Unveiled on June 9, 2018, the core object in the multidisciplinary public art project Ziemia (“Earth” in Polish), takes the form of a ceramic orb. The orb was created by the Greenpoint based artist Martynka Wawrzyniak in collaboration with The Polish Cultural Institute of New York, NYC Parks, and most importantly – Greenpoint residents.
Surrounded by the rolling meadow in McGolrick Park, the orb represents the collective portrait of the diverse Greenpoint community, with an emphasis on participation of the many Poles who have lived in the neighborhood for generations. Martynka Wawrzyniak shares with Art Spiel the ideas behind her intriguing public art project, as well as some thoughts regarding her overall art practice.
AS: Let’s start with some basic bio. You were born in Warsaw (Poland) and currently based in Greenpoint. Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Martynka Wawrzyniak: My family immigrated from communist Poland to New Zealand, when I was 8 years old. I studied Anthropology and Philosophy for one year at Victoria University in Wellington, then moved to NYC when I was 18. I have been here since (20 years!). I wanted to continue studying but couldn’t afford the foreign tuition fees. A year after my arrival I co-founded the art and culture magazine ISSUE. Having the magazine as a platform connected me to many amazing artists who inspired me to pursue my own art practice.
AS: For Ziemia (“Earth” in Polish), the multidisciplinary public art project at the McGolrick Park in Greenpoint, you created a ceramic orb as a collective portrait of the diverse Greenpoint community. What can you tell me about the genesis of this work?
Martynka Wawrzyniak: When I moved to Greenpoint 3 years ago I was hit with nostalgia for my childhood in Poland. The sound of Polish spoken on the streets, the smell of the bakeries and the dreamy Linden trees in bloom transported me to my childhood in Poland. I chose to create the next art work about my immigrant experience and my connection to nature.
For this project I decided to invite my multicultural Greenpoint neighbors on this journey with me. Hopefully the process of acknowledging that we are all migrants from somewhere, near or far, would bridge the divides between people of disparate cultural backgrounds and inspire them to have greater respect for nature.
AS: For Ziemia you chose to work with site specific material, like glazing with a mixture of clay excavated in Greenpoint and soils contributed by participating residents. Can you tell me more about it?
Martynka Wawrzyniak: I was obsessed with the idea of excavating clay from Clay Street in Greenpoint. I attended many community meetings to finally convince a developer to allow me on site while they were digging a deep utility trench. I was hoping to make the body of the orb entirely out of local clay but it proved not to be structurally solid enough for a large outdoor sculpture.
The Greenpoint clay ended up being a component of the glaze mixed with soils contributed by residents. I spent the past three years reaching out to Greenpointers, inviting them to participate in the project by contributing soil from locations symbolically representative of their identities. Some participants ended up choosing nostalgic places from their childhood, locations where they had a meaningful experience.
All of the international soils were imported with an official USDA soil importing permit and heat treated by a team of chemistry students at Lehman College, CUNY.
Soil, just like people needs official papers to enter the country.
AS: It seems like community engagement is central in this project. For instance, at the opening event there were creative ecological workshops referencing the materials used in the orb and making their own artwork. How do you see your art in this participatory / social context?
Martynka Wawrzyniak: Community engagement and collaboration is the core of this project. The experience the participants went through to consider places metaphorically representative of their identities through soil is almost more important than the finished object.
I publicized the project through social media and local press and announced it at community gatherings and events. I also ran workshops related to the themes of the project at local venues, such as schools PS34, PS110, Cottonwood AGL, and Eckford Street Studios. In addition I reached out to Polish seniors at local senior clubs and traveled to Poland to collect soil on behalf of some of those who could not make it themselves.
The placement of the artwork in a public park is also very important as it exposes it to a broader, non- traditional art world audience. This is a group portrait of the community made in collaboration with the community, for the community.
AS: You seem to be working in diverse media- video, photography, installation, performance, and here in sculpture. How do you choose which medium to use for a project?
Martynka Wawrzyniak: My works are conceptual so the idea comes first and then I figure out what medium and form would be most fitting for the message. It is important for me that the form and medium viscerally communicate the idea without the need to read a long winded explanation of the project.
I think a lot of conceptual art is overly intellectual and falls short at face value. I believe that powerful art needs to generate an immediate sensual reaction, which is easily understood by many, and further backed up with a powerful and meaningful message.
In the case of Ziemia I chose soil as the perfect universally relatable medium – we all come from soil and eventually turn to soil. It also reminds us of our primal connection to nature, which is further emphasized by the wild meadow surrounding the orb.
AS: What are you working on now?
Martynka Wawrzyniak: I am working on finishing some works on paper, letter press lino cuts, printed with the left over soil from the orb. I am going to be working on expanding the native plant meadow in McGolrick park surrounding the orb thanks to a grant I have just received from GCEF (The Greenpoint Environmental Fund). The meadow is a very important part of this project as it provides a refuge for native insects and reminds Greenpoint human residents to consider the landscape of this area before it turned into a city.