Idaho Arts Quarterly » Southwest Idaho

Between Two Worlds

Katarzyna Cepek searches for self


"I long for a home that does not exist. I am caught between cultures and languages. My recent work explores the frail and elusive nature of memory through repetition and use of everyday objects. Repeated images that vary in clarity reference fleeting memories. Commonplace elements re-create places that evoke recollections. Sound and smell engage the senses. The work is about my experience as a Polish citizen living indefinitely in America."

—Katarzyna Cepek's artist's statement

In November 1988, when Katarzyna Cepek's family left their hometown of Katowice, Poland, they were not fleeing mortar fire or bombs. They had not just watched their neighbors killed by soldiers. They were not running from a dangerous past or threatening present. They were running from a bleak and desolate future. They were running toward simple freedoms, something rarely granted in then-communist Poland.

"My dad was trying to lay tile in our bathroom," Cepek says. "He got the tile, but he couldn't find the other things like cement or lime that he needed. He had to go through all these people that might have a connection that might know someone. It was the little things like that."

Cepek, the eldest of four siblings (the youngest, her sister, was born in the United States) says the Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster was the final straw for her mother. A very protective woman, the idea that the food she was feeding her children was coming from a possibly contaminated area was too much to bear.

But at the age of 10, Cepek was too young to truly understand what she describes as "the severity of the situation."

Katarzyna Cepek in her installation, communion at Boise Art Museum. - JOYCE ALEXANDER
  • Joyce Alexander
  • Katarzyna Cepek in her installation, communion at Boise Art Museum.

"I'm sure [our parents] sheltered us, their kids, from all the details," she says. Details that included Poland's 1981 establishment of martial law. "I don't know how long it lasted," Cepek says, "but I do know that it was a scary time in my childhood. I also remember that at some point, food and gasoline were rationed. My parents had these stamps that they had to use in order to get flour, sugar, butter, etc., as well as gasoline."

Gasoline her parents would need to take the family on an Italian "vacation."

As a country under communist rule, people were not allowed to cross the border permanently. "If [the government] had any idea that we weren't coming back, they never would have let us go. So my parents bought a vacation deal to Italy. We packed summer clothing into my dad's station wagon and drove to Italy. [According to my parents], when we were crossing the border from Yugoslavia into Italy, my parents asked for political asylum. They had a refugee program set up in Italy, and we were there for a year and a half; five of us in a hotel room. We were going to go to Canada, but my dad's sister was here in Boise. It made sense to keep the family together."

The trip cost the family more than just the expense of a faux vacation package. Cepek's mother left behind the home her parents had bequeathed to her. She and the rest of Cepek's family also left anything and everything of sentimental value—photo albums, antiques, etc.—a clear sign to border security that the family was doing more than just planning to spend some time under a Tuscan sun.

Like many American-born children, Cepek went through middle and high school and made plans to attend college. She received her bachelor's degree in drawing and printmaking from Boise State and went on to get her MFA in studio art at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Numerous awards, grants and exhibitions have all helped to shape the soft-spoken 30-year-old who can still speak Polish, but speaks English with barely a trace of a European accent.

Ironically, it's her homeland that has informed her search for herself and her art, most notably her installation piece, now a part of the 2007 Idaho Triennial exhibited at Boise Art Museum.

The mixed-media installation, titled communion, consists of "walls" that, on three sides, enclose a stiff-backed wooden chair at the foot of a worn twin bed. A photograph of her grandfather, photocopied several times in varying degrees of intensity and transferred to tissue paper dipped in wax makes up the walls. A small pile of books lays strewn on the floor; a sheet covered in writing covers the bed; a hat like the one her grandfather wears in the photocopied picture is filled with dirt and sits turned up atop the sheet; and each leg of the bed is "planted" in a small pot. A recording of Cepek repeating the same phrase in a low, almost monotone voice floats corporeally, over and over, out of a nearby tape recorder.

Cepek is an attractive young woman. Tall and thin, with long, dark blonde wavy hair that hangs down her back, it's not hard to imagine her winning a spot on America's Next Top Model. But her soft brown eyes sometimes hold a sadness that could be equated with loss.

"I've been working on my identity ... this whole caught between two worlds ... just my whole identity for four or five years now. My piece in the Triennial is directly influenced by my trip to Poland."

It was after that trip in the summer of 2005 that her quest for her identity began to take shape.

Cepek explains that in Poland, as in America, a cemetery plot can be owned forever by whoever purchases it. The main difference being that plots in Poland must be renewed every 20 years. When Cepek's mother learned about the trip, she asked Cepek to pay the fees on her grandparents' graves, which may also become the resting place of Cepek's parents, her siblings and herself.

After paying for the plots, she was handed a receipt. Cepek says she stared at the receipt with her name printed across the top and realized she now owned something in her homeland.

Cepek brought back more with her than just the trappings of land ownership. She brought back a renewed sense of discovery. She said she'd always felt "caught between two worlds," but now she was unearthing an idea of how to express that. From that visit, those yearnings and a small slip of paper, the seeds of communion were planted.

  • Ritual, installation

During the last few years, Cepek has continued, in some way, to work. She's a printmaker with nowhere to print. Printing presses are prohibitively expensive—regardless of the fact one wouldn't fit in her small apartment—and the etching process she prefers is messy at best.

Though Cepek's lined eyes are a shining example of what is meant by "haunted," she by no means exudes just sadness or loss. She's a bright, well-educated, well-spoken woman with things in her life that do bring her joy. She dates a guy—with two small kids—who fronts a metal band and sports hair as long and curly as her own. She jokes that she never would have imagined herself with a rock guy, but then laughs and says he's perfect. It's due in part to his support, that even without the necessary tools at hand, she continues to work on her art, even if it's just in the planning stages.

"I'm always looking at things artistically," she says, "and I'm always collecting things." As part of the psychological repercussions of leaving Poland under pretense, and due to a somewhat obsessive nature, she is always picking up items that, at one time, likely had great sentimental value to someone—photographs and books especially—that she plans to use in or as future pieces. But there's more to them than that. As she collects the found items, they become hers. Quietly, she says, "I adopt people's things."

The last half of Cepek's artist's statement is in regards to her long-dead grandfather and reads as follows: "I cannot recall his voice or the way he smelled. I only remember him, from photographs and my parents' stories. Yet when I think of him I experience a feeling of comfort, of warmth, of silent acceptance. communion is about the lingering essence of my grandfather long after his passing. It is the continual exchange between us. When I am laid to rest with my grandfather in Poland, perhaps I will finally feel at home."