By special arrangement with the author, below is the full text, and some of the illustrations, of Theresa Ast’s talk today in Hill Freeman Library. Be sure to stop by the library in the next month to view more of this remarkable woman’s oeuvre.
Wanda Maria Kowalska Ast was my paternal grandmother, my BABCIA (Polish for grandmother). I will be sharing some of her artwork with you, but I also want to tell you a little bit about her life. Babcia was born in Germany in 1909 and shortly thereafter her family moved to Poland where she spent the next four decades of her life, where she married and had four children.
The Ast Family, Wanda, her husband Edmund who was a sculptor, and their four children – Jacek, Marek, Justin, and Krystyna – survived the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland. They were Catholic, so they were not specifically targeted by the Nazis as were the Jews, Gypsies, and people on the political Left, but this is not to say that the Nazis treated anybody in Poland with respect or benevolence. Everyone was afraid of the Nazis, as they were violent, cruel, and perhaps worst of all, unpredictable.
Whenever Nazi detachments or tanks came rolling through their small, usually quiet, town, Babcia and her children would grab the pillows and quilts off their beds and hide in a nearby forest. The quilts and pillows kept the children comfortable and just in case they were still hiding after dark they could sleep in the forest. Edmund was away serving in the Polish Air Force as an aerial photographer, but he and his fellow airmen were quickly captured and he spent the duration of the war in a German POW camp. Wanda and her children lived with her husband’s parents after Edmund was captured.
When the first “liberating” Soviet troops marched into Poland, in the winter of 1944, the Polish people felt hopeful. They did not realize at first that the Soviet Communists would soon be an occupying army rather than a liberating army. The family did not fare well at all under the post war Soviet occupation, not because they had been Nazi sympathizers, but because they were capitalists! My great-grandfather, Wanda’s father-in-law owned a substantial business employing twenty workers and lived quite comfortably prior to the war. So to the occupying communist authorities, the Ast family was suspected of being Western-sympathizing capitalists.
When my grandfather Edmund was liberated from the POW camp in 1945, he did not return to his hometown. He had been warned by family and friends not to come home while the Soviets soldiers still occupied the it. He made it to the American Occupation zone in Germany on foot. A year later Wanda joined him there and they worked various jobs for the American Military Government for five years, started saving money, and planned for their future and the future of their children. Meanwhile the children, who ranged in age from six to twelve remained in Poland in the care of their grandparents.
Babcia emigrated with her husband and children, just as soon as they had saved enough money and could book passage from West Germany to America. When they left Germany, they each had one suitcase; they had to leave everything they owned and everybody they loved behind. A Catholic sponsor family was waiting for them in Maryland; they would help them adjust to their new life in America. They arrived at Ellis Island in 1951 and spent a few weeks with their sponsoring family. Fortunately, the local community had connections in Georgia and they secured Edmund a job in Marietta, Georgia.
After they moved south, Edmund, who earned his living as a sculptor in Poland began working for a local marble and granite company that polished headstones and grave markers. They bought a house on “Marble Mill Road” in Marietta. Their three younger children started attending school and the two boys, Marek and Justyn, were in the same class together and really liked their teacher. Babcia told her sons to ask their teacher if she would be willing to tutor adults in English. Their teacher, Betty Jo Baker agreed to give Wanda and Edmund English lessons, and started visiting the family home. The oldest son, Jacek, at 17 was not in school, but worked alongside his father to help support the family. He married the school teacher in 1953 and I am the oldest of their four children.
I did not have a typical relationship with my Polish grandparents. My father joined the Air Force and we often lived far away from Georgia. However, I did return to Georgia to attend college and got to know my grandparents quite a bit better. They were intense people: very hardworking, opinionated, creative, volatile, artistic, self-assured, demanding, loving, and challenging. Spending time with them was always a memorable, and occasionally, even a mildly disturbing experience. Wanda was extremely verbally expressive, intensely curious, a perennial student in every way possible, quite emotional, with a decided flair for the artistic and the dramatic.
During the years when we did not live in Georgia, Babcia had kept house, raised her other three children, worked as a dietician in a local hospital, refused to learn to drive a car (I never found out why), remained a devout and practicing Catholic walking about fifteen blocks to Mass several times a week, and kept working on improving her spoken and written English (she already spoke Polish, French, and German).
Before long she began writing stories and poetry, lots and lots of poetry, often winning awards from the Georgia Writers Association. Then, as her younger children grew up and moved out of the family home she shifted her interests to drawing and painting; she began by drawing in chalk (primarily Biblical scenes – I remember a chalk drawing of the young shepherd boy David facing the Philistine giant Goliath- unfortunately I do not have any of her chalk drawings as they do not hold up well over time. After chalks, Babcia moved on to working with watercolors in the early 1970s which is just about when I returned home to attend Kennesaw State College, as it was known as the time.
I inherited quite a few of Babcia’s oil paintings and batiks, but I do not have any of her original watercolors. What I do have are photographs of a few of her watercolors. From 1975 on she was busy painting, taking an occasional art class, and preparing her watercolors for various exhibits and art shows. She had art shows at colleges, including Georgia State and Kennesaw State, in local churches and parishes, at art fairs on the Marietta and Roswell city squares, and at some of the larger banks. Banks, closed on Sundays of course, often offer their lobbies and common areas as spaces for painting or sculptural exhibitions. At many of these art exhibits, someone was usually taking pictures, so a record has been preserved even though the originals are gone.
Babcia did a few representational watercolors (in other words she did paint lifelike scenes from nature), but many of her watercolors were abstract. All of her life she experimented with different formulations and types of watercolors, as well as a variety of painting surfaces, including canvas, paper, and fabric. Her experimentation with different materials was part of her lifelong fascination with, and attempt to achieve, a variety of textural effects. In this, she was not unlike any number of impressionist painters for whom texture was as important as color palette or composition.
During the years when I was raising my children, Babcia moved on to oil paintings. She took several classes at Georgia State University, both Art History courses and Studio Painting courses. She spent a short time experimenting with abstract paintings, where there is no clearly identifiable object or scene. However, all of the individual portraits on display here were based on models who came and sat for the classes, they are drawn in a realistic style, although Babcia always tended to utilize intense and heightened color combinations in her work.
As far as I know she did not paint her family members or friends, or if she did, those paintings were either sold or given away before I ever saw them, and I can find no photographs. Lastly, I want to point out that you can see the influence of artists from the Modern period, roughly 1880-1940, particularly in her nudes. Many of them are impressionistic, with blurred lines and very intense color palettes, showing the influence that some modernist painters had on her. However, she never went through a Picasso Phase, for which I am grateful.
In her seventies Babcia began experimenting with, and mastered, the physically arduous process of “batiking” – which involved applying hot wax to fabric, letting it completely dry, and then dipping the fabric into large tubs of hot dye, then pressing the fabric between layers of absorbent paper with an iron to remove the wax.
Repeating the labor intensive process again and again would eventually produce breathtakingly beautiful and elaborate designs, some abstract and some representative. Her batiks, just like her oil paintings, were exhibited at numerous Georgia colleges, banks, and several fine art centers.
As the base material for a batik, she experimented with many different types of fabric – linen, cotton, burlap. She used some fabrics that were smooth and some fabrics which had a great deal of texture. Babcia made quite large batiks, meant to be hung on the wall; they usually measured anywhere from three feet by three to five feet by five.
In her eighties, no longer able to spend hours on her knees bent over a bath tub full of dye, she began to make small batiks suitable either for framing or for making personalized cards. She continued to experiment with a variety of styles, colors, and textures of paper to serve as the backdrop for her batik cards. And she seldom used repetitive patterns or motifs in her work, preferring to develop her abstracts by apply the paraffin wax mixture free hand with a paint brush.
The word batik usually refers to cloth that was produced using manual techniques of wax and dye application. Batik or fabrics with the traditional batik patterns have historically been produced and worn by the local populations in Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, India, China, Sri Lanka, and in certain regions of Africa.
In the west batik printmaking is often used to produce works of art of great beauty and complexity. But much of the batik fabric sold in the west and used in clothing is now mechanically mass-produced. These designs involve a great deal of repetition and although they are beautiful, they do not really meet the definition of art.
Postscript: also on display was an edition of the Reinhardt Hiltonian from the early 1970s, which head librarian Joel Langford had found and which featured an article about Wanda Ast’s visit to Reinhardt, at the invitation of long-serving art professor Curtis Chapman.