|My mother was an artist and Art was like blood running through her veins. She lived all her life for Art, in such a passionate way that took her to many places that only artists know in their dreams. She was an actress, a ballerina and a painter and knew fame and glory in Poland and Europe. When she met young Architect Zbigniew Solawa and became his wife, she gave birth to a little daughter Agnieszka.
I was born in Krakow surrounded by art from the very first day and I grew up with my senses being trained every day to become an artist. I was not destined to be a painter because of my mother’s dreams. Not being able to play music herself, she started training me to be a pianist before I was two years old. Looking back, I think she was very proud to see her little girl perform in public for the first time at the age of two. Music did not keep the painter from emerging. When did I start painting? I cannot recollect. Drawings, sketches and paintings were part of my daily life.
I got my first commission of reverse paintings on glass at the age of ten; it was a collection of five icons for the “Missionary Church” in Krakow, a building designed and built by my father. Reverse painting on glass was and still is my favorite form of expression, which was implanted in me from my visits to the peasant homes in Zakopane in Tatra Mountains. The peasants, in their smoky homes, were lining their walls with such paintings portraying their Patrons and Saints, to bless them and protect them. In the dimmed lights of their living rooms, those painting were like shining stars in the middle of a summer’s night. I always wanted to own one of these glorious, shimmering paintings, but that was close to impossible. The peasants were very attached to those glass icons and the meaning they bear. It was a religious symbol and a matter of pride and social status. What the peasants did not own were only in museums and not for sale. The only way for me to own any painting on glass was to paint them myself. The rest is history.
In 1961 I was confirmed by the Bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla. Who could predict then that I would meet him again as Pope John Paul II in Rome many years later.
I immigrated with my parents to South Africa to escape from communism. My father, who was then the Chief Architect of the city of Krakow and later a Professor of Architecture at Krakow Polytechnic, preferred to leave his beloved homeland in search of freedom for his family. To me he was a hero, leaving all his glory behind, being an award-winning architect with monuments that still carry his name, like the famous Astronomical Observatory in Silesia, Poland. It was not easy for my family to start a new life in a foreign land with a foreign language.
I studied Fine Art at the Pretoria University and later gained my Diploma of Fine Art from the University of Cape Town in South Africa. During the years I was studying in Pretoria I kept painting and participating in Art Exhibitions. After completing my Art Diploma I attended the University of Cape Town School of Architecture to prepare for a career as an architect. It was during the second year of architecture the reward that every artist is waiting for came to me in the form of a solo exhibition in the Gallery of South African Association of Arts in Cape Town. I experienced the joys of displaying my collection of Reverse Paintings on Glass, Drawings and Graphics.
In the fourth year of architecture, I traveled to France as part of my practical training. While working in Paris, at “Atelier Stephane Du Chateau”, the inventor of the space frames, as an intern and studying Graphic Arts at “Atelier 17”, under the patronage of Artist William Hayter, I organized my solo Exhibition at “Circle Saint-Louis” in Paris, where I displayed my latest reverse paintings on glass.
For my final architectural thesis I chose to design an Interdenominational Church. The task was enormous (the thesis documents alone were more than 300 pages) and I was overworked thinking that I will never finish on time. Two weeks before the deadline I was barely getting enough sleep when around 2 o’clock in the morning I heard the news on the radio: “We have a new Pope and his name is Karol Wojtyla”. It was October 16th, a date I will never forget. The joy of a Polish Cardinal being chosen as Pope, the first non-Italian pope since Hadrian VI, 455 years before, was so great that I was inspired and it gave me the strength that I never thought I had to finish my thesis. That event in my time of despair showed me that everything is possible even for a frail girl like me who was still a student and yet working to pay for her schooling.
After graduating and while pursuing my architectural career I held several solo exhibitions in South Africa.
In 1980 I won a Scholarship sponsored by the Italian Government to study Art and Italian language at the University of Urbino in Italy. I spent 18 months studying and working as an architect in the design firm “Interstudio” of Architect Professor Yasuo Watanabe in Pesaro. Some of the projects I was responsible for were: The Central Police Station in Fano, a Multi-Family Housing Project in Marotta, a Kindergarten in Colbordolo and the Restoration of a Historical Monument in Urbino.
To my greatest joy I was able to have an audience with Pope John Paul II. I took with me to the meeting my photographs from my Confirmation and showed it to him. The Pope recognized himself in the picture and his face beamed with a smile. He called Father Stanislaw Dziwisz , who is presently Archbishop of Krakow, and told him laughingly: ”Staszek look, how young I was then and I still was wearing eyeglasses (later he was wearing contacts). John Paul II asked me what was my name and, when I told him it is Solawa, he wondered if I am the daughter of his friend the architect Zbigniew Solawa who designed the winning project for the Church in Nowa Huta. The Pope wanted to know about my father, where he is now and what he is doing. Karol Wojtyla was famous for his phenomenal memory. To his question I replied that my father is an architect working in Cape Town, South Africa. John Paul smiled and made me promise that next time I will bring my father to see him. I was lucky while in Italy to be able to talk to him several times. The last time I saw him was after the tragic events in Poland when the martial law was imposed after 13 of December 1981.
Italy was a great experience but I was missing my family and I decided to return to South Africa. There I resumed my career in architecture and thanks to my experience in Italy I was involved in the design of the extensions of the Johannesburg Art Gallery originally designed by Sir Edward Luytens in 1912. Several other projects were added to my portfolio such as the Museum Complex at Mosselbay in South Africa as well as numerous residential projects.
Since I was a child I was fascinated by Cowboys and Indians and I was reading every book I could find on the subject. I was hoping that one day I would come to my dreamland. In 1987 I realized my childhood dream and I came, alone, to the United States. Another foreign land and yet I finally felt at home. I settled down in the City of Summit, New Jersey.
I kept on painting while working at “Donghia Associates”, in New York City, as an architect/interior designer involved in projects such as Donghia Showrooms in Los Angeles and Washington and several luxurious residential and commercial interiors and lobbies in New York City. It was a prestigious firm with client such as Donald Trump, Sylvester Stallone, Diana Ross, Meryl Streep, Ralph Loren.
Later I took an offer for a position of an architect at the Port Authority of NY & NJ, at the World Trade Center in New York, where I met my husband Sam who is also an Architect and a Photographer. I was part of several teams that worked on redevelopment projects at Newark Legal Center, JFK International Airport, La Guardia Airport and Newark International Airport. During that period, I participated in two of the Annual Art Exhibitions organized by the Port Authority.
In the summer of 2003 I returned to Poland, for the first time since I emigrated, to visit the places I love and miss so much. The voyage was an emotional walk through the past and an inspiration that reflects in my recent Artwork.
Currently, my husband and I are having an architectural office and we handle various projects including design of residential and commercial construction.
Several years ago I started designing jewelry. I created my pieces from gems, antique beads and precious metals that I acquired from my travels around the world. For me it was a natural extension of my art.
I am also a singer and a photographer and I had several solo exhibitions and participated in group shows exhibiting my photographs.