The art of exile: High Falls’ Hanna Sawka’s journey in the name of love & art - BlueStone Press
October 21, 2020

The art of exile: High Falls’ Hanna Sawka’s journey in the name of love & art


The story of how Hanna Sawka ended up in High Falls is not a movie. But perhaps it should be. It is a story of art, of oppressive government, of protest, of the power of friendship and work and leaps of faith and loopholes and above all – yes, above all – love.

Sawka was raised in Czȩstochowa, Poland, home to Bright Mountain Monastery and the famous Black Madonna, born into a long line of intellectuals and artists (there are several generations of family members who held the position of musical director at the monastery). Education, Sawka explains, was held paramount.

“My family’s history corresponded to Polish history in the loss of wealth under the various occupations, so my family had a strong ethic concerning education,” she says. “Education was of utmost importance, because it was the one thing that occupiers could not take from a person. For example, my mother was able to support our family as a single parent, thanks to her medical degree.” 

This focus on education led Sawka to the Catholic University of Lublin’s Warsaw campus to study psychology, and on a fateful St. Nicholas celebration she met the man who would become her husband and eventually lead her to High Falls.

“My sister was dating his friend who was an artist,” Sawka explains. “He asked me out and we went out on three dates. For the fourth date he invited me to a coffee shop and he asked me to marry me. I said, well, maybe we should start to date a little bit. But after two weeks I agreed. My mother did not. So we waited a year to get married.”

At the time Sawka met Jan, Jan was already a bright star in Polish counterculture, creating sets for the avant-garde theater (as well as cabarets and festivals), organizing absurdist, politically bent “happenings,” illustrating books and samizdats (the underground poetry) for contemporary poets of note, all the while creating paintings and fine art prints. His work that was part of the Polish Poster School had earned him notoriety and, says Sawka, the attention of the government, which was not happy with his anti-communist beliefs.

“He was marked.” Hanna explains simply.  

Jan Sawka’s political leanings were simpatico with her own. “Both of our families were involved in the anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet resistance,” says Sawka. “My mother alone had three medals for her service during World War II. My father was a partisan. Jan’s mother was a courier for the underground, and his father fought as a military engineer and ended up joining British and American forces during WWII. In fact, Jan Sr. was in the first wave of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. As a young person already, I was involved in the shadow resistance against communism, in the sense of being involved in the exchange of illegal books and publications, information and maintenance of culture and our truth as a besieged society. I had no trouble understanding, joining and supporting my husband’s overt resistance.”

The pair married in 1974, and the following year would bring two life events that changed everything – the birth of their daughter, Hanna Maria Sawka, and Jan’s role in organizing  – along with the then director Janina Fijalkowska – an exhibition titled “The Four” at the Poster Museum in Warsaw. The exhibit featured politically controversial fine art of J.J. Aleksiun, Jerzy Czerniawski, Jan Sawka and S. Stankiewicz and took solid aim at the current regime.  The exhibition was a wild success, both nationally and internationally, and had the double-edged effect of intensifying Jan’s visibility on a national level. By 1976, when their daughter was a mere 9 months old, it was official: Jan Sawka was exiled. The family emigrated to Paris with one-way tickets and passports set to expire. They had chosen Paris on the invitation of the Centre Georges Pompidou, thanks to medals Jan had won for his work the previous year at the International Festival of Painting at Cagnes-sur-Mer. Jan became artist in residence at the Pompidou Centre and as part of his work traveled to the United States to the Bicentennial Aspen Art and Design Conference, where he had an exhibition of his work. In short, his reputation continued to grow, and the Polish government was not happy about it.

“They were hoping that when he was pushed out that he wouldn’t be able to make a career elsewhere,” Sawka explains. “But he had a show in America, two shows in Paris and was just getting more famous. So Poland asked France to deport us. And France was making a business deal, like Trump makes business deals, and France agreed. Someone at Centre Georges Pompidou called and tipped us off, ‘You have to leave now or you will be deported.’”

Not sure of what to do next, the couple called friends in Los Angeles. They advised them to go to the American Embassy and ask for a tourist visa, and they sold Jan’s work to immediately purchase the family’s tickets to the States.

“It was a matter of life and death,” says Sawka. “Keep in mind, we have no documents, our passports are expired! We wait two hours and the consul comes and asks us to his office, and he looks at our papers – which are not valid – and he says, ‘I could ask you many questions, but … here are your visas. Do you have tickets?’ We told, him, yes, we had tickets. He told us to go to a special gate, and he gave our daughter a little plastic soldier, and we left. Years later we found out that it was because of a law that was added in WWII to let outstanding scientists pass through to the United States, and Peggy Guggenheim had worked to get it amended to include artists. My husband’s name was on the list of outstanding artists in the United States – I wish we had known that!”

The family later found out that they had fled just in time.

“We learned a few years before my husband’s death that at 2 a.m., the morning after we left, a SWAT team descended on our home in France that we were renting and knocked out the windows and doors,” says Sawka. “For years I wondered why the landlord said we left the place in such bad condition! They had destroyed the place. Fleeing to the United States was absolutely terrifying. All of the propaganda that the communist government had subjected me to over the course of my life came back to me during the nine-hour flight to the U.S. I cried for most of the flight. As for being a parent, I was mostly just happy to be alive and to have my daughter and husband with me. In fact, for both me and Jan, our daughter gave us hope, as well as resolve to not give up.” 

The family landed in New York City in 1977 and rented an apartment on 58h Street between First and Second avenues. The location could not have been more fortuitous because at the time the area was the hub for gallery owners as the majority of art galleries at the time were located on 57th Street  (before eventually migrating to SoHo and then Chelsea). Within six months Jan had gallery representation, and 10 years later, after a particularly big show that spanned three galleries, they decided they wanted to buy a home in the country with ample studio space. Leaving their daughter with a babysitter, the pair took a bus to Rosendale with one intention: to purchase a home and studio. An artist friend, Rich Corozine, picked them up in a car and drove them around to look at potential properties. After driving around for the majority of the day, however, the couple had not seen anything that would work. Crestfallen, they took a break in High Falls.

“Rich said, let’s stop into the Pantry in High Falls and we’ll have a tea or coffee, and I’ll put you back on the bus,” Sawka recalls. “We got to the Pantry and we sat next to a friend of his named Ann Draffen, who had just started in real estate. He asked her if she had anything, and she stood up and said, yes, I do, and she brought us to what would become our house and studio. There was a building that used to be stables – and my husband, who was an architect, took one look at the construction of the stables and said, we’ll take it. Ann didn’t have a key to the cottage so we couldn’t go inside, but it didn’t matter. It was exactly what my husband wanted. As it turned out the cottage was terrible – it was a cave! But my husband said not to worry, and while he was overseeing the finishing of the stables into the studio he changed the entire house.”

Throughout Jan’s career, Sawka remained an integral part of the business (in addition to publishing a book of her own – “At Hanka’s Table,” an autobiographical cookbook). 

“From the point of view of the IRS, we were a small business. And this was accurate,” says Sawka. “This meant that, between the two of us, we had to do everything. While Jan created the artwork, there were many activities surrounding this. Tasks which I did, or partnered on with him included bookkeeping, buying materials, preparation for exhibitions, networking, entertaining, promotion, travelling together for shows and events, organizing photo shoots, helping directly with the creation of artworks, mounting shows and involvement with exhibition design, packing, hanging, taking down work, and overall strategy. Jan always wanted me to be acknowledged in the eyes of the IRS as an employee or partner of the business, however, our accountant always said that it was not possible. I have the impression that, in America in particular, there is an attitude of very little respect for a woman, an assumption that a person such as I was a passive party. I certainly sensed that people assumed that I was just some kind of accessory and not deeply involved and invested in this project. As it wasn’t overtly expressed, there wasn’t much that I could do to address it, however, Jan was very sensitive to highlighting my importance and assuring my involvement. At every opening and in every project, he strongly acknowledged my work and contributions.” 

Jan passed away suddenly in 2012. In the ensuing years Sawka and her daughter, Hanna Maria (a filmmaker, educator and curator in her own right), have been working to preserve his legacy, or more accurately, their family legacy. Sawka says that the part of the job that she enjoyed most were the moments of completion. There are two shows coming up, both of which Hanna Maria co-curated with Dr. Frank Boyer – one at the Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art at California State San Bernardino and one decidedly closer to home at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz.  The show in New Paltz is titled “Jan Sawka: The Place of Memory (The Memory of Place).”  According to the press release, the aim of the show is to “illuminate two aspects of Jan Sawka's practice, his fascination with human consciousness, in this case, with memory, and his interest in place, and the places through which a human life passes.” Much the work exhibited was created in his High Falls studio.

“I am looking forward to the openings of the two upcoming museum shows in the same way as throughout so much of my life. My work with my husband didn’t end with his passing,” says Sawka.

“Jan Sawka: The Place of Memory (The Memory of Place)” opens on Saturday, Feb. 8 and runs through July 12 at The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz.


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