Artist Karolina Merska takes the traditional Polish folk art of pajaki and transforms bright papers and modern materials into contemporary art mobiles. Karolina’s work sparks joy from every angle, introducing a new audience to the strong design sensibilities of traditional craft. Most of the knowledge about pojaki has been passed on from generation to generation, but no one has written the book – until now!
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
Art class was my favourite in high school. My art teacher was very creative and she shared so many interesting stories about artists or paintings. This is how I discovered an incredible world of art. I decided to study History of Art as I wanted to broaden my knowledge, although I never had any practical studies at university, only theory. If I needed to create something I had to experiment with materials and forms so I can say that I am a self taught artist.
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Who is the most creative person that you have ever known? How were they important to your growth as an artist?
It’s difficult to mention only one person. I met lots of interesting people through different stages of my life, and each of them shaped me as a person. My grandmother Jadwiga was a creative person and I got lots of inspiration from her. She was trained as a tailor, although life’s turbulence didn’t let her to focus on her career and she had to work at the bank. She used to make beautiful clothes for all the family. I liked her aesthetics and I remember I liked to watch her sew. I always appreciated her creativity to make something she needed almost from nothing, using random things she could find around in the house.
Also, I met some amazing artists during my travels across Poland. Most of them are in their 80s, even 90s and they are great inspirations for me. Through our conversations I learnt a lot from them. Not only about new types of pompoms, but more importantly about history, appreciating life, importance of tradition and just simply being happy with your craft. It was important for me to include stories of 3 artists – Zofia, Helena and Józef in my book. They are so happy that so many readers can read about them and get inspired by their paper designs.
What inspires you to create?
Travels, exploring new places always gives me lots of new ideas. Surrounding nature. I love to sit for hours outside my parents’ summerhouse in the middle of nowhere and stare at flowers and trees. I always make lots of plans over there. Can’t wait to finally go this August! Also museums, visiting exhibitions, shapes and colours. What is important for me is the story behind something. I like to revive old traditions. I like to do research, and then I add some forgotten elements into my designs.
How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new media/kinds of work/ways of working?
Hmm, I think I am an old fashioned person, it takes time for me to become familiar with the newest technology and new media. I like Instagram as for me it’s my creative journey and a diary where I can share interesting facts, not only about pajaki but about folklore, various customs and interesting crafts.
Last year was weird, and the pandemic really affected my creativity. I wasn’t able to be active online and teach people. It’s not only about my preference; it’s difficult to show how to twist paper to achieve a certain flower, etc. So I never have too many people at my workshops as I need to work with everyone on their piece. Slowly I am starting to plan online workshops now as there’s interest from some of you who live too far to join my workshop in the studio. Which means a lot, so hopefully we can meet soon virtually.
Tell us about pajaki. How do your pajaki differ from the traditional chandeliers made in Poland?
I think the biggest noticeable difference is the colours. Polish pajaki are very colourful and bright. I use fewer colours in my designs, usually 3 or even less. Also, colour combinations are different which makes them more modern I suppose. I take inspiration from old designs but I don’t want to only copy them – I like to give them my own touch. I like to experiment with their shapes, for example, by putting two structures together.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Making Mobiles: Creating Beautiful Polish Pajaki from Natural Materials?
First of all, I would like to express how happy I am that my book about pajaki (first one ever!) has been published! When I started making pajaki my idea was to revive this unique, yet forgotten, craft. Now, with a book this craft won’t be forgotten.
When working on a book and designing pajaki I wanted to present various types of pajaki – starting from a smaller, easier project to a larger one, more complicated. What was important for me, I included pajaki from different parts of Poland. Then, I divided them into 2 categories: traditional and contemporary ones. Traditional pajaki are made with materials like rye straw, peas and paper, while contemporary ones are made with with metal pipes, wool, pasta and tassels. However, their shapes have been taken from old, traditional pajaki designs. My idea was to show an unlimited way of making your own pajak. I hope that my book will inspire to create your own unique pajak using different shapes with your favourite pom poms.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Definitely a planner. I might have lots of sudden, crazy ideas, but then I like to draw and plan everything. I am a perfectionist, so if I am not happy with the final effect, I will undo a whole pajak and start again.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
Yes, happily I have a studio. When I started making pajaki I used to create them in my bedroom so it was always messy with lots of paper cuttings on the floor. It’s amazing to be able to go to the studio and create there. Sadly it’s not the same space which is on the cover of the book as I moved recently. I like to have lots of things around: paper flowers, some folk art, mood boards, old pajaki from my travels to Poland. It’s my happy, colourful space.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Scissors: I have my favourite sharp pair and it’s the most important tool for me. Luckily, I still have some rye straw left from my trip to Poland in 2019 so I can still make pajaki. And lots of various types of papers around.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I don’t have a proper journal. I tend to draw or make notes on any piece of paper I have around. Then I usually collect them and stick them to a wall. I like to have this kind of mood board with various colour swatches in front of me for a longer time so I can see how I feel about my idea a week later. I like to cut out archival photos not only of pajaki but also other crafts, as it inspires me for future designs.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I really like to work in silence. It also depends on my mood and the type of project I am working on. Sometimes my neighbour can also hear more energetic, 80s disco. Sometimes, if I take work home, then I like to watch various episodes while twisting paper for pom poms.
How many projects do you have going at once? Or do you focus on one creative project at a time?
Pajaki making has never been my full time job. I used to work at cafes, at my friend’s shop and I was making pajaki on the side. In January 2019 I opened a shop, Folka, and to be honest it’s been my busiest project since then. I feel very happy as I can present other exciting crafts as well as support local artists. Although, running a shop takes a lot of my time and energy, so recently I haven’t been able to create too many new pieces. Also, in the meantime I started working on a book as well so it’s been a crazy 2 years. I slowed down during the pandemic and now I am getting busier with my workshops, and projects which are very exciting! I always have more than one project going on.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
My first challenging piece was a giant pajak I designed for a London Design Festival for an outdoor market in Brixton Village. My idea was to present it in a different, bigger scale. It was 5 metres high and 2 metres in diameter. Everything looked easy on a piece of paper, but then when I received this massive metal hoop I realised its scale. Then, I had some problems with building its structure, as it had to be safe for visitors. We used thick metal cords with screws instead of cotton thread with knots. It was a proper engineering work. Also, it had to be waterproof.
It took us so many days and nights to precut and build all the arms and pompoms from different materials. My lovely friends helped me to make it on time, but I was quite stressed at some point that it was too crazy an idea. I learnt to plan better for new, experimental projects.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
Sadly my website is not as perfect as I would like. I am working on a new website which will be launched in July. There will be more info and pictures with my recent projects. The most important thing will be an online shop where you can buy rye straw, pajaki kits and my favourite tissue paper colours. I created exciting various colour sets. I would love to also write a journal about my travels to feature interesting artists, but I am worried if I have enough time while running a shop and working at the studio. But I will do my best as my perfect website includes an educational aspect!
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Yes, I teach workshops, and sometimes I give lectures. I had the pleasure of giving a lecture about pajaki and my practice during a design festival in Bangalore in India as well as in London. I love running workshops and sharing my knowledge with people. Not only do I run workshops in my studio in London, but I also travel across Europe. I came up with an idea of running hen parties when together with bridesmaids we make pajaki for a bride. There’s so many other occasions as well like weddings and christenings. Getting together and making pajaki always makes me think that this is how ladies used to meet up in the past to stay together, sing and make their pajaki. The best way is to get in touch via my website with an idea and then we can discuss details.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I would say it’s both. For some of us it might be easier and more natural to discover a creative side, but I think everyone is creative, even if you think you’re not! There are so many ways you can be creative – each of us is different and we always add something unique to whatever we create. You can develop your creative side by joining different varieties of workshops to learn new skills. Sometimes I meet people at my workshops and they’re scared that they won’t be able to make a pajak as they’ve never made anything crafty before. Then, they leave with a smile, carrying a beautiful chandelier!
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
It’s important not to give up and to keep trying. It’s good to take a break sometimes if you feel your creativity is gone. You can’t force yourself – if you don’t like and don’t believe in what you’re doing you will never feel happy and satisfied. It helps to meet and talk about your challenging situations with other artists. They might experience similar difficulties and will be happy to help and suggest solutions.
What part of the creative process do you most enjoy?
Designing, then experimenting with materials and colours is always the most exciting part of a project for me. I love finding perfect colour schemes, and keep changing the structure. Pajaki making craft is not difficult, but it is time consuming. Some of my pajaki take 5 days or even more to finish depending on the design and size. So the last stages of making them might be too repetitive and not so exciting any more. I have lots of patience for them and I know that seeing them ready makes me very happy.
Learn more about Karolina on her website.
Interview posted June 2021
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