Kamila Szczesna

An artist incorporates DNA and hair into her work

Artist Kamila Szczesna is a reverse detective. Rather than decipher clues, she leaves them for her viewers.

“Art is a verb. It happens when the viewer looks at it. I try to leave clues, but the viewer brings the story from their own view,” she said.

The former student in College of the Mainland continuing education art classes has had her work—sculpture, drawings and mixed media pieces—featured in galleries around the world, and Szczesna was recently accepted as an artist in residence at the Centre of Polish Sculpture in Oronsko. Her art is also currently part of the “REady MADE” exhibit on display at the Lawndale Art Center in Houston and at the 2013 Texas National Art Competition and Exhibition in Nacogdoches.

Szczesna fashioned her sculpture “Embalmed” displayed in Nacogdoches from clothing, chopsticks and even a music box gilded in gold leaf. For the Lawndale exhibit, Szczesna dipped repurposed objects such as clothing, string and balloons into slip (liquid clay). The resulting piece, “Process,” which hangs from the ceiling, will gradually change as the balloons deflate.

“Time is a very important part of my work. You see how [art]’s very ephemeral,” she said.

Though skilled in fashioning many materials into art, Szczesna always begins a piece with the simplest media—pen and paper.

“Drawing is like the skeleton, the way to capture the thought,” she said.

After sketching, she determines which artistic medium will best express her idea. Using everything from sterling silver leaf to porcelain to human hair, she deftly translates the ideas on paper into a 2-D or 3-D form.

“You need to understand how the material will behave. As long as you understand that, everything is possible,” the artist said.

A native of Poland, Szczesna moved to Galveston when her husband, a molecular biologist, accepted a position at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Moving from the land of five-month winters to the sunny Gulf Coast, she brought her work with her, but discovered she needed other artists’ perspectives.

“It’s very difficult to work in solitude,” she said. “I was really craving art dialogue.”

On a friend’s recommendation, Szczesna, who earned a master’s degree in art in Poland, enrolled in Mark Greenwalt’s drawing course as a continuing education class. The course allowed her to learn from other artists’ critiques as well as share her knowledge in a dynamic environment.

“She went to a really profound level in her art. She was very helpful with critiques,” said Greenwalt.

Szczesna gained “deeper relationships with the art world through Mark’s class. The setting was just perfect. He challenged me several times with my own work,” Szczesna added. “The way he teaches and interacts with students, it’s so obvious he loves what he’s doing. He doesn’t look at the clock. He loves art and spreads excitement around.”

Though she’s created art as long as she can remember, she gained new insights with the class. Each semester, it had different dynamics, filled with individual artists with different passions, pursuits and plans. She enrolled in the course multiple times over the course of three years.

“I couldn’t stop,” she said.

At the time, an exhibit at the COM Art Gallery featured some of her drawings along with student Donna Perkins’ work. Since then she’s continued to stretch the boundaries of art. One of her recent pieces is “Mind Viewers,” an exhibit that features her sculpture as well as videos documenting the sculpture-making process through a camera fixed to her head. Watching her hands fashion the work and analyze it from different angles, the viewer gets a presentation that is as close to mind reading as possible.  

“You are able to look into my head to see what I saw,” she said.

Though her exhibits offer a glimpse into her mind, she acknowledges that not all viewers’ interpretations will mirror her own—and that’s her intent.

“I’m very thrilled that I’m able to spark imagination of the viewer,” she said.

Through her work, she portrays the same world that her biologist husband explores through mitochondria. Sometimes she delves into the scientific side of life, as in her work “Fleeting,” exhibited at the Galveston Art Center in 2011. There she displayed images of cultures of bacteria harvested from her saliva.

In her newest project, she’s again blending art, science and technology—this time through human hair. Working one strand at a time, she embroiders it into a piece designed to resemble a QR code, a barcode that smart phones can scan. She chose the QR code form because the codes hold a wealth of information about a product just as hair holds a wealth of information about an individual, a piece of their story.

“[My art’s] all about what life really is,” said Szczesna. “I don’t have any illusions I will find right answers; it’s just my attempts to ask questions. It’s about being alone in the crowd, but each person has his/her part of the story.”

In "Embalmed" artist Kamila Szczesna gilded repurposed clothing, chopsticks and even a music box in gold leaf.
The balloons dipped in clay will gradually deflate in artist Kamila Szczesna’s "Process."

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