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Paintings Convey Poland’s Struggles, Hopes at Convention

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The paintings portray a Poland oppressive in its past, uncertain in its present, optimistic of its future.

The work of artists Jerzy Wojciech Bielecki and Miroslawa Smerek, a husband-and-wife team from Poland, will be displayed at a convention this weekend of the Polish National Alliance, a 111-year-old nonprofit fraternal and insurance group to help Poles and Polish-Americans.

Eight hundred delegates are expected to attend the alliance’s 41st national convention, which begins Sunday at the Hyatt Regency Alicante in Garden Grove and continues through Friday.

For Bielecki and Smerek, the economic chaos in their country, as it throws off communism and embraces capitalism, has created difficulties for all, including artists.

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For leaders of the alliance, the economic situation in Poland gives them opportunities for investment that they hope will benefit their ancestral home and their organization.

The alliance has 300,000 members organized into 1,000 local chapters, or lodges, in 36 states, and its officials say it is the largest ethnic fraternity in North America. In Orange County, the group has three lodges and about 1,500 members.

Nationally, it claims assets of more than $236 million.

“We use our money to fund scholarships, make home loans and fund community programs, not only for our own people but the communities where we live,” said Edward J. Moskal, the group’s president. “For example, in Chicago we run one of the country’s largest sports and youth programs, and it is used by children of all different ethnic groups--black, white, you name it.”

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In Orange County, the group has used its funds to help build and run the activities of the Pope John Paul II Center, a Polish-American community center in Yorba Linda, said Richard Kopzi, an Anaheim food broker who helped organize the convention.

Cynthia Parker, a Fullerton administrative assistant and the convention’s publicist, said the 1980 census showed that 17,900 people of Polish extraction, and both she and Kopzi estimate that the number has doubled in the past 11 years.

Parker said the local members of the alliance help immigrants learn English and such day-to-day tasks as banking.

Under communism, Poland’s economy stagnated and it has been difficult for the Solidarity movement, which took power three years ago, to jump-start it. Both inflation and unemployment are rampant. Moskal said it is up to Poles and others in the West to look for ways to help.

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That help can’t come soon enough for Bielecki and Smerek.

Bielecki said, through a translator, that even though he and his wife were considered among Poland’s top 10 painters by the government art bureaucracy and their work appeared internationally, it was difficult under communism for artists to prosper. Any work that did not follow the party line could not be sold because it would be banned from the art galleries, which were government-owned.

Now, as the country struggles to adopt the free market system, the galleries have been privatized and artists have freedom of expression. But rampant inflation has made it difficult for people to purchase food, let alone art, said Bielecki, 36, who met his 38-year-old wife when they were both art students at Poland’s Nicholas Copernicus University. They were married seven years ago and have a 6-year-old son, Cosmo.

“We are not making any more money than we were before,” he said. “It used to be 100 zloty (the Polish monetary unit) to the dollar. Now, it is 12,000 to the dollar. But peoples’ salaries did not go up that much, so it is very difficult for them.”

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In his paintings, Bielecki uses surreal symbols, such as seashells, to evoke the peoples’ need to hide their feelings under communism, and exploding tombstones to demonstrate the resurrection of the Polish spirit, said Lori Kaye, the exhibit’s director.

Smerek uses images of clowns to symbolize the child within that communism suppressed, Kaye said, while using birds coming out of cages to express new freedom.

“They use symbolism to show how the spirit of the Polish people has been repressed and how the lack of expression under communism is now lifting,” Kaye said.


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