Krystyna just wanted to play

Patrick Langston
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Let’s be generous: her teachers were probably just products of their time. When Krystyna Szluinska-Sadej, a Navan-based tapestry and mixed media artist, was growing up in Poland, her teachers – and her family, for that matter – took her to task for not producing realistic art. Their tut-tutting was perhaps understandable: officially sanctioned Socialist Realism (Wikipedia gives some good examples of that sturdy style meant to inspire the masses) ruled art in Russia and its satellites for 60 years until finally expiring in the early 1990s.

Krystyna just wanted to play

Realism, alas, didn’t grab the budding artist. “I just wanted to play, and no one wanted me to play,” Szluinska-Sadej says of her art. Now a grandmother with a distinct artistic voice, no one tells her what to produce. “I’m so happy now. Canada let me be free as an artist.”

To see just how free, check out the gallery section of her web site, There you’ll find tapestries like the singularly unrealistic Waiting for Modigliani depicting a mysterious, elongated woman in the style of the early-twentieth century artist Amedeo Modigliani.

Also in the gallery is a tapestry called Time Recaptured. A basket crammed with watches which reminds us that trying to contain time is a fool’s errand, the witty creation would never have passed realistic muster in young Szluinska-Sadej’s homeland.

Canada may have given Szluinska-Sadej artistic freedom, but that doesn’t mean we always understand what she does with it. Her web site lists participation in an impressive number of exhibits including shows at the new Shenkman Arts Centre in Orléans and the Museum of Civilization in Hull, yet we North Americans tend to think of weaving as less art than craft.

In Poland, she says, tapestry is a much-celebrated and time-honoured art. Bought by kings and queens in centuries past, it now regularly attracts enthusiastic media attention.

Leaf through her web site’s gallery, and you’ll be struck by another North American trait: we’re usually uncomfortable with images that, unlike photographs, are less than precise. Szluinska-Sadej doesn’t worry about images bleeding beyond their borders: “I’m just not interested in precise art. I love form and colour.”

Szluinska-Sadej wasn’t always so confident about her favourite medium. As a young artist, she was a fan of tapestry but assumed it too difficult for her. A visit to the studio of a Polish weaver and friend convinced her otherwise, and she began to teach herself the art.

Her first husband promised to build her a loom, but died before getting to it. A friend remembered her husband’s promise and fulfilled it in the late 1970s. Practice and tips from an expert acquaintance gave her the polish she needed to make her art a serious pursuit. By the time Szluinska-Sadej immigrated to Canada in 1989, her resumé already included a solid list of Polish exhibits.

Over the past two decades, Szluinska-Sadej has built her reputation as both an artist and arts initiator. In 2003, she established Harmony, an international fibre arts group that has exhibited in the Ottawa area and in Poland. She writes about art, travel and other topics for various publications and, embracing technology and tradition, is webmaster for the Canadian Tapestry Network website ( She also offers weaving workshops and has been working on an instructional book. As well, she incorporates recycled fabric and other material into her weaving.

But “my children are my best masterpieces,” the mother of four says.

As to the secret of producing fine tapestry, Szluinska-Sadej strikes an appealing balance between modesty and self-awareness when she says, “basically, you just fill empty space.”

Organizations: Shenkman Arts Centre, Museum of Civilization, North American Canadian Tapestry Network

Geographic location: Canada, Poland, Orléans Hull Ottawa

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