Chicago Madonna, Polish Style
published in Chicago Catholic New World
The Virgin Mary has many faces and fills many roles for many people in many places. It is exactly this broadly accessible humanity that makes it possible for an artist born in Poland to create a Madonna for Chicago with a face the color of the Earth.
Krzysztof Wasko brings an international sensibility, a love of his adopted home and a personal Marian devotion to his Chicago Madonna painting, on display at the Chicago History Museum as part of the new “Catholic Chicago” exhibit.
He created the Chicago Madonna in the same tradition as the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Poland, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas. It includes images from the Chicago seal and elements designed to evoke the city’s characteristics. An American Indian on the right side of the painting represents those who lived here first. A ship on the left stands for commerce. The red heart in the middle recalls the Great Chicago Fire.
And the green shade of her face? Not only does it signify the city motto Urbs in Horto (“City in a Garden”), but it also exemplifies the idea that Mary is mother to all on Earth, regardless of the color of our skin.
Mary as mother has long resonated for Wasko. “When I was 6 years old, my grandmother taught me how to pray the Rosary,” he says. He was moved by this illustration of unconditional love. “She gave up everything,” Wasko says. “I’ve always had a strong connection to the Virgin Mary.”
Admiration met inspiration a few years ago when he and his sculptor sister, Marta, returned to Poland and took his parents to see Pope John Paul II in Rome. “On the return, I got so inspired that I created this cycle of the Madonnas,” Wasko says. Dramatic images depict “Ukrainian Madonna,” “Madonna of Whispering Angels” and “Madonna of Starvation,” among others, all reflecting facets of his emotion or experiences.
There was no Chicago Madonna in this first series, however. Her creation can be credited to a box of photographs gathering dust.
Wasko arrived in the United States 12 years ago without a word of English, already an accomplished artist but seeking to further his education. He was thrilled to discover a Mass in his native tongue at St. Mary of the Angels parish in Bucktown.
“When I went there for the first time, it was before the Mass. I could feel memories of the people. I could hear the whispers of the angels. It was really inspiring,” Wasko says. This church was his home, he decided.
But joy quickly turned to dismay when he discovered St. Mary of the Angels faced demolition if it could not finance repairs. “I was shocked when I came to Chicago that they were tearing down churches,” Wasko said. Not only was it a sacred space, but it was his space. “I was terrified. If they could not do it, what am I going to do?” he wondered.
While he worked on master’s degrees in photography and painting, he took photos of the church, documenting its architecture. Wasko’s endeavor soon encompassed other churches and buildings in pre-gentrification West Town, capturing their beauty for all time.
Much to his relief, St. Mary of the Angels was saved. And Wasko had amassed a collection of images of Chicago landmarks otherwise largely undocumented. When he thought of them again last fall, he called the Chicago History Museum. He learned of the “Chicago Catholic” exhibit in conversations with curator Jill Grannan and decided his new home should have its own image of the Virgin Mary. He painted her in the style of the others but added features to make her distinct to the Windy City. The rest, as they say, is history.
Not all of Wasko’s work has a religious theme. But his spirituality and belief in the good of humanity are pervasive themes. He and his sister Marta are working on “Here and Now,” an affectionate look at his beloved Chicago through large-scale panels and life-size sculpture. Next he and Marta will team up with a writer friend to create a visual and written work of contemporary mythology. Ancient themes and stories with morals are updated with a positive twist for modern times.
“We have to always look for the good things. If you believe in this it will come,” Wasko says. “I’m not trying to teach anyone anything. We are just trying to remind them.”
And faith is never far. “I feel about myself, ‘I am Catholic.’ I am happy about it,” Wasko says. He grew up in a family that expressed its faith through music. His childhood was spent performing with his grandparents, his parents and his two sisters (Jolanta is a music teacher in Chicago) in towns near their home in Lomza and performing often at their church. Each family member had an instrument, his a small violin made by his grandfather.
Recently, their father has taken up Krzysztof and Marta’s means of expression, carving wood images of Mary. “He had this somewhere deep in his heart,” Wasko says.
Wasko continues to celebrate the Madonna in paint. The Laredo Arts Center in Texas will host an exhibit of his images next year, for which he is painting more facets of the mother he honors so deeply.
And the Chicago Madonna? “She stays in Chicago,” Wasko says.
“With all our expectations in day to day, she expected nothing, and yet she gave such a tremendous amount of infinite love—innocent, nonjudgmental, tremendous, otherworldly love,” artist Krzysztof Wasko writes of Mary. He invites guests to see more of his work at his studio in Humboldt Park; e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a visit.
The “Catholic Chicago” exhibition will be up through January 4. The exhibition is included in general admission, which is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors and students; children 12 and under are free every day. General admission is free on Mondays for everyone. The Chicago History Museum is at 1601 N. Clark St., www.chicagohistory.org.