Kajetanski's paintings span decades of styles

Howard Live

March 14, 2002|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Jerzy Kajetanski and his wife retired, they didn't move to Florida. The couple bought a condominium in Columbia to be near their daughter and grandchildren.

For Kajetanski, a formally trained artist, the move began a burst of creativity. For the last 10 years of his life, he was free to paint subjects of his choosing. What he chose to paint was the landscape of Howard County.

A retrospective of Kajetanski's art, featuring scenes of Columbia and Maryland, is on display at Slayton House at Wilde Lake Village Green. The show will run through April 6.

"This exhibit is a tribute to the people of Columbia and Maryland, who welcomed my late parents in the waning years of their lives," daughter Eva Skrenta wrote about the show she organized.

Kajetanski studied art in his native Poland. When the Nazis invaded the country in 1939, he was unable to finish graduate school. He married a fellow art student and joined the Polish resistance, drawing political cartoons for the underground press.

Eventually, he and his family were taken to a forced labor camp in Germany. When the camp was liberated, Kajetanski and his wife organized a theater troupe that toured Displaced Persons camps. Skrenta's earliest memories of her father painting are from this time, when he was working on theatrical scenery.

The family came to the United States and soon moved to New York City, where Kajetanski and his wife made their living drawing Popeye cartoons. He continued to paint in his free time, even during bouts of depression related to his war experiences.

Their move to Columbia was a happy one. "When they came here, they felt as if they had moved to Florida," said Skrenta, a Wilde Lake resident. "As soon as they moved down here, they felt as if they were on perpetual vacation."

Bernice Kish, Slayton House gallery director, met Kajetanski when he visited the gallery. He and his wife invited Kish to their condo.

"I was just utterly blown away," Kish said. "He had huge oils that were his early work, some from the prison camps in Germany, all of these incredible things."

Skrenta said her father experimented with many styles as an artist. "He painted for 60 years and he went through all the isms," she said. Included in the exhibit are two large abstracts reminiscent of Wassily Kandinsky. An oil pastel, Coming Home to Columbia at Sunset, has elements of J.M.W. Turner, with diffused light streaming over trees.

When his wife died in 1994, Kajetanski began reaching out to younger painters, including Kini Collins, a Baltimore artist. They would meet regularly for trips to galleries in Baltimore and Washington.

"We had long and interesting conversations, mostly about painting," Collins said. "He told me about his life as a child. He had an incredibly interesting life. He wanted to talk about the happy things."

Like Kajetanski, the show's tone is positive. There are several paintings of Clyde's restaurant in Columbia, including a bright outdoor scene, Crowd at Lake Kittamaqundi. Among the oil pastels are landscapes from Wilde Lake, Annapolis and Ellicott City. There are also several abstracts - both black and white and in color.

Kajetanski washed many of his canvases with black paint first, making the bright purples, blues and yellows pop out at the viewer. Some of these include a carousel scene, Carnival at Burtonsville and Ponies at Assateague.

Skrenta and Collins describe Kajetanski as "always working" on his art. "He must have felt something going on because in the last two or three years he accelerated his painting," Skrenta said. Kajetanski suffered a stroke in 1998 and died the next year at age 86.

Kish said she was glad to help Skrenta put together the retrospective. "It's a pleasure to be able to show his work to the public," Kish said. "If you know about Jerzy, where he came from, there's such a celebration of life."

Collins said what she admires most about Kajetanski's art is "the courage in it. It's extremely bold. I was amazed at the way he could combine simple still lifes or landscapes with a great mix of sadness and acceptance and beauty at the same time."

"As I came to know more about his life, I was even more amazed because he was able to paint what was beautiful. He was never bitter, and his artwork has a sense of being peaceful," she said.

Information: Slayton House, 410-730-3987.

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