observed: "We thought we had reached the Promised Land. From the very start, we endeavored to work as sculptors. We encountered types of wood we had not known earlier, and fascinating root forms. We still have to this day figures carved out from them. We took part in many exhibitions, we won several important awards." They had already received the Brother Albert Prize (1976) and the Gold Medal (l977) in Warsaw, Poland. Among their Australian awards were the Marcquarie University Award (Sydney, 1981) and First Prize in the Austalian International Art Exihibition (Sydney, 1982).
It was an invitation to exhibit at Marywood College in Pennsylvania that brought the Steligas to the United States. They spent several months in Philadelphia, exhibiting their work at the Art Institute, the Jefferson Alumni Hall Gallery and other venues. In Philadelphia, they won the Silver Medal for 1984. They then moved to Vermont, which seemed much like their native Podhale region in Poland. But, as commissions began to come in from New York and New Jersey, they decided to move to New York City, where they began to exhibit in SoHo galleries and the Center for American Art. However, New York was not really to their liking.
Commissions had been arriving from all parts of the U.S. and after one such from the state of Washington, they again decided to move. Throughout it all they traveled with the Saints and sculptures they themselves were sculpting. It was in Washington, while participating in an exhibition of sacred art, that they attended a lecture by a noted N.Y. professor, who spoke of the new tendencies in sacred art.
Stanislawa Steliga related her reactions to writer Danuta Peszynska: "We, who were accustomed to a solid, traditional art, were taken aback by many of these new propositions. Ever more often however, we became convinced that the abstract model was becoming obligatory. In the churches, there dominated a modern art very often totally unbecoming to the interior architecture.
Some of its works bespoken a sparse form, full of meaning, the majority, however, were incomprehensible and unaesthetic. There's nothing strange, that many contemporary churches are more reminiscent of display halls than Houses of God.
The Steligas have recently settled in Arlington Heights. In 1996, they were commissioned by the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth in Des Plaines, Illinois, to execute a full-size figure of that order's founder, as well as a sculpture of the Holy Family. Among the commissioned work they have done, a wooden crucifix done by Jozef Steliga in 1979 was for Pope John Paul II. That and a second by Stanislawa now permanently reside in Rome.
The religious art of the Steligas does indeed rest upon that solid, traditional art, that for centuries nutured and was nurtured by great artists, such as Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, Nicola Pisano, Veit Stoss and that accompanied great beliefs. The Steligas build upon firm precedents, but contribute much that is fresh, innovative and expressive of modern needs and conditions. An excellent example of their achievements in this genre is their "Stations of the Cross" (1993) executed for Saint Andrews Church in Gibbsboro, New Jersey. Each single Station, while remaining an enclosed, iconographic representation of its event, combines with all others to produce a monumental wall. The unity of the ensemble is further integrated by the placement of the final Station, Christ in full figure, which embeds into the five right most sections. This figure is counter-balanced by the Cross at the opposite left side. The Cross emerges from the twelfth Station in such a manner that the associated figure is both contained by it, and yet also free of it. It is a engaging piece of art, and a serious theological treatise in wood.
The "Triptych" (1995), while inspired by a Byzantine tradition, displays a strong individual and Western personal dimensionality. The mahogany is allowed to reveal the stroke of the tools, clearly presenting the sculpture as an object fashioned by the hand of man, while the overall design leads the eye to gaze into the wood and seek beyond. In presenting this effect, it achieves the goal that iconographic art intends: to lead beyond the apparent to the unseen. It is the object which finds its subject within the viewer.
Sacred art is a difficult genre. It is possible to show the appearance of emotion; and extremely difficult to evoke emotion. Pain is immediate; profound joy is difficult; and the transcendent most difficult of all. The Steligas have sculpted numerous representations of the crucifixion which are profoundly moving. It is this fact which makes the "Angels" (1994) all the more delightful. They are real, somewhat mischievous in expression, and, well, what real angels should be. The pose, heads resting in palm, as if observing the public in bemusement, is worthy of Notre Dame. The artists realize the wisdom of also including the lighter face of faith; after all, I doubt everyone in heaven is continually posing and walking about like manicured drill sergeants. I REALLY like these angels.
Finally, the Steliga Wood Sculpture exhibits a range of carved furniture and applied art objects, floral carvings and decorative elements. They are excellent. I wish I could show photographs of the 'pond' tables. These are solidly constructed, medium-sized tables with glass tabletops. But, through the glass, sculpted from the underlying support wood, there emerges a small garden pond, replete with carved Koi fish, and all the appropriate flora and fauna. If there must be coffee tables, then let them be made by skilled and imaginative artists like the Steligas. And let no one place art books on top of them. Art is what underlies the surface.
In the Steliga studio one has the opportunity to view current works and commissions in progress. this is a bonus for the gallery visitor, as well as a lesson and guarantee for the art patron. One has the opportunity of actually seeing art emerge from the tangible; and an opportunity to view the skill and quality of workmanship and judgement that informs the final result. And the final sculpture is both durable and enduring. Here is art of value.
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editor's Note: The Steliga atelier of the above review has since been relocated. However, the Steligas now have a website: http://www.steliga.com.
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