NEW HAVEN – Folk art and discussions about it can be unusual, and that’s how it was when Connecticut artist Marek Czarnecki addressed an overflowing crowd on Jan. 16 at the Knights of Columbus Museum.
“The Polish Nativity: A Beautiful Palace for the King of Kings” was the last special program organized as part of the museum’s popular 10-week exhibit “Joy to the World: Crèches of Central Europe.”
The Polish word for this type of Nativity scene is szopka, which really means shed. It doesn’t describe at all the examples displayed in the museum – the ornate, elaborate glittering palaces that were by far the most colorful of crèches.
“This inconsistency is planned,” said Mr. Czarnecki. “It also shows the wisdom of the creators, the people who live close to the ground.”
The art pieces are called sheds because at their core they are Nativity scenes, and Jesus was born, after all, in poverty. However, the szopka is a reminder that Jesus “wasn’t born” but rather “is born,” as Mr. Czarnecki put it, every Christmas season.
At least two stories high with no fewer than two towers, a szopka is traditionally made of easily accessible items, such as aluminum foil, cardboard and beads. Designers use a lot of materials to achieve elaborate, intricate details. The materials help artists meet the primary requirement for the szopka: it must be light enough to carry.
Mr. Czarnecki mentioned that he knows of one artist who begins to collect candy wrappers in February for her palaces to be built the following November.
The second level of the Polish palaces traditionally displays the Nativity scene. The lower level is meant to show how contemporary culture celebrates the birth of Christ, Mr. Czarnecki said.
The earliest szopka structures date from the 19th century and were carried door-to-door by carolers or to an annual outdoor competition in Kraków that has been ongoing (interrupted only by World War II) since 1937. Some early street performers displayed their structures with puppets; others used static figurines.
The structures differ from region to region in Poland, with the most well-known ones originating in Kraków. Mr. Czarnecki said the Kraków crèches’ towers follow the architecture of that city’s prominent buildings: St. Mary’s Basilica, Wawel Castle, Sukiennice trade hall and the Barbican of Kraków.
The art form appeared in America as Polish immigrants started arriving in the late 1800s. One prominent piece can be found at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Built by James Hampton, who was an African-American janitor, “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly” is a 180-piece assemblage of scavenged foil, craft paper and plastic that depicts a seat suited for the King of Kings.
Mr. Czarnecki said that Pittsburgh artist David Motak has attracted enough notice that he can now dedicate most of his talents to creating the szopka and teaching others about them.
One local aficionado, Catherine Purzycki, was on hand at the museum with her szopka-inspired Christmas gift box that opened up to reveal a palace built from previous holiday greeting cards.
Besides showing slides of models, Mr. Czarnecki linked the art form to the first Nativity, created by Saint Francis of Assisi. The saint created a visual display of the first Christmas to educate his mostly illiterate audience. However, he didn’t just use a static display, Mr. Czarnecki pointed out, but actively engaged the community by borrowing animals and even someone’s baby to place in the manger. His aim was to transform people from observers to participants in celebrating the coming of Christ.
Mr. Czarnecki judges the annual szopka competition hosted by the Polish Cultural Club of Greater Hartford, which has been awarding student szopka designers for the past 35 years.
He said he has been impressed by the student interpretations, mentioning one made of drinking cups and walnuts to show a Gospel choir singing praise to the Lord with the conductor pointing upward, to the birth taking place above him.