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Poles Apart by Ingrid Taylor Print E-mail
Written by Marlena Maria Weber   
My personal fascination with Antoni Sulek’s work began back in April 2002 when my husband Jon and I saw a couple of Sulek paintings at an antiques and art auction at the house of the late Dowager Countess of Tankerville, in Chillingham, Northumberland.

The paintings we saw, and were fortunate enough to buy, were quite abstract and quite compex.  One was extremely colourful, the other very dark and disturbing. Both contained what we guessed was a self portrait of the artist, whom we had never heard of until then.

Some months later Jon and I discovered more of his work which appeared to be so different from the paintings we had previously seen that we wondered if they could be by the same artist.  His art varied so much in style and colors and were really very different to most of the local artists work we had seen before.  I wanted to know what made this artist paint so differently so I decided then to try to find out a little more him but there was so little information other than a brief article about his work and that he lived and worked in a studio in his parent’s house in Morpeth who happened to be Polish.  It also referred to the fact that he died very young in Manchester.

Two years later, in December 2004, Jon and I went along to an auction in Antoni’s home town in Morpeth and when we were looking at some of his paintings, this time a more traditional painting of a Polish landscape, the artist’s father, Piotr Sulek, introduced himself to us.  As we chatted Piotr briefly told us about his own life in Poland, his war-time experiences and how this had influenced his son’s work.  He also told us how he felt Antoni’s obsession with painting had contributed to his early death.

We were surprised to hear that, whilst Antoni had a number of exhibitions during his lifetime and shortly after his death, and as there were so many keen collectors of his work; no one had actually catalogued his work.  So we made up our minds to write Antoni Sulek’s story.  I later found out that there had been previous attempts to research Antoni’s life for a television documentary and a book but these had failed after researchers ran into a few dead ends and were unable to complete the project.  I used to be a police officer so running into a few dead ends didn’t put me off as I have always liked solving mysteries.

Piotr and his family were delighted that we were taking an interest in his son he was very happy for me to write his biography and so I quickly got to know the family very well and we have become good friends.  I was amazed at Piotr’s ability to remember everything from his own difficult past and his wife’s own story as both families were torn apart during the Second World War.  Piotr had so much energy and was able to talk to me four hours at a time about his life even though he is now well into his over 90 years old.  He had kept so many photographs and documents which helped me piece together Antoni Sulek’s story and the story of his parents. I also discovered that Antoni had written poetry, short stories and at least one unpublished novel which I set about trying to trace and eventually did.

It has been a great privilege to get to know Piotr and other Polish families I spoke to who had similar experiences of being deported to the labour and prison camps of Siberia and whose pure strength of character, faith and love of their country and their community kept their spirits alive and helped so many of them to survive the war and its aftermath under the Soviet occupation.

It was also very interesting to learn about life on the Polish Resettlement Camp called the CRASH Camp in Morpeth and meet many of the children who grew up there and who could give me an insight into the difficulties of living in a little piece of Poland in their community on the CRASH camp but also trying to fit in to the English way of life, learning a new language, new culture, almost being English by day at the local schools but being Polish at night and week ends when they returned to their families.

I began to learn an awful lot about Polish history and culture and how generous and warm the Polish people I met were when they welcomed me into their homes and gave up their time and their memories, some of them quite painful, to help me produce this book. When I visited Antoni Sulek’s studio for the first time shortly after meeting Piotr I was amazed at the work this young man had produced, entirely self taught, but quite brilliant in his imagination and his passion and obsession for his work.  He saw his art as a way of telling the world about his beloved country and how the spirit of Poland as well as the landscape was very nearly destroyed.  He was a great believer in intellectual and social freedom and dedicated his life to his work.  It was an emotional experience going through his books, his paintings, his classical music which he loved, the covers all ‘decorated’ with his multi coloured fingerprints as he played his records while he worked not stop to paint Poland’s history.  I felt like an intruder in someone’s very private world as his studio remained the same as in his lifetime.  It was almost as if he had just left the room.

Until taking on this research I had never been to Poland but Jon and I decided to visit Antoni’s uncle in Lublin and visit some of the landscapes and churches Antoni had painted in Krakow.  We went in the spring when the weather was beautiful.  We were fortunate enough to take an interpreter, Teresa, with us as neither Jon nor I could speak Polish.  Teresa and her mother Rosa had lived on the CRASH camp too and that is how we met.  We have since become very good friends.  Antek, Antoni’s uncle, was able to tell us a lot about Antoni’s visits to Poland and also about how he tried to stop his nephew from taking part in the Solidarity demonstration in Lublin but could not stop his determination to fight for what he believed in and for what so many people, like his father, had fought for, an independent Poland.  Antoni was arrested during the march and deported.

Antoni Sulek and his family have had a fascinating life which I felt just had to be written down before people forget.  And so many people who have bought Antoni’s paintings over the years have felt that there was something special about him and his work which set him apart from other artists so they, like me, want to know more about his life.

Piotr Sulek himself is a remarkable man who has dedicated his life to keeping the memory of his son alive and I hope that this book will go some way to showing that Piotr and his son’s work and life is greatly appreciated.

Ingrid Taylor