A Polish Eye on Fermanagh

Jenny Cathcart meets Polish artist Cezary Bielicki

There are currently around 2000 Polish people living in Fermanagh and efforts are being made by the local community to welcome them and cater for their needs.

The local newspaper, the Fermanagh Herald, is running a weekly column in Polish. Fermanagh College is organising courses in Polish language and Polish culture for schoolteachers so that they can communicate with immigrant children. Major employers like Balcas and the Quinn group now have Polish and other East European workers on their books.

A shop called Batory selling Polish food has opened in Belmore Street in Enniskillen. Fermanagh District Council's Arts Committee have offered to subsidise a Polish artist so that he can buy materials and prepare an exhibition of his work for display at the Clinton Centre's Higher Bridges gallery next year.

That artist is Cezary Bielicki. He is 24 years old and lives in Lisnaskea with his partner, Agneska and baby girl, Livia. The couple left their home in Brodnica in the North of Poland when they had finished high school and after spending some months with Cesary's cousin in Cambridgeshire and with Agneska's father in Leeds, they were tired of living out of suitcases and decided, on the recommendation of some Polish friends, to come to Northern Ireland.

Bielicki has a painter's eye for the beauty of the Fermanagh landscape, so different from the flat fields of Poland. Agneska, a tall, lithe, vivacious twenty year old hopes to resume dance classes, for dance is her passion.

Bielicki shows me photographs of the work he did in Poland, a mix of landscapes and figurative painting, romantic fantasies and bleak abstractions. He says he was influenced by the Polish painter, Witkacy, but he also admires Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon and the Surrealists Salvador Dali and Magritte.

Since he was a child, painting has been his passion. He used to copy the drawings his father made while working as a building engineer. Later, he used paints from whatever source was available, even household paints, to create canvasses which he sold for the equivalent of ten or twenty pounds or which he would give away to a friend in exchange for a night out.

He believes he inherited his artistic talents from his mother's family who were musicians, playing accordion, harmonica and violin, and who were also well known woodcarvers. His mother paints too in her spare time though these days she works as head chef in a school kitchen.

She says that Cezary cooks with more imagination than she does. And yes he does enjoy cooking traditional Polish beef casserole or Bigos, a kind of choucroute, which involves cooking cabbage, tomatoes, herbs and fat bacon for a long time.

Flowers are omnipresent in Bielicki's work, as are couples, their bodies and heads entwined like swans; female nudes, female dancers, or a distant female form viewed from the top of a tall building, her elongated shadow extended by the evening sun. 

And then there is the kind of colourful detail one might associate with an old fashioned Bohemia - bright colours, highly decorated interiors, fringes and flounces. This is in strong contrast with the stark reality of grey and black squares and boxes, a reflection of the condominiums built by a communist regime.

Bielicki loved his childhood trips to the countryside, to a village called Karbowo, where he built treehouses and enjoyed country life. He remembers his father making trips to Bulgaria and Hungary to buy bright yellow, red and green shoelaces and plastic Christmas trees which he sold in West Germany in exchange for chocolate or chewing gum.

Other small luxury items were unavailable in Poland except in shops like Baltona and Pewix where customers had to queue for hours. At that time vouchers were plentiful, but the store shelves were almost empty.

Today, in a Poland freed from communism, the situation is reversed. The stores stock most items but many people do not have the money to buy them. Hence the mass migration of Poles to other European states in order to earn money to send back home.

In his cosy top floor flat in Lisnaskea, Bielicki feels settled enough to fulfill his ambition to have a one man show of his work. When he paints through the night he feels happy and fulfilled the next day. He borrows art books from the local library and sees his work evolving in the way he had hoped.

We look at the canvas 'Most Evenings' which he defines as a gift of flowers from a woman. Using acrylic paint, Bielicki laid the colours down unmixed; any gradations in colour were produced on the canvas. The flowers are drawn freely from his imagination. The woman`s skin is painted skilfully with a luminosity that echoes the work of the American painter Edward Hopper.

‘Three Nightmares’ is an example of subjects which Bielicki paints easily and quickly. Three shadowy nude females, outlined in gold, emerge from a moonlit lake set in an autumnal landscape.

The canvas he is working on at the moment is a female portrait, her head a blue moon, her perfect body covered by a tight fitting orange dress, the small creases of the bodice and hips drawn taut as if she were a dressmaker's dummy. The elbow length sleeves are finished with gentle frills. Her right arm is overlaid with papier mache and her breasts are outlined on top of the dress like an architect's drawing.

I ask Bielicki how he and the other Poles are settling in in Fermanagh. His reply makes me realise how difficult it must be to arrive in another country with a different language and customs.

‘My friends have changed so I can hardly recognise them. Maybe it is the pressure of succeeding well enough to live in relative comfort and also send money home. There is also a kind of rivalry which leaves me uneasy for our only hope is to help each other.’