Izabela Morska - The Story behind the Secret
In the fall of 2013 I returned from a research scholarship in Russia, more precisely from a research center near Moscow, associated with the Lomonosov University. I had been a little worried about this trip, having read on the internet that on 11th June 2013 the Russian Duma approved the “gay propaganda law.” But I had finally decided to travel to Russia and soon learnt, also from the internet, that three weeks later, on June 26, 2013, the United States Supreme Court of California ruled in favor of the freedom to marry. Amazing coincidence, I remarked to myself. What timing.
I thought: Well, I'm not going back to California yet. But at least Poland is a long way from Russia. So I returned to Gdańsk and bought a flat for a cat.
Thinking back, what made the biggest impression on me was that when, almost immediately after President Putin signed this law on June 30, 2013, in small Russian towns in the Moscow area, as well as in the provinces, the hunt for people (people who looked gay) began, it was often supported by the local population. Neighbors were pointing at neighbors. But who took part in the street bullying, and what's worse—the kidnappings? My Russian friends answered simply: Nationalists. It was one word that caused fear.
But, I thought, surely it would it be hard to produce such professionally trained troops to assault civilians here in Poland? Yes, the nationalist marches for the Independence Day, which routinely turned Warsaw into a battlefield, had already begun. On the eve of November 11th, predicting the flares and the upset, some residents would simply leave the city. They’d return to find overturned benches, damaged bus stops, scattered pieces of pavement, broken trees.
But I lived in Gdańsk. It was different here in Gdańsk. In the fall of 2013 the First Rainbow Family Festival took place in Gdańsk. I had been asked to write something for the occasion, maybe a fairy tale. So I remembered how in 2011 or so I visited a family of two women with two kids. Now these children have already turned into wonderful young people who are successful in their fields. But back then they were kids of Natalka and Pete's age, well adjusted, mature and... alert. They were concerned about their mothers’ safety. The children were protecting their mothers.
But I thought this was not the worst childhood, quite the opposite. Growing up in a minority family often builds a strong backbone. (This theme appears in Jewish, African-American, and Asian-American accounts).
The program of events was very rich. There was even a debate about the future of rainbow families in Poland, which took place in Krytyka Polityczna, on Saturday, October 12th. At this event some fledgling Polish nationalists appeared, but they were a far cry from the Russian model. They clearly didn’t come to listen but to create a disturbance, but they were intimidated by our company; finally, they left.
Before they left, they distributed leaflets from which I learned of the existence of one person called Mark Regnerus. Obviously, that’s a different story, and yet it’s all connected. “The Secret of the Catkin Family” was read at the Family Picnic in the patio-and-conference area of the Atelier Club in Sopot the next morning. It must have been fun. I don't know because I had to teach that day. Later I heard that it missed its target audience a bit because the children at the picnic were small, two or three years old. But I hoped they'd grow up.
Rainbow Family Festivals are no longer held in the Tri-City, not since 2017. Families are afraid.
The President of Gdańsk was murdered on 13 January 2019.
“The Secret of Catkin Family” was hidden in a drawer for several years from 2013. No doubt I wasn't paying enough attention to it. I had other responsibilities at the uni. I was finding pleasure in being healthy. I didn't know any professional illustrators, and I had a feeling that this could only work if there was genuine synergy between me and an illustrator.
And so it was until I met a woman painter. I thought: Why don't we do this fairy tale together? It finally transpired that nothing would come out of it, but “The Secret” was still fresh on my mind. And so, in June of 2019, Gosia Drohomirecka arrived at “Żak,” the renowned art gallery in Gdańsk, with her exhibition. We have been working together since.
Małgorzata DrohomireckaIn 2017, after years of creating mostly abstract compositions, I abandoned the abstract language and started to explore the potential of figurative painting to address issues of identity and social roles.
While investigating this topic, I came upon a novel Absolutna amnezja (Absolute amnesia) by Izabela Morska. Her book inspired me more than any other. I could easily visualize the problems that she was writing about. This was how my new series of paintings was created.
In 2019 I had an opportunity to show these new works at an exhibition in Gdańsk. I couldn’t stop thinking that it would be good to let Morska know about the event. When I figured out that she also lived in Gdańsk, I just wrote to her… not knowing what her reaction would be. To my positive surprise she responded the same day, not only confirming that she would be present at the opening, but also asking if I would like to illustrate one of her stories. Although I've never done illustrations before, the topic seemed interesting, and I decided to take on the challenge.
I thought I could approach it from a painter's point of view.
When I first read “The Secret of the Catkin Family,” my attention was instantly drawn to the color-changing cats. I decided to start working on the illustrations from there.
The question was which technique to use. There were plenty of possibilities. It could be collage, watercolor, pencils, maybe even felt tip markers. However, after various attempts, I decided to stay with the technique which is my forte, oil painting. Another concern was to paint with oils on paper. First, I had to prime the paper with gesso; then sketch out the undercoat with acrylics, to finish by adding texture, depth, and details with oils.
It took me almost 5 months to complete the project, but it was a very rewarding process. First of all, I had to decide what the main characters of the story would look like. I tried to avoid any stereotypes and to imagine them as if they were real people with their daily routines and everyday problems. As these characters were interacting with the “outside world” - the neighbors, friends, and school - they were slowly taking on their individual features. The two kids, Natalka and Pete, were usually happy and cheerful. Especially, when they were with their mums. But they could also become serious and thoughtful. They feared a lack of understanding coming from other people. They would even worry about the safety of their two mums.
On the other hand, there was also room for humorous and even fantastic elements in the story. For instance, when Hania and Ivo would turn into cats or when they read poems “in meow.” Then I could let my imagination go and create a fantastic environment for them.
Perhaps the main challenge was to show how these two fantastic and real worlds intertwine. I tried to express it in visual language, I hope with a good result.