When he arrived in Chicago in 1980, Jerzy Kenar visited a friend who had emigrated from Poland years earlier, a professor at the School of the Art Institute, who told him, ‘Go back to Poland, because America is cruel to artists.’ I could not understand why he was so bitter. But I could not adopt his attitude. I did not want to be an ’emigre artist,’ but an artist in America.” Kenar, who works primarily in wood, says that here he became “like a wild dog, smelling and being intoxicated by all the different cultures.”

Kenar left Poland in 1973, quitting the State Higher School of Fine Arts in Gdansk. Poland, he says, prevented “the development of an independent spirit.” He settled first in Sweden for six years, becoming part of a long tradition of emigre Polish artists. In Great Britain before World War II, for instance, Polish artists’ unions, schools, and other associations flourished. In the 1970s many Polish artists went to France, where they engaged in more political activity, such as creating poster art and leaflets for mass distribution. In recent years many artists have been emigrating to America, and to Chicago in particular.

Kenar eventually followed them to America, where he has been steadily gathering recognition, mostly for his liturgical pieces (though in Poland, where he returned last spring for the first time in eight years as part of an exhibition of 104 emigre artists, he’s still widely admired for his more abstract work). “The influences of this country–the people, the colors, the activity, the energy–were so strong. There was so much for me to respond to in my art. In only the short time I have been here, so many of my dreams came together–but so much faster because of the stimulus of this country.”

But finding a venue for the expression of those dreams was difficult. “The galleries in America, and in New York and Chicago specifically, originally perceived my work as ‘too Slavic’ or something like that, and it was frustrating at first. So I applied the traditional American work ethic to my career as an artist and realized I would need to show my art under very specific conditions–and on my own terms.” Kenar created his own space, the Wooden Gallery, where he could exhibit his work. It has also become a cultural locus for concerts, readings, and exhibitions by former Eastern European artists and intellectuals.

Underfoot in the vestibule of the gallery is a Kenar mosaic of jet black marble that subtly guides a visitor toward large oak doors inlaid with black ivory and into the vast gallery space and his office. The current exhibit, four years in the making, is “Voices From My Childhood,” 18 large-scale abstract wood sculptures by Kenar. It is his seventh show in Chicago.

“A 43-year-old man looks back to when he was 10 years old as a boy” is how Kenar introduces the works. “Clean, condensed, the essence of my thinking when I was young–the smallest details I can remember and can now express completely.”

The large pieces of light, bright woods–linden, poplar, ash, aspen–seem to float in the voluminous space. In describing Kenar’s work, Polish emigre and Nobel prizewinning poet Czeslaw Milosz says wood “is very dear to him, and at the same time exotic, which accounts for his appeal.”

“These are the dreams I had as a child,” Kenar says, pointing to Fence. To illustrate the point he takes an imaginary branch and drags it against the slats of the piece, which resembles a gate, while making a staccato sound. He smiles, not so much in pride as with the recognition of a universal childhood moment.

The works are arranged according to a personal chronology: Marriage, Sin, Pregnancy, Learning to Speak, and The Window and the Wind. They take both abstract and literal forms. The Window and the Wind, for instance, is a three-dimensional square of mahogany, ash, and aspen housing a wobbling spiral–made entirely of carved wood–that coils back and forth at the slightest touch. It’s a triumph of applied craft and balance–and intrinsic beauty.

You have to leave the gallery and walk up to the roof to see the most intriguing piece in the exhibit, Waiting for an Angel. Made of Alaskan cedar, it’s an exquisite 25-foot undulating ladder, the last ten feet without rungs, that soars into the sky. It’s a dramatic leap into a spirited, mature aesthetic.

“Voices From My Childhood” is on exhibit through February 29 at the Wooden Gallery, 1007 N. Wolcott. Hours are 10 to 7 Tuesday through Saturday or by appointment. Call 342-2550 for further information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.